“I told you we shouldn’t come to Saro,” Bettany said - but quietly. It was late enough in the evening, in this small in on the outskirts of West Saro’s capital city, that the other travelers who frequented it had mostly retired to their rooms. Still, the innkeeper was about, and a girl was cleaning the next table over.
“No, you didn’t,” said Agalar. “You said you didn’t like it, and you said we would have to be careful, and you said we needed a better plan, but if you’d said we shouldn’t we wouldn’t be here now.”
“We discussed, and we agreed. I captain this crew - I don’t rule it.” Ten years since Pearl had retired, nearly twenty since Bettany had run away with the Shipwrights, and some days those words still felt awkward in her mouth.
Regardless, they got quiet, incredulous laughter from Sky, who had only been with them since the job before last. He stopped when Bettany looked at him, and turned it into a cough.
“How much longer are we going to wait?” he asked. “Much longer and it’ll be morning, not evening.”
“Another half hour,” Bettany instructed. “We’re only as good as our word. If he doesn’t make it -” she grimaced. “Well, things have been going since we set foot in this city. We need to know when to cut our losses.” Even though it wasn’t their losses that mattered, not really; it was the people they wouldn’t be able to save. It had always been a risk, coming to Old Saro, but it had seemed worth it for that.
“I promised to meet that doctor the day after tomorrow,” Agalar reminded her. His old lordly disguise had been worn out for a long time now, but nobody could mistake his surgical knowledge when they spoke to him, even if his name wasn’t famous. “It might attract attention if I don’t.”
“Send a note saying you’ve caught a cold, or been struck with a migraine. Or perhaps you can come down with the fire rash again.”
Sky stood up. “I’m going to take a walk around.”
Bettany nodded. Sky was new to her crew, but she knew already that sitting too still, too long, wasn’t his best skill. It reminded her of Jes, in a way, except not the Jes of now, or at least the last time Bettany had seen her two years ago, but Jes at eighteen, hemmed in by their father’s restrictions and their mother’s complacency and desperate for any chance she could get to run the Fives.
Bettany didn’t think of that time much, these days; it had been another life, in almost every way. But time had gentled the edges of those memories, too, made her realise that they’d all been trying to find themselves in their own ways, she and all her sisters, save Safarenwe who hadn’t been born then.
Maybe that was why, when the door to the street opened and a Saroese girl slipped cautiously in, then headed straight for their table as soon as she laid eyes on Bettany, Bettany didn’t turn away.
It was curiosity, in part. Old Saro wasn’t what Bettany would have expected as a child – there were no Efeans to be Commoners here, and Saroese girls waited on tables and sold wares at market stalls and a dozen other things that Bettany had never seen them do in Efea, at least not before the Restoration. So it wasn’t the shock it might have been to see one walk into the common room of an inn. Even if Bettany herself, as the mule daughter of a Commoner and a Patron, would never have been let alone to wander into the common room of an inn at that age.
But this girl was dressed too finely to be waiting tables or selling fish, and the wrong kind of finely to be selling herself – which Saroese girls did here, too, although if anything Saroese men were cruder to them than they’d been to men and women wearing white ribbons in Efea. There were a lot of reasons Bettany didn’t like Old Saro, even when the money was good, or there were people to be rescued.
The girl addressed Bettany without so much as a greeting. “You’re the Shipwright crew?”
Bettany looked her up and down, letting the moment spin out. That was a trick Pearl had taught her when she’d first joined a Shipwright crew; taking her time to respond put others on the wrong foot, even when they should not be.
The girl wore a fine wool cloak with water beading off it, glimpses of silk and an almost-hidden fine gold chain around her neck. This was some noble’s daughter, and that was trouble when Bettany and her crew were trying to go unnoticed.
“There’s a few crews in port right now,” said Agalar, apparently thinking Bettany might not respond at all. “Who are you looking for?”
“Oh.” The girl shrank down, pulling her cloak tighter around her. She was tall, for a Saroese girl, maybe taller than Bettany herself. “I heard – I was told – there was a Shipwright crew leaving the city tomorrow. That’s you. Isn’t it?”
Bettany exchanged a quick glance with Agalar. The corner of his mouth tilted down in the way that meant up to you.
“Maybe that’s us,” she said to the girl. In some ways this was good; it meant their cover held, that they were just another band of mercenaries. “Are you looking to hire?” She let her scepticism colour her words.
“Yes,” the girl said, her shoulder straightening. “I’m in need of an escort to take me to East Saro. You will -”
Giving orders came naturally to her, it seemed. Bettany didn’t let her finish. “You come in here dressed like that and you tell me your family can’t give you an escort? We’d be buying trouble, not earning coin.”
The girl bit her lip. “We have…not right now.”
Her pulse was beating in her neck, as fast as drums for a dance. Agalar had taught Bettany to look for that, years ago.
“So, twice as much trouble,” Bettany said, but even as she said it, she could feel a twinge of treacherous pity, her heart betraying her self. She’d spent twenty years rescuing people from all sorts of unlikely places. You did learn to tell who was in real need of rescue.
“And likely twice as much coin as you’d get for anything else,” the girl countered. She gave Bettany a curious, examining sort of look that lingered on her braids and the curve of her jaw. “You’re Efean. I thought you might want to -”
The door to the street opened with a hard swing that sent it banging against the wall. Bettany thought it might be Sky, but it admitted a soldier – two soldiers – more, all with a crest on their tabards that made Bettany freeze. Not the kestrel of West Saro, where they were, but the old sea-phoenix of the Saroese rulers of Efea, which Bettany had not seen for so long it took her to a moment be sure what she was seeing. The innkeeper appeared as if from nowhere, his hands raised. “There’s no trouble here -”
To the girl’s credit, she didn’t even look around, though her hands clenched in her cloak and her face paled. She just dove under Bettany and Agalar’s table, slipping around into the deepest corner of shadow like an eel. Everybody else in the inn was looking at the soldiers. The soldiers were looking at the innkeeper. Bettany could feel the girl’s breath on her knee. She resisted, for the moment, the urge to kick her back out into the open, her and her arrogance.
“We’re here on behalf of the Lady Menoe and Prince Ka-“ one of the soldiers began, the captain, Bettany decided to call him, although she’d never spent enough time in this part of Saro to learn their signs of rank. He never did say what the prince, whichever prince it was – there were several options, in this city – wanted. As he spoke, Sky came in the door, shaking rain off his cloak, not enough on watch to notice the soldiers until the door had closed behind him.
He froze for a vital second, and then turned as if to go. Bettany cursed under her breath. One of the soldiers grabbed him by the arm. He didn’t pull away or throw any punches, which was something.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The soldier demanded. Sky’s Saroese wasn’t very good – talking wasn’t his job – and the soldier spat it out. Sky tensed.
“Have you seen a girl?” The soldier went on. The word he used wasn’t ‘girl’, exactly, as Bettany understood the local Saroese dialect. It was a lot worse than that. His captain coughed, and he corrected himself. “A young lady?”
“A…girl?” Sky said, using the polite term. He was the only member of their crew here from Shipwright country, and his accent made the soldiers frown. “No.”
The girl under the table was breathing rapidly, and she clutched at Bettany’s ankle. Bettany gritted her teeth and let it pass, certain now that throwing her to the soldiers would only result in her arrest as well, and Agalar’s, and probably Sky’s, and if she knew Saroese soldiers maybe everybody else in the inn for good measure.
Then Sky threw away all his good behaviour and pulled away, a quick sharp movement that twisted the soldier’s arm and freed Sky’s. “Why are you asking me about a girl, anyway?”
The soldier went to cuff him around the ear. At the same moment, Lark and Ash came down the stairs, too quickly to go unmarked. Bettany wondered if they’d seen something from the upper story – more soldiers on the street, perhaps.
Sky punched the soldier in the face. It went downhill from there.
Bettany didn’t mind an argument but didn’t like to fight unless she had no other choice, and Agalar could put someone on the ground in under a second if the someone was willing to sit still and let Agalar find the right pressure point, but that wasn’t something that happened very often, his often-inconvenient vow against violence aside. They both got under the table with the girl as the fight broke out. Bettany took her crude pottery bowl with her as she went, and then popped out the other side to smash it over the head of a soldier with his back to her. He didn’t drop like she’d been hoping, but he did stagger, dazed, and it was enough for Lark to kick his legs out from under him.
By then Agalar had got the girl to the kitchen door. Bettany met the captain’s eyes for a second, and saw him mark her. She hadn’t seen that many Efean women in this city, or women from other lands with skin as dark as hers. Let alone with the distinctive Shipwright braids.
