Esparei had died.
She knew that with terrible clarity.
Murdered on the bridge, then hidden in the woods. How cowardly. How cruel. How- cold the world suddenly was. Like nothing she’d ever felt. There was no gentle embrace of the divine. No final comfort. Just- cold.

“You poor girl.”
She didn’t know the voice. Her limbs started to twitch. Her skin knit together.

You’ll never be warm again.

She could sit up by some miracle- her fine gown crusted in blood and dirt, her pistol still clutched in her right hand. And the feeling of absolute dread, making the back of her neck tingle. Alone? No- not this time. Not her murderers. A woman.

Then- she was at the tavern door. Then, she was speaking plainly, artlessly, feeling hollow and violated until the anger shot up unexpectedly like a viper.

She had stripped bare, showing Vernon the ugly gashes across her torso- hacked at like she was nothing more than a thing, a piece of meat. She had demanded blood for blood, as was her right. She- she-

You’ll never be warm again.

She screamed. Like something had come undone in her. Like all the grief and rage were pouring out like a storm and she couldn’t stop. Not even if she tried. Screaming and sobbing and pressing herself as far into the corner of her room as she could, until Vernon, barely awake and panicking, rushed in and held her. Soothed her. Let her cry herself out while murmuring prayers softly and squeezing her hand.
“I think you should let the High Inquisitor examine you. I’m worried about you.”

She didn’t respond. Just squeezed his hand a little tighter.

Why art thou blooming now

It was well after midnight, but Esparei was used to their late night chats, sitting by the fire with drinks and a bite to eat. Tonight, it was tea- fine Capacian tea from her own personal collection- and toasted bread with the last of a jar of marmalade. She set the tray next to Ragnar and arranged herself on the cushion across from him.
“What is this, my Lady?”
“You like jam?”
The Njord gave her a wide grin.
“Oh yes!”
“This is like jam, but orange.”
“I see!”
He slapped a hearty dollop onto some bread while she poured them both tea. And ate half in one great chomp.
“Mmmm! Yes! Very good!”
Esparei giggled and passed him a cup.
“I’m glad you like it. I’ll have to get it more often. How are you feeling?”
“Well enough- why?”
“We did just have…quite the time. You almost drowned, you were almost executed, the fire went out…”
They both shuddered.
“Lady Esparei, we are up against much. And I am more active than most. But I am fine, as you can see.”
“But the oath-”
She fidgets with her cup, anxious.
“…Do you resent me for it?”
“No. Why would I?”
“Some might think you’re my loyal dog now. Or a servant to my House. It’s wrong, of course, but-”
Ragnar patted her shoulder, gently, with his free hand.
“Lady, I understand why the decision was made. And I understand what my role is, yes? You told me your grandfather- Lord…Lord…”
He clutched the teacup with both hands and made an embarrassed grimace in the general direction of the fire.
“I cannot speak it. Please repeat it for me?”
“Lord Aram.”
“Close enough.”
She giggled.
“Your grandfather, Lord Ahhhhram, has a group of his most loyal around him. And surely you are doing the same.”
“I’m trying…my retinue’s delay made things…harder.”
“How so?”
“I wanted to have extra hands to help make the work go a bit smoother. And to watch over those of us doing good work- that’s the purpose of the oath! My duty is to nurture the garden and oversee as it expands and diversifies, and I cherish every Rose we’ve ever inducted into the House. We have many more in Capacionne, obviously. But you have the distinction of being our very first Njordr Rose.”
“Ah yes, a wild thing that grows in an unforgiving land-”
Ragnar’s tone is tinged with dramatics, but there’s a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Esparei smiled back.
“Wild but enduring, no matter what. That’s what I find so unbearably lovely about this place.”
“Do I make a point of lying to you, Ragnar Stoneskin?”
“No, no, you do not. I just- even I have a hard time seeing my homeland as lovely. Why do you say it is so?”
“There is beauty in something that endures. That says ‘here I am, my roots are deep, and I will not be moved by gods or man’. That speaks to a strength and love in the land I can’t put into words. Not adequately. I think only a skald could- it deserves to be spoken in the tongue of this land, not my clumsy attempts at it.”
Ragnar was silent for a long moment, then he took a careful sip of tea and tried to speak.
“Lady Esparei-”
“Please call me Esparei when we’re not in public. Don’t stand on ceremony when we’re sitting cross-legged on the floor while you’re eating marmalade with your fingers.”
“Ah you caught me! But Lady- Esparei- you speak of my home with such love and care. And you are not of this land, but you do not come here and try to force it to change for you.”
“That’s how you ruin your garden.”
“I see.”
“And I would be a poor guest indeed if I came into a home that was not mine and moved everything around to MY liking, eating all my host’s food and smashing up their belongings.”
“That is a very good way of putting it, yes.”
“My purpose here, which the Saenger Lords know, is to uplift and enrich the community. Working with the Church and the common folk. Tending to the space we seek to command, or we’ll be left with a patch of sour earth and an empty garden. I’m no great commander, no hulking brute with a sword or an economy minded fellow with every last vegetable priced to the stalk. They have their place, and their purpose, to whatever end that is. I know I couldn’t do their jobs. But I do know I can do mine best serving the people, as a Highborn should.”
“You spoke to Brother Erasmus about this most passionately, I remember.”
“I did. And I meant every word.”
“I know you did.”
Esparei finished her tea, deep in thought for a minute.
“I still need to learn Njordr, don’t I.”
“Ha! Yes, yes you do!”
“Then I can speak to the Avalanche and give him marmalade too, and make many friends.”
“Oh no- we may have to fight over the orange jam, it is very good.”
“There’s enough to go around, you menace!”
They dissolved into merry laughter. By the time they finished the tea and toast, it was late. Ragnar slept by the fire, in Esparei’s reading chair, axe across his knees. And Esparei, in her bed, hair falling over the pillows like so much spilled coffee, dreamed of flowers growing in ice and songs in the dark.

