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Chapter Thirteen - Shadow's Daughter by Shirley Meier

Chapter Thirteen


Midwinter, Ness's fever struck after she'd gone out too soon with a bad cough, back to work. It settled in her lungs, clogging them so she couldn't breathe.

She smiled at Megan, who sat on the edge of the bed, holding her hands. "Bylashka…" Her voice was a cracked wheeze. She sat up, straining to look better than she was, to reassure her daughter. "It's all right. I've had a few illnesses this winter. This is just another."

"Mama, I might be able to get some oranges…"

Ness coughed, gasped a breath, coughed again. "No, love, they're too expensive." She eased back against the pillows, propped high to help her breathing. "I'm not that hungry, Meg."

Megan laid a hand on her mother's forehead. Her skin felt papery and hot, her lips cracked. Dimi had said he'd be back to check if the fever had broken—it has to break, soon—later on that night.

"All right, Mama." The water was low again, though Rilla had brought some in before she left as the wind came up, the ominous whistle that meant another blizzard blowing in; a night to stay inside.

Megan checked the bag of black-rock with her eyes as she sat, wondering whether there was enough to keep the room warm. Water, the brazier has to stay lit, so that Mama doesn't have to be bundled up… Dimi says no blankets until the fever breaks. There would be enough, at least until Rilla came back. Her cousin had made excuses for Marte, saying that she was busy, but Megan knew better.

Ness's fingers trembled in Megan's smaller hands, the dampened cloths Megan had wrapped around her legs already dry. Her eyes flickered closed, then open, gaze wandering around the room as if it were full of mist and there was nothing solid to catch her eye.

The brazier hissed as Ness struggled for breath, her thin fingers picking at the sheet, and Megan tried to get her to drink, laving her face.

Shen looked in later, waving a hand at Megan as she put a basket of black-rock down by the door. 'Here, I'D get you some more water, luv," she whispered.

"Thank you." The blizzard howled outside, bad enough that Megan could hear the Flats creak and shift under the force of the wind and snow, even one floor down.

In the middle of the night, as Megan wrung out another cloth, dripping the water back into the bowl, Ness opened unclouded eyes.

"Bylashka… love…" She stopped as if it were too much strain to speak, one hand fluttering on the mattress as if she were trying to lift it. She blinked and fell silent then, Megan hoping she'd sleep.

Then her breathing stopped, her hands going slack. Megan flinched away as if death were a presence she could run from, heart pounding, then she sat still, holding her mother's hands as if that would hold her to life. "Mama, no. No. Please, no. Koru, Goddess, Lady of Mercy, don't let my mother die. No. No."

Megan whispered that litany long after Ness's fingers were growing cool in hers. Then she sat listening to the lonely sound of her own breath in the room.

When Dimi looked in, Megan still sat holding onto her mother. She looked at him dry-eyed and said, "My mama's died. I didn't come to get you because there wasn't anything to do."

Megan stood on the plateau in the freezing wind, ignoring the snow blowing in her face. Her hands wrapped her mother's cloak secure around her, holding it tucked close like an impossible hug. Though it was too big, it was warm around her mourning grey.

All through she hadn't cried. It was too much to cry for. She stood looking at the platform, listening to the ravens yawping. The wind whipped through the funeral poles, and an old raven hopped closer, impatiently cocking its head sideways.

"Get away! Get away!" Megan lunged at the bird a step or two, fists raised, cold wind sweeping into her clothing as she let go the cloak. "You can't have her yet!" It blundered into the air with a papery thrashing of wings.

Yarishk, standing behind her and next to Rilla, made to lay a hand on her shoulder, hesitated. Behind them, politely out of earshot, stood the handlers of the dead, waiting to raise the funerary platform up on its pole. Marte wasn't there, though Shenanya, Dmitrach and Boryis, Jerya and Yneltzyn were. The snow fell thicker, clinging to Megan's face and eyelashes, melting like the tears she couldn't shed as she knelt down by the platform. As she had so often through the early part of the winter, every time Ness had been ill, she put out a hand and smoothed the hair off her mother's forehead. Only this time it was cool, not hot. Ness's eyelids stayed shut.

prayed again, when Mama kept getting sick all the time. I said I'd believe again if she were all right. That didn't happen. If there's a God, then it's the Dark Lord, because the world is all snow and bones.

