She had been to the General Mundy before, of course. Not often; personal ties were one thing, but political gestures needed to be undertaken with greater delicacy, and so Sir Charles and Lady Amelia had come to visit their namesake in the City rather more often than the Damarian royal family had come to the Homelander station and its funny, foreign-looking buildings. Still, they had gone. Once when Meli was three years old, which she did not remember, and once when she was eleven, which she did.
That time, they had pitched the royal zotar outside the palisade, with all the barkash and pituin clustered around it in a proud show of formality and guards posted as a matter of honor rather than mistrust. Meli’s mother and father had spent much of every day inside the station or out riding in polite conversation with the Homelanders posted there, and so the rest of the king and queen’s camp had too. Not by order, but because if their king was going to spend time inside Outlander walls – and bring his children along! – then no one wanted to either let him go into danger without an escort, or to seem to think it was dangerous if the king did not think so. And the queen, of course, was an Outlander herself, though after the defeat of Thurra none would deny that she was of the Hills in a deeper and truer way; so naturally she felt herself on secure ground. But honor demanded that her friends escort her too, to signal her rank, and also just in case they might be needed. And nothing had happened except some slightly awkward dinners that Meli, at eleven, had found interminable.
Harry had enjoyed the experience more than Corlath, by all appearances, but it had been pleasant enough work all around. Her godmother and Sir Charles had glowed with slightly anxious pride as they bustled around their guests. Meli herself, when not bored by dinners, had been fascinated by all the new people and all the little strangenesses. (She had still gone by Aerin then, but already she had begun to feel the weight of awkwardness and expectation that came with such a famous namesake – and fire-red hair, on top of it! – when you were only a gangly eleven, old enough to have begun to lose the blithe and self-centered confidence of childhood but not yet any kind of damalur-sol, if indeed you would ever be. It was only a year later that she had begun to insist on Meli for informal situations.)
But Meli was fifteen years old now, and this was not a brief visit with all her family and nearly all of both her parents’ Riders. She was here to be fostered, the old custom revived for diplomacy’s sake, and she would be living here for a full year. And her parents had just gone away, over the horizon towards the distant dark line of the Horfel Mountains; and that made it all real.
When the idea of this fostering was first proposed to her, tentatively and after much discussion (heated, she suspected) among the adults, she had agreed with enthusiasm. That was a little difficult to remember now, but it was true all the same.
Only a distant smudge of dust on the horizon showed her parents’ camp riding away. All the tents and picket-lines of their entourage rolled up with only hoofprints and scuffs in the desert sand to show that dozens of people had camped there through the spring Fair and the station’s solemn official welcome. She wished for once that Hill horses threw up the great clouds of dust that Homelander horses did with their big feet and iron shoes. It would have given her something to watch for longer.
“Meli-sol,” said Forloy gently, behind her. She turned at once, shoving her feelings down into the internal box of her self-control, and then lifted her eyes to give him a bright smile. But Forloy had known her father most of both their lives, and her mother since she had first come to the Hills as a bundle over Corlath’s saddle, and he had never been fooled by Meli, even when she would have wished him to be. He did not smile back. Instead, he came forward and stretched up (for Meli had her height from both her parents, and Forloy was small and spare) to kiss her on the forehead like a grandfather.
“You will do very well,” he said. “I would not have agreed to come, nor to let you do so, if I didn’t think so. These Outlanders are your people too. Some of them will even be worthy to be so, or nearly.”
For Forloy, this was a long grave speech. Warmed, she smiled at him; and this time it was lopsided and a little wobbly, rather than brave and bright and false.
“Come,” said Forloy, “they’re making ready to show us in officially. Rilly can hold them off as long as you need—“ for Rilly could talk the ear off a dundi—“but I think perhaps it would be better for you to find something else to busy yourself with.”
Meli breathed out a great gusting breath. “Thank you, Forloy. You’re probably right.” And she let him lead the way to the cluster of Homelanders who had been carefully giving them all space since she had said her last, formal goodbyes and watched her family and friends swing up onto their horses, and who had carefully not noticed any emotions their young guest might have been having.
* * *
The commander of the fort and the 4th Cavalry was Colonel Harrison Baker. But the Commissioner was still her godfather Sir Charles, moving more slowly than he had even a few years ago but still hearty and earnest and kind with only a little bluster to cover that. Lady Amelia, small and plump and white-haired and fluttering, was visibly overjoyed by the prospect of having one of Harry’s children, and this namesake of hers of all of them, here to stay with her for a full year.
Greeting Meli at the start of the spring Fair, she had been as pink as the nosegay of pimchie flowers she had presented to her temporary ward, and days later she was pink again as she bustled them through the Residence. Forloy, striding behind without hurry, looked like one of the small blidsi herons that stalked the fringes of the Lake of Dreams; but Rilly caught Meli’s eye and grinned at her. Rilly was nearly as short as Lady Amelia and thus dwarfed by both her companions on this trip, but unlike Lady Amelia she never looked either comic or Homelander-style ladylike because of it. Rilly often looked comic, but generally only on purpose.
(Rilly had earned her sash four years ago, and bore the patch of where that year’s laprun minta had sliced it from her in very nearly the last bout. She was not a Queen’s Rider or a King’s Rider; but her cousin Senay was, and Rilly was widely accounted one of the best of the young warriors who had come of age after Thurra’s defeat and the tentative beginnings of peace with the Outlanders. She had come along on this mission at her queen’s request, although her speech was slow and careful and heavily accented in the Homelander tongue, because she was young and glad for adventure, but responsible enough that she was glad too to be of service. Harry had asked her because she felt Meli should have a second companion who was young and cheerful and female, and because Rilly could be trusted to have common sense and to listen to the others.
Forloy, on the other hand, had come to his king and queen and offered to accompany their daughter before it had been fully established that she would indeed be fostered with the Outlanders. “You, Forloy?” Corlath had said in real surprise. Forloy had bowed, and told them quietly, “It has been twenty-three years since my first reason for learning the Outlander’s tongue died. Pain that was sharp after five years will fade in four times that.” It was the closest he had ever come to offering Harry an apology for never speaking her own language with her when she had first come to the Hills, though she had long ago forgiven him for it. He did not need to say that he had never learned to love the Outlander tongue, for they knew; but if it was enough for him that it no longer pained him to speak it, and that he had learned now to care for more than one who spoke it, then that was enough for others. Too, he had fewer responsibilities than many of his fellow Riders, and could more easily be spared for a year’s mission. Jack Dedham, who in some respects would have been the best of all of them for the task, was officially regarded by Home as missing in action and presumed deceased, and it would have been exceedingly awkward for him to turn up alive and well as a Hill envoy at the General Mundy’s front door. And the third and simplest reason that he loved Aerin Amelia even more than her siblings, and he and all the Riders had been beloved uncles (and a few aunts) to them all; but she had won his heart as an open-hearted toddler, and he wanted to see her safe and happy. Meli knew nothing of this conversation, and knew of his long-dead southern wife but was too young to truly understand; so she was only grateful that he had chosen to come. She was grateful for them both.)