Apple blossom

Esparei had delayed unpacking for as long as possible. But she’d finally caved and put everything away carefully, every gown, every robe, all of her furs, her books, things that reminded her of Capacionne. She unpacked the portrait last- her family, in a dreamy pastoral scene, a smaller copy of the painting in their home in Beauclair. A tree laden with blossoms on an island that had never known a storm. Whole and perfectly preserved for all time. She couldn’t look at it for long. It hurt too much. It just made her think of…that night four years ago. There had been so much blood. And fire. And- no. Don’t dwell on it. She already couldn’t shake the image of Victor collapsing, bloody and shocked. She’d thrown up after, begging Rollo to help her out of her masquerade gown, nearly in tears as he helped her change into something easier to move in, so she could go help that reckless Njord.

She looked at the red flowers on her desk, next to a little wooden figure painted crimson. Such sweet gestures, from a person who was so loud, so, so chaotic- the gentle nature of his gifts was jarring, almost. When he’d been stabbed in the tavern, when Victor had gone after him, she’d shielded his body with hers, unthinking. That’s what you do when you protect someone, right? Not just with words and titles. Not hiding away waiting for her grandfather to call her home.

A tree laden with blossoms on an island that had never known a storm. Until the storm came. And now…being able to speak openly about the coup with Saga had felt like a cork had been pulled from her soul and everything poured out in that moment. They knew. They’d heard terrible things. They listened when she said how important it was to serve the people you are responsible for. They told her the plight of the Njords, of the suffering and the harsh, unyielding land they fought so hard to preserve. And it made her heart ache. She wanted to talk to Vernon more too, she’d felt so guilty for ruining her atonement. She wanted to tell Svanhildr everything. She wanted to hug Ragnar- he gave such good hugs, like nothing could happen and she was safe, if only for a moment. That comfort meant a lot when she was painfully homesick and lonely.

A tree, stripped bare by the storm. But still living.
A Lady, alone.


I can’t sleep again. The town is too noisy, too unfamiliar. My back still aches from burying the dead, I’m sure the Friar is just as exhausted as I am. But still…no sleep. The fatigue creeps in and whispers sweet temptation in my ear, but when I lie down, in this new bed, in this new place- nothing. It’s infuriating.

I think I liked the nightmares more than this. It feels like my skin is buzzing. Too many questions, too many things to do. It’s unceasing. I would have gone to the pack’s lodgings but I still…don’t quite know how to talk to them, and I would have felt terribly rude if I’d woken the Lords. So I went to Luqa’s grave- poor soul- and sat by it until the sun rose. I didn’t say anything at his funeral. I don’t think there was anything I could have said, not then. But by the water, when the world was sleeping, I asked if he felt at peace. Or if there was something left behind, undone. The dead often leave so much behind. I will too, whenever Sveas claims me.

How does anyone relax in this town? How does anyone accomplish anything? How do I sleep, deathlike and dreamless, until I don’t ache all over and my mind is clear?