At that moment Ash hit him from behind with a chair – none of her crew had resorted to blades, as they shouldn’t unless they had to – and Bettany made a quick decision. They were done here.
She caught Lark’s eye and gave her the signal that said: regroup at the fallback meeting place. Lark looked surprised, for good reason, but nodded all the same before Bettany made herself scarce through the kitchen door.
After that, it was an unpleasant fifteen minutes of ducking down back alleyways. Bettany didn’t bother trying to lose the girl at this point; likely she’d only tell the soldiers about them, and they’d done enough running away now to be suspicious. Bettany was well aware of just how suspicious people in authority tended to find it when you ran away, no matter how well-justified your running was. Then again, that might be all the time she spent with people who people in authority thought they owned.
“I think we’ve missed our contact,” Agalar panted between breaths, as they paused beside a shuttered shop. Bettany was too busy coiling up her hair and jabbing pins in in the hope it would hold to pay attention to that. She frowned at the girl. “Take off your cloak; they’ve seen it enough.”
“No,” the girl said, and clutched it to her. Bettany considered the silk under it, and settled for switching it with her own jacket, plain cloth that didn’t mark the wearer out. They couldn’t do much about Agalar’s bright hair, but he could fake a limp as well as any malingerer Bettany had ever seen. Add a bend to his back, and he might pass at a distance for an elderly Saroese man. That would have to do.
“We have,” Bettany agreed with Agalar, as they strolled cautiously out onto the street. It was late but this was a large city; people had business at all sorts of odd hours. Walking slowly would serve them better now than running. “That’s why I gave Lark the sign. We’re better off traveling separately, if that end of things is blown. I think we have to assume it is.” She stopped where the road crossed another, equally wide.
“Alright,” she said to the girl. “This is where you leave us. We have other places to be, and they won’t find you now.”
“But I want to hire you,” the girl said, urgently. “I need to get to – I need to get away. You’re Shipwrights, you can be hired for protection, for…isn’t that right?”
“We can be,” said Bettany. “That doesn’t mean we have to take every contract that comes our way.”
“Please,” the girl said, the word obviously foreign on her tongue. “Out of the city, at least. Even if it’s not all the way to West Saro. I promise I can pay.”
Bettany had an expert eye for people in need of rescue. It told her the girl wasn’t lying.
Agalar caught her eye.
She sighed. “This way, then. We’ll discuss your contract as we go.”
The girl wanted to know why they weren’t going to the docks, and why they were taking the route they were taking, and all manner of other things that weren’t her business, until Agalar put on his most lordly voice and said they would leave her behind if she kept asking questions. It was a useful trick of his, even if he didn’t mean a word of it. The girl apparently had practice listening to the dictates of lords, and shut her mouth at that.
Bettany had known they might have to leave the city in a hurry, and the docks were far too obvious a route. They headed instead for another inn where merchants gathered – those who were traveling a long way, and might need help. Or protection. She half-expected to see Lark and the others there, but they’d found another path, or none. She quashed the concern. They knew their work – they’d been about it for years before Pearl had ever taken her on. Alright, Sky hadn’t, but Lark and Ash would know how to keep him safe.
By first light they were on their way out of the city, moving at the pace of the oxen pulling the carts along a raised road through the flooded fields of rice. This close to the city, there were plenty of market gardens as well, all the wide net of people and things and work that needed to exist to support life in a city. Bettany chafed at their pace, and knew that it was their protection as well – anybody fleeing would have gone faster and much further by now. It would take the Saroese time to work back, and by then Bettany planned that they would be gone from Saro’s shores.
Then again, she thought, her other plans to be gone from Saro’s shores had hardly gone well so far.
Agalar, like her, had made this sort of escape a dozen times before and strolled along with the carts as though he had nothing on his mind. The girl, who had somehow not managed to give them a name, was not very good at that sort of pretense. She kept her shoulders relaxed and her stride even, but one of her hands kept straying to her belt, looking for something that wasn’t there. A sword, perhaps.
Bettany marked that as curious, and then let it fall into the back of her mind. There were other things to worry about.
The merchants they were supposed to be protecting were gossiping to each other, in fast and local dialect that Bettany had to concentrate to understand. Agalar’s face wore a tiny frown that said he was doing the same thing.
“Good time to be on our way,” one was saying to the other. Bettany was reasonably sure, anyway. “Things are going to be unhealthy for a while. I hear one of the princes has gone missing.”
The other merchant shook his head. “No, it was his bride, that’s what I heard.”
Bettany looked at the girl. Her shoulders had gone tense, before she gave the smallest shake of her head, and very obviously forced herself to relax. Her hand grasped again for that sword that wasn’t there.
“Which prince?” asked the wagon-driver, a boy young enough that it looked incongruous to have him handling the placid but massive beasts.
“The Efean one,” said the first merchant. “The son of that queen in exile.”
The boy handling the oxen laughed. “How can he be a prince of Efea, if he’s here? Efea’s all the way across the Fire Sea.”
The first merchant gave him a swat, though not a hard one. “Don’t talk that way. If they take it seriously, we have to as well. And it’s true his mother was queen there.”
“Efea may be across the Fire Sea, but that gorgeous Shipwright woman is Efean,” said the second merchant. “There’s enough travel back and forth.”
Agalar leaned over to Bettany. “Your teeth are grinding, Beauty. I know you want to tell them how they’re wrong.”
Bettany forced herself to relax her jaw, with more success, she fancied, than the girl. “I know. And I know I can’t.”
She gave up trying to understand the merchants, after that. It was easy enough to let their accent wash over her ears.
They camped that night in a spot clearly intended for such a thing, though no other group was there. Saro was full of people and they weren’t so far from the nearest village, but these weren’t rich merchants and they certainly weren’t paying for their Shipwright guards to stay in an inn. Bettany checked over Agalar’s medical supplies to keep the voices in her head from screaming quite so loudly, and when that was done, braided the girl’s hair. There weren’t so many Saroese Shipwrights, any more than Efean ones, but they weren’t unheard of, or they’d have never managed to be hired in the first place with as few questions as they’d gotten. The braids were just an extra line of disguise, one that could be undone or cut if another was needed.
She told the girl to put her head down, and went to work.
“You grew up in a good household here, or you served in one,” Bettany said as she worked. “You speak that way even when you’re worried. What’s your story? The real one. If we’re to protect you, we need to know it.”
The girl’s head bowed further; Bettany had to pull it back up, though she tried to do it gently. “I was to be married. I didn’t want to be.”
“One of the oldest stories of all.”
The girl laughed – not unhappily, as Bettany might have expected, but in a way that was almost surprised. “I suppose it is.”
Bettany waited, but she didn’t say anything else. Bettany didn’t believe for a second that was the whole of it.
“What’s your name, then?” Bettany asked.
The girl opened her mouth, hesitated, and then set her jaw and raised her chin before speaking. Bettany tilted her head back down, so the braid would be even. “Selene.”
Bettany shook her head. “No. That’s a name for a lady – for a princess. Find something better.”
“It is better!” She crossed her arms, and Bettany had to push her head down again.
“Not your real name, is it?” Bettany frowned as the girl’s long, slippery Saroese hair fought with her, and she fought it back into place. “Then it won’t matter if you pick something else.” Names mattered, of course, your name was part of your soul, but this girl was Saroese and probably didn’t even know about the five souls, or what part of a person each of them was.
“I – I can’t think of anything else.” The anger in her voice was still there, but it was being tamped down. “You pick something, then, if you don’t like it.”
“I’m not your mother,” Bettany snapped back, and then a small cruel thought came to her, of the Efeans who’d worked in her father’s household, and the new names they’d been given. “Fine. You can be Anthe.”
“Flower? But -”
“You asked for a name, and now you have one.” Bettany pointed. “Alright, that’s done. Go and get some firewood. You want to look like you’re on my crew, Anthe, you’ll work.”
No protest; some common sense, then.
“Yes, Doma,” she said, standing, and went to fetch the wood.
To Bettany’s immense surprise, they made it to the port without incident, and even got paid by the merchants – not as much as they should have been, but not so little that it was worth making a fuss. Under the circumstances.
“It’s a pity,” Agalar said as they walked by a group of local students – all men, identifiable by their sashes and the way the wore their hair, like students everywhere. “I did want to learn that new technique the doctor was talking about, for cataracts.”
“We can spend some time at the hospital, with your mother, and send Soras,” said Bettany. “He doesn’t mind getting away now and again. And after this we might need to keep our heads down.”
“Saryenwe first,” Agalar reminded her. “Unless you want to leave Lark and the others cooling their heels a very long time.”