“I am glad you’re here, Melly,” said Lady Amelia for at least the fourth time, reaching over to pat Meli’s hand. “We’ll have such a lovely time.”
She’s nervous too, Meli realized. She wants me to be happy here and she’s afraid I won’t be.
“I’m glad too,” she said stoutly, and squeezed Lady Amelia’s hand. Lady Amelia relaxed a little.
“Well! Let’s show you up to your rooms. We’ve given you your mother’s old rooms, you know. I’m sorry we couldn’t show you before, but the baseboards couldn’t be repainted or the wallpaper put up until the rainy season was over. We’ve tried and it just won’t stick. So when your family came last week everything was covered in dustcloths and paste, since you were staying in your tent for the Fair anyway. They’ve been done over for you, so you’ll have the most modern rooms in the station – not, of course, that anything much is very modern here by Home’s standards, I suppose, but we’re used to that. I daresay it’ll suit you better that way. But it is freshly papered now, and all clean and nice. We’ve a maid reserved just for you and your chaperone,” and she sent a twinkling look at Rilly, whom she had known for some years. “A very efficient young woman, a Darian from Tensir. Sir Charles’ valet will serve you as well, Forloy, if that suits you.”
Forloy returned gravely that it would suit him. Meli applied herself to listening and making friendly responses, rather than letting Lady Amelia’s familiar chatter wash over her while she retreated into her own thoughts, which was what she rather wanted to do.
The room was large and square and open. It had a window seat covered in cushions of rich red and blue and gold. The walls were covered in wallpaper, which Meli had heard of but never before seen. She had pictured something that crinkled and shifted like the canvas walls of a barkash, but this was smooth and glued flat, and covered in patterns of curling vines and open-throated rimsin flowers. There was a bed surrounded by curtains of the same blue fabric that hung at the windows too, and an upright wardrobe painted white, and a thigh-high table with a little vase holding more pimchie. There was a nightstand with pot and ewer and basin. There was a sitting room with several straight-backed chairs.
The embroidery on the cushions and the fabric on curtains and bedspread was familiar Hill work. They had tried to make her feel at home here; that was very clear. And her mother had lived here before Meli was born, before she ever met Corlath or came to know the Hills. The whole room still seemed utterly foreign. It was square and pale and frilled and nothing in it was stone, and there was only one small rug, and none of the furniture at all could be rolled or folded for travel.
(On the visit when Meli was eleven, her mother had been at pains to show her children that although she and they were of the Hills utterly and forever, there was a part of them that was kin to the Homelanders too, and had come from this very station. She had shown them her old rooms at the Residence, now reserved for female guests – these same rooms, then still painted white.
“Show us the wall you walked through, Father!” her little brother Jack had cried. They had all heard the story.
Her father had coughed, his kingly air cracking, and everyone in the room who spoke the Hill tongue had carefully hidden smiles. Harimad-sol had hastily changed the subject.)
Meli rested a hand against the wall. Its wallpapered plaster was a different kind of dry smoothness than the City’s stone walls, or the wood of Innath’s village Tarnisht. Her kelar was quiescent deep inside her. She pushed at it until a lazy golden bubble rose along her spine. She could not have walked through this wall now; but another day, if she had need, and if the kelar was feeling cooperative, she might.
She would be here for a full year. She probed the thought like a sore tooth, exploring the boundaries of its ache: I will not return for a year, except for harvest-week and the laprun trials, and I will be only a visitor then. When I truly return, Tor will be eighteen. He will probably have won his sash. Jack will be eleven, Hari will be nine. I will be here for Summer’s day, and harvest, and the start of the rains, and the shartil. I will have to celebrate every holiday lonely, or as the Outlanders do, or as those who accept the name Darians do. My Windfoot will be stabled in an Outlander box, and I will have to ride her beside Outlanders and hold to their pace and seem to enjoy it. I must seem to enjoy everything it is politic to enjoy, for a whole year.
The ache grew. She was wallowing, and she knew it, though she could not seem to stop herself. She looked out across the desert towards the dark line of the Hills.
Her mother had fallen in love with the desert through these windows, before she ever came to know the Hills. And Forloy and Rilly had come to live in this fort for her sake, and they would be with her every day. It was only a year. And she had wanted to come here, to strengthen ties, to be an adult, to lend her own work to her parents’ and do some good for her Hills. Her brother Tor Mathin would be king someday far in the future, but Aerin Amelia had a name from old Damar and a name from Home, and she would be a diplomat and a bridge-builder and an explorer, for him and for herself.
Like every child of the Hills, she had sipped the Water of Sight on her tenth birthday. Unlike most, she had been quietly expected to have the Gift of Seeing; and, indeed, she had Seen. With her first sip of the Meeldtar she had seen herself much older, in Hill robes on a horse as red as her hair, with stitches on her sash and a sword at her side. Then she had been riding that horse up a long stony slope, a black-haired woman riding to her left, a man in Homelander uniform on a black Hill horse to her right; and she had known that they were her dearest companions, trusted with all her heart, and that the work they were about was of great delicacy and urgency. The wind from the south and east had thrown back their hair and lifted their horses’ manes. Then Meli had been sitting again at the table between her mother and Jack Dedham, with Tor Mathin staring at her with desperate curiosity and everyone else trying not to look as if they were, and the strange vivid taste of the Meeldtar sliding down her throat, and her father’s face calm but his eyes yellow as butter; and she had swallowed and felt very young and very grown up all at once, and tried to tell what she had seen.
This was a step towards that future. It was the first one she had taken for herself.
She turned away from the papered wall, and smiled at Rilly and Forloy. This time, she meant it; and this time, both of them smiled back at her.
“Your will, sol?” said Rilly.
“Let us take this little time to refresh ourselves in quiet,” said Meli, who did not know how much she sounded like her father in that moment. “Our hosts have given it to us, after all. Then let us make ready, and take a walk around this place, and see which of our new neighbors we might meet.”
They bowed to her, flicking their fingers out from their foreheads in token of her rank, though as Riders to her father and her mother they were not required to do so.
