I returned to the door of Elderflower Books early Saturday morning, a week after having officially been given ownership of the store (and assisted Fitzroy Angursell, of all people, in organizing the divorce of its former proprietor, Jullanar of the Sea) to find someone there waiting for me. A young woman, barely more than a child—although I knew better than to voice that observation aloud—with long red hair pulled back in a braid and a sensible dress was leaning against the storefront next to the door, watching the inside for movement.
In fact, she was so intent on the dark interiors of the store that she didn’t seem to notice my approach, which was fortunate, as I was in less than fine form after my morning’s run. It hadn’t been a particularly long one—even though it was early in the day, the summer heat and humidity had begun to rise and made running unpleasant—but it was enough to make me considerably more disheveled than I wanted to be. I paused, made sure I was at least somewhat put-together, and approached.
When I was perhaps half the square away, my footsteps were heard, and the young Miss Margaret Etaris spun from where she was staring into the window to look across the square at me with a gaze almost as piercing, if considerably less practiced, than that of her mother. I had met her on a number of occasions, although we had never spoken much; however, her mother had asked me to keep an eye on her, and she had always seemed a sensible and kind young woman, and so I bowed to her with a respectful flourish.
“Good morning, Miss Etaris,” I said, because being unsure why she was here was no reason not to be polite. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
She curtsied back to me, but almost as an afterthought, before planting her hands on her hips and looking up at me.
“I’m your new bookstore assistant.”
I stared at her for a moment.
“The store doesn’t have an assistant anymore, because you own it now. However,” she said, pressing forward as if I had objected, “it’s easier to run the store with more than one person, mother always said, and besides someone has to make sure you’re keeping the store up to her standards. Of course, I won’t be able to work on the weekdays until after the kingschool has let out—”
“If you don’t mind, Miss Etaris, could we continue this conversation inside?” I managed, for no matter how strange a—job interview, perhaps?—this was, it was best not conducted in the middle of the street. She considered for a long moment, looking at me so narrowly that I almost thought I was the one being interviewed, and then she nodded and moved to open the door.
Which was, of course, locked, so she tugged the handle for a moment before moving away and refusing to meet my eyes. I didn’t say anything, instead opening the door and, after we had moved inside, inquiring as to if she wanted coffee or, perhaps, tea.
That seemed to distract her from her embarrassment, as her eyes went wide in momentary wonder.
“Truly? I’ve never had tea—could I?”
“I received more of it than I know what to do with from an acquaintance of my grandmother’s,” I said by way of explanation, although there was also the fact that I was looking for an excuse to have some myself. I had developed a perhaps unfortunate taste for it, and thus tried to limit myself by never making tea for myself alone, but instead for when I had company—such as now. I fetched the milk from the icebox and the old stoneware teapot, and set about preparing the tea the way Mrs. Etaris—but that was not her name any longer, I reminded myself—the way Jullanar of the Sea had taught me.
Which was a deeply disorienting thought, even a full week after I had literally run into Fitzroy Angursell in the Woods Noirell.
I set the tea to steep, and turned back to the young Miss Etaris, who took that as her cue to resume her speech from outside.
“As I was saying, of course I cannot work during school hours, but after school and on the weekend, and on market days, I can watch the till, and shelve books, and—and you know what an assistant for the bookstore does, you’ve been one!” She cut herself off. “So that’s that.”
I wondered if I should remind her that one could not, in fact, hire oneself to someone else’s store. Instead of doing that, I took a sip of tea—which was really quite good—and considered what to say. Really, there were all sorts of objections I could, and perhaps should, have been making. But on the other hand, a young woman of thirteen who was committed enough to a course of action to lie in wait outside a bookstore early in the morning for who knows how long, and prepared enough to have already thought through what her schedule would be, seemed unlikely to be deterred by arguments such as “I wasn’t looking for an assistant,” or “you’re thirteen.”
