The first thing Kain saw, when walking into Mist, was a monster.
He was so used to seeing Ifrit only in battles—as a blur of fire and fangs and horns, summoned in a whirl of flames and dismissed just as quick—that at first he didn't recognize the eidolon. One didn't think of the lesser gods of the Feymarch showing up to plane logs smooth with a burning touch.
He hesitated at the edge of the clearing, listening to the distant sound of ordinary, human laborers at their work, and watching as Ifrit's long claws drew lines of burning white that stripped log after log to smooth boards. And there, at Ifrit's side and coming not even to his elbow, was Rydia, her hair shining like new grass in the sun. She looked just as she had when he'd last seen her: straight-backed, bright, confident to the point of arrogance, and still dressed so peculiarly in clothes that couldn't possibly be doing much to keep her warm. She and Ifrit were speaking in the soft liquid language native to the Feymarch, her voice light and his as deep as the fire beneath mountains.
Saw-milling done, Ifrit did perhaps the oddest thing of all. He reached out a clawed hand (a hand big as a cart's wheel, big enough to lift a grown man with ease) and ruffled Rydia's hair, for all the world like a fond uncle to a favorite niece.
And then, with a scent like the smoke from a guttered fire, Ifrit was gone. Rydia stood alone in the clearing, next to the pile of milled lumber.
"I didn't realize eidolons did building work," Kain said dryly, by way of greeting.
Rydia turned a little to look at him. He could see surprise flash in her eyes, like a fish surfacing in a quiet pond and then descending again—but she didn't show it otherwise. She didn't ask any of the expected awkward questions (where he had been the past year, why he hadn't responded to anyone's letters, why he had missed Cecil and Rosa's wedding). Instead she arched an eyebrow and said, "You didn't think all they could do was fight, did you?"
"I rather did, actually."
Rydia sighed with elaborate patience that belied her actual impatience. "That wouldn't be much use, would it? Unless Mist was at war all the time. Which we weren't, for your information." She turned a little; the wind caught her hair, and it rippled like a bank of ferns. "Eidolons and Summoners have helped each other in all kinds of ways, over the years. My mother taught me that, long ago. And so did the eidolons themselves."
Kain felt the corners of his mouth lift—despite himself—at her tart tone. "Consider me corrected, then."
"What are you doing here, anyway?"
Ah, Rydia. It was hard to keep from needling, just a little: "Seeking your gracious welcome, of course."
Rydia rolled her eyes. "If you wanted that, go to Baron or Eblan or Damcyan, somewhere with courtly folk. I was born in a cottage, thank you very much."
"And raised by the king and queen of the Feymarch, if I understand correctly."
And her face froze, just for a second, but long enough for him to notice. Then she shrugged, artfully nonchalant. "They didn't stand much on ceremony either. So?"
Kain hesitated. But there was nothing wrong with the truth, here. "I have amends to make. More than a few. I'm here because I thought it best to begin at the beginning."
Rydia gave him a sideways look, sharp and green as new growth. "We'll put you to work."
"I could have it no other way."
Rydia had to give credit where due: Kain worked, as he had promised. She hadn't been sure. The work of a laborer and that of a warrior were not the same thing, and being suited to the one said nothing about the other.
But he went by 'Kain' with no patronymic (a common enough name in these parts, so it attracted no attention), and wore simple homespun like the other workers. He plaited his long fair hair and clubbed it to keep it out of the way. He ate the same coarse meals that all of them ate.
He didn't share who he was with them. She didn't, either. No good could come of it, and the last thing she wanted was to lose the trust of these refugees, who had fled the ruin of their burnt village and come back at her say-so.
It still surprised and awed her, that they knew her and trusted her. She knew them too: Baro the miller, Teynariel the weaver, Adarra who had run the inn, Mutharek who had always argued with her mother about the best place to expand the grazing-grounds . . . . To her they were dim figures from her childhood, adults from ten years before who were adults still, and there was no magic in that.
But she knew, to them, that Rydia the child had become Rydia the woman in no time at all. It awed her that they knew her still, and recognized her, and—even more—followed her, as they had followed her mother.
She hadn't earned it.