* * *
On her first full day at the station, two girls about her age came to tea, on Lady Amelia’s invitation. Lady Amelia introduced them all around: Henriette Thilsi, a lanky brown Darian, whose father was a cavalry sergeant from one of the central provinces and whose mother had been born and bred in Ihistan; Gertrude Lawrence, blond and plump and forthright, daughter of a senior adjucant, who had spent her whole life following her father from posting to posting in Daria; and herself, Aerin Amelia Gulkonoth. Meli valiantly did not wince to hear her father’s fathers’ lineage-name given like a Homelander surname – Sir Charles and Lady Amelia occasionally needed their preconceptions jogged free with some force, and this was one no one had previously realized needed jogging – and shook hands. Lady Amelia, nearly radiating hopeful pleasure around the table, began to pour the tea.
“Aerin,” said Gertrude, thoughtfully. “There’s a Darian heroine named that, isn’t there? A queen of some sort?” Meli’s eyes met Henrietta’s in a moment of perfect and eloquent accord. “Are you named after her?”
“Damarian,” said Meli, in the same moment that Henrietta said, “Yes, there is.” There was a moment of slightly tense silence before Meli inclined her head.
“Both,” she said, more to Henrietta than to Gertrude. “A hero of old Damar, when it was all one land. Yes, I’m named after her. She had red hair, and she’s, um, important to my family.” It seemed too much like bragging to talk about all her family’s connections to Aerin: her mother’s visions, Gonturan, Luthe, Aerin Dragon-killer’s indulgent aunt’s smile in a fire. “So they named me after her when they saw my hair, I guess, and from – optimism. Um. My older brother is named Tor, too.”
“So you’ll be a lady hero,” said Henrietta, unreadable.
Meli startled slightly; for she had never heard damalur-sol said in direct translation like that, as if the Homelander words meant precisely the same thing. But she thought that was how Henrietta meant it. “Well, I’m certainly not yet, and I don’t know if I ever will be.” She smiled at them both, tentatively. “I go by Melly, usually. Aerin Amelia is... a great deal of name.”
Henrietta smiled back, suddenly. Meli felt as if she had won a small victory; for that sharp guarded face had been much more closed off a few moments ago. “I should think so. Henrietta is much simpler.”
“And Gertrude is the simplest of all,” said Gertrude, who had been listening to this with great attention; and if she did not entirely understand, at least she knew that she did not. “Melly, Henrietta and I go for a ride most mornings, before the day gets too hot. Would you like to join us tomorrow, if you’re free?”
“Very much,” said Meli, gratefully.
Riding out with Gertrude and Henriette was very little like going riding at home. Their Homelander horses had good brave hearts and sweet dispositions, but they were plodding creatures wrapped in far too much leather and jangling bits of metal. Windfoot was too well-mannered to outrun them – and, to give the horses their due, Gertrude’s Ruffian had a good strong gallop – but she pranced and curvetted at the start and end of every ride until Meli sat deep in the saddle and told her to stop it. Meli began to consider whether she ought to reschedule her sword lessons with Forloy and Rilly early in the morning, in order to tire them both out enough for sociability. But Gertrude was sweet and surprisingly perceptive, and Henriette had a grave intelligence and a way of slipping sly jokes into a conversation. Meli found herself looking forward to the rides; and she began to think of them both, tentatively, as friends.
* * *
There was, of course, a dance to welcome her. It was her fifth day at the station, after she had had a little time to settle in.
Meli’s mother had told her that the General Mundy’s Homelander society revolved around dances and balls and dinners and socials. “It’s changed a good deal since then,” she had said, “but I don’t expect that part has. The dinners and socials are fine if the company’s interesting. You’ll find the dances quite boring, very likely – it’s not much like Hill dancing – but it’s useful to be good at it.”
“More useful yet if you can learn to enjoy yourself, even if Harry here never learned the knack,” put in Jack Dedham. “Nor the knack of looking as if she were, which is just as good for diplomatic purposes but not much better for you.”
So Meli had learned Homelander dancing from her mother and Jack Dedham and her uncle (who liked dancing the best of the three), occasionally supplemented by a few of the other Outlanders who had come to the Hills during Thurra’s invasion. (“Though,” said Harry, “heaven only knows how much styles have changed in eighteen years. At least Istan is something of a backwater.”) It was interesting enough, for a brief time, but she found it difficult to imagine the appeal of carrying on for an entire evening, and then doing that again and again. Uncle Richard assured her that it was more fun with the right sort of music and an entire room full of fellow dancers, which seemed to her reasonable assertions, but her mother and Jack tried hard to look as if they agreed with him and did not entirely succeed. And so, when it came to her first Homelander dance, Meli was torn between anticipation and dread.
She wore the best of the Homelander gowns she had, all of them purchased by her parents but made just this year in Istan under Lady Amelia’s direction. It involved many more layers, and stiffer ones, than Hill clothing, and she thought resentfully (as she always did when donning it) of how tiresome it would be to mount a horse in all of this fabric. But she also always shrugged off the thought soon after; for customs were customs, and there was something to be said for the way one could make a stately entrance in so many rustling layers of petticoat. At fifteen, Meli appreciated anything that could help her feel grand and important in her own right, particularly here among so many strangers.
The gown was of a creamy pale gold, trimmed with darker gold, and it made her look youthful and proper and set off her flaming hair beautifully. She had no interest in attracting male attention at this ball, but she was a king’s daughter enough to appreciate a striking effect and the precise calculations that went into making one. She spared a warm thought for Lady Amelia, who had been the one responsible for those calculations.
The room glittered with lanterns, supplementing the syrupy light of the setting sun. The ceiling was high and the walls were square and it was all extremely Homelander, but unlike much of the General Mundy it managed to be glamorous in its very foreignness, at least for tonight. The station’s regular dance musicians, a chamber quintet drawn from the 4th Cavalry’s military band, sat ready in the corner. When Meli entered, chin high, flanked by Forloy and Rilly in all their Hill finery (for they had no reason to forgo it for Homelander garments, and had not volunteered to do so) all the soldiers stood to attention. Sir Charles bowed over her hand, as he had when welcoming her, though this time he called her Melly rather than Aerin Amelia; and Meli curtseyed to him Homelander-style (and Sir Charles was warmed to see she’d been practicing it), and Forloy and Rilly bowed and touched their foreheads, though without the last outward flick of the fingers that denotes respect for higher rank. Colonel Baker made a short speech of welcome.
She danced first with Sir Charles, who was ponderous but practiced, and with Colonel Baker, who was much less awkward on the dance floor than he had been in diplomatic small talk with sorcerer-royalty. After that came a succession of soldiers, some more dashing than others, some only a few years older than her and some with daughters older than her, all exerting themselves to be welcoming and friendly and all scrupulously correct. Forloy stood back against the wall, looking very severe in the way that meant he was uncomfortable. It occurred to Meli that she had no idea whether he had ever learned Outlander dancing. Rilly certainly had not, but she was enjoying herself in making officers attempt to teach her now.