Instead, I waited until she’d drank some of her tea, at first hesitant and then, after helping herself to a little more sugar to put in it, with satisfied delight, before I made any counterpoints.
“You make a good case,” I began, and started with what I suspected the easier question would be. “But first, I have to know: does your father know you plan to work here?”
She scowled. “We’ve discussed it.”
I looked at her for a long moment—something that had always been effective on me as a child when I was being evasive, and which my mother deployed with lethal precision—and after a moment or two of quiet tea-drinking she sighed.
“He said it was a fool’s errand and a mistake, but if I was determined to do it he wasn’t going to save me from my errors.”
Not precisely a ringing endorsement, I thought, but I hadn’t really expected one from Constable Etaris in the first place. I moved to the more awkward question.
“The second matter is that…well, have you considered your reputation?” Horribly indirect, but anything more would be indelicate to speak of with a thirteen-year-old. The fact was, though, that she was a young woman, and if she came to work here while I ran the shop…people would talk, and it would be far harder on her than on me. It was ridiculous, and unfair—nobody would look twice at a boy of thirteen doing what she was doing—but it was true.
And I knew all too well how cruel Ragnor Bella could be to someone with a poor reputation.
Miss Etaris didn’t answer me for a long moment, drinking her tea and looking down at the table between us, and then she looked up to meet my eyes again. When she spoke, her voice was steely.
“Mr. Greenwing, in the last week, my grandmother was exposed as a blackmailer; my father as an incompetent, a liar, a cheat, and a drunk. My mother was revealed by Fitzroy Angursell himself to be one of the most infamous rebels in the last hundred years of the Empire. As far as this town—as far as the entire barony is concerned, I have no good reputation—nor will I, I suspect, until long after I have left for university.”
She watched me for my reaction, eyes careful, expression defiant, as though daring me to say something. I finished my cup of tea.
“In that case, Miss Etaris,” I said, nodding toward her cup, “once you’re done with your tea, we can start setting up to open.”
“Jemis,” Mr. Dart said, leaning across the counter of the bookstore, “you seem to have acquired a minion.”
The market out front was bustling, and Mr. Dart had arrived even earlier than usual—in attempt, I supposed, to catch the Red Company this time if they came calling again. He had amiably informed me earlier in the week that I would never be forgiven for having met Fitzroy Angursell on the one Saturday in a month that my friend decided to spend the morning of market day in home at Dartington rather than in Ragnor Bella.
I glanced toward the room he was looking at, where Miss Etaris—with the aid of a stepladder—was re-shelving books with singleminded intensity. I had worried for part of the morning that she might not be as good at the job as she had presented herself to be, but in fact she knew where things were meant to go, could make an educated guess to the locations of things she did not know immediately, and seemed a decent hand with numbers—and the job of assistant at its core did not require much more than those things.
“I wouldn’t let her hear you say that,” I returned, looking back toward Mr. Dart. “In truth, I rather suspect the opposite is the case. She arrived this morning before opening and informed me she would be the bookstore assistant, to make sure I kept things up to her mother’s standards.”
“Truly?” Mr. Dart’s laugh was bright, even on the somewhat overcast day—it seemed that the humidity of earlier had decided to turn to storm, and I suspected that the market would be quieter than usual on that account. Perhaps that was for the best—as confident as Miss Etaris seemed, I didn’t want to overwhelm her with a busy first day. Then again, if she was to mostly be working weekends, she’d get used to busy days soon enough.
“Truly. She had clearly thought it out beforehand, as well. I figure if she truly wants to do this, and it isn’t a temporary rebellion or reaction against her father—” which was a very real possibility, “—then that will become clear soon enough, and she’ll learn how to run a bookstore in the meantime. And if it is just a reaction and passes quickly, well, I’m not much worse off for it, and it will have given her somewhere to go while she needed it. Why are you looking at me like that?”
