She’s a young girl. She’s a boy. She loves her sister. She loves a man.
The gods have given her a task, to save a realm, to save a queen.
In a brutal world where the young are forced to grow up fast, Mirin’s story is about coming of age too soon, about love and betrayal. It’s about the heavy costs of standing for a cause but standing for it anyway because it is the right. About finding the lost and finding yourself along the way.
Playing for Time
By morning, I had a bad case of jitters. I could see Wat did, too. After we breakfasted on some of the scraps we had managed to snag during our march the night before back through the kitchen shed, Wat sat thinking a long time. I tried not to interrupt, although I was itching to do it.
Finally, he looked up at me. “We’ll go in together.” He sounded certain, but his eyes betrayed him. I could tell he was far from certain. Wat’s eyes were a clear azure, like a cloudless noontide sky. But when he was angry or worried, they turned. They became somehow duller and sharper at the same time, as if you were to stare into a pond reflecting a clear noontide sky at the moment a cloud passes over. Or as if you were to sight down the blade of a sword made of fine-tempered steel. As you see, I’d had a long time to study Wat, and at close quarters, too. I knew how to read him, and I read that he was sick with worry.
“How? How will we manage that? Master Charlo is on to you now. He won’t allow it,” I said.
“Probably thinking I’m looking the place over to see what I can steal,” said Wat. “Yes, you’re right. But I’ll manage it.” He summoned up a smile. “You’re modest. You know that? You’re too modest to bathe in front of strangers. I need to be there. That’s what I’ll tell them.” “Will it work?”
“Maybe,” he said. “What if it doesn’t?”
“I’ll create a diversion.” “How in the Nine Spheres will you do that?” The corner of Wat’s mouth quirked up in what passed for one of his enigmatic smiles. But people were starting to drift down the road in our direction. They wanted to be entertained. Wat didn’t answer me. He headed over to our wagon and disappointed them by slapping a large NO PERFORMANCE TODAY sign on the outside of the wagon, and shaking his head firmly at the many who couldn’t read. I wanted him to tell me about his plans, but he wouldn’t talk about it. Instead, he made me go back into the wagon box bed.
“Otherwise every young girl in the Hundred is going to come crowding around to see if she can catch your eye,” said Wat as he shuttered me in. “I look like a girl,” I shouted through the slats.
“I think that may be the point,” he said in a reasonable tone of voice that sent me into a suppressed fury. “You’re not threatening. The mothers don’t fear you’ll run off with the daughters. You’re like a pet. But they can pretend to dream about you. Girls that age. That’s what they do.” He was sitting on the wagon seat, leaning back against the box bed, so we could have a conversation just as if we were face to face.
“No, not today. Sorry,” I heard him call out to someone. “I’m a girl that age. I don’t have thoughts like that.”
“You haven’t had time to. If you were home with your mother, you’d be having them about now.”
“That’s a lie,” I said between gritted teeth. Why was I getting so angry? Maybe so I wouldn’t think about what it would have been like, if I were home with my mother. Maybe because Wat hadn’t bothered to answer my question. “Not a lie. It’s just the truth,” said Wat. “And keep your voice down. Sorry, no performance today,” I heard him call. “How would you know what girls think?” I muttered.
“Oh, I know,” he said. He was infuriating, Wat was. I think he enjoyed it. But he was my master, so I knew not to push him too far. He had never beaten me, not yet. Once he was about to. “Remember your promise to Old Gwen!” I had screamed at him.
“I made her no such promise,” he told me as he circled around to get behind me with the strap he used to hobble Millicent. But in the end, he didn’t beat me. I don’t even remember what I had done to get him so worked up. Probably something dangerous. Every now and again I noticed it. He feared for me. Yet he wasn’t allowed to. That frustrated him, almost beyond bearing.
The time of our summoning drew closer, and the people had all wandered off, so he let me out of the box bed. He still hadn’t told me how he planned to create a diversion. I pulled the Kenning the Juggler costume on again. It was all I could do. The people in the castle would see the boy they expected to see. “We won’t stuff the rags in,” Wat decided, looking me up and down. “They may fall out at the wrong moment, and we don’t want any extra attention. You’ll be fine. You look fine. The servants are not going to be looking too close, down there.”
I turned away to hide my blushing. This part of my costume always made me feel uneasy and wrong. “But when I step into the bath, they’ll notice,” I said, pressing the point.
“They would indeed, but we won’t let them see.”
“How do you plan to keep them from it?” Answer me, Wat. Before he could explain, we noticed Master Charlo shouldering past the guards. He came down the hill toward us.