Gertrude had beamed at her a few times over soldiers’ shoulders as they spun past each other on the dance floor. She had been eagerly anticipating this dance for all the handful of days they had known each other. “Aren’t there dances all the time?” Meli had asked. “Yes,” Gertrude had answered, “but they’re always fun, and it’s best of all when it’s for a real occasion. A dance because it’s the rainy season and we’re bored and we might as well is very different from a dance to welcome a Hill princess.” And indeed, she was sparkling with a deeper cheer than Meli had ever seen; and she danced very well, too. Henrietta was stiffer about all of it, but Meli had spotted her small crooked smile at moments when she was dancing.
She found she was enjoying herself much more than she had expected. Her uncle Richard had been right after all. (“Dickie often is, drat him,” said her mother’s voice in her head, all affectionate exasperation; and amid all the glittering whirl, the memory did not even make her homesick.)
“Well!” said Private James Davidson, her current partner. “I didn’t realize that Damarian Hillfolk waltzed. But clearly they must, for you dance marvelously."
He was a freshly scrubbed young man from Home, assigned to the General Mundy only four months back. Jack Dedham would have filed him within half a conversation as one of those who would loudly count the weeks until he was free of ‘this sand pit’ and stationed somewhere greener and more populous; but Meli was not so experienced, and thought only that he had a nice smile and a friendly manner. Furthermore, he was not awkward about dancing with a young woman half a head taller than he.
“As a rule, we don’t,” she answered, with her crooked wry smile. “But my mother came from your Home, and she wished me to learn for precisely events such as this. So she made sure I knew at least enough that I might not step on anyone’s toes.”
James Davidson laughed. Meli grinned down at him. She added, “It’s much more fun like this – in a ballroom, I mean, with the right music. I learned with my mother humming—” and, she did not say, her mother’s humming was not always entirely in tune—“or musicians who did not know quite what a waltz was supposed to sound like.”
“You’ll introduce it to them, I’m sure,” he said cheerfully. “With a few musicians from Home, you could have the whole Hillfolk court waltzing in no time.”
He had meant it as a joke, no doubt; for who could imagine a troupe of Homelander musicians invited where no Outlander but Sir Charles and Lady Amelia had ever been, and for the purpose of teaching one dance step that meant a good deal less than their own? It was not a good joke, but for friendliness’ sake she dug up a small forced laugh. “Unlikely.”
“No, I have faith in you! You seem a very resourceful young woman. This is bold of me, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I overstep, your highness, but I admire you a great deal for coming here. Bringing civilization from Home to the Hills – our guns haven’t managed it, but a woman’s delicate touch from your unique position just might.”
Meli realized then that he had meant all of this seriously. He thought she had come here as a kind of spy; worse than that, a spy for the Outlanders themselves. She realized that she had dropped her gaze to the floor, and then furthermore that she had done that because she was angry. And she was; a deep outrage had flared up all at once inside of her. The heat of it pounded in her temples and burned high on her cheeks. She knew her eyes had gone golden with the strength of it. She must take care not to look too long at James Davidson, or anyone else, while her emotions were running so high.
He was still talking. She had hardly noticed. “I’m sorry. You needn’t feel self-conscious. I only wished to say that I think you’re very brave, and wise too. I could certainly talk about the weather and the food at dinner if you’d prefer it.”
Conscious that she was probably doing a very foolish thing, but too angry to care, Meli lifted her gaze to meet his. James stumbled slightly, with a look of sudden great strain, and shut his mouth midsentence. She lowered her eyes again after a moment, for she did not truly want to harm him. But she wanted him to feel her anger, not as one young lady’s wrath – which he would find laughable, no doubt, one little foreigner scowling away – but with the weight of the hot golden sun and the ancient Hills. The weight of the kelar of the Hills.
“No,” she said to the floor, while their steps carried on, one two three, one two three. Her pulse banged in her ears to the same rhythm. She was leading now, subtly, and he struggling to stay smoothly with her, though their hands had not moved. “You’re quite wrong. Damar will be free for my children and my children’s children, and we will be of the Hills in our souls always, neither of your Homeland nor your Daria. I have come to be a bridge between our peoples, but I will never be used to make us over into your image.”
He was breathing hard; she dared not look up at him again, but she knew he must have a terrible headache at the least, and one that would linger for some time. His voice was hoarse when at last he said, “I see I’ve offended you; I apologize.”
Do you? she thought. Do you even know why I’m offended? But she said nothing.
The waltz went on, an interminable minute or so of twirling, and neither of them spoke further. All the fun and sparkle had gone from the evening; and, as her anger drained away, so did the fierce satisfaction she had felt in it, and she was only ashamed. She had injured him, and he had certainly deserved it, but what good had it done for either of them? Likely he would soon be convincing himself that he had imagined the oppressive weight, if he was not already doing so; and so she had given in to her temper like a child, as those strongly Gifted must not do, and had not even taught him a thing. When the musicians scraped to a final chord, she curtseyed, and fled the floor.
She expected, glumly, that Sir Charles would stop her and try to cheer her up, or Forloy or Rilly who would know exactly what they had seen, if not why it had occurred, and then she would have to explain matters. But the hand that extended itself in front of her, palm up in invitation, belonged – she saw in some shock – to Colonel Baker.
She had no more desire to dance; but she would not compound the night’s disaster by refusing. (It did not occur to her to plead a headache of her own.) Numbly, she set her hand in his, and let him draw her back towards the center of the floor.
The band gave them an introductory few notes. He bowed and she curtseyed, and he said to her under the sprightly waltz, “I apologize for that young idiot.” Her eyes jerked up in shock, and she was further shocked to see the rueful, merry twinkle in his eye.
She had not known that he could be merry, or understanding. All she had seen of him so far had been stiff and proper and faintly uncomfortable.
“He...” she began, and then found she had no idea what she could say in both truth and diplomacy.
Colonel Baker snorted. “He’s fresh from Home and thinks a great deal of his own knowledge of the world, is what he is. Time will tell if we’ll polish him into someone with more sense. He deserves some set-downs. Whatever it was you gave him, I’ve no doubt he earned.”
“No,” she said, to the floor. Then she swallowed, and lifted her chin, and looked him in the eye. “Well – yes. But I should not have done it, all the same. I apologize, Colonel.”
“Mm.” They danced on for a few measures, while he deftly navigated them through a cluster of other couples. “What did he say?”