Upon waking-

The day before Striga left town had been a busy, unseasonably warm one. Their workroom stank, even over the incense they’d lit, the reek of dead flesh permeated everything. But the work was almost done- they leaned over the body they were cleaning, gently scraping under the nails with a fine brush. The door creaked. Striga paused. They could hear soft footsteps, the clink of a chain, and a polite, awkward pause-
“Spit it out, I’m busy.”
They turned to face Brother Howe, a tall, red-faced man all in white, wearing an expression of slight disapproval.
“What do you need, Brother?”
“Must you be rude, my child?”
Striga wiped their hands on a rag and reached for the packet of thin cigars they kept tucked in their belt.
“Sorry. It’s been a long day and I’m working alone, mum’s stomach, you know-”
The priest nodded.
“When she’s anxious, there’s no helping it. I understand. I- Striga, she told me some things. Things I should like to discuss with you. I will not deny I am worried, child.”
His eyes moved over the ugly marks on their face and neck. Striga turned away so he couldn’t see, exhaling a cloud of vaguely herbal-smelling smoke in the direction of the body.
“There’s nothing to talk about. I’m fine. Honest. It’s just nightmares.”
“People do that sometimes.”
Brother Howe made an exasperated noise.
“I’m not trying to fuck with you, Brother. But it’s really not something to worry about. I’m just overworked.”
“I don’t believe you. But I won’t force you to tell me.”
He gave her arm a gentle squeeze.
“Your family is worried about you. Walk in the light, child.”
Then he was gone, before they could deflect again. Striga finished their cigar, staring at the half-washed body on the table, lost in thought.

The door creaked.
“Brother, I told you-”
“It’s wrong to lie, little witchling.”
They turned. Brother Howe was in the doorway, but he looked…wrong. His eyes were wet, black pits, his nose a tattered ruin, his mouth full of broken teeth and a red, red tongue. His priest’s vestments were filthy. And his hands- claws, reaching for them.
“But you’d never lie to me, would you? We know everything about each other, witchling, come-”
They moved, so the table was between them and the not-Howe. And it stared. Grimaced. Lunged forward, mouth agape-

Striga jerked awake, hands scrabbling for something to throw.
“Easy there!”
They rubbed their eyes. Faces swam into view- the farmer who’d let them sleep in their barn, his wife and children. They all looked scared. Of them.
“Sorry…sorry…bad dream…”
“You sure?”
Striga nodded, reaching for their boots. The family didn’t look reassured.
“How far is Runeheim from here again?”
“Handful of days, if you stay off the main roads.”

The family business

Striga was absolutely filthy. It had been an oddly long work day, three families come for viewing and the rest for the grave- and they could feel the fatigue tugging at their limbs as they heaved the narrow copper tub out of storage and into the yard. Their mother- bless her- bustled over from the pump with two massive buckets, the maid following with two more.
“Just toss your things on the steps there, my duck. Birdie’s doing the laundry tomorrow. And I’ve promised your pa I won’t let you in the house until you’ve had a wash.”
“Birdie shouldn’t have to touch that.”
Striga rasped, stripping down and clambering into the tub- for their family, the human body held no mysteries, living or dead. Zora passed them a bar of soap that smelled strongly of thyme.
“Birdie knows what the work entails, dear- make sure you get under your nails.”
“At least it’s not freezing out, you harridan.”
They shuddered, recalling a particularly gruesome work day that had led to a speedy wash with a bucket of water with the ice still in it. The family always bathed after work- wouldn’t do to track mud and gore into the house, stinking of who knows what and embalming fluid. It was the proper, polite thing to do. Even if it was miserable at times. Birdie collected their disgusting clothes, apron and all, and disappeared into an outbuilding.
“Shall I get your back and hair?”
“Please. I think if I tried to lift my arms, they’d just fall off.”
“You were at it all day, we’ll have to make you some tea to help with the ache. How on earth did you get dirt in your hair, I never-”
They let their mother grumble on, drawing their bony knees up so they could just…rest while she worked oil into their hair. The news from town, Striga’s general scruffiness, their brothers’ marital woes, the familiar litany washed over them as the sky gradually darkened overhead.
“And he said-”
“Wait. What was the magister on about earlier?”
“I…well. We have some news. Your brothers are settled now, and we’ve…ducky we’ve been called to the warfront in Runeheim. And we need you to come with us. There’s so much work, and we don’t want to leave you alone, and-”
“We leave at the end of next month. You’d need to go on ahead to set up, the shop travels slow. I know we’re asking a lot of you, dear. We wouldn’t if it wasn’t important.”
Striga looked up. Zora was usually insufferably cheery, almost jolly, the mama hen at the center of the family business. The note of uncertainty in her voice was almost wildly out of character.
“Of course I’ll go. I just need a day to drop off invoices and pack my things.”
Their mother kissed their forehead.
“Thank you, dear. You do so much for us.”
She sat back as Striga rinsed and stood up- the bath water was an unpleasant shade of red-brown but they were squeaky clean. There was nothing to be done for their hands, permanently stained black from the crematorium. And the scarring on their neck…like long, thin fingers gouging out the flesh, it had been a livid, foul purple at first, now it was a dull, dark rose against the corpse-pale skin around it. Their mother paused.
“Does it still hurt?”
“…Would you consider seeing a priest? Please?”
“I don’t need a priest to scowl and tut and say something’s wrong with me.”
“Ducky, I worry. You were sleepwalking again.”
“Think about it? While you’re on the road?”
Zora passed them a clean shift, kissed them on the cheek.
“I need to help your pa with supper. I won’t push you but…we- I love you, my little witchling.”
“I know, mum. I love you too.”