“You’re going to Efea?” Anthe asked, suddenly interested in a way she hadn’t been in medical matters.
“We’re going where our business takes us,” said Bettany.
“What was it, anyway? You never told me.”
“We never meant to.” Bettany relented. They were far enough away now, and Anthe had obeyed instructions and kept her mouth shut, most of the time. “There was a group of people taken into slavery here, sold by a different Shipwright crew. We were trying to find them. Someone told us that a man called Lord Arkiades had bought them. We were supposed to meet someone from his household. And then you showed up.”
“He was two hours late,” Agalar pointed out. “I don’t think he was coming.”
“And what would you have done with them, if you’d found them?” Anthe was playing with the edge of her cloak.
“Freed them,” said Bettany. “That’s what we do, when we can.”
Anthe raised her eyebrows. “Out of the goodness of your hearts?”
“Because someone has to,” Bettany said, meeting disbelief with truth. “Because we have places for them to go, and we can, and if nobody does, what changes?”
“A hospital,” said Anthe, which showed she’d been paying attention more than Bettany would have liked.
“That’s one place,” said Agalar. Bettany pinched his arm, to remind him not to say more, and he gave her a look but didn’t say anything.
“I’ve met Lord Arkiades,” said Anthe, ten minutes later, out of nowhere. “He knows my…he knows Lady Menoe. He went to East Saro, on her behalf, two days before I met you, and his household went with him.”
Bettany and Agalar both stopped to look at her.
“I didn’t know you had any dealings with him until just now,” Anthe said, glaring at them. “And I told you what I know, which I didn’t have to.”
“You asked for passage to East Saro,” Bettany pointed out.
“Not because he’s going to be there,” Anthe said, with conviction. “He’ll be gone by the time we arrive.”
“We’ve told you some of what our business is,” Bettany tried. “So how about you tell us some of yours. Why East Saro?”
“There’s someone there who might help me,” said Anthe. “And it’s closer to…to where I’m going. In the end.”
“I only hired you to escort me to East Saro.” She looked towards the docks. “The sooner we get there, the sooner you can be rid of me.”
“Something we agree on,” Bettany said.
“I wish we’d asked more questions before we took her on,” Bettany fretted to Agalar, the third day at sea on the way to East Saro. “There’s something we’re missing.”
“She wasn’t born a girl,” Agalar said, frowning at her. “Is that what you mean? Oh. You didn’t know.”
“I didn’t,” Bettany said. She didn’t ask how he knew – there wasn’t anybody better than Agalar at telling things about people from how they walked, how they held themselves, a dozen little signs. He wouldn’t have said it if he wasn’t sure. “And so? How’s that our business?”
“She told us she was running away from a marriage she didn’t want.”
“I believe that much of her story.”
“So do I.” Agalar leaned on the rail next to Bettany. “And I heard, in all the gossip, that the Efean prince – don’t give me that look, Beauty, I say it as the Saroese do – was to be wed.”
“You think she was worried he would – oh,” Bettany said, as it came clear to her. “Oh, that’s – that’s just -”
She swore in all the filthiest ways she knew in Saroese, and then Efean, and then switched to the Shipwrights’ tongue, just for a change of pace. Agalar didn’t say anything, just let her talk herself out.
“- to the coldest of hells,” Bettany finished. “They won’t stop hunting her, not if that’s true.”
“No,” said Agalar. “But we did agree on a contract.”
Bettany gripped the rail tight, ignoring a splinter digging into the ball of her thumb. They’d agreed on a contract; their word was good or it was less than dust; they had Soras’ hospital, and the safehouses, and an entire delicate network of people that could be crushed and broken if the might of an army turned on them. One royal Saroese girl was nothing, against that.
Their word was good, or it wasn’t.
The so-called Efean prince was so-called due to having been born to Lady Menoe, queen in then-Saryenia for a few short days. Menoe, who’d been given to Bettany’s father like you might give a man a horse, when he’d been made a general. Bettany had never met the woman, and thought her father mostly to blame in the matter. Not that she had any sympathy to spare for Patrons, in Efea or in Saro.
She looked over at Anthe, sitting on a barrel next to one of the sailors, brow furrowed as she copied him in tying some sort of knot. Bettany wasn’t much for the names of knots; she preferred cutting them. What she’d thought she might see in Anthe’s face, she couldn’t, anyway. Just another Saroese girl.
“You have too much sympathy,” Bettany said, “for strays and runaways.”
“Probably I do.” Agalar shrugged. “So what’s the plan?”
“We leave her in East Saro. She can make her own way from there to wherever it is she means to go.”
“That’s a hard road,” Agalar said. “She’s younger than you think she is, I believe.”
“I know exactly how old she is,” Bettany said. Lady Menoe had been great with child when the Saroese Patrons in Efea had been returned to their own land. Her mother had told Bettany the story, with compassion but no regret, not for anything she’d done. It had been the moment Bettany had started to like her mother better. “And passage there was all she bargained for.”
“You’re the chief of this crew,” Agalar said, but his eyes said otherwise. Bettany resigned herself to a voyage of disagreement.
They’d kept out of each other’s way as much as possible on the ship – not that possible when you slept on pallets next to each other, but that was more excuse not to start conversations. The morning before they were to arrive in East Saro, Bettany found Anthe.
“We’ll be there tomorrow,” she said. “You can go your own way. I want to know where that is.”
“We might be able to give you advice,” Bettany said, and it was only partly a lie. “Consider it part of the service.”
She wasn’t entirely sure they were going to be paid, for this escort, but Agalar wouldn’t have agreed to leave Anthe where they’d found her.
“I…” Anthe said. “Efea. After this, I’m going to Efea.”
Bettany had wondered if that might be the answer, but it didn’t sting any less to hear it. “And what business could you have there? We got rid of the Saroese twenty years ago.”
“Not all of them. I have family there.” Anthe bit her lip. “Or – I might have family there. Of sorts. My father had daughters there – other daughters. Maybe brothers, or cousins, or – I wasn’t told very much about his family, but I know they stayed. He wasn’t that well-born, I don’t think, even if he rose-” She cut herself off. “That’s why. I don’t know much more. My mother never liked to talk about it.”
“You’re Lady Menoe’s child,” Bettany said, and felt something of the anger she’d had when she was young, though Anthe hadn’t done anything, in this moment, that called for anger.
“I didn’t know you knew that,” Anthe said in a small voice. Bettany realised she was braced against – something, a blow or an insult, and took a step back. Whatever anger Anthe was expecting, she realised, was nothing to do with the real reason Bettany was angry, and what she was expecting was nothing Bettany wanted for her.
“It wasn’t very difficult to figure out,” she said. “And you’re seeking in the wrong place, if his family is what you want. Your father was the third son of a baker in Old Saro.” Bettany had to look away, to not sneer as she said it. “I can tell you the name of the village, if you like. If you want family, seek them there.”
Anthe’s eyebrows rose. “And how do you know that?”
“It’s my business to know things. How else do you think we find jobs, as mercenaries?”
My mother told me stories, Bettany might have said, of how my father came to Saro and met her in the night market. But that was no business of Anthe’s.
“The third son of a baker.” Anthe laughed a little. “No wonder – my mother never would have…I am amazed her dignity survived the marriage. She has so very much of it left.”
Something in Bettany stiffened at that, although it had no right to. Her father had discarded her, and she him, so long ago. “He was a captain, and then a general. He was a hero. Your mother wasn’t -”
She closed her mouth on betraying words.
“You seem to know a lot about it.” Anthe gave her a cautious look.
“His wife became the Custodian of Efea.” That was common knowledge; that was safe enough. “They tell stories about General Esladas, who betrayed her and then died serving her. But so far as I know, his only family there are his children, and they will have no reason to love you.”
Anthe’s mouth turned down. She looked away. “I thought…even if that was true…women are allowed to run households in Efea. They say that. Well, that’s not how they say it, but…and I thought if I stayed…” She sighed. “You’re going to tell me I’m being foolish.”
Yes, Bettany didn’t say. “Your mother wants Efea, still, after all these years. If anybody there has any sense, they’ll send you back to her as soon as you set foot in Saryenwe.” She nodded out to the whitecaps. “Do you know the story of what they did to your uncle? The last Saroese man to name himself king in Efea?”
“My mother wants her son to be king in Efea, perhaps,” Anthe said. “It is a great pity for her she doesn’t have one.” She shrugged. “And she doesn’t want Efea, not really. She wants to be a queen, and Efea is useful because it makes her a figure of tragedy, and stirs soldiers’ hearts. But I think she’d much rather have Saro – Old Saro, united once again. She has the bloodline for that, too.” Her lips thinned. “Perhaps I said it wrong – she doesn’t want a king. She wants an emperor.”