She wondered if this was a test; and if it was, what would be the correct answer, and if she cared. “He feels,” she said carefully, without quite managing to keep her irritation from her tone, “that I am very brave to – to choose this method of bringing Homelander civilization to the Hills.”
Colonel Baker snorted again, this time with almost horselike indelicacy. Meli relaxed a little. Perhaps, she thought, her own answer had been a kind of test too. She had not realized until he’d passed it. “Young idiot is too good for him. No, I’m afraid that’s our fine Home schooling at work, but you can tell he’s never met a Damarian before, can’t you? Don’t fret, your highness. All of us oldsters know perfectly well you’re doing nothing of the sort. You’re brave to come, but you know that, and it’s not for the reasons young Davidson thinks.”
She wondered what he thought he knew about what she was doing. He had spent most of his life on this continent, she knew, but he was new to the north-east and the Free Hillfolk; and he was still an Outlander. Sir Charles thought well of him, but Sir Charles was more kind than perceptive at times, and would always see things in the shapes of Home. And Meli did not know Colonel Baker well enough to have much idea about what shapes he thought in.
Colonel Baker was not a young idiot of a fresh-scrubbed private, however, but one of the foundations of this bridge she had come to begin building. And he had come to apologize for his man, and he had not been offensive; and she had no intention of shaming herself with any further loss of control. “Thank you, Colonel,” she said, and let him twirl her under his arm.
* * *
In the Hills, the first truly hot day of summer was always a festival day. Summer might not come for weeks yet, but this was its first harbinger, and always celebrated whenever it chose to arrive.
Her parents would come to visit for other, more predictable holidays, or she would go to them. (Not for anything short of another invasion would Meli miss the laprun trials.) But not even a weather-sensing Gift, which very few people had in any case, was likely to predict the day of the Summer Festival. It varied from one pocket of the Hills to the next, at times. Each village or group of travelers would decide for themselves when to celebrate it, though rarely with much need for discussion. But here, this year, two weeks after Meli’s arrival at Istan, the day had dawned hot and hazy, and there was no shadow of dew on the General Mundy’s walls by sunrise, and it was unambiguously the day of the Summer Festival.
Meli was the Damarian of highest rank at the station, including all those who would have called themselves Darians instead. That carried an obligation of hospitality. She was young, but not so young as to make that untrue; and if she had been, Forloy and Rilly would have had obligations on her behalf, and on their own, as King’s Rider and village headman’s niece. And so she spoke to the Greenoughs and to Colonel Baker, and Rilly spoke for her to the cooks and Forloy to the household. Meli had no zotar, she had no household staff, and she hosted her Summer feast in an open Homelander courtyard with Ihistani lanterns and second-rate carpets spread over a bed of hastily flattened canvas tents that inside her head she considered dalguti; but she did host it.
Forloy sat at her left hand, and Rilly beside him. She wore Damarian robes, not the ones she practiced swordwork in but nearly the finest she’d brought; for this was not a Homelander holiday. It had made her feel funny and homesick to put them on. At her right hand sat Sir Charles and Lady Amelia, and Colonel Baker after them, working hard to look as if he felt entirely at ease and knew precisely what was expected of him. She began the meal feeling shivery and fluttery and annoyed at herself for both. It didn’t help that there was too long a silence at the beginning, and then Forloy coughed slightly and leaned towards her. She remembered that she ought to begin things and stood up too fast, and flushed a dull red.
“A sweet summer to you all,” she said in the Hill tongue, taking refuge in formal custom, and speaking with slow clarity so the Darians might all understand her through the slightly differences in dialect. She repeated herself in Homelander. “Be welcome at my table, and eat of my—of this food, and may we eat again of a good harvest.” She smiled at the sea of faces, and made her own addition, with a wry awareness of how hastily and unconventionally this had been pulled together. “And thank you to everyone who helped to make this feast.”
She had been trained to this, and so her voice carried to the corners of the courtyard, and everyone understood her; and she could relax a little, hearing herself, and seeing the expected attentive listening in reply. What she did not know was how young she looked, and how self-contained and regal. Lady Amelia and Sir Charles beamed with pride. Forloy and Rilly did not, but each of them thought with approval of how much her parents’ daughter she was, and that she was acquitting herself very well. Several of the soldiers thought to themselves that if she was a heathen and half-foreign, young Melly was indeed a proper princess, and said as much to each other later. And the Darians looked at Aerin Amelia, daughter of the Gulkonoth lineage with her fire-red hair and her wry, whimsical smile, and thought a great many things, and most of them approving. As for Meli herself, she sat down rather more gracefully than she had stood, and reached for the cheese, and turned to Sir Charles to thank him again for his help. (Her father would not have done that, but he was not fifteen, and so he would also have understood why she did.) Meli began to feel that this might, after all, go well.
It was a strange sort of hybrid feast, with Homelander-style table and chairs and food made for Damarian palates side by side with the Homelanders’ heavy bland dishes; and the Darians sat together, casting sidelong looks at the Homeland soldiers and different sidelong looks at her, and the Homelanders sat together and mostly looked awkward. But the Greenoughs’ cook and her staff were from Ihistan, even if they weren’t of the Hills, and so a great deal of the food was familiar to everyone there, and all of it was very good.
At every Summer feast Meli had been to, the meal would have ended with most of the people leaving after the sweets and the wine, to celebrate in their own homes (more quietly or more rowdily, depending on their personal inclinations.) At the royal table only the Riders and family would remain, and then the Water of Sight would be passed around. They had brought a small skin of it to the General Mundy. But when Meli cast an uncertain glance at Rilly and Forloy, Forloy shook his head infinitesimally; and Rilly, who didn’t seem to understand the question at first, did the same when comprehension dawned.
In the end, she had to lean over to murmur, “How should I end this?”
Forloy shrugged slightly, which was no help whatsoever. But Rilly, who was used to her own household rather than the palace, answered her, “Just take your leave when you wish, sol. Those who live here will close out their own party as they’re accustomed to.”
So Meli waited as long as she thought she ought, and then slightly longer in case she’d been wrong. She ate more than she truly wanted, to keep her hands busy while she waited, and to stop herself from fidgeting. At last she stood – to the hasty carpet-muffled scraping of a fort’s worth of soldiers pushing back their chairs to stand when a woman did – and bid them all good night and sweet summer. She left flanked by Forloy and Rilly, without looking back, lest she make herself or anyone else self-conscious. She had felt very grown-up, all this evening, and she was afraid that if she let her dignity slip she would spoil that.