Now on the plateau, Megan clung to her mother's corpse still, in the wind and snow, wanting to die too. Perhaps it had been her fault. Perhaps if she'd tried harder to get her to eat. Perhaps if she'd noticed sooner about the Dust, she wouldn't have weakened so. Mama, I need you. What am I going to do? You're with Papa but you've left me behind. If I don't cry your name, some part of you has to stay with me.

That evil little thought cracked the ice in her and she finally started to cry. She let go and got up, stepping back, the hot tears mixing with the cold melting snow-flakes on her face. I can't do that. That wouldn't be right. She sobbed, standing straight next to the funeral platform, threw her head back, and screamed her mother's name into the wind.

"NEEESSSS, Weaaaveerrr!" The names echoed, flapping their way free, like the ravens roused by her scream. "Daughter of Anayita and Tomas of Raeschku Village!" With each word the body on the platform seemed less and less like someone she knew. "Lixand Weaver's wife…" She stepped back, whispering, "and my mother."

Rilla hugged her and Gospoznyn Yarishk stood by them as the handlers of the dead raised the platform, the pole grinding into the cairn of rocks, swaying with the weight. Goodbye, Mama.

Megan stood in the doorway looking at the empty room that had been home for seven years. Shenanya had tried to help, but Marte had come and said that she'd see to things, and since she had kin-claim no one said anything when the feather tick and the pillows were sold, the table and what few clothes Ness had had. Megan had bundled a shirt of her father's and her mother's cloak into her own things, so they might not be sold off with all the rest. Marte took the knife and Ness's good platter. The room was stripped.

"You obviously can't live here by yourself, or even at the Apprentice Hall," Marte had said firmly. "You'll have your place in my home." And that had been that. Marte had kin-right and was adult, her decisions final. Megan looked at the bare room that she'd swept out as carefully as if her mother had told her to, for the next tenant, and wondered if she were dreaming.

She shook herself, hugging the bundle of her things to her chest. She'd hidden her best things at the Guildhall, and would stay there mostly, despite what Aunt said. Rilla had been learning without being apprenticed formally and Megan had kept up her own 'prentice fees. IH make a merchant that Mama and Papa'd be proud of. That set her tears off again as she closed the door behind her and set off down to the Dogleg, to Marte and Rilla's room. I'm never going to call that place home, even for Rilla's sake. It's not my home and never will be.

Marte had insisted she turn out the bundle when she got there and picked over every piece with pinching, disapproving sniffs.

"No wonder there was nothing left," she sniffed. "Too much spent on fancy things you'd just outgrow." Megan bit her lip, outraged. Her mother had embroidered the cuffs of their shirts when she'd had time. Marte lifted Lixand's old shirt and looked at Megan consideringly. Don't take it… Just don't take it.

Marte sniffed again and swept everything together into Megan's arms. "Your bed's over that side. Don't know what you've been taught but you'll keep it clean." She nodded at a spot under the shelves, where a pallet lay. Megan swallowed. I know I'm dreaming now. A nightmare. Mama, I'd like to wake up now.

Megan folded her clothes carefully, stacking them next the pillow of the strange bed that was now supposed to be hers.

"Here, brat! I won't have you being too sullen, you'll give me more grey hairs than you've got." Marte tapped Megan on the side of the head where the white streak grew, sharp fingers almost too hard.

"No, Aunt," Megan whispered.

"Right then. I'm going out. Stay, or go, as you please but don't touch anything of mine."

"No, Aunt." Megan had clenched her hands as Marte left, blowing out the candle, leaving only the kraumak that used to be Lixand and Ness's glowing in the dark.

She'd run all the way up to the Nest and asked to speak to Serkai.

"Megan." Serkai smiled at her as she met him at the gate.

"Hi, Serk." Megan hadn't wanted to go out, but Marte's room had been worse. "Serk…" Megan looked into his smile, not knowing what to say, full of words that couldn't fight their way out of her somehow. He lost the grin and patted her shoulder.

"Meg… look, it's cold out here. I could buy you a hot drink or something at the Cup."