Her words were clipped. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared out across the waves. She was pale around the lips, and Bettany couldn’t tell if it was the illness some got from the motion of the sea, or something else.
“I don’t know anything about emperors,” said Bettany. “I have better things to do with my time.”
“I don’t want to know anything about emperors either,” said Anthe. “And they don’t have them in Efea.”
“So,” Bettany said. “You don’t know anything else about what they have there.”
“I thought,” said Anthe, “I might learn.”
That they had not outsailed trouble was obvious as soon as they set foot on the docks in East Saro. Bettany saw the dock master talking intently to the ship’s captain, and both of them turn to look at her, Agalar, and Anthe.
She wondered if the innkeeper had told the soldiers about Anthe, or whether Lark and the others had – but there was no use worrying about that. She hurried Agalar and Anthe away from the port.
“You don’t know why they were staring,” said Agalar.
“I’ve lived with this face for forty years,” Bettany said. Amaya had told her once, only a little resentfully, that she’d only got more beautiful as she got older; Bettany didn’t think it mattered, but Amaya hadn’t taken that very well. “I know when men are staring at it, and I know when they’re staring at me.” She chewed her lip. “I meant us to stay here a few days before we took ship, but I don’t think we should linger.” She frowned. “And we are never coming back to Saro. Not ever.”
“We need a better plan than that,” Agalar said. “We could go by land-“
“They’ll follow you, by land,” Anthe said, abruptly. “Or follow me, rather.”
“You only asked us to take you as far as here,” Bettany pointed out. “Which means you owe us your fare, and we owe you a farewell.”
“Oh,” Anthe said. “Yes. That’s right.” She looked downcast, for some reason.
“We can settle up over a meal,” said Agalar. “And you can tell us what you’re going to do next. Perhaps we can give you some advice. As a final service.”
Bettany almost announced that she didn’t care what Anthe did next, but decided she didn’t need the disapproving look Agalar would wear if she did. “Yes. If nothing else, we don’t want you bringing your pursuers down on us.”
“There might not be much I can do about that,” Anthe said. “If they don’t find me, they’ll follow you to fine me, and I…don’t plan to be found.”
“Well,” said Bettany. “I suppose you have the start of a plan, then.”
Word in the local inns was that there was a search on for the Efean prince’s bride, who had gone missing the week before her wedding, kidnapped by Shipwright criminals. Fortunately, this was a larger port than the last they’d been in, and Bettany and Anthe weren’t the only women with their hair in Shipwright braids; Bettany even recognized someone from a crew they’d worked with on a couple of jobs, and gave him a nod. He filled them in on the risk, and carefully did not ask about the Saroese girl Bettany and Agalar had with them, or where Lark and Ash and Sky were.
They spoke the Shipwright tongue, so Anthe couldn’t possibly have followed it – nobody bothered learning it but Shipwrights and those who joined Shipwright crews – but she smiled encouragingly at the man all the same, the second time he gave her a sideways glance.
“Don’t worry,” she said in Saroese. “I’m not a princess.”
“And I’m glad to hear it,” he said in the same language. “But perhaps you should all keep out of sight, while you’re here. Just in case anybody gets the wrong idea.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Anthe said as soon as he’d left. “Nobody who’s ever met the princess would ever mistake her for me. She’s half a foot shorter than I am, and -” She waved her hand in front of her chest in a way that Bettany supposes is meant to indicate an abundance of bosom. “We don’t look at all alike.”
“It’s just the story they’re putting out,” Bettany said, not concealing her impatience. “Of course they know it’s you they’re looking for. Is there anybody here who’d actually recognise you?”
“Maybe,” said Anthe. “If they sent the captain of our household guard. He’d know me anywhere, he’s been around since I was a baby.” She grimaced. “My mother’s been having an affair with him since I was a baby, but I’m not supposed to know that.”
“So he’s your father,” said Agalar. “Or close enough.”
Anthe laughed, a surprised sound. “That’s not how it works, if you’re in my family. Anyway, my mother’s had two other husbands since then – one of them is even still alive.”
“That’s right,” said Bettany, who’d forgotten. “You have sisters.”
“Girls.” There was a twist to Anthe’s lip, quickly smoothed out. “My mother can’t use girls, not the same way.”
“How would we recognise him?” Bettany asked. “Apart from the uniform.”
“You saw him,” said Anthe. “That first night. He was leading the men looking for me. I suppose my mother hoped to have things under control quickly, and without too many people seeing…anything they shouldn’t.” Her cheeks darkened, though Bettany couldn’t think what she had to blush for; all she’d done was walk into a common inn. Then she remembered the rules of her girlhood, and thought that maybe that was enough.
“Bettany,” Agalar said warningly, as the door to the inn opened. Anthe gripped the edge of the table as she took in the tabards on the soldiers. Every Shipwright in the inn stood up.
“Not again,” Bettany said, with great exasperation.
Three hours later they were in the safe house; Bettany had never been here, having avoided Saro assiduously for most of her career as a runner of schemes, freer of slaves, and by some people’s measures a thief. She’d only meant to stop and leave a message, this time. But they did know how to keep people hidden.
“We owe a lot of people favours now,” said Agalar. “They could have turned us over and have done.”
“I don’t think any of them were thinking that far ahead,” said Bettany. “But that starts down a very ugly path.”
“Let’s not give them too much time to keep thinking it over.” Agalar looked down the stairs to where Anthe had gone to find a change of clothes – her silks would help keep the safe house in coin, and plainer clothes would keep her less visible.
She’d tried to hand Bettany the payment she’d promised, and Bettany had told her to keep it, annoyed for some reason she couldn’t frame, and there might have been a real argument if Agalar hadn’t told Anthe that they’d take it later.
“So what now?” Agalar went on. “Do we just find a ship again, and keep moving? We’re meeting Lark and the others in Saryenwe. If they’ve travelled straight there, they may be starting to wonder where we are.”
“If she comes along, we might start a war,” Bettany pointed out. “They’ll keep following. Like she said. And I’m not bringing Saroese soldiers to Saryenwe. I can’t. If I owe Efea anything, it’s that.”
“So,” said Agalar. “You want to leave her here?”
“No,” Bettany said. She paused. “You know she’s my father’s -”
“Yes,” said Agalar. “I had figured out that much.” He studied her. “I didn’t think it would give you any sympathy for her.”
“It doesn’t,” said Bettany, looking away from him. “But…we promised her passage to safety, and this isn’t safety.” She smiled. “I have a plan.”
“I hope it’s a plan for me as well,” said Anthe, coming back. “Because I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t have one. What is it?”
“We’re going to need a corpse,” said Bettany. “Like that time in the Fire Islands.”
“Nothing is ever going to be like that time in the Fire Islands,” said Agalar fervently. He hadn’t had any fun there, and not just because he’d got heatstroke again. “But I know what you mean.”
“What do you need a corpse for?” Anthe asked, half-curious, half-alarmed.
“For you,” said Bettany. “You need to die.”
Anthe had actually backed away three steps when Bettany had said that, until Agalar had put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “She doesn’t mean it the way you think.”
“Then what way do you mean it?” Anthe did not look particularly reassured.
“That’s what we need the corpse for,” said Bettany. “To make them think it’s you.”
“That’s not respectful to the dead!”
“You put sparks in corpses and make them walk to their own funerals,” Bettany pointed out. “And never ask where the sparks come from.”
“It’s magic,” Anthe said, confused. “And they only do that for kings and emperors, or men who call themselves those things. And what do you mean, spark?”
“One of your souls,” Bettany said. “And you want to come to Efea. Never mind.” She looked at Agalar. “How soon can you get us one?”
“I don’t know what you’re looking at me for,” said Agalar. “I hardly keep corpses on my person.”
“Yes, but you’re good with medical students,” said Bettany. “They always have fresh corpses.” She pursed her lips. “It just needs to be the right height, I think. You can’t tell much else from bones.”
“I hate medical students,” said Agalar. “And dissection is illegal in East Saro.”
“What have they ever done to you?” asked Anthe.
Agalar grimaced. “A long story.” He looked at Bettany again. “Are you sure -”
“Yes,” said Bettany. “Go on. What’s the point of being mercenaries if we don’t do illegal things now and again?”
“If he’s getting a corpse,” said Anthe, “what are you and I doing?”
“We’re getting your captain’s attention,” said Bettany.
“That doesn’t sound very safe.”
“Then you shouldn’t have run away.”