* * *
Dignity carried her out of the courtyard and through the Residence doors to the base of the stairway, all white paint and wooden banisters and perhaps the most Homelander thing in all this extremely Homelander place. (Meli rather liked it: it was useful, and graceful in its way, not to mention perfectly designed for absurd Homelander skirts to sweep dramatically down.) There she paused, faltering into uncertainty now that no one else was around to see her, and looked at Forloy and Rilly. “What do you...”
Rilly flung an arm around her shoulders, for Rilly was irrepressible. “You did very well. We all did – the people here too. A fine Summer fest, my sol. We may as well finish it properly.” But there was a hint of a question in her last words, and she glanced at Forloy.
He inclined his head gravely. “We will come with you, Meli-sol, if you would have us do so.”
“Yes,” she said, relieved. “Yes, please – that is, I would, and be welcome.”
And so for the first time, Meli spent the end of a Summer feast neither with her nurses nor at her parents’ table surrounded by their Riders, but seated on the carpets of a Homelander sitting room in the General Mundy. But Forloy was a King’s Rider, and Rilly the cousin of a Queen’s Rider, and there was love and trust between them; and Forloy brought from his rooms the brass-bound bag half-full of the Water of Sight.
“It was a fine feast,” Rilly said again, when they were seated, and stretched luxuriantly. “I must go tell the cooks so tomorrow, in great detail, for I never met a cook who did not appreciate the appreciation of food. Meli-sol, tell me which dishes you liked best, and I’ll tell them that too. Then they will have pleased a princess—“ she used the Homelander word, with amused irony— “and that will please them; and they can remember it to serve you better later, and that will please me.”
“I will,” said Meli. “Unless you think I should go? I can thank them myself, if they would appreciate the gesture, rather than finding me a nuisance.”
“You have not been a nuisance for at least two years,” said Forloy. Meli made a face at him, for a moment all teenager instead of a sol on her dignity, and he was glad to see it.
Rilly said, “If they were Hillfolk, they would. Most of them are from Ihistan, which may be close enough.”
“For a dinner, it would be too much from one of your rank, and they not of your own household. They would not be offended, but they would look at you askance. But for such a feast, they will appreciate it,” said Forloy, who knew more than Rilly of Outlanders and Darians, though he spoke of it little.
“I will, then,” said Meli. There came a knock on the door. They all traded blank looks, and Rilly rose to answer it.
It was Henrietta Thilsi.
“I thought you might be here,” she said with satisfaction.
“Did you?” Meli answered blankly, and then caught her manners back and rose hastily. “But you were right, and you’ve found me. Come in, Henrietta.”
Henrietta did, but she began to look a little more awkward once she had. “I don’t mean to intrude on your privacy,” she said more formally. “Or your evening. I admit that I have a request, but it’s rather presumptuous, and I’ll certainly understand if you say no. But I also wanted to wish you a sweet summer, and to do that first of all.” Always before they had spoken Homelander together, but for this, she had used Darian. The tongue of Istan and nearby regions and the tongue of the Hills could be mutually understood, so long as everyone spoke carefully and no one had too unusual an accent; and Henrietta did speak carefully and slowly, and her accent was purely local.
“Sweet summer,” said Meli, just as carefully, and Rilly and Forloy echoed her with more reserve. They had both met Henrietta before, but only briefly, and they knew her mostly through Meli and Lady Amelia. “I’m glad to see you to say it properly, since I was too busy before to greet my friends as they deserve. Of course I’ll hear your request. What is it?”
Henrietta fidgeted, for the first time Meli had seen, and then clasped her hands tight to stop herself from doing so. “It’s not really for myself,” she said hesitantly. “It’s only that I thought you might have brought the Water of Sight, being – being who you are, and I see you have. That’s why I came now, in case I was wrong. As I say, it’s not for me. You see, I’m one of those who only gets a headache anyway. But the dilbadi who usually sell it to us at the spring Fair didn’t come this year, I don’t know why. The headman might, perhaps. But we have very little left, I think, and I know plenty of people do keep to the old ways in this. Though perhaps it isn’t the same as your way. Here those who have a bit of a Gift drink from it at the three great holidays, Summer and Harvest and Rains, for luck and in case we get a hint about the season. It would be a pity if they didn’t have any. So I thought... Your pardon, sol, if I overstep. I’m not asking really. I only wanted to say that if you were willing to give or to trade some to the headman, I think it would be well received.” She had begun to speak faster as she went, as if this request were a stone rolling down a hillside, and she had only the initial push to get out of the way; and so all three Damarians had to listen hard to understand everything.
There was a moment when they were waiting to be sure that they had indeed understood and that she had finished, and Henrietta lifted her chin and tried to look both confident and humble and did not quite succeed at either; and then they traded a long silent look, and Henrietta flushed. “A moment, sol,” said Forloy, with a small bow that was more formal than he usually gave her, and turned towards the door.
“Yes,” said Meli to Henrietta, after he had gone. “Thank you for the – the thought. We did not plan for that, but I think we can manage something, all the same.”
She thought to wonder, for the first time, if the local Darians’ celebration would have been very different if she had not been here. Those three holidays were not the only great ones in the Hills, and certainly not the only time when the Water of Sight might be drunk; but then, the Hills had a good deal more kelar, even now, than anywhere outside of them. It was the reason they had stayed free for so long. What else might be different here? By Hill standards, she had done the only right thing in hosting a feast, however unusual that feast might have been. It was the duty of the highest-ranked person in a group to host a festival, and no one but another member of the royal family would outrank a king’s daughter in such matters. But that was by Hill standards; and she had only thought in Hill standards, all day, until now when it was all done.
“I hope,” she said, feeling all at once rather awkward in her turn, “that everyone enjoyed it. I don’t know if it’s like you would have done – like what would have been done without me, I mean, by whoever would normally have organized it – or if it was quite different. Is there someone I ought to have asked to be more of a part of it?”
Henrietta laughed very softly. Meli had heard her laugh before, at jokes made while they rode, but not this quiet wry sound. “Not so different,” she said, “but not exactly like, either. Normally it’s a good deal smaller, and just in our homes. The largest homes, mostly; they host cousins and second cousins and newcomers and stray folk until they run out of room. This was a good deal grander than any Summer feast I’ve seen. I suppose it must come of being a princess.”
Meli flushed a little. “In the Hills, it’s usually in more like that too. The headman or someone of high rank hosts the largest one, but it’s still – um, indoors. In tents or buildings. But I wanted everyone to feel welcome. And I couldn’t exactly host a dinner in my sitting room.” She could hear her voice getting more tentative. Oh dear, she thought. Did I overawe people, or keep them from the celebration they really wanted to be having? I didn’t think so.