But they had known her, from the start, even before her explanation of her unusual maturity. Perhaps it was the hair and eyes: everyone knew that Summoners had unusual coloring, being not quite human, and she had had green hair and matching eyes from childhood. Perhaps it was that she had magic, as none of them had—and as Summoners had always had.
But most likely, they acknowledged her because she had come back riding on her mother's dragon.
(The dragon's name was Mist; the village had been named for it, not the other way around. And though she called Leviathan and Asura her second parents, it was Mist who she had known the longest. It was Mist who had curled around her when she had been a child alone and lonely in the Feymarch, longing for something familiar; it was Mist who had warmed her with its gentle breath and dried her tears. Her mother's dragon. She had known Mist all her life, but she would always think of it as her mother's dragon, and feel closer to her mother that Mist was still with her.)
She came back riding her mother's dragon, and they returned with her—the refugees who had survived the town's destruction, and with them, others. People who had left Mist years before, marrying outside the village, moving elsewhere for one reason or another, coming back now to rebuild their home—or the home of their parents or grandparents.
It was good to do the work. Good to put her skills to some use besides killing. The villagers had been surprised that she had the skill to summon more than one type of eidolon—surprised, then a little overawed, which didn't make her happy. She had grown used to traveling with Cecil's friends, who never seemed overawed. She missed Rosa's warm-hearted fussing, Yang's stern reliability, Edge's bluster, and Cecil's determination. None of them had . . . revered her, the way the villagers seemed to.
And none of them had seemed frightened by her.
Kain wasn't frightened of her, either. Not even when she was summoning. So she gravitated to him, as the days went by and turned to weeks and the work went on.
"Have you given a thought to how we're going to get all this lumber across the river to the site of the new village?" he asked her, one day when they were surveying a great pile of wood that had been felled for the new meetinghouse and the new inn and mill.
"Everyone asks me these things," she said, but playfully. "Do I look like a city planner?"
"Everyone asks you and somehow they get done. It's a lesson I learned long ago. If you want to stop being asked, be less effective."
"Mm." Rydia smiled. "As a matter of fact, I have a thought. Stand back a step."
Kain raised an eyebrow, but backed up. (For all that he'd adopted humble homespun and tied up his remarkable length of golden hair, he would never quite move like a villager. He moved like someone who had been trained in both battle and dance. Rydia, who had been trained in neither, nonetheless knew the look.)
Rydia drew a breath, raised her arms above her head, and called.
It was difficult to describe it even to herself. The Feymarch was an impossible distance away. To walk it would mean to go inside the earth, to traverse a portal and a maze of deadly caverns. To go there would—no, don't think about that, not now.
But though the Feymarch was in another world, another time, another reality, when she reached just so she could reach not only up but through, and not only through but beyond, and not only beyond but . . . .
It wasn't her physical hands that reached, or her voice, singing words she would never remember after, that called. It was a pull that was past magic and more than will.
("The eidolon does not come through chains of duty but through bonds of friendship," her mother—her first mother, her real, human mother—had said once, when she was tiny, when she was tiny and Mist had curled around them both, amused and fond. "The eidolons respect you because of your strength, but they come to you not because of your strength, but because of your love.")
(But it wasn't enough love, was it, to—no, not something to think of now. Especially not now, when she was summoning.)
Ice shivered down her hands and through her body, frosted her eyelashes and she welcomed it—welcomed Shiva, frozen dancer, lady of ice, who had watched her as a child. She had worn Shiva's frosty diadem as a little girl, laughed when it melted into her hair—
"Hello, child," Shiva said, in the language of the Feymarch.
"I'm not exactly a child," Rydia had replied in the same language, laughing.
Shiva waved a hand, smiling her bright indulgent smile. "Everyone who has lived fewer than a hundred winters is a child to me. Get used to it." Then her pale gaze took in Kain, and she switched smoothly to the common tongue, the language of humans. Courtesy, Rydia knew. "Do you have a need of me?"
"I wish I could call on you just to talk," Rydia said, "but yes. On the other side of the river is a great deal of lumber we would like to transport. But it would be slow and tiresome to carry it by boat across the river."