Anthe sighed. “That had occurred to me.” She shook her head. “But I had to. I’m sorry, but I did.”
“Don’t apologise,” said Bettany. “Help.”
It was a very good plan, Bettany thought, right up until the point until they ran into Lord Arkiades in the street on the way to where they had been told the lord from West Saro was staying. He was being carried in a litter, of course. Bettany recognised him because he’d been described to her by the woman who’d first come to them about the people he’d bought, and because the badge of his house was plastered all over his men and his litter and even his own clothing. He didn’t recognise Bettany because he’d never seen her. But he recognised Anthe, with a double-take that had him sitting up in the litter, no longer an indolent lord.
Anthe tensed. Bettany held her by the arm. “Don’t!”
Lord Arkiades pointed. The captain from the inn, with the sea-phoenix on his tabard, came up beside him. Anthe ran. Bettany cursed, and forced her feet to stay planted as the soldiers ran after her.
They took Anthe to a fine house, the kind with small windows and high walls, and bundled her inside. Anthe’s face was set in a mask that was the same as the one she’d worn when Bettany had said she knew who her parents were. Normally, she would have sent Lark to investigate, or Ash if the situation called for someone who could look menacing with a sword or two. Lark and Ash and Sky weren’t here, and Agalar was off finding a body, and it was just Bettany.
She wanted to march up to the door and bang on it, and demand to know where they had taken her – her charge. She wanted to scream at it until somebody came, and say you can’t do this and she doesn’t want to go back, and how dare you.
She walked around the back and knocked on the kitchen door, the one they would use for deliveries and for the servants to move in and out unseen. An Efean woman opened it – older, maybe the same age as Bettany’s mother. But Bettany’s mother moved through the world sure of her place in it, behind the Custodian’s mask or not, and this woman had grey in her hair and fear at the corners of her mouth.
“Honoured Aunt,” Bettany said in Efean. “I have a message. May I come in?”
“Whose household do you come from, Honored Niece?” the woman replied.
“My own,” said Bettany. She had expected Saroese servants, and planned for them. She thought back to the list in her mind of those they had come for, back when this had begun. “If I may ask – is your name Samisi?” It wasn’t a polite question, but she had to know.
“Yes,” said Samisi.
“Then my message is for you.”
Samisi frowned, and hesitated.
“Do you want to go home?” Bettany asked.
She stood aside and let Bettany in.
Not everybody they had originally come for was in the household – only five of them, three Efean and two from a city near Nerash. The other four were still in West Saro. Bettany tasted bitterness in her mouth. You learned that you could not win every battle, but they had promised.
There would be time to go back, maybe.
“We can’t just run,” said one of the Nerashi. They had only been owned for a few weeks, but Bettany knew very well how quickly you could learn to fear people who had power over you. There was a faint tracery of scars on her back that kept it in her memory. “Lord Arkiades has too many men, and they execute servants who run.”
“They’re not going to catch you,” Bettany said. “I can organise you passage.”
“You’re a Shipwright?” Samisi studied her. “But you’re Efean.”
“You don’t have to be born in Shipwright country to be a Shipwright,” said Bettany. “Only two of my crew were. Yes, I am from Efea, and we were told of you and the others who were sold with you, and sent to bring you home.”
“Why?” Samisi did not look convinced.
“Because nobody should own people,” Bettany said. “They don’t, in Efea, not anymore.” She tapped her foot, impatient. “Also. A girl was brought into this house, not an hour ago. Where is she?”
The others were whispering to each other, rising notes of excitement.
“Enough,” said Samisi. “If we don’t get on with our work, they will know something is wrong at once.” She looked to Bettany. “I will show you where they’ve put the girl.”
Anthe was locked in a room upstairs. Bettany changed into a servant’s outfit in the back of the kitchen, careless of the looks she got, and pinned up her braid and followed Samisi upstairs to collect the laundry. It wasn’t hard to tell where they had Anthe. There was a steady series of thuds as, presumably, she threw herself against the door. From the outside, it wasn’t moving.
Bettany looked up and down the corridor, then knelt quickly by the keyhole. “Anthe! Anthe, stop. We’re coming for you.”
There was a noise like a sob. “Don’t get caught on my account.”
“Of course not,” said Bettany. “Save your strength for later. When are they coming back for you?”
“Lord Arkiades said they won’t let me out of here until I change my clothes, so I can be returned to my mother in my proper state,” said Anthe. “And I won’t. But he said they would return this evening, to see if I had come to my senses.” She said the last few words very bitterly.
Bettany went back downstairs with an armful of laundry. Lord Arkiades himself passed her and never turned an eye. It only took a few minutes of quiet arguing to send one of the other Efeans out to meet Agalar at the spot he’d agreed with Bettany – they would go to the market at this time of day anyway – but it took Samisi to make him leave. She told Bettany to make herself helpful in the meantime and clean pots. Bettany let herself sink into the rhythm of it, and prayed that Agalar had had better luck than she and Anthe had.
Agalar and the other Efean man arrived back as the sky was beginning to grow dark, with a very large basket of the sort that laundry was carried in. It did not contain laundry.
Agalar had dirt under his nails and looked like he had had a very long day.
“I will tell you later if I have to,” he said to Bettany. “But we should have fewer plans of this nature, in future.”
“Twice in twenty years is few,” said Bettany. Samisi went to look in the basket.
“Don’t,” Bettany said hastily, but it was too late.”
“All I want to know,” Samisi said, “is what he died of.”
“Stabbing,” said Agalar, “and then an infection of the lungs. But the first wasn’t my doing and the second won’t hurt anybody here, if you are healthy.” He switched to his clumsy but comprehensible Efean. “I am trained as a doctor; you have my word.”
Samisi nodded, even if she did not look pleased.
One of the other indentured servants said that Lord Arkiades and the captain had gone out again, but would return any minute; a fine dinner had been ordered.
“Don’t bother,” said Bettany. “You won’t have a chance to serve it, and we’re taking its chief guest with us.”
She had worried they would have to break the door down, but Samisi knew where all the keys in the house were kept, and gave them to Bettany before she went to organise the other thing Bettany had asked her to do. This house was rented, and Lord Arkiades had little to secure, except Anthe. When they opened the door, Anthe sprang up from where she had been sitting on the bed. Her braid had strands falling out everywhere, as if she had been playing with it.
There was a set of clothes laid out on the bed, for a Saroese lord, with the sea-phoenix on one shoulder. Anthe had been sitting on them.
“You did come,” she said.
“Yes,” Bettany said. “And now I need two things from you. Help me with those clothes, and give me something you always keep on your person.”
Anthe went a little pale when they tipped the body out of the laundry basket. He was young, not much older than Anthe, and Saroese, and his hair was long. Bettany considered braiding it and decided it wouldn’t matter.
The body was at the point where it had lost its stiffness, but didn’t smell, so it wasn’t too difficult to get the clothes on. Anthe set her jaw and helped, but when the moment came to hand something over, she hesitated.
“Come on,” Bettany said. “What about your necklace?”
Anthe looked at the body in the clothes she had refused to wear.
“There’s no time,” said Agalar. “We need to leave.”
“They’re ready,” Samisi said, coming in. She looked at the body, and at Anthe, and nodded as if she understood the plan.
Anthe unclasped the necklace and put it on the body. It was a fine gold chain that descended to a crescent of worked sea-phoenixes, with blue feathers and onyx in the gold, as the Saroese liked to use.
“I am sorry if it’s precious to you,” Bettany said.
“My mother gave it to me,” Anthe said, very quietly. “It was a bribe, I suppose, when she told me about the marriage. She said I could – I could have one pretty thing, but I needed to be…I needed…”
She stood up. Her cheeks were wet.
“We need to go,” Bettany said, echoing Agalar. “Come on.”
Lord Arkiades and the captain had still not returned, so they set the fires in every corner of the house they could, near pools of olive oil soaked into wood and cloth. Stone wouldn’t burn, but everything else would. They set several near and in the room Anthe had been kept in, to be certain.
Everybody stumbled out coughing and spluttering from the gathering smoke.
“The ovens!” Samisi wailed, loud enough for onlookers to hear, and then they all stepped back into the crowd as people came forward. Fire was a real danger in a city, and particularly in crowded Saroese cities. Bettany could already hear the sound of bells; help was coming.
It was time for them to be gone. Bettany looked back as they went, and thought she saw the captain being pulled back from entering the house. Anthe wasn’t looking back, and didn’t see it. Bettany decided that was best.