She gulped and tried to nod, but the tears came back and he pulled her close to let her cry, stepping back into one of the niches in the wall by the gate. She knotted one hand in his long hair that he wouldn't cut until he was a full guard, crying into his chest.

"Sa… Megan. It'll be all right. It'll be all right. Cry. I don't mind. Here." He handed her his handkerchief. "My mama always said that if someone dies you cry for being left behind. Twice a day—once for you and once for diem."

She snuggled close to him, feeling real for the first time since the funeral. Her life felt broken, like an iron wheel with three-quarters of the circle perfect but the fourth hammered flat, grinding on cobbles, pulling the rest of the wheel out of shape. The wind blew in on them, smelling of snow and smoke.

"Serkai, I don't know what to do."

He nodded, his chin nudging the top of her head. "Come on in. I'll sneak you in and we can talk. It's an emergency. Besides, most of the older apprentices are celebrating the end of testing."

It wasn’t far, through two small courtyards and then into the squire's barracks. Once inside, at his motion, she pulled off her boots and carried them. He left his standing below his peg before they tiptoed in.

They scuttled under an open window into the corridor, where Megan could hear the scratching of a quill and the rustle of paper. They turned the corner and leaned against the wall for a second, getting back the breaths they'd held too long, and Serkai winked at her.

"That's the worst," he whispered in her ear. "Sergeant Tuqashevsky's easier to sneak by on the way out.' He led her to a small wallbed and hid her boots in a cupboard under it. In the distance she could hear balika music and stamping and it made her feel more alone.

In the dark of the shut wallbed that almost smelled more of soap and leathersoap than Serkai, she cried herself out.

"They're gone, Ma… Ma and Pa… Pa and I have to stay with h… er!" The straw mattress rustled as he shifted so her head was on his shoulder.

"You'll be all right, Megan. I'm thirteen now, you're almost twelve, and that's only four years till you can marry me. I'll be a full guard, with a full guard's pay. I'll be assigned to guard some posh Zingas, or even the Zarizan's apartments—he'll be Woyvode by then—and we'll be fine."

She shifted, sniffed, and wiped her nose. "You're right. It's not all horrible. I have you as a friend, and Gospozhyn. There's Varik, and I bet Shen and Dimi and everyone at the Flats won't stop being my friend, even if I do have to live with Aunt."

"She's an asshole."

Megan shivered, wanting to see Serkai's face. She'd never heard him that angry, that hard before. "She's… she's my kin," she said, though she agreed with him.

His arm around her tightened. "Yeah, right. Sorry."

They lay together in the warm, stuffy dark without saying anything for a long time. I'm never going to be able to talk to him about the Other Guild. He'd be duty bound to arrest me, she thought. Then Serkai touched her face, stroking, feather-light down her neck.

"I love you. I want to marry you," he said.

She tried to smile. "We're too young, Serkai. It sounds silly when you say you love me." She hesitated. "I guess I love you too, I think."

"Do you want to make love?" he asked, his voice cracking in the dark. Megan nodded against his shoulder, and they squirmed out of the rest of their clothes, tangling trousers and shirtsleeves and long hair in the crowded space. "We have to be quiet, though," he whispered. "You aren't supposed to be here, and if we get caught my sergeant'll have the skin off my back and her tongue is almost as sharp as the whip."

"Okay."

Before, when they'd explored each other's bodies, it had been more giggly, sillier. Now Megan touched him almost solemnly, hearing his sigh, feeling him tremble when she took hold of him. He was careful, holding her like she was breakable when he kissed her. They'd talked about him getting inside her, but decided that they were too young and she'd probably hurt too much.

"Megan?" Yeah?

"Do you like this?" He kissed her mouth, then her neck, then her navel and blew gently between her legs. She almost squealed, clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Th… that's nice." She caught her tongue in her teeth as he kissed between her legs, which he'd never done before. This time, the sparks glowing up and down her back seemed to rise higher and higher toward her head, flow down her legs and to the ends of her fingers, as if all her hair could stand on end until she gasped and clutched his head close, wanting to cry out.

like a sheet of lightning from his mouth she climaxed for the first time, and when tears came again after, it was because she felt so good. I shouldn't, I shouldn't… Mama and Papa are dead and I shouldn't… but I want to. She felt tired, floating and suddenly not like a child any longer, almost as old as the world and as if she knew everything. Then she cried for herself, slow tears flowing down her face that she wiped away, not saying anything to Serkai.