Henrietta gazed at her for a moment, and then reached over to pat her hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ve given us something to talk about for years, now. The time Aerin-sol hosted a dinner party for all of Istan.”
Meli tried very hard not to make a face, and almost succeeded. Rilly snorted. Henrietta laughed again, and this time it was the familiar one from their rides with Gertrude. “Too bad,” she said. “If you didn’t want that, Melly, you shouldn’t have done something that makes such a good story.
“It’s a family difficulty,” said Forloy, drily, from the corner; for he had slipped back into the room some moments ago, and had been listening in silence. (And, silently, deciding that he tentatively approved of this new friend of Meli-sol’s.) He had brought with him a small flask of ornately worked brass. He unstoppered it now, and poured deftly from the bag into the flask’s narrow mouth: a thin stream of the Meeldtar, clear and precious. Henrietta’s brows flew upward, at the generosity or at the casual skill; but Forloy only continued until the flask was nearly full and then tipped the bag adeptly upright again and stoppered both, with not a drop spilled. The scent of it hung now on the air, faint and heady.
He held the flask out to Henrietta. Her self-possession had been shaken; she glanced quickly at Meli and at Forloy before she stretched out an uncertain hand to take it from him. “Take it,” he said. “The headman of Ihistan is still Rashpan, is it not? The Meeldtar is a gift from Aerin-sol, daughter of Corlath-sola and of Harimad-sol who was once Harry Crewe. The flask is for him as well, from a man who was once the husband of a young woman named Nissa; for she spoke of him fondly for his kindness.”
Henrietta took it with great care; as well she might, for it was a precious gift. The headman of a town as large as Istan might receive such now and again, but not so commonly that he would be casual in accepting it, and Henrietta was only a sergeant’s daughter. “Thank you,” she said, a little shaken, and sounding young because of it. “You’re right, of course, it’s Rashpan. I’ll tell him, sola. And thank you – thank you both.”
She dipped a small curtsey. Meli had regained her own equilibrium by now, and reached out to touch Henrietta’s arm lightly. “You’re very welcome. All Istan is; for you’ve welcomed us in very kindly, and we’re grateful.” She smiled her wry crooked smile, and added, “I hope that if I do anything that would make the stories of me be less than kind, you’ll tell me so, as a friend; but I’ll do my best to avoid the need.”
“You’re doing well enough so far,” Henrietta answered lightly. “Sweet summer, Melly. Sweet summer to you all.” And she slipped out the door and was gone.
They looked around at each other for a long moment, and each saw a wry and amused acceptance in the others, expressed in their own ways. The rhythm of the evening had been disrupted, and an already unusual Summer Festival had become even less usual; and yet, each of them thought, it had not been bad, and might perhaps bear good fruit. Rilly saw that most clearly of all, for Forloy had his own memories, and Meli was thinking above all that she was glad she had not offended a friend or spoiled anyone’s holiday.
“Well, sol,” said Rilly, “the day has been long, and I’m for bed soon. But before it’s quite over, shall we do our own Seeing?”
“Yes,” said Meli. And she sank cross-legged to the carpet again, and Rilly and Forloy did likewise; and it was Forloy who was on her left and holding the Meeldtar bag both, and so he raised it to his lips first for the smallest of sips.
He shuddered once, and then sat still as stone, his jaw clenched tight. When at last he opened his eyes, all he would say was, "I saw the past." He handed the brass-bound bag to Rilly.
Rilly's kelar was not very strong even by the standards of this latter day, when very few had even a little of the strength of old Damar. From what she had said, Meli had gathered that she was one of those whom the Water gave nothing but an indistinct flicker of an image, more often than not. She sipped, and sat motionless for a long moment with her head cocked to one side like a bird's; and then she smiled in the soft and private way one smiles at a favorite memory. "I saw my cousin Senay," she said, "on her horse, and she was laughing."
Meli took the bag. Her mother sometimes Saw things in the polished brass chasing, but she never had; still, she always looked, in case her Gift decided to be overzealous. When it remained simple lamplit brass, she drank. The taste of the Water of Sight was, as always, rich and vivid and utterly indescribable, and the moment it touched her tongue the world shifted.
She saw a young girl with yellow hair in two braids down her back, in Homelander skirts. The girl was perhaps eight or nine, and she was running through a forest of strange plants. Everything was green and brown and moistly growing, and none of the leaves looked quite like anything Meli knew. “A dragon!” the girl cried gleefully, “Let’s hunt a dragon this time!”
She blinked, and found herself back in her own sitting room in the Residence, and Forloy and Rilly were watching her. She swallowed. "I think I saw the past. But I don’t know if it was Home or Damar. A young girl, blonde, in a forest of plants I did not know. She spoke of hunting dragons, but I think it must have been a game. She was no older than Hari, and she seemed joyful."
And so their Summer was begun: with remembrance of the past and of things joyful, some of it at once. It was always perilous to try to read too much into the visions the Water gave, for they might be only one’s own memories or mysteries forever unanswered; but still, there was a comfort in no visions of war or disaster or ill omen. None of them spoke much after Meli had finished, for there was no need to do so. Downstairs the tall clock began to strike ten. Rilly grimaced at the sound, and she and Forloy rose to leave. Meli realized, all at once, that she was very tired.
* * *
All the same, she woke near midnight from muddled dreams. She had a hazy impression that she had been speaking to a red-haired woman who might have been Aerin, except that perhaps it couldn’t have been. The woman, she thought, had spent the whole time smearing something greasy onto splinters of wood and setting them on fire and then swearing about it, and had explained to her that as she had no Gift she was trying this instead. Everyone knew that Aerin Dragon-killer had a strength of kelar none had matched in five hundred years, and that her Gift had carried her unharmed through dragonfire. So perhaps it had only been an ordinary dream; but without knowing quite why, she was certain that it had been kelar-sent.
And now she wanted a fire.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said to the silent dark room. “It’s summer. I’m not going to light a fire.”
Her kelar threw a sudden image of Private Davidson’s smugly patronizing face in front of her eyelids. His mouth was half-open in some sage utterance, and she caught her breath in a sudden surge of anger. Having got her attention, the kelar shoved at her instead the image of a campfire crackling merrily orange.
“You’re like a half-trained puppy,” she muttered, shoving back the layers of bedclothes. “Why?”
But if you could figure out what the kelar wanted – and this seemed to be at least fairly straightforward, if inexplicable – it was always best to go along with it. It would have its way sooner or later in any case, and this way you could save everyone a good deal of trouble – especially yourself. So her father had always told her.