The last question was due to Mr. Dart’s expression changing into a quiet, small smile, something soft in his gaze as he looked at me. It was gratifying, certainly, but—
“No reason,” he said, pushing off of the counter and strolling over to the shelves. “I was just reminded of a certain book—oh, it was somewhere around here—”
“Peregrine Dart, take one more step toward that book of the saints and I will evict you from the store.” It was an empty threat and he knew it.
“Religion and biography are both in the second room over, actually,” Miss Etaris’s voice came from the side room as she emerged, a pile of books in front of her. “Hello, Mr. Dart. What were you two talking about?”
“Good morning, Miss Etaris,” Mr. Dart said, with a respectable if not particularly interesting bow as she dropped the books on the counter. “I was remarking upon the fact that Mr. Greenwing seems to have found a competent assistant with remarkable speed, given his recent acquisition of the store, and he was telling me it was all your doing.”
“Which it was,” she said, but seemed gratified by the praise regardless, and proceeded to interrogate him about if he was in here for a book—which he admitted he was not—and then, to my surprise, about what he had studied in Stoneybridge. I leaned on the counter, watching as he obligingly (if bemusedly) followed her around the store as she shelved books and answered her questions about first Alinorel and then Astandalan history, and thought that this might, in fact, work out.
It took a week and a half before her father showed his face in the bookstore. I had done my best, over the past days, to behave toward her as I remembered Mrs—as I remembered Jullanar behaving when I had begun work at the bookstore, disgraced and without another place to turn; I kept an eye on her when she was at the till and steered conversation, to the best of my ability, away from her family’s scandal and business. Which was difficult, as the barony was as always full of inveterate gossips, and it would take some time before the events of the past few weeks faded from view.
I did notice, though, that about a week in Mr. Dart, who had largely given up his project of introducing Charese dishes into the general palate of Ragnor Bella, made another attempt that, with the help of much conversation about it from the Honourable Roald Ragnor (who was deeply amused by the whole thing and attempted to bait me into a conversation about which trends from Tara he should attempt to introduce; my response, spurred in part by the fact that he’d opened the conversation with a backhanded reference to Morrowlea, was that I wasn’t aware Tara understood the concept of trends, or in fact anything less than two hundred years old) occupied the gossip of Ragnor Bella for a few days. Of course, Mr. Dart’s whims could hardly push town gossip far from the appearance of Fitzroy Angursell, especially as with his niece’s place as heir to Dartington he was no longer the most eligible bachelor in Ragnor Bella (a title which, I thought with some horror, may have fallen to me), but I appreciated my friends’ attempt regardless.
Miss Etaris did not show many signs of the gossip bothering her, wearing her air of unimpressed disinterest like the armor of a great knight from the stories. She turned up her nose and asked people, with stiletto-sharp politeness, if they were interested in buying anything if they spoke on the topic too long in front of her, and I tried to usher them out before that became a problem. At the very least, I tried to remain within earshot of the front room whenever she was at the till, so that if anything happened I could return and offer what assistance was possible.
But this particular day, in the middle of the week, had been quiet, and so I had felt it safe to venture into the back room during the last hour of the day and begin sorting through the most recent packages of books which had arrived with the mail. I was halfway through unpacking one—several new novels, both romances and a handful of the detective stories that Mr. Dart enjoyed—when I heard voices from the front room and felt my stomach sink to my shoes.
“—really, Maggie, don’t you think this has gone on long enough?” Constable Etaris—for he still technically had the title of constable, until Master Dart finished investigating the various charges his former wife had laid at his feet before leaving with the Red Company—was saying, as I came into earshot.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Miss Etaris replied, words crisp and icier than I’d ever heard her. In many, the effect would have made them seem older, but in this moment she sounded, painfully and apparently, thirteen years old. “Do explain.”
“Maggie,” her father said, tone..exasperated? Tired? It was hard to tell, without seeing his face. “I understand that—you might not want to spend time—but here? People will talk—”
Her laugh had no humor in it.