"You taste funny," he teased, but she could feel him smiling against the skin of her thigh. When she pulled his hair he added, "But good!"

He slid up to hold her, but she wiggled down and said, "Fair's fair. Do men like that, too?"

She'd seen him climax before, when she put her hand on him. This time she kissed him there. He smelled strong and musky, groaned, and pulled her close, hands opening and closing as all his attention narrowed to what she was doing. She took him in her mouth and he came right then. He was salty and his member jumped against her tongue as she tasted him. He tastes warm.

The next few weeks were quiet. Marte had pulled Megan out of all but the basic classes, unwilling to pay for anything extra and since, as she explained, the child had a home in-city, it made little sense that the full apprentice fee be levied. Master Yarishk had to agree and return part of the fee. That meant that Megan could no longer stay in the Apprentice Hall or be fed there, and Marte had come with her to clear out her box.

"Aunt?" Megan asked as they walked down Chashiy Street.

"What is it?" Marte sidestepped a crowd around a street juggler who was calling people to toss snowballs into the things he held spinning overhead with only physical skill, not using manrauq.

"Wouldn't it have been cheaper for you to let me stay at the Hall, rather than at your house?"

Marte grunted. "I make enough money. It's a form of charity we don't need."

Megan looked down at the box she was carrying. It doesn't make sense to me. It's not charity at all. You just wanted the money.

After that Tikhiy met her at the gate every day and they walked to first classes together. Gospozhyn Edischch, Tikhiy's great-master had, just this iron-cycle, started giving her the separate lessons Megan had already been learning from her Gospozhyn. Megan's friend was better at geography and plain bookkeeping, and they still teased each other about Serkai and Ivar.

"Megan," Tikhiy said one morning, "do you think Ivar likes me?"

"Yeah, why? You planning to ask him to lose his virginity with you?" Megan answered almost automatically, then looked at her friend. She hadn't asked in a joking tone.

"Yes."

Megan stopped right there on the steps and hugged her.

"I'm so glad," she said in Tikhiy's ear. "He was asking and asking whether you liked him or Serkai!" Megan smiled, slowly, then more broadly. "Tikhiy's sweet on Ivar! Tikhiy's sweet on—mmph!"

Tikhiy took her hand away. "You shut your mouth!" She settled her book and slate more firmly on her hip. "That's nice. Maybe we'll be a quad when we're old enough." She leaned sideways and giggled as Megan dug a finger under her ribs. "Ow! What was that for?"

"For being a bayishha, arranging marriages at your age!" Megan laughed as Tikhiy just sniffed disdainfully. "I'll see you after my class with Yolculvik Varik."

"Okay."

That day was special, a type of warm glowing day that Megan had forgotten existed; a day when everything went right. It carried her through the silent dinner at Aunt Marte's, and the pallet almost felt like hers.

Marte had been morose for the last few Hands and the housekeeping got bad, so Megan and Rilla tidied after their schooling. Rilla was getting the lessons that Megan was struggling to pay for, prigging—no, she thought, stealing. Gospozhyn said it wasn’t right to pretty up something by calling it something else. Call a goat a goat and not high quality mutton—stealing purses in the market, risking her hands every time.

Rilla put the scrub brush down one day and said, "Megan you ought to stop paying for my lessons with the Other Guild and use the money for yourself. If you get promoted fast, then you can look out for me better."

Megan put the broom down and, after thinking about it for a minute, said no.

"It won't help you learn things you need to know now, when you're younger. And it won't make me a grownup and able to dictate for the family in the courts any faster—if Regent Mikail is ever going to open the courts to the people again—so you'd better learn all you can now."

It was Rilla's turn to think as she aired out the cupboard under Marte's wallbed in the back room, Megan going back to sweeping around the table.

"All right. I guess it makes sense." Outside there was a faint thump, a staggering step or two, then another thump. Rilla straightened abruptly, her mouth going tight as she turned to the door. "Meg, is there wine or beer in the house?"