“Follow my lead,” said Wat to me. I suppressed an annoyed grimace. Wat was always figuring out some plan, I’d have no idea what it was, and I just had to follow along, the instrument the master played upon. “Don’t forget your rebec,” said Wat. When Master Charlo was near enough to speak but not so close that we could give him any vermin or diseases, he addressed Wat. “None of your tricks, young man. Just the boy. I want just the boy.”
Wat bowed to him. Master Charlo reached out his hand to me, then snatched it back. “Come with me,” he said. He turned on his heel and started marching up the hill. With a helpless glance at Wat, I followed the elegantly clothed Master Charlo. But I quickly realized Wat was right behind me. At the gate, Master Charlo turned to me again. When he saw Wat, he frowned. “Fellow, I told you—just the boy. Not you.”
“Good Master Charlo,” said Wat, with another low bow. “My brother is very modest. He is frightened near to death. He’ll not be able to sing.”
It was true. I was frightened, frightened near to death. I didn’t have to act it. “I need to come with him,” said Wat. “At least for the bath and the dressing of him. He hasn’t been parted from me since he was a baby, when we were orphaned.” If Wat thought that heart-tugging story would affect Master Charlo, he was wrong.
“Nonsense,” Master Charlo snorted. “The boy is to come with me. You are to stay.” He looked over at the guards. “See that this fellow remains outside.” Both of them stepped forward. They were very large armored creatures with solid, inscrutable faces under the cones of their helmets. They both carried menacing steel-tipped pikes. Wat simply made another of those obsequious bows. “As you wish, Master Charlo.
“Aedan,” he said to me. “I’ll be waiting here for you, never fear. They’ll send you out to me soon.”
“He’ll sing, or he’ll wish he had,” said Master Charlo. “No one goes against a direct command of her ladyship.” I began to cry. It wasn’t hard to make myself do it.
“What a pathetic excuse of a boy you are,” Master Charlo said to me. “What those girls see in you—”
“Their ladyships?” asked Wat, his voice innocent. Master Charlo gave him a sharp look. “Yes,” he said slowly, with a kind of menace. “Their ladyships.”
“Well, go then, and do your best, brother,” Wat said to me in kind, unctuous tones. “They won’t hurt you. They won’t hurt him, will they? When he can’t? Sing?” he said to Master Charlo. Over Master Charlo’s shoulder, I arched an eyebrow at Wat. He gave me the smallest of shrugs back. We hardly had to speak to each other, Wat and I. That’s how well we knew each other by then, at least where giving a performance was concerned. Really? You’re going for that again? I was saying to him. Might as well was his reply. Might work. Worth a try. Master Charlo’s face clouded up the way the day was clouding up, big thunderheads boiling from behind the castle keep. It’s not going to work this time, I thought. You could fool Master Blue, but not this man.
“Come with me,” Master Charlo snapped. I stepped in behind him and the
guards stepped aside. “Both of them,” he said tight-lipped to the guards. Wat gave me a small sidelong smile as we came through the gates together at Master Charlo’s heels, but when the man turned to make sure we were following him, and probably to make sure Wat was not scouring the place for items to thieve, Wat had made his face as open and sincere and concerned as it was supposed to be. Wat’s ruse had worked again. It really had. Now I did have to act. Act to suppress an admiring exclamation, one actor to another. The fright I felt was too overwhelming, though.
We threaded our way through the castle outbuildings, as before. A patter of rain was starting to fall. I lifted my face to the sky. The rain felt good, comforting somehow, but I knew there was nothing comforting about our situation. Only Wat’s quick thinking saved us this time, as last time, but I knew our luck had to be running out.
Finally we came to an obscure shed with steam rising from its smoke-hole. A woodsy aroma wafted from the shed into the damp air. It reminded me suddenly of home. Master Charlo knocked. A man stuck his head out and glanced at us. “Which one is the boy?”
“Which one do you think?” Master Charlo’s voice was full of exasperation. “Come in, then,” he said to me, and opened the door wide. As Wat made to follow me, he put a hard calloused hand out. “Not you.” To Master Charlo he said, “I’m supposed to bathe one stinking fellow. Not two.”
“This man is his brother, and he says—” Master Charlo began, then clamped his lips together. He turned to the two of us. “The boy is to go in. You may stand outside,” he said to Wat. “I’ll send someone to make sure you don’t wander around. I have things to do.” He stalked off, stopping to talk to another servant, pointing back at us. The other servant, one of the lower-order brown-clad ones, began making his way over to us. Wat looked at the man who was about to bathe me. “My brother is very modest and very frightened. It would be better if I bathe him. You can stand outside.”