"Say no more," Shiva said. She floated downward until her feet touched the ground; when she walked, each footprint was a mark of frost, white against green. When she walked out over the river, first there were thin leaves of ice beneath her feet, floating away as she stepped; then a thin layer that stretched a hundred yards along the water; then, as she came to a stop in the middle, the clear ice thickened and deepened. Rydia felt the chill on the air, washing up away from her, though the buds on the tree hanging above her head bloomed on, unruffled.
After a moment, Shiva smiled. "It is done. Frozen through to the bottom, child. I think it will stay frozen for long enough for you to bear your lumber across."
"Thank you," Rydia said, and then followed Shiva's frost-white foosteps—ran forward to kiss her on her cold blue cheek. Her lips chilled at the touch, tasted of mint. "Thank you."
Shiva laughed, her silvery icicle laugh. "I will tell Asura you are well."
Rydia felt a knot in her belly, but said only, "Thank you." She backed up a step, careful not to slip on the ice. The lumber would slide easily over it.
Shiva raised her arms and was gone with a scent on the air like new snow. When Rydia turned and looked back at Kain, he looked both amused and impressed.
"There, you see," he said. "That's why everyone asks you these things." And with magic still bright as ice crystals in the air, she laughed.
They ate meals together; the other villagers accepted it as they accepted so many things about her. Apparently among them: that she had strange friends. Kain was at peace with that. 'Strange' was a generous description, as such things went.
"I'm trying not to do everything with magic," she said one evening, as they ate bread and sausage. "It makes everyone look at me funny, like they're afraid of me. But it's difficult. When there's a problem, magic makes things so much easier." Kain couldn't help laughing. "What?" she demanded.
"I think I shall suggest that as a solution for all problems," he said. "'Use magic. Rydia says it makes things so much easier.' Of course if I suggest that to someone without magic, which is most people, they may protest."
Rydia threw a bread crust at him. It bounced off his shoulder. He made an affronted face at her; she laughed. "You used to be better at ducking."
"I wasn't expecting an attack from that quarter."
"Mm. Expect the unexpected," Rydia said, then put her bread aside and stretched her legs out, looked up at the summer sky. "We've done good work. Everyone who's working has a house now, and the mill is nearly done."
"You've worked quite hard," Kain said. He dusted bread crumbs from his trousers. "I must say, I'm somewhat surprised you came straight back here. You've spent more of your life in the Feymarch than in Mist, after all, from your perspective." Rydia's spine went absolutely rigid; he didn't notice quickly enough, didn't notice until the words were already coming out of his mouth: "It surprises me a little that you're here and not there." And only then did he notice that her expression had gone utterly stony. No: icy.
"I wasn't. Invited. Back to the Feymarch," Rydia said, biting out the words with nearly-audible snaps of her teeth.
He was so startled he didn't have time to measure his response. " . . . What?"
"You heard me." Whatever ease had built between them died now. Her eyes were hard and cold as jade. "When I went back, the king and queen—mother Asura and father Leviathan—told me that I could not stay." She was trying to cover pain with bitterness. And failing. He knew that tone all too well. "So coming back and rebuilding Mist was the path remaining open to me, you see."
"But—" He stared. She wasn't looking at him, was looking off into the distance, her jaw set and her eyes cold. The wind blew her hair back. He remembered the way Ifrit had ruffled her hair, the curve of the Mist Dragon coiling around her like an embrace, the silvery sound of Shiva's laughter on the air. It was so clear that the eidolons didn't just tolerate her, they cared for her. Loved her. "—Why?"
"Because I'm not an eidolon. Because I need to," and the heaviness that laced her voice made it clear this was a quote, "need to 'learn to live among my own kind.'" She was on her feet now, pacing away from him, her back to him slim and unbent as a young birch. "Because it wouldn't be good for me to stay, so they said."
The air was heavy between them a moment. He meant to offer sympathy, he did, but before he could get the words out she whirled, hands clenched to fists. "Who are you to ask me questions, anyway? You—"
—and here, in an instant, his mind filled it all in: you destroyed my home, you burned this village, you killed my mother, you, you, you—
But that wasn't what she said.