"No, but…" Megan stood still, broom in hand, as Rilla swore and dived for their gloves and coats by the door.

"Here, if you can get out for a couple of hours, maybe the rest of the day… she's gone and gotten d—"

BANG. Marte nit or fell against the door, groping at the latch. Megan turned startled eyes to Rilla, who understood what was going on.

Marte fumbled the door open and stood there, swaying. "Hey brat! Or is it brats, now? Yeah. Two of you. Whatcha doin'?" Her tone was a mixture of innocent curiosity and anger. Rilla and Megan stood speechless as she staggered in a step and swigged out of a flask she carried in one hand.

"Shit-it…'s empty," Marte said owlishly and dropped the jar, shattering it on the floor. "You, whore's brat! Cleanin' fer me are you? Not good enough, 'm I—"

"I'm no—"

"Shut UP!" Marte lunged for Megan, Rilla diving out of the way, under the table. Megan jumped sideways— no room—and was trapped by the wall and the broom she still held. Marte grabbed her by the ear and one arm, kicked over the pile of Megan's things in her way, and dragged her over to where the broken bits of jar lay on the curt floor. "Clean it up," she snarled, shaking Megan hard enough to rattle her teeth together, then flung her at the mess.

Megan fell, holding onto the broom as if it could somehow protect her, sprawling over the clay pieces, felt one slice into her wrist, and cried out. This can't be happening. This can't be real. Nothing like this could happen to me. She's my aunt. She's kin… She rolled to one side, dropping the broom, trying to crawl backward toward the door, Marte not giving her a chance to get up.

Megan saw her hand go back, the beginning of the swing, her head snapped back hitting the floor, the end of the full-armed slap a black-edged shattering in her head.

"Clean it up! Clean it UP," Marte shouted through clenched teeth. "Not good enough… I'll show you, brat…"

Marte's face was all Megan could see; familiar, inhuman. The flash of another slap, and another—whipping her head around, hair in her eyes, cold grit on hands, sharp pain in one leg. She kicked me, help me, someone, anyone. The last swing, a bunched fist, thundering down the dark.

She woke up a moment later. Marte had left the door swinging open, letting in colder air and the smell of sour cabbage from down the hall. Rilla sat, holding Megan's head on her lap and all she could muzzily think was why?

Why? And the answer. She hates me.

"Megan? You okay? You'll be okay. She's not usually this bad." Rilla stroked Megan's hair out of her face, then helped her up to the pallet.

"When…" Megan started to cry then, and Rilla held her.

"When is she Wee this?" the younger girl asked. Megan nodded, throat closed by tears. "Whenever mam's hitting the sauce again, she gets like that. After one flask she gets ugly, and after two she gets too soused to aim properly. After three she passes out and it's all right, an avalanche couldn't wake her."

Megan huddled on her pallet with the two blankets pulled around her, her face and head and leg hurting, holding onto Rilla. All she could think was, Oh. That makes sense. The bruises were coming up and her wrist stung where the cut had clotted. She sniffled, wiped her nose carefully on the blanket because her handkerchief was in the pile Marte had kicked over.

"Is she going to be back?" Megan asked, dizzy, the idea frightening enough to make her sick.

"It's okay, it's okay, Megan, she'll be too drunk to hit by then." Rilla grimaced. "And tomorrow she'll be sugary sorry and apologize all over you and be so nice you'll want to barf because you know she'll just do it again." She got up to close the creaking door.

"Okay." Megan limped over to the water basin and washed her wrist and face, then came back to the pallet and started carefully folding her things together again. "Do you have room in your box for my things?"

"Un-hunh, I think so," Rilla said, leaning over to help.

"Thanks, Rilla." The cousins worked together in the quiet for a bit before Megan said, "We just have to make sure there's always two jugs of wine in the house."

"Megan!" Rilla whispered urgently, from up over the apothecary's shop, stopping her cousin as she was about to turn into the Dogleg. "Don't go home yet. Can we stay at the Guild for a bit?"