“No,” said the tub man.
That was it. There was no arguing with the man. I could see that, and so could Wat. Wat shrugged and turned to lounge against the side of the shed. The servant Master Charlo had sent to watch Wat was nearing. The tub man motioned me inside. I had no choice. Our luck had indeed run out. I went in with him.
There was a large cask steaming with hot water before a roaring fire. I saw stone crocks filled with fragrant soaps and lotions. I saw a suit of clothes, bright and lovely, laid over a bench. I saw large soft towels at the ready. I wanted to get into the cask.
“Put that fiddle down on the bench.” I did so. “Strip,” said the man, “and don’t give me any nonsense about it or I’ll see you beaten. I don’t want to hear about your damned modesty. Just do it. Get in that tub.”
“Will you look away?” I said in a timid voice. He just stood there with his arms folded over his leather apron. “What are you, a little girl? Strip and get in the tub. Don’t think I’m going to touch you. I don’t want your vermin. Leave those silly-looking clothes in a pile over there where I can pole them into the cistern.”
When I hesitated, wondering why he was going to dump my Kenning the Juggler costume into a cistern, he barked at me. “Do it. Do it now.”
Playing for time, I bent down and unwound the yellow cloth from around my tunic and then the cross-gartering from each leg. I dropped the long strips of yellow cloth beside me on the floor. I turned away from the tub man and began to pull the green tunic over my head.
With an impatient grunt, the tub man snatched it from me and threw it to the floor. And then he had the drooping leggings off me. He let out a bellow of surprise. He came at me, and I dodged around the cask of steaming water, trying to knee him in the groin as I darted past him. I missed. That made him angry. He caught up with me. His pig eyes, too small for his lump of a face, were narrowed and glinting. He drew back a meaty fist. There was a scuffle from outside the shed. The tub man and I both whirled around in time to see Wat and the brown-clad servant hurtling through the door and into the shed, falling on the floor and fighting.
“Nine Spheres,” said the tub man. He moved around the cask to pick up his long pole and stood over the two as they rolled and fought, looking for a chance to rap Wat on the head with it. I bent down and lifted one of the stone crocks of soap. I heaved it high and brought it down on the tub man’s skull as hard as I could as he was leaning over the fighters. It barely staggered him, but just enough so that Wat had time to knock the servant to the ground, spring up, and get the tub man by the throat, twisting the man’s leather apron straps tight about his neck. Wat shoved me aside as he hoisted the tub man up by this improvised garrote. “The door,” he said to me over his shoulder. I kicked it shut. When I turned around, Wat had thrust the tub man into the cask, pushing him under the water, holding him down. “Now hand me that pole,” he said.
I stood frozen. I grabbed up the tatters of my clothing and held them to myself.
“The pole,” said Wat. His voice was tense. He bore down on the man in the cask with both hands. Cords of muscle stood out on his arms. Water flew everywhere as the tub man struggled for his life. I reached down with one hand to get the pole, still trying to keep myself covered up with the other. I handed the pole to Wat. He shoved it straight down into the water and leaned on the tub man’s chest with it, keeping the man under. The man thrashed and kicked, but soon weaker. Soon not at all. A stream of bubbles erupted from the water. Then the water was still. “You did well, Mirin,” said Wat, stepping back and casting the pole aside with a clatter.
“You bought me a bit of time.” Still trying to cover myself with my ripped jerkin and leggings, I stood staring in horror at the man in the cask. Wat and I were both soaked, and Wat was breathing hard.
The tub man’s clothes were billowing up to the surface now. “You killed him,” I said. I looked down at the brown-clad servant, who lay sprawled at my feet, his eyes open, his mouth gaped wide. “And him.”
“Yes,” said Wat, not noticing my half-naked state. “Singing is your talent. This is one of mine.”
Jane Wiseman is a writer who splits her time between urban Minneapolis and the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. Her interlocking fantasy series include HARBINGERS (I Blackbird Rising, II Halcyon, III Firebird, IV Ghost Bird), the prequel series STORMCLOUDS (I A Gyrfalcon for a King, II The Call of the Shrike, III Stormbird), the eerie BETWIXT & BETWEEN duology set in the Stormclouds/ Harbingers world (I The Martlet is a Wanderer, II The Nightingale Holds Up the Sky). A tenth book, Dark Ones Take It, is a stand-alone novel about the origins of the series villain. The Harbingers series has a YA-into-NA feel. The other books are many shades darker.