Bettany took the Nerashi servants to the safe house, where they could be sent on to wherever they wanted to go, and Samisi and one of the other Efeans with her to the port. The third had taken off after the fire; people did that sometimes, disbelieving of help. The people at the safe house knew which ship Bettany should approach, but cautioned her to do it quickly.
The captain of the ship they boarded had heard of Bettany – they’d never met, but he knew someone who knew someone, the usual sort of thing, and anyway there weren’t so very many Efean woman with their hair in Shipwright braids. He was Efean himself, not a surprise on this side of the Rift Sea, a wiry man with close-cropped hair. He looked at Bettany like he wasn’t sure whether she might set his ship on fire. It was very unfair, Bettany thought. That had only happened once, when Pearl had still been chief of the crew, and not on a ship she’d intended to travel anywhere on. And setting the house on fire right now had been a last resort.
“Look,” Bettany said. “Will you give us passage or not?”
“Oh, you can have passage,” he said. “You just have to promise that’s all you’re after.”
“On all my five souls,” Bettany said.
“These two, they’re part of your crew?” he wanted to know.
“Yes,” Bettany said. “We’re meeting the others in Saryenwe.”
He made a noise like he thought there must be more to the story, and of course there was, but it wasn’t any of his business. On the voyage, Bettany overheard him telling the story about the fire to Anthe.
“He’s making that sound a lot more exciting than it was,” she complained to Agalar.
“I was there,” said Agalar. “It was exciting enough.”
They arrived in Saryenwe on a foggy morning, though the sort of fog that was going to burn off. It was already happening; Bettany could see glimpses of the Protector’s and Custodian’s hills, appearing and vanishing like dreams, as they sailed into the Western Harbour. Agalar wasn’t even paying attention. He’d borrowed some text from the captain that touched on a medical matter, and was reading it with the frown that said he was committing it to memory.
Anthe was clutching the railing, straining for any glimpse she could get of the city. Samisi and the other man they’d rescued were holding hands, somewhere between unbelieving and content.
“I thought Efea was supposed to be hot,” she said to Bettany. “It’s warm, that’s all.” Of course she had grown up in the cool mountains of West Saro.
“Give it time,” Bettany said. “It’s barely dawn.”
By the time they’d docked and waited for the cargo to be taken off and set foot on shore, the fog was gone and the sky overhead was burnished blue. Bettany’s treacherous heart turned over in her chest. The sky didn’t look quite the same anywhere else as it did at home.
“I’m taking her to Jes,” she told Agalar. “Are you coming?”
“No,” Agalar said, emphatically. “I’m going to go visit Maraya and tell her about what I learned in Saro, and let you and Jes do all your yelling where Jes can’t blame me for it.”
“Coward,” Bettany said, but she kissed him before he went.
“Where’s he going?” Anthe wanted to know.
“On his own business,” Bettany said. “Come with me.”
They walked up the Custodian’s Hill. Anthe couldn’t stop gawping like she’d never seen any of it before, which was exactly accurate, and got her some dirty looks. There were still plenty of Saroese in Saryenwe even twenty years on, not to mention their children and their children’s children and sailors and merchants and all the usual transients of a port town. But not so many Saroese women, and perhaps none so obviously new to Efea.
“Stop staring,” Bettany said. “You’ll have time to look at it.”
“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” Anthe said. She had one hand with the thumb tucked inside, a gesture of unease Bettany had seen her make before, but her voice was light. “For all I know you’re taking me to be locked away like the old emperors used to do in tombs -” She stopped when she saw Bettany’s face. “I’m joking! I’m joking. This is Efea, not Saro of the Empire.”
“You know nothing about Efea,” Bettany told her. “The Saroese kings did that here. They -” Anthe wasn’t owed that story, and like as not Jes would tell her it anyway. “They did that here, when I was a girl, and there are women in this city who were broken out of tombs during the Restoration.”
Anthe had the sense, or perhaps the grace, to say nothing.
It wasn’t yet the hottest part of the day, and Bettany hoped they might walk into the courtyard of the stable to see Jes there, but instead the first person she saw was her least-favourite brother-in-law. Worse, he was holding an infant of less than a year.
“Bettany!” Kal said, with what sounded like genuine pleasure. He went on in Efean. After all these years he barely had any accent. “We heard you came in this morning.”
That brought Bettany up short. “How?”
“The usual sort of thing. One of our new novice Fives runners has a sister who has a fishing ship, and this city is smaller than it seems.” Kal took in Anthe with some surprise, a frown creasing his forehead. “Is this a new addition to your crew?”
“No,” Bettany said.
“A new potential novice for the stable, then?” Kal’s voice and manner became more assessing, more brisk.
“No, Honored Uncle,” Anthe said in barely comprehensible Efean. She’d asked Bettany to start teaching her, on the voyage. That seemed to exhaust her stock of words, though, and she switched to Saroese, her own high-bred court accent. “If I understand you correctly. You will forgive me – I do not speak very much Efean.”
“I see,” Kal said, still frowning as he looked at her.
“Have you and Jes had another one?” Bettany said in Efean, pointing at the baby. It was clearly of mixed ancestry, with pale brown skin, tight curls, and Saroese eyes.
“No, this one belongs to Hawk,” Kal said. “You remember her? Our last Illustrious – or maybe you don’t, I know you don’t follow the Fives as closely as we do.” He grinned to take the sting out of it. Bettany was annoyed at herself, again, for finding it so easy to like him. “She took last year off to have Chloe, here. She’s plotting her return with Jes as we speak. I’m home on leave, so I offered to watch the baby.” He gestured over to where three small children – Bettany was reasonably certain they were the twins and his and Jes’s youngest – were playing some complicated and loud game. “And the others.”
Anthe clearly didn’t understand their conversation, but looked over curiously at the children, then back at Kal.
“How long are you home for?”
“A month this time,” Kal said, “and then six months on the northern border. It’s been a lot of shorter postings closer to the capital recently, so Jes will probably be glad to see the back of me for a while.”
“She’s never had that much sense,” Bettany told him, and he laughed. “I need to speak with her.”
“Bett!” She heard her sister’s joyous voice from the direction of the stable’s small training court, followed closely by her sister, who swept Bettany up in a hug. “You’re back.”
“I always come back,” Bettany said, hugging her in return. It had been long enough now that she could say that, and it was true.
“Every once in a while,” Jes said, as they let go of each other. “But normally you bring your doctor. Who’s this?”
“This is Anthe,” Bettany said, switching to Saroese for Anthe’s benefit. “Anthe, this is Jessamy, the second-eldest daughter of General Esladas. She runs this Fives stable. Good luck.”
“And Anthe is…”
“The youngest daughter of General Esladas.” Bettany nodded once to herself. “She requested escort to Saryenwe, and now she’s had it. I have business in the port. We’ll speak later, Jessamy.”
She hadn’t really expected to get very far, but had thought it might be further than a hundred yards down the street; Jes sprinted up as if she had never given up competing on the Fives court. “Bettany! Bettany, you can’t just do this!”
Bettany made a frustrated noise. Jes brought out the worst in her, somehow. “I am doing this. I promised to bring her here, and I did, and you can’t make me -”
“She’s our sister! You can’t drop her on my doorstep like an unwanted kitten!”
Bettany stopped walking, and swung to face Jes properly. “She’s your sister, if you want her. I brought her to you because I know how much you loved Father, and – you are my sister, and Maraya and Amaya and little Safa, but she is my father’s daughter and that is all. And not even that, really. He was dead before she was born.”
Twenty years ago, she would have shouted, and Jes might have shouted back. She’d spent too long carrying out tasks that required not being seen to shout on the street. There were people all around them, and not a few curious glances. So she hissed the words at Jes, her voice low. Jes’s jaw set the way it would have twenty years ago, still.
This was why she didn’t come back to Efea more than every couple of years. It always ended with her feeling like she was being clawed back into a shell she’d shed, locked in a box she’d broken out of. It was only the way it sometimes made her mother and sisters smile that kept her coming back at all, and Jes was hardly smiling now.
“Bett,” Jes said, quietly. She tucked her arm into Bettany’s. “If you are right, then she is our father’s daughter, and I’m not going to get into what that makes her to Kal, and you don’t have to love her, but you can’t just leave her with me and walk away.” She tugged Bettany a step back towards the stable. Bettany thought about resisting, and suddenly didn’t have the strength.
“Anyway,” Jes said as they walked. “Where’s your doctor?”
“He went to see Maraya,” Bettany said. “I don’t think he wanted to deal with what was going to happen, when I brought Anthe here.”
“He’s smart.” Jes grimaced, though less than she had the first time Bettany had brought Agalar back here. After the attack in the desert, she’d never wanted to like him, no matter how Bettany had explained the situation. All she’d seen was his arrogance. Jes had never been very good with masks.
