Seventeen-year-old Lida d’Cathan has inherited something from her long-dead mother, Siva. Something unknown, something unwanted, and something entirely dangerous. Lida must make a choice: should she spend her life mistrusted and maligned, living as an outsider with the other gifted? Or stay in Kingstown, and risk hurting the people she loves with the power that spills from her in sleep?
In order to control her gift, she will need to follow in Siva’s elusive footsteps and travel further from home than she ever imagined. But just like her power, knowledge has a cost – and it might be more than she is willing to pay.
The midday sun was merciless, golden and high in the unbroken sky. It beat down, relentless and inescapable, burning skin and heating sandstone brick, turning the air in the Kingstown forum into a turbulent clamour of sweat and scent and spice and sound.
It was Lyda’s favourite kind of weather.
She wove between the packed bodies, avoiding the spill of arms and legs and the swing of hair and bags of goods. She wasn’t always lucky: she swore as a blacksmith twice her size stepped back onto her sandalled foot, almost crushing her toes under the weight of his bulk. She narrowly avoided being pushed against a stall selling iron pots, slipping under elbows to escape, listening to the tangle of accents around her. The language was mostly the fast, clipped Eilin spoken by the city-dwellers, but she could hear the drawl of northern Eilan too, and, as she moved further into the crowd, the caressing lilt of Brinnican. Looking around, she spied a group of envoys from the cold northern country, all dressed far too warmly for an Eilin summer’s day, their pale skin turned pink by the sun, sweating in their fur-trimmed tunics.
It was the only reason she’d agreed to do this favour for her father: the summer market day was always an overwhelming mess of people, and Lyda liked to look at them all. Familiar Eilins manned stalls selling everyday things, the wool and knives and grain and cheese that would stock pantries for the coming winter. Vendors from further away – honey-skinned Setiians with caramel hair and black-eyed Auterans from the desert land – sold the objects Lyda coveted but could never afford: beautiful tapestries woven with gold and silver thread, glass blown with rainbow colours, scarves printed with careful patterns of birds and flowers and waves, and cunningly wrought mechanical toys for the children of lordlings. She ignored those stalls with difficulty, pushing further into the crowd, though she stopped for a moment to stare longingly at a display of Setiian scents, the table shaded by gauzy fabrics to protect the precious wares from the sun. The tiny vials were worth a small fortune each, and came in a distinctive woven green bag. Lyda’s sister had been given one as a courting gift, and though Maya hadn’t kept the man, the vial was one of her prize possessions. At almost eighteen, Lyda wasn’t too old to wait until Maya left the house to steal into her room and sniff it longingly, though she’d never dared dab some of the precious liquid on her wrists.
There were other smells, too, some of them more pleasant than others. She edged past a row of stalls selling bread to hungry shoppers, when one of the stall owners – a small man named Torig – called hello. Lyda smiled and waved, regretting that the coins in the pouch tied to a ribbon around her neck were meant for something else. Torig made the best pastries in Kingstown, in Lyda’s opinion at least. His specialty was a mix of potatoes and peas swirled in a creamy white sauce and wrapped up in flaky, buttery pastry, topped with cheese. Lyda’s mouth watered just thinking about them.
The crowd thinned as she neared her target, the southern end of the city market square. For the first time since she’d arrived, she took a proper breath. It was here that the market square met the side of the public bath complex with a towering sandstone wall, and beneath its shade stood a row of permanent shopfronts, all identical and distinctly Eilin in design, with square facades and wide front windows. Lyda made her way towards a small shop that stood pride of place in the middle, its front step flanked with pots of wild white roses, its doorway crowned with a bunch of dried barley grass tied with black twine.
Lyda opened the door and breathed again, deeply.
The shop sold goods from the islands of Erbide, primarily honey and barley grain, although for a hefty price redwood products could be specially imported. Inside, its walls were lined with barrels, filled to the brim with different types of Erbidan grain, and shelves displayed a range of products: honey soaps and creams, candles and oil burners, wax for seals, and varieties of expensive flour sold in colour-coded paper bags.
‘Salu, little one! I did not expect you for a month at least.’