Megan peered up into the dark. At this corner the buildings' overhangs leaned close as foundations rotted, braced apart at the top by a couple of beams, cutting off what little moonlight might have found its way to the street. Rilla leaned out on the wooden bracers of the second floor, over the window full of jars of leeches and the chest with the thousands of tiny drawers. "Hsst, up here!"

"Rilla? She's drunk again, right?" From the almshouse next door, voices were raised, arguing. Her feet, in their worn boots, were cold and wet. "It may be too late to get into the 'Prentice Hall, the gates are probably—" In the distance the garrison drum boomed, faint and echoing this far down in the city. "There, they'll be locked. Gospozhyn will have gone home."

"Won't Master Zyatki let us in?"

"He might."

"She's not drunk enough and I don't have any money for more wine or wadiki." Rilla slid down the remnants of an old, torn awning that crackled frozenly.

"Okay." Megan could have cried, her hopes of getting dry and warm going as cold as her feet.

They stopped under a torch bracket by Eksoticum, one of the unlicensed naZak whorehouses and taverns on this part of the Stairs. Rilla changed the one mitten she wore from one hand to the other, tucking the other in the armpit. "I lost one and now isn't the time to tell mam about it," she said when Megan looked.

"Yeah, don't give her an excuse."

Rilla looked down at their shadows, flickering against the snow. "She doesn't need excuses," she whispered.

Megan closed her mouth, her lips thinning. "She usually doesn't take out her hangover on you, but you can never trust it," Rilla continued.

"Rilla…"

"You didn't know. You just never knew how bad it gets." Rilla wiped her eyes clear of the snow that started falling around them, looking at the tall muffled forms of naZak passing by. "Now you do."

Megan stood in the torchlight that was dimming in the snow, the torch hissing as it bled hot pinetar. The world was shrinking around her, the dark pressing in. She shook her head stubbornly. The world isn't this horrible. I know better.

"Come on, I'll see if we can get into the Hall." Megan took a deep breath. "If worst comes to worst, I can try to pick the lock," she said, feeling in her belt for the finger-long bit of twisted wire she'd copied from Varik. "If I'm not good at it, yet, I guess I will be." She flung an arm around Rilla's shoulders. "We need to get more money somewhere, for the wine."

"Yeah," Rilla said, a little muffledly. "It’ll be easier with you around, Meg."

"Sure, coz. And spring is almost here. Come on, my feet are turning into solid cobblestones on the ends of my legs." They started across the City, back to the River Guild.

"Oh, piss!" Megan swore as the third snowball she'd thrown up at the window burst with a muffled thump, bringing no response from Tikhiy. The sprays of snow shone against the shutters and stone wall. She stamped her feet, blowing on her hands. Rilla shivered.

"Meg, it's getting cold real fast and you've tried three times. Can you try the door? Please?"

The snow was slushy during the day and when the sun went down at night it froze into sharp ridges and hollows that during the coldest part of the night could cut through worn felt or thin leather. Megan's boots had started out soaked, now they crackled and she couldn't feel her toes.

"All right." She blew through the wool of her mittens again, feeling the damp warmth of her breath cool much too fast.

The smaller doors had leather and wood latches, and she knew the sequences would have been changed since Marte took her out of the Apprentice Hall, but she tried them anyway. Only the main door had a wood and metal latch with a key, that Master Zyatki kept once the Hall was locked for the night. She longed to have the manrauq to lift the key from its peg in his office, between the door and the stairs. Even if she'd had as much manrauq as her mother, she would only have been able to pull it loose to clatter onto the stone floor.

The latch was the beard of an ornately carved demon's head surrounded by oak-leaves, painted here and there with copper paint. The copper was covered with frost, as was the demon's keyhole mouth, and Megan was careful not to touch the metal with her bare fingers as she pulled the bit of wire out of her coat where she'd kept it warm.

"Pray the Watch doesn't come," she said to Rilla. "We can't douse the torches."

"Okay." Rilla's teeth were chattering, whether from cold or fear, Megan didn't know. "We can't go back now. If she isn't drunk enough, she'll beat us for being so late."

"Yeah." Megan threaded the wire into the keyhole, following the worn spot on the left. "Shut up for a bit." She felt as if there were a hundred eyes watching her, waiting till the door opened before crying THIEF! She swallowed, reminding herself that it was dark, and late, and Rilla was watching out for her.