“He is,” Bettany agreed. “But I expect you’ll have to tolerate him sooner or later. We’ll be in port for a few days, at least.”
“I know he comes along with you, now,” Jes said. “You don’t have to say it like that.”
They were almost back to the entrance to the stable courtyard. Bettany could see Kal, handing the baby back to a broad-shouldered Efean woman who must be Hawk – she wondered what her real name was – and Anthe, standing next to him, in the loose pose of the soldier she denied being. She only stood like that when she was bracing for trouble.
Bettany saw now what Jes must have, when she’d come away from the training area; Kal and Anthe, next to each other, standing like soldiers. Anthe was shorter, and her hair braided, but the line of their jaws and the shape of their noses –
“Oh,” Bettany said. “Oh.”
“And then,” said Jes, “there’s that.” She shook her head. “What were you thinking, bringing Kal’s niece here?”
“I wasn’t thinking about that,” Bettany said, knowing she sounded as sullen as Jes had a moment ago. “What do I care about Kal?”
Jes sighed. It made her sound like Maraya, or their mother. “I know you don’t. But you might have thought, Bett.” She stopped, without warning, and Bettany almost stumbled. “Does she know -”
Kal had Anthe laughing about something; they were speaking Saroese, Bettany thought, by the ease of the conversation and the shape of their mouths. “No. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Gods forbid,” said Jes. “Never that.” But she sounded relieved.
That evening gave them a chance for to catch up on family gossip while Anthe played with Jes’s boys. This mostly meant Jes talked, and Bettany pretended to listen. Amaya and Denya’s two fosterlings were set to stay in their household. Their father had been a Saroese boy just old enough to choose to stay after the Restoration, and their mother had come from a village a long way from Saryenwe, halfway to Maldine, and her relatives had little interest in her half-breed children, was what Bettany heard even though it wasn’t said. Bettany hoped for the girls’ sake that they liked embroidery. And the theatre. The last time Bettany had been in the city Amaya had had a lead role, and Bettany had gritted her teeth through the noise and the crowd for her sake.
Maraya’s brood were all perfectly well-behaved and of a scholarly mind – “as if she would let them be anything else,” Jes said, rolling her eyes – although apparently her eldest was embroiled in a would-be love affair with one of Inarsis’ nieces, and everybody was trying to discourage it.
“Why?” Bettany asked, not having the faintest idea what could be behind that. She tried to avoid hearing about the details of Efean politics. If she paid attention, sooner or later her mother would make it a reason for her to stay.
“I don’t know,” Jes sighed. “Well, I do. Politics. Custodians and Protectors aren’t kings and queens, but it hasn’t been so very long since we had a king and a queen, and if the Custodian’s grandson was married to the Protector’s niece – and Mother won’t let Maraya be Custodian, I don’t think, no matter how good she might be at it. Ten years ago Maraya didn’t care. Now she still doesn’t want to, exactly, but she cares that she can’t.”
“You can’t tell me you’ve been paying attention to all this,” Bettany said in disbelief. “If it doesn’t affect the Fives, you don’t care.”
Jes gave her a look that suggested she didn’t agree, but said “I talked to Ro about it. He warned us all not to make a big fuss about it – that would convince them both to cling to each other.”
“Yes, because we’ve never seen that happen, in this family.”
“Ro is very fond of his own advice, sometimes,” said Jes.
“Just keep Anthe away from the him,” Bettany warned. “He’ll want to write a play, and that’s the last thing you need.”
“He’s trustworthy,” Jes flared, and Bettany rolled her eyes; the last time she’d seen Ro-emnu had been at a festival, where he’d flirted outrageously with Jes for a good hour, apparently to Jes’s amusement, and tried to do the same with Bettany. Bettany had been saved from having to deal with him – and then deal with her family when they disapproved of how she dealt with him – by Kal, who had guided Ro-emnu away. The last thing Bettany had heard had been the poet flirting equally outrageously with Kal. “I wrote you a play, you know. My best work! I don’t do that for just anybody.”
There hadn’t been anybody else around to hear, but it hadn’t left Bettany with much of an impression of Ro-emnu’s discretion. But that was a pointless argument, where Jes was concerned.
“What will you do with her, then?”
“I don’t know,” Jes said. “We’ll figure out something. I don’t think there’s anywhere she really belongs, right now, from what you’ve told me. And what she isn’t saying.” She shook her head. “I know the Saroese in Old Saro – not ones who used to be Patrons – they have some strange beliefs about your self and your name and your flesh, and that they should all be the same, or that you should pretend they are, if they aren’t.”
“They do,” Bettany agreed, wrinkling her nose. “But there are enough lost Saroese royals in this family already.”
“So why did you bring us another one?” Jes asked, pointedly.
Bettany shrugged, and looked away. “She needed help.”
Somehow Anthe ended up spending a lot of time over the next week at Jessamy’s stable; at first Bettany assumed that Jes had dragooned her into Fives training, which was the only thing that Jessamy thought sensible for anybody athletic enough to move faster than a limp, but Anthe came back with grease on her nose and in her long hair, and told them that she had been helping under the Fives court, and that it was fascinating down there, but that she couldn’t tell them any of it, because it was secret.
“It’s just Jessamy’s stable,” Bettany said. “It’s not a proper court, they’re not competing.”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Anthe said, earnestly. “If you cannot reveal the secrets of a larger court, you should not reveal the secrets of a lesser one.” She eyed both Bettany and Agalar critically. “Not that either of you two care.”
“I don’t,” Agalar said, with perfect indifference. Bettany instructed Anthe that she didn’t want to hear one more word about the Fives from her, because Jes and Kal were bad enough, but most unfortunately Maraya’s oldest had recently conceived a great interest for the sport despite Polodos’ admonishments about focusing on serious matters, and the two of them made several dinners at Maraya’s house very tedious.
“It’s just like old times,” Maraya said to her. “Except that you’re being Father, and scowling every time the Fives are mentioned.”
“I am nothing like Father,” Bettany told her hotly, and then had to ignore Agalar asking Maraya questions about their father when he thought Bettany couldn’t hear him.
It was a trying week.
More trying still was seeing her mother again. When Bettany was young she had thought her placid, meek, too willing to give in. She hadn’t seen the evidence before her eyes, the way her mother had gathered a household and when the ability to protect it was taken from her, sent Bettany in her stead. Then Bettany had run away to be a Shipwright mercenary and her mother had led a rebellion against the Patrons and restored Efea, and she thought both of them understood each other better. But that didn’t make seeing her easy.
“Bettany,” her mother greeted her, in one of the small chambers of the Custodian’s Hall. She didn’t live here; she said it was better for it to be a place she went, and besides it was far too large to manage a household in. “I am glad you’ve come to visit. But what were you thinking?”
“What you taught me!” Bettany said, hearing her voice rise, somehow immediately thrust back to the helpless anger of her childhood. “You know what we do, and I couldn’t leave her where she was, and –“ she saw her mother’s face. “- It hurt you to bring her here, didn’t it. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“No,” her mother said. “I’ve known about her since before she was born. This is not about me, or anything I feel. But even though you brought her to us, I hear that you have not been very kind to her, and I expect better of you than that.”
“I helped save her – not her life, but from a life she couldn’t stay in,” Bettany said. “Isn’t that enough kindness?”
“If it was kindness,” her mother said. “It might have been kinder to leave her in Saro. I’m not sure you realise that.”
“No,” Bettany said with conviction. “It wouldn’t have been. They don’t – maybe I did mean it, when I said it saved her life. It kills people, to hide their name and their self. When I agreed to take her with us I didn’t know how much that was true, but it’s true all the same.”
“It’s not about her, either,” said her mother, walking to the window. It overlooked the harbour.
“The last time you came back to us,” she went on, gentle in the way the waves that came after earthquakes were gentle, sweeping all before them, “you told me that I played at politics and people still starved.”
Bettany felt herself flush, and looked away. That had been a difficult year; she’d had to leave people behind, people she’d meant to save, and afterwards Agalar had insisted that they visit Efea and see her family, as if he’d thought it would reassure her. They’d sailed in on the wings of a storm, too, and she hadn’t come to her mother’s house – her mother’s palace – in the best of moods.
“I’m not saying it’s not better than it was,” she said.
“Nothing we do is perfect,” said her mother. “What matters is that we do it anyway. But if you want to know about politics, here is a fact of politics for you: we cannot let your sister leave, now you have brought her here.”
“She’s not my sister,” Bettany insisted. Uselessly. The wave swept on.