Out with the tide

It was barely light out. Faile had packed a bag, climbed out a window cat-quiet, and headed for the docks- but she’d made a detour. Call it sentimental. Down a back alley, up Pearl Lane, and…there. Her house, or it had been. A notice on the door proclaimed it repossessed.

She was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor while her mother repaired a sail.
“Yes, petal?”
“Where’s da?”
She traced shapes in the ashes of the hearth with chubby child’s fingers. Her mother paused mid-stitch.
“You know how I told you sometimes things go back out with the tide? Your da did that. But I ain’t mad for it, we both decided it was right.”
“Oh…did he love us?”
“Yes he did, flower. But sometimes love ain’t enough and you have to go out with the tide. It’s not your fault.”
“He’s better off on his own. Just like we are, yeah?”

Faile tore the notice down, ground it into the mud under her sandal.

“How old is the girl?”
“Old enough to work. Come here, little one.”
The big man, the one that smelled like rot, took her hand.
“I’m a close friend of your ma, and I need a special job done. Can’t just be anyone, and your ma tells me you’re a quick and clever sort. Can you help me?”
Faile looked at her mother, anxious, twisting her hem between her fingers. Her mother was never anxious. Something was wrong.
“Yessir, what d’you need?”
He smiled, she saw jeweled teeth.
“That’s what I like to hear. Basia, your girl is smart.”
Her mother didn’t say anything, wouldn’t look at her. Not even after she’d come back spattered with blood, carrying a paring knife and a heavy sack of coins. She’d thrown up, washed her face in the basin, and curled up by the fire, dreaming of serpents carrying her out to sea. Ten. Ten.

The lock was old, it crumbled in her hand. She slipped into the house- a room, really. They’d barely gotten by, even with the neighbors’ help.

Her mother’s illness had run its course, finally. She couldn’t focus on the body, her eyes automatically went to the wooden lion her mother had nailed to the wall just above the hearth. Her ears were ringing. She’d seen bodies before but this was different- she had to prepare it. Should she be crying right now? Where were the tears? Did she even have time to cry before she went next door to ask Ma Tallett for help? Wait, wait…Faile fumbled in her pocket, produced a coin. Placed it carefully under the dead tongue- da had said you have to pay for the crossing but she didn’t know if it was some outrageous bit of folk nonsense or some old truth- closed the mouth. Closed the eyes. Washed her hands raw in the basin by the grimy window. Then she went next door.

The service was short- the other women in the neighborhood covered the cold, pale thing on the bed in flowers and wept over her while a priest sang something slightly off-key. Then the body that wasn’t mother anymore was wrapped in sheets. Taken away to be buried. She couldn’t bring herself to follow. The women sighed and patted her hand, they just assumed she was grieving. So young, they said, on her own without her ma and da. What will become of her, of the house. So young.

Everyone trailed out, with varying degrees of pity.

And then it was just her in that house of silence, her and that fucking wooden lion and a pitiful little dent in the narrow bed.

Faile looked at the room one last time. The flaking paint on the walls. The filthy, cracked window. It had felt like a palace when she was a child, something marvelous where she could roam uncontested. Her domain. It had been cleared of furniture. Of any signs of life. And now, in the grey, wet dawn it looked like a crypt. A memorial to the family that wasn’t. A monument to her mother’s shortcomings and Vos’s endless greed. And she was cutting it loose, letting it drift away from her on the tide. Somewhere, a bell rang.

Time to go. She shouldered her bag, closed the door. And didn’t look back, not until the ship was leaving the harbor and the city was a colorful smear on the horizon.

Seven. Ten. Sixteen. Twenty-eight.