“Is that the best you can do?” She demanded, and for a moment I heard the disinterested air drop entirely, leaving a live-wire of anger that stopped me—perhaps unwisely, as I did not want to leave her to face this alone—in her tracks. “People will talk? People are talking. They’re not going to stop—or did you forget last summer, when you were ready to cart Mr. Greenwing off to gaol just because Sir Vorel said he was a ‘bad character’? You didn’t mind people talking when it was your mother, or the local lord who thought you were useful—but she’s a blackmailer and he was a criminal too, and everyone knows you’re a fool. Or—oh, was that a one-time case? But you didn’t mind when you helped run off mama’s last assistant based on rumors. And now, when it’s about you, it matters that people will talk?”
“I’m worried about you,” Constable Etaris stressed, and I could hear Miss Etaris snort.
“Well, good for you. But you said I could take the job if Mr. Greenwing would let me, and he did.”
“I didn’t think he would actually—”
This was about when I made my way to the front room, and bowed to Constable Etaris shortly. “Mr. Etaris,” I said, and if he noticed the lack of title he didn’t feel ready to comment. At the till, Miss Etaris had drawn herself up to her full height, balled fists pressed to the grain of the wood. I remembered the Hall of Marvels in Ghilhousette, the way they would wind springs so tightly that they exploded with impossible force, powering far larger machines. Seeing the tension in that small frame, the way she’d gone almost as red as her hair, I abruptly found myself teetering on the edge of the cold clarity combat always gave me.
Unfortunately, I could not respond to my assistant’s father disapproving of her employment by challenging him to a duel. No matter how tempting.
“Mr. Greenwing,” he replied, focusing on me with a level of trepidation that he hadn’t had, of course, before it was known that I was the heir to the Woods Noirell and the Arguty Estate, and independent of those two facts was the friend of the Duke of Fillering Pool and independently wealthy on my own.
Funny, how those facts so frequently changed the way people interacted with me.
“Were you in to look for a particular book? I’m sure we could find it. Or were you here to browse?” I barely bothered to make my voice sound polite.
“No, I—” He glanced over to Miss Etaris, who looked no less on the verge of explosion, and back towards me, as if trying to chart a course between two great perils. I didn’t envy his position, and—at a stretch—could even pity him, somewhat.
It was a stretch, though.
“—I was just stopping in to check on how Margaret was faring at her job,” he recovered, which was not convincing but was a decent effort. I raised an eyebrow at him, and abruptly thought I had probably spent a bit too much time around Jullanar of the Sea.
I remembered, suddenly, and astonishingly, a moment on the first day of my employment, when my uncle had told me directly that I should never have returned to town, and Jullanar of the Sea took my arm, smiled at Sir Vorel and her then-husband, and informed them that she hoped my uncle did not mean that, for I had arrived just in time to help her. I was not sure my expression was half as graceful or convincing, but then I did not have twenty-odd years of behaving properly despite my past as a famous outlaw to help hone my self-control.
“I am very glad she has come to assist in the store,” I said, entirely truthfully, “as she’s quickly proving indispensable. You must be very proud.”
I caught Miss Etaris glancing at me out of the corner of my eye, but kept my attention on her father, who shifted again, as though unsure of where exactly he stood or where he could go from there.
“…that is good to hear,” he managed, after a moment. “I’ll leave you to the rest of your day. Margaret…” He paused, and the air hung heavy with things he was not saying. “…will you be home in time for supper?”
Miss Etaris did not look at him; some of the tension had left her, and she was watching her fingers as they traced the whorls of wood on the desk. Her shoulders were slumped, and while she had always been a short girl, I had not considered her small before.
Just when I thought she wasn’t going to speak, she sighed, hand flattening against the wood.
“I will be.”
“Good.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but closed it. The door thudded shut in its frame behind him, and silence filled the space, heavy and gray.