‘Hullo, Jorge,’ Lyda said with a smile.
The man behind the counter was typically Erbidan: tall and broad-shouldered, his golden skin sprinkled with freckles. His beard and thick hair had once been raven black, but were now peppered with grey. Lyda had known him since she could walk, and this was the only thing about him that had changed.
‘Where is Cathan?’
‘He was called to the Palace – one of the northern mares is foaling.’
Jorge made a tsk sound. ‘That is late in the season, is it not? I suppose you have come to rob me again?’
Lyda laughed. ‘Yes. Da says you charge too much.’
‘When you have braved the Kelti Sea you may change your mind.’
Lyda knew Jorge hadn’t sailed for years, though when she was younger she would spend as long as her father would allow listening to his stories. ‘I’d rather you braved it for me.’
Jorge smiled rather sadly, and selected a pot of honey from the shelf behind him, pushing it into a black woven bag. ‘Just the usual?’
Lyda nodded. The local honey was a golden yellow; the stuff in the pot was a thick, rich red, from Erbide’s southern-most island, Kell, and was worth its weight in coin.
‘You are going to eat this, are you not?’ Jorge said warningly. ‘Last time I found out that Cathan had smeared it all over a horse.’
Lyda bit the inside of her cheek and nodded, her face warming. She knew very well that the honey was going straight on a wounded piglet and nowhere near the kitchen. Honey staved off infections in wounds, and her father preferred to use the thick Kellith honey; Eilin honey was too thin, he would complain, and didn’t seal. The Kellith honey stuck.
‘Have you apprenticed yet, Lyda?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m still wearing Da down.’
‘That may take some time.’
She grinned. ‘I’ve had a lot of practice.’ Cathan Valson was well-known for his stubbornness, but his daughters had their own ways of working around it. Maya cajoled, strategically working on her father so gently he often didn’t realise she was doing it. Lyda was more forthright. ‘He wants me to go to Brinnica, and learn from his old master, but I told him I want to learn from the best, so I’ll stay in Kingstown and learn from him. He’s torn between wanting to be rid of me and knowing that I’m right.’
Jorge laughed. ‘Well, you have a month, no? Much can happen in that time. You may yet change your mind.’
Lyda didn’t think so. She had little interest in leaving Kingstown, and she didn’t like cold weather. Brinnica was often carpeted in thick snow and its capital city, the Kali’s Court, was inaccessible in winter. She chatted to Jorge a while longer, before they half-heartedly haggled over the price of the honey. Lyda handed over a sizeable amount of coin, though less than she’d expected, and before she left Jorge pressed a small paper bag full of bite-sized honey biscuits into her hand, just as he’d done when she was a child.
‘For you and your sister,’ he said.
‘I can’t make any promises,’ Lyda said, smiling as she stepped back out into the noise of the summer market.
After a swift internal struggle, she decided that she would share the biscuits; the hospice where her sister worked had been quiet of late, and Lyda thought Maya would appreciate the visit. She pushed and elbowed and ducked her way back towards the main road, stopping to watch a weaver at his loom; as she moved away again, a display of jewellery caught her eye.
Brinnican gold and silverwork was the best in the four lands, but the woman behind the stall was not from the snow. Her skin was darker than the usual warm Eilin brown and her hair was braided across her head; beginning at the left temple, the plait pinned in a coil over her right ear. Her amber eyes were bright and lined with kohl, her frame strong beneath the simple white shirt and tan pants, tight to the skin like the jodhpurs Lyda favoured.
A familiar sadness tightened in Lyda’s chest. Her own skin was the same, and she wagered that if the woman was to unbraid her hair, it would fall in tight coils just like the ones she unsuccessfully tried to tame each morning, though Lyda’s unbound nest of hair was streaked yellow by the sun and this woman’s plait was closer to black.
The woman behind the stall was Myrae, a sea-maiden, one of a race of merchant women from the Isle of the Gods, which hid uncharted off the southern coast of Eilan. The Myrae rarely came inland, preferring to stay in view of their ships; it was said that they only went home for birth or death, and spent the rest of their days on the waves, sailing the four lands and beyond.