There was no fire laid, of course. But every room had a scuttle with a few lumps of coal at the bottom, in case of some unseasonable need, and the moonlight through the windows was more than enough to navigate a familiar room by. (Occasionally kelar let you see in the dark, but it didn’t seem to be feeling that cooperative today.) Meli fished the coal out with a bare hand and dumped it in a small heap on the bare hearth. Rather than bothering with matches and tinder in the dark, she settled herself down cross-legged and gave a hot yellow glare to the coal, fueled by all her irritation at kelar’s games and mysteries. That was a perpetually ready source of annoyance, and the coal burst obligingly into flame.
“Oh dear,” said Meli, looking at her coal-stained hands in this new light, and went to get a handkerchief before she got black smears all over her dressing gown.
When she had got them more or less clean again she went back to the fire. Its first blaze had settled down into a low, steady crackle. Meli had not laid the fire with any particular care, but she had been profligate with the coal. She twisted her mouth in impatience – the trouble with using annoyance as fuel was that then it took some effort to tuck it tidily back away again – before she was distracted by a strange color. The fire was glinting with strands of straw-pale flame, and other flames so dark they were nearly brown, and maroon, and gold...
The flames wavered and leaped impossibly high, taller than the fireplace itself; and there in front of her were her father and mother, as she had seen them so many times; and she knew, without asking how, that this was happening now. Tears pricked at her eyes.
They were in the royal tent, not the City. So they were traveling; but it was beyond strange to not know where they were or where they were going. Her father sat half-reclining among cushions, one knee drawn up, a small line between his black brows. His robes were creamy pale, the outer robe and sash discarded for this midnight privacy. Her mother was wrapped in her favorite maroon robe, her straw-gold hair all down her back and pooling on the cushions behind her. Harry’s head rested on Corlath’s shoulder, and his arm curled round her; and their right hands were intertwined, hiding the scar-speckled palms. Their feet were bare on the thick soft rugs.
Miles away, their daughter hugged her knees to her chest and watched. Her eyes were wide, golden, fiercely intent; the heat of the fire was in her, and it rose from her skin and dried the tears in her eyes before they could blur her vision; and the poor coal-smudged handkerchief in her hand was further ruined by a pale shadow of a handprint scorched into the cotton.
Harry tipped her head up slightly without lifting it. “What do you think of young Nandar?” It was a common name among the Hills, and Meli couldn’t place who they might be discussing.
Corlath made a thoughtful face. “That he has a tricky road ahead of himself.”
“He’s set on it confidently enough.”
“Yes, but all at odds with old Cathinad. He may have been an old codger stuck in his ways – I don’t think he’d changed his mind on a policy matter for at least twenty years – but Shpatho followed him.” Cathinad had rung a faint bell for Meli, with a distant impression of her father grumbling, but she only placed it when the village was named. Shpatho was off to the west somewhere; she couldn’t remember precisely where. It was one of the remote villages which had been more or less under the king’s banner in her grandfathers’ fathers’ day, but not since. Even after most had united again under first Corlath and then Corlath-sola and Harimad-sol together, in whom the magic of the old kings and queens had come again, there had been others who held themselves aloof, for the Damarians of the Hills had always been independent above all.
Corlath continued, “A village follows its headman, but only so far. If Cathinad had ruled in his people’s despite too often, he would have found himself quickly enough forced to rethink, or else abandoned in favor of another. Nandar has bright shining ideas, and I honor him for them, and for coming to us. But it remains to be seen whether he has offered us Shpatho as he thinks, or merely one reformist man with his horse and a village closing its doors quietly behind him.”
“Pessimist,” said Harry affectionately, and he raised his eyebrows at her. She laughed and kissed him. “Well, in this. Shpatho also chose him to be headman, and not another codger. There’s no guarantee that a grandson will succeed his grandfather. All the more so when he has aunts and uncles and cousins aplenty; and very few villages are so traditional that they’d feel themselves bound to that family if none of them were truly to their taste.”
“Bah,” said Corlath, which he had picked up from his wife, and only used deliberately. Meli laughed a choked laugh into her knees. “Perhaps. I still say they’re watching him closely, and we’ll see what they decide they think of his new choice of oath.”
“You’ll release him from it if it seems he’d do more good in his home,” said Harry with calm certainty, and he nodded at once against her golden hair.
“I’ll have no one sworn to me half-hearted. They have his oath first.”
“And we have time to let Shpatho think things over,” she said. “The borders are quiet; it’s not as it used to be. If they take five years to decide they want to be part of the kingdom of Damar again, then in five years we’ll have them as stronger allies for the debate.”
“Mm.” A silence fell between them, comfortable and thoughtful. It was Corlath who broke it at length, perhaps following the train of those quieter borders, and his voice was low: “You will call me foolish, my heart, but I will say again that I worry over our little Aerin.”
“Never foolish, my own,” she said in answer, just as softly; and her face was grave too, with her own line now between her brows. “Only a father.”
“Forloy will let nothing happen to her, I know. Nor Rilly. Nor even your Sir Charles and Lady Amelia; and if I do not trust them to spot trouble crossing the horizon, I trust them at least to care for her and do all they can to address it, and Forloy and Rilly are there.” He sounded like a man convincing himself, though all these arguments had been hashed through months before.
“And she’s a woman, nearly grown. She will let nothing happen to herself.”
Corlath made a discontented noise, not really disagreement.
“Oh,” cried Meli under her breath, wishing with all her fierce young heart that they could hear; for it broke her heart to see their worry, and it broke it all over again to see them at all, so far away. “I’m all right, I am – oh, why can I see you and not let you see me?”
And then she broke off, because it seemed to her that her voice, like the fire, was growing impossibly, not in volume but in some mysterious way spreading out like smoke. She was fire, she was smoke, she was the western wind over the desert; and Corlath and Harry jerked upright far away in their tent. “Meli?” said Harry, disbelieving.
Meli felt her father’s hands on her shoulders, holding her up, embracing her, though he had not moved and neither had she.
“I saw you in the fire,” she said urgently. “I am very well, I only wanted to say that. I miss you all, with all my heart and every day I do, but I am very well! And I’m learning, and making friends, so I am glad I came. Sweet summer, mother, father.”
But the last words were snatched away on the wind, and she was in her room, standing before the fireplace; and it had burned down to embers. Her face was wet. All at once she was exhausted.
She curled up there where she was, on the floor in front of the fireplace, and fell instantly asleep. In the morning Anisha the maid would be scandalized and worried when she came to wake her. But Meli did not spare a thought for that. Annoyance was not the only fuel kelar might use, and she had no energy left for such thoughts.
In her sleep, she smiled; for, after all, it turned out, what she had said to her parents was only the truth, and she would see them again soon enough.