“And yet you brought her,” said her mother, with a twist to her mouth. Bettany had expected – her mother had been so placidly accepting of everything her father had done, all her childhood. What was this, against everything else that had happened to them? And she’d said a few moments ago it didn’t hurt her. “And not just to Efea, but to Jessamy and her husband.” She paused. “Does she know? About Kallos?”
Kalliarkos, Bettany said in the silence of her head, but not aloud, because Prince Kalliarkos was dead.
“I don’t know. I -” She thought about Anthe and Kal standing in the courtyard, the lines of their faces. “I don’t know.”
“She might not, if she’s not told.” Her mother shrugged. “It’s a very unlikely story. But you pulled something of the same trick with her, so I understand, and she’s well-born enough to have seen her own face in a mirror. So – she cannot leave.”
“I wanted,” Bettany said. “I help people. I don’t even like her. I didn’t like her. But she asked for help.” She rolled her eyes. “And Agalar has a very soft heart for strays and runaways. It’s how I met him, after all.”
Her mother shook her head and smiled, and it annoyed Bettany, but there was no point in pursuing it.
“I know.” She put her hand on Bettany’s shoulder. “It will be well. I just wanted to know if you understood what it was you’d brought.” Her eyes narrowed. “And that you can’t just leave her with us and run away, like every other time.”
“I come back,” Bettany said. “I’ve always come back.”
“Eventually,” said her mother. “Yes, you do.”
Perhaps the worst part for Bettany’s sense of justice was the way Anthe took to Kal, all unknowing.
“Captain Kallos has been so kind. He says he knew my mother,” she said. Bettany winced, but Anthe was still talking. “He was a soldier before the Restoration as well, and served in the palace, he says. I suppose he didn’t know her really. She was a princess, and then the Queen, and he would have been very young, the same age I am.”
“I didn’t know him then,” Bettany said, truthfully but cautiously. “I only met him after he joined the spider scouts, after the Patrons left, and started courting Jes. She had friends in his unit.”
“His family went back, but he stayed,” Anthe said. “I didn’t know so many people had. My mother always made it sound as if everybody had been exiled.”
Bettany made a scornful noise. “No. The Patrons – the lords and ladies left, but there were lots of people who had shops, and children, and spouses, and other reasons to stay. They were commoners even if they weren’t Efeans, Commoners, like my mother and us.”
“My mother’s brother was a soldier,” Anthe said, thoughtfully. Bettany’s heart stopped. “I wonder if Captain Kallos ever met him.”
She could hear her heartbeat, and felt like surely Anthe could, as well. “I don’t know.”
Anthe shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. He’s been dead a very long time.” She laughed. “But I’m dead, too, aren’t I.”
“No you’re not,” said Bettany. “Agalar and I put a lot of work into making sure you’re not.”
“Captain Kallos thinks I could join the army here, if I wanted. That might ruin all your work even so.”
“Is that what you want?”
“I thought about it,” Anthe said. “They let women join…he and Doma Jessamy told me about their friend the general, who used to run the Fives. But no. I want to know how to do other things. I’m going to work with the engineers who build the Fives courts – at a different stable.”
It was nothing Bettany would have thought of for Anthe. “And this is…what you want?”
“Yes,” said Anthe. “I got to choose, for the first time, and yes. This is what I want.”
“There’s one more thing you don’t get to choose,” Bettany said. “My mother wants to see you.”
Anthe shied away. “I don’t want to go to the palace.”
“You’re in Efea now, and she is the Custodian. So yes – you’ll go.”
The Custodian didn’t have a court, exactly, the way Jessamy had described the King and Queen’s courts to Bettany. Bettany had never seen them herself. She greeted Anthe in one of the Hall's gardens, not in her formal mask but as herself, as Kiya of Saryenwe. Bettany wondered why the Hall and not her own household, and decided it was a message.
“So you are Esladas’ daughter,” her mother said to Anthe. “And they tell me your name is Anthe.”
“Yes,” Anthe said. “Your daughter Bettany gave it to me, which was kind of her.”
“I didn’t mean to be kind,” Bettany muttered, because it was true and because she didn’t want Anthe to pretend she had meant to be.
“Then we shall be glad you were anyway,” said her mother, with an admonishing glance. Bettany hated how her mother could make her feel like she was ten years old with a glance, even now. She looked back at Anthe. “I told your mother she would most likely have a daughter, when she left this city. I don’t think she believed me.”
“She didn’t want a daughter,” said Anthe, in her Efean, which had improved out of all recognition in the last month even though her accent was still heavy. “She wanted a son, to be a king, and the gods did not see fit to give her one.”
“Then I am sorry for her,” said Bettany’s mother, and meant it, which was the thing about her Bettany had never understood, and had missed most bitterly when she’d left. “You will have to stay here, now you have come. I hope you understand this. You will probably not see her again, or your sisters. As long as she claims a throne, she cannot return to this land.”
“I know,” Anthe said. “I – will miss her. And my sisters.” She touched her neck, where her necklace has been. “But I knew that when I left.”
“Your father made a life here,” said Bettany’s mother, looking at her husband’s youngest daughter. “A good one, for a very long time, and…in the end, as well. I hope you can make a good life for yourself, too.”
“Thank you, Honoured Aunt,” Anthe said politely. “I hope so as well.”
Bettany’s mother smiled, as if she were very pleased by something. Bettany wasn’t quite sure what it was.
Lark and Ash and Sky arrived in Saryenwe three days later, riding in on the remnants of a storm, and with the other four people who had not been taken to East Saro with them.
“Nobody was looking for us,” Lark said. “Thought we might as well finish up what we could of the job. I hear you handled the rest.”
There had been word from Soras the day before that the two Nerashi had arrived at the hospital, but there was other work to do, and a note that if his brother was in Efea again, there was a list of remedies he and Bettany could procure for the hospital, if it wouldn’t be so very inconvenient.
“Soras never said that,” said Bettany. “He doesn’t mind inconveniencing anybody. That’s why he’s a doctor.”
“That’s why you and he get along so well,” said Agalar. “When are we leaving?”
“As soon as we’ve done Soras’ shopping, it seems,” said Bettany.
“It’s like you don’t need us,” Lark said. “You got the job done with just two of you. I might as well retire after all.”
“Yes, we did,” Bettany said. “It was a mess, and we were lucky. Two’s not enough for a crew.”
“What happened to the girl?” Sky asked.
“She’s staying here,” said Bettany.
Lark gave her a strange look. “You brought her home with you?”
“This isn’t my home anymore,” said Bettany. “But she was paying for escort here, and then – she needed the help. That’s what we do.”
“Sometimes I miss when we just did things we were paid for and didn’t worry if it helped anyone,” said Ash.
“No you don’t,” said Bettany. “You’re still here.”
She knew Agalar was going to tell them everything else later, so she let the rest stay silent. She still wasn’t sure what she wanted to call Anthe.
“I wish you’d stay longer,” Jes said, when Bettany came to say goodbye. “It’s never more than a month. You’ll come back and you won’t recognise the boys.”
“I’d recognise your children anywhere,” said Bettany. “It’s all the running and swinging off things.”
“Come back in a year then and meet my youngest,” said Jes, putting her hand on her stomach.
“Jes!” Bettany said. “Again? You have three boys already. You’re worse than Mother.”
“I wasn’t sure until last week,” Jes said. “And we want a girl. Or two.”
“Oh, well,” said Bettany. “In that case.”
“Are you and Agalar ever -”
“No,” Bettany said, with great emphasis. “So stop asking.”
“Fine.” Jes hugged her farewell.
Anthe seemed to be sorry to see them go, which Bettany thought was very strange, but not too sorry, which was good.
“May I hug you?” Anthe said, in Efean, after watching Bettany get hugged by Jes and Maraya and Safa and Denya, because Amaya was minding the stall that morning.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Bettany said, but kissed her on the cheek, as though they had been sisters. In some other life, perhaps.
The next job Lark had word of was in Maldine, or at least there was someone they needed to meet there. Bettany had had to promise her mother a long time ago they wouldn’t commit any crimes in Efea, or at least they wouldn’t be caught, and it was easier not to be caught if they just didn’t come here very often. They set out along the desert road. After all that travel on ships, Bettany found it good to have her feet on the ground again, and on the earth of Efea, no less. The sun shone overhead. Agalar frowned up at it, and adjusted the wide brim of his hat.
“So,” he said to Bettany. “We’re not going back to Saro ever again, I agree. But are you glad we did for that?”
“We didn’t know that was what we were going for,” Bettany said. “But yes. I am.”