Lyda had no idea whether this was true, but it had not been so for her mother. Siva had died in the bed she shared with Cathan on the outskirts of Kingstown, with Maya asleep at her side and the newborn Lyda at her breast. Lyda sometimes wondered if it might have turned out differently, had Siva gone home to the Isle to birth her instead. Along her skin and her hair and her eyes, Lyda had a delicate white-gold chain set with a single sea-pearl that Siva had owned, which she wore alongside her guilt. She could never quite forget that she was the cause of her mother’s death. Her father’s reluctance to speak of his dead wife made the burden somewhat heavier, and the only stories Lyda had heard of her mother came from Maya, and they were so fuzzy that there might not have been any truth in them at all. Lyda constructed an imagining of Siva on every rare occasion she saw one of the Myrae, layering each woman upon the next over the solid base of her sister’s heart-shaped face.
The Myrae trader was fierce-looking, stern and aloof, so Lyda took her unwavering stare and mixed it with Maya’s warmth. Her cheekbones were as high and sharp as Lyda’s own, so she stole those unchanged. The thin lips could not come – both she and Maya had full, plump smiles that had not come from Cathan – but the eyes were of a similar shape, almond and framed with thick lashes, so Lyda used them, too, and transformed the irises into Maya’s piercing emerald.
She was so enthralled in the image she’d woven that when she stepped back, it was straight into something warm and sweating and far taller than she. She spun in surprise, and found herself caught up in a thick black messenger’s cloak. It clung to her as she fought to break free, and someone exclaimed crossly in Brinnican.
‘Sorry,’ she muttered, finally disentangling herself. ‘I didn’t see you.’
‘Clearly,’ the deep voice said, the lilt of an Erbidan accent heavy on the word.
For a moment, Lyda thought Jorge had followed her, but when she looked up she saw the flushed face of a young Erbidan man of twenty-six or -seven. His black curls were dishevelled and he had bruise-like shadows under his dark eyes. She frowned.
He frowned back, straightening; something twisted deep in Lyda’s chest, a tug underneath a rib. She stepped away, taking in the square leather letter bag slung across his body, and the golden cuff on his left wrist. He pulled his cloak back into place, hiding it. He studied Lyda’s face, blinking rapidly.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
Lyda’s lips twisted at his rudeness and she tried to walk away, but he mirrored her movements. She glowered at him. ‘Get out of my way.’
His hand snaked out to catch her wrist, his eyes darting to the woven bag that hung from her elbow, taking in her face and hair. ‘Who are you?’
She tried to wrench her arm away. He held it fast. ‘Don’t touch me!’
‘Why are you here?’ he said, his brows drawing closer together.
‘Let me go.’
He hissed through his teeth. ‘I do not have time for this.’
‘Then let go of me.’ She wrenched again, increasingly desperate, fear starting to creep up her spine. She rose onto the balls of her feet, ready to run if she could break free. ‘I’ll scream.’
‘I would prefer that you did not. Where do you live?’
‘As if I’d tell you,’ she spat, twisting and aiming a kick at his knee; he stepped away derisively, and his fingers tightened on her wrist.
So Lyda did exactly what her father had taught her to do: feinted a jab to the stomach with her captured elbow, and slammed the heel of her palm up into the Erbidan man’s unprotected throat. He wheezed and let her go. For a moment, Lyda stood still, stunned by what she’d done, before instinct kicked in and she darted away, straight into the enveloping crush of shoppers. Her dance through the crowd was far swifter this time, fuelled by fear; she did not look over her shoulder, nor anywhere but forward, and in a handful of minutes she found herself at the edge of the forum and in the gutter of the Southern Way. She sprinted up the main road breathlessly, darting in and out of the arches of the aqueduct, ignoring the sideways glances and exclamations of surprise, the honey and biscuits still hanging from her arm as she ran as fast as she could towards the hospice and her sister.
R.K. Hart is an author and educational designer living on Ngunnawal Ngambri land in Canberra, Australia, with her husband and two small children. She enjoys drinking more coffee than is strictly necessary and reading books with magic in them.