"—you had a home where you were loved and wanted and you walked away. Cecil and Rosa held the door open for you, and everyone who had known you and cared for you in Baron was waiting for you, and you walked away. And it hurt them, too. I saw it. You were wanted and you walked away and hurt the people who wanted you, but I—"
She didn't finish the sentence. She didn't need to. It hung unsaid on the air between them.
Then she turned, with a noise that might have been a muffled sob, and fled into the forest. He scrambled to his feet, holding out a hand after her and calling, "Rydia!"—though he didn't know what else he could say to her, if there was anything else to say that wouldn't ring as empty and cold as her city's ashes—
You are wanted.
—and the darkness closed around her, the darkness and the wild, and the trees moving in the wind, and the moonlight turning everything to black and green and silver.
In the darkness of the forest, Rydia was unafraid, because she knew the shadows held nothing more terrible than herself. She was human but not quite, and she could call the phantom beasts from beyond the world to her defense.
She would not call any of them tonight, though.
The ache opened up wide whenever she thought of the Feymarch and its people. Her friends, her family, now gone. Oh, she could summon them, and they would come—three-faced Asura, her second mother, who always turned a gentle face to her, and stern Leviathan who had saved her life and her mind and her heart. But it wasn't the same thing to summon someone and to be welcome with them.
She didn't want to call on them. She wanted to belong with them, the second family she'd known after her first family had died.
And maybe she had hoped that having immortals love her meant she'd never have to say goodbye again.
But you did have to say goodbye. Always. She'd learned that when she was a tiny child, sobbing over her mother's body. It was unfair for the world to make her learn it again. Wasn't it?
"The world is a little unfair," said Mist, and her head came up fast, because Rydia knew that even for Summoners, hearing voices that weren't there was a sign of madness.
But Mist was there, uncalled but solidifying around her, warm as it had always been and wild always.
"We come sometimes when we are not called," it said, its voice deep and sonorous as a bell, and she flung her arms around its neck, buried her face in its soft mane that smelled of the elusive, lost scent of the Feymarch.
"They're afraid of me," she said, "the people, and I can't go h-home, and I'm so tired of being different and all alone—"
"You're not alone," the dragon said. "You never were, not really." And its voice rang quiet and deep, and in its rhythms her breathing eased slow, slow.
She thought of Ifrit and Shiva, and she thought of Mist whose mane smelled half of the Feymarch but also—now she noticed—half of the deep fern-filled wild that surrounded her village, and she thought of Asura's three faces and Leviathan's depths.
And she thought of her village. And of Kain.
It was two days before Kain went to speak to her again. When he did, it was at the end of the day, and Rydia was sitting alone and staring off into space. All the other laborers had gone back—to their homes, their families.
He found her alone by the river, with her feet drawn up under her.
Before he could say anything, she said, "I'm sorry I overreacted."
He opened his mouth. Closed it. Finally said, "I came to apologize to you."
She turned her head a little to look at him out of the corner of one eye, and said, "I aim to keep you off-balance. Is it working?"
"I'm not sure I should dignify that with a response," he said, and sat next to her.
"I am sorry I overreacted," she said. "I wasn't angry at you. I was angry . . . not at you. And I took it out on you."
"You were partly right, though. I'm sorry I was . . . insensitive."
"Hmm." She looked at him, again, from the corner of her eye, like a wild animal who wasn't quite sure of him. But she was smiling, a little. "Friends again?"
And she was still so young in some ways. Still . . . "Friends again."
She tipped her head up to look at the stars, which made her white throat very long and made her hair tumble down her back. She looked, still, a little like a wild creature, but one that had for some reason consented to sit by him. "I was right about one thing."
"You should write to Cecil and Rosa. They worry about you."
"Not perhaps." She pointed a finger at him. "You should do it."
"All right," he said, raising his hands, "all right." And then, daring: "And you shouldn't think of yourself as unwanted."
"I mean that seriously. They may be a little . . . overawed of you, but everyone in this village wants you here, I guarantee it." And then, more quietly, "And if you went away to the Feymarch, I would miss you."
Again, that sideways look, wild. "Would you?"
"Well." And then her smile, bright and sudden as sunlight: "That's something, then."