“…you don’t have to do that,” Miss Etaris said, after a long moment. “Say all those—nice things. Or make him leave like that. I can take care of myself.”
You’re thirteen, I didn’t say to her, and you shouldn’t have to. I knew what it was to be around that age, and to have to fight battles one should not have to.
“I prefer not to have people in my store who would have happily arrested me on hearsay alone a scant year ago, although I suppose if I applied that criteria as liberally as I wish to it would be excluding half of Ragnor Bella,” I pointed out instead. “And as for everything else, it was just the truth. A very acute woman told me that the store was easiest run by two people, and she has been entirely correct.”
That got a narrow glance from her, and then her usual air of disinterest returned like a portcullis slamming down, barring any glimpse of the child within.
“Of course it needs two people at least to run it, it’s the greatest bookstore in South Fiellan,” she asserted, turning back to whatever she had been focusing on before her father entered the store. A piece of paper, it seemed, and from her ink-stained fingers she had been writing something. I thought better of asking. “I’ll finish unpacking the books in the back,” she said, abruptly, rolling the paper and shoving it into her pocket. She stalked to the back room; I watched her go.
“I was thinking,” Miss Etaris said, one slow afternoon when we were doing inventory more than selling anything. Another summer thunderstorm had blown in; the sky outside was dark-blue, almost midnight, despite it being barely four in the afternoon. The rain was a true summer rain, thick fat raindrops thudding against the roof far above us. Even without going out, I knew the drops would be warm against my skin, if also heavy enough I would be drenched in an instant. I looked over at my assistant—for she’d been here for nearly a month, and thus seemed here to stay—and nodded for her to continue. “If we put all the romances and adventures—you know the ones—in one of the back rooms, and put another till there and paper—or maybe just the paper and some way to note the price—we’d probably sell a lot more of them.”
“Why is that?” I asked, because she clearly was on to something in her own mind, even if I couldn’t see why this would be worth the additional work. She had a considering frown on her face, looking at a stack of books.
“Well, I was thinking. I know a lot of girls in my year—and probably lots of others-want to be reading them. I want to be reading them. But the front room faces the street, and a lot of them have older brothers or fathers who wouldn’t like them reading that kind of thing—fanciful tales, you know. The kind that give young women ideas.” Her tone was full of adolescent scorn. “But if they can’t be seen perusing them, and the book will be all parceled up by the time they get near the street, all someone has to worry about is where to hide it at home. Which is easy enough to manage if your parents aren’t too tyrannical.” She spoke with the voice of experience, although in her case I suspected her mother may have been party to any such book-related rebellions. And I considered this—for there had indeed been something similar when I was a child, the young boys sneaking into Dominus Gleason’s library for books their parents wouldn’t approve of. I wondered if the girls my age had done similarly, or if Gleason’s atrocious attitude toward women made the prospect too unpleasant for them.
Not that this bookstore, which was after all a respectable establishment, carried anything like the old contents of Gleason’s library. But even romances and novels could be cause for familial disapproval, for proper young ladies—I recalled that in the early days I had worked at the store, Mrs. Landry had spoken disparagingly of her sister—of Jullanar of the Sea’s—fondness for them, and Jullanar was a grown woman.
“Would they avoid it still on my account?” I wondered. “After all, I am one of those older brothers.”
She snorted at me. “Of course you’re not. Everyone knows you went to Morrowlea where the women can do all the things the men do, and you wrote papers on treasonous poetry and things, and you’ve a friend who goes around in men’s clothing and you broke out of prisons and get up to adventures yourself, and you gave me a job and have been all in favor of Miss Dart taking over Dartington as heir, and Miss Sela says you’ve said you’ll teach her how to fight, so everyone knows you have more sense than to be bothered with things like novels giving young ladies ideas.”
She raised her eyebrows at whatever expression was on my face; I confess I did not know what it was myself. “What? Is