She had two of the weights shifted and the third one refused to move. Sudden sweat trailed down her back and she felt it cool in the breeze that stuck icy fingers up her sleeves. She wanted to shiver, but if her hands shook she'd lose the tumbler. There was nowhere else for them to go this late. She considered trying to huddle with Rilla in one of the burned-out buildings and dismissed the idea. Even if it weren't the time of year for graukalm, the grievous-wind off the steppe, they'd still probably freeze to death. Would the Sysbaet take us in? No, because we have a home and an adult relative… piss on this lock … It clicked as the tumbler moved and she eased the bolt back. The door squeaked open a fraction, letting out a draft of warm, and someone said:

"Very well done, Whitlock. I trust there is some good reason for such a skill to be practiced this late?" Master Zyatki stood, with a very neutral expression on his face, leaning one shoulder against the inside lintel of the door, arms crossed.

Megan and Rilla stood frozen for a long moment. "Master… ah… yes… well… there is," Megan stammered, floundering for some plausible reason. Before she could think of anything, he frowned.

"You're both so cold you're blue! In, in, explain in my office next the fire." He shooed them in, and shut the main gate behind them with a boom, locking it again with the key. He herded the two into his office, supervised them sweeping snow off their shoulders and legs, pulling stiff boots and socks off, and had them next to the brazier warming their hands on mugs of chai all before Megan could think of anything.

Rilla clung to her cousin, silent. Master Zyatki had met her once or twice before but she didn't know him well. Megan, in the familiar office that smelled of chalk, paper and damp wool mittens, sipped at her chai and felt sudden tears welling that she hid by blowing her nose in her kerchief. He's being so nice when he could be yelling at us. What was she to say? That they hadn't gone home because their kin would beat them? It was private. It was something that kin didn't do, and if some did, well, it was their shame. "Well?" he said, looked at Megan. One of the Hall ferrets rolled on his lap, chewing at his fingers.

"Mastery Zyatki, there… well, it's… uhm… like this… I… we…"

He cut her stammer off. "How old are you, Whitlock. Eleven?" She nodded. "Certainly old enough to give a straightforward answer to a question."

She blushed, looking down at her chai, wanting to melt into the floor like the puddles dribbling off her boots that stood by the door. She cleared her throat. "Master Zyatki, we had to come in to the Hall because my aunt, Rilla's mother, is… uhm… indisposed." She couldn't think of any other polite way of saying it. He looked a bit alarmed.

"Indisposed? Is she ill? Then why… ?" He raised an eyebrow at her.

Rilla blurted out, "Teik, she's drunk."

For a moment after the only sound in the office was the ferret, scrambling under some papers on the desk, and the crumbly sound of coals settling in the brazier.

"She's not at the passing out stage yet and we can't go home until then… we can't," Rilla plunged on. For a moment Megan had a wild hope that he might actually help them, get them out of Marte's hands as she saw anger flicker across his face, but then the hope withered. The only thing in his face was understanding and a shadow of helplessness.

"You can spend the night, you two." He sighed, looking older, rubbed his eyes. "This doesn't mean I can give you free room and board. The Guild isn't the Sysbaet."

"No, Master Zyatki, I know." Megan looked down at her chai, feeling Rilla leaning on her other side. He can only do what he's allowed to, by law. She didn't know what she was feeling… grateful that she was warm, that they had a place to stay, at least tonight. Angry, but she didn't know at whom. It was more man anger that she felt toward Marte, it was bigger than that, older. Nothing's fair. No matter how hard you try, something or someone kicks you in the teeth when you fall if you're poor.

"I know the way up to the rooms, Master." She put her cup down, trying to smile thank you at him.

"I'll have Lida show you up. You're officially guests." He patted them both on the shoulder, turning them toward the door of his office. I know you're helping but that just makes me feel more like a stranger here, in my own Guild. She fingered the picklock in her belt. Crying hasn't helped me, or being nice. Nothing's fair. Make them give you what you need. She held her head up as she followed Lida up the stairs.

"Good night, you two," he said from below.

"Sleep you sound, Master Zyatki," she said. Rilla took her hand.
2014-07-19 18:44
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