Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1)(6)

None of them know who I really am, of course. To them I’m just a strange visitor their mistress inexplicably tolerates, reeking of the dung of the lower wards. If they knew the truth, they’d be less polite.

The Rot can take all of them. They’re not the ones I’m here to see.

After letting me cool my heels in the waiting room for a few minutes, another footman arrives to escort me to the inner garden. This is a private space at the very center of the house, stone walled and ringed by tall, drooping willow trees. Only a few trusted servants are allowed here. They know that my gold pays their wages and puts food on their tables—though even the most trusted don’t know where that gold comes from, of course—and they’ve been warned, discreetly, of the consequences should any of this information be revealed.

They are considerably more respectful.

Ofalo greets me at the garden gate. He’s an old man, balding and long bearded, like a statue of the Blessed One. He bows low, and I wave at him to get on with it.

Addiction. I’ve spent too much time here already. I shouldn’t be here at all. Every minute is a risk. Every minute is weakness. Every time I leave I swear I won’t come back, that next time I’ll send some go-between who knows nothing and endangers nothing. Just knowing that this place is here should be enough, but it’s not. I have to see her smile, or I start to feel hollowed out. I start to think dangerous thoughts.

“Welcome, Lady Isoka,” Ofalo says. “Lady Tori will be here any moment.”

“Good. Anything I need to know?”

If Ofalo objects to being snapped at by a girl of eighteen, he doesn’t show it. That’s one of the reasons I like him. He’s been my factor here since the beginning, and he’s never given me cause to regret it, never asked too many questions. Blessed knows I pay him enough.

“No, my lady. A few trivial disputes among the staff. Nothing that requires your attention.”

“Anyone who troubles Tori is to be turned out immediately.”

“Of course, my lady.” Ofalo bows again. “Shall I send for refreshments?”

“No.” I grit my teeth. “I’m not staying long.”

“As you say.”

He bows again and withdraws on noiseless feet. I go into the garden and sit at the little stone table, staring down at the tiny babbling brook. It’s perfect, the epitome of everything a brook should be. Someone made it that way, placed every stone with careful consideration, taking into account the sound of the water and the way the light filters through the willows. The whole house is like that, smooth and deliberate, a work of art.

It’s another reason I can’t stay here too long. It makes me want to break something.

Tori moves so gracefully I don’t even notice when she comes in. She’s wearing a light blue kizen, fading to purple at the bottom, like a clear sky passing slowly from day to twilight. I can’t stand the things. I hate the way they restrict me to tiny, mincing steps and pin my arms to my sides. But Tori wears hers effortlessly, as though she were born to it, as elegant at thirteen years old as any lady of the Imperial court.

We don’t look much like sisters. We’re both short, though she’s still growing and she’ll soon be taller than me. We have the same straight, dark hair, but mine is cut short and tied up, while hers falls like a black curtain to her waist, thick and glossy as a waterfall of ink. Her skin is smooth, her hands uncallused. She’s so beautiful it makes me want to weep. And when she sees me, her face lights up, and I realize all over again why I can’t stop coming here.

“Isoka!” She runs to me, as fast as the restrictive kizen will allow, all her decorum forgotten. I love her for that, too. She throws her arms around me and I hug her back. “It’s been so long,” she says. “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”

“I know.” Three months. Longer than ever before, weaning myself off her like an addict trying to get clean of dream-smoke. “I’m sorry. I’ve been busy.”

“Are you going to be staying tonight?” Tori says. “I’ll get Viala to make something special—”

“No!” I blurt out. “I’m sorry, Riri. I don’t have long.”

Her face falls, but there’s still a hint of a smile at the pet name. She’s too old for it. Another few years and she’ll be something like a woman. I find it hard to imagine.

“Before I go,” I say, “I need you to tell me everything that’s been happening. I rely on you to keep an eye on things, you know.”

That’s all it takes to get her smiling again. She sits across from me and launches into a story about the cook’s dog getting into trouble. I listen and make encouraging noises, and just watch her. Remember this, I tell myself, over and over. Save this, for when you need it.

“Isoka,” she chides. “You’re not listening.”

“Sorry.” I shake my head. “What happened to the dog?”

“Old Mirk only has three teeth left, poor thing. Last month Narzo said he wasn’t good for anything and wanted to put him down, but I wouldn’t let him. You can’t get rid of someone just because they aren’t useful anymore.”

“That was very kind of you.”

Her face clouded. “He died anyway, though. Last week. Tutor says that’s the way of nature and I shouldn’t be sad about it, but I cried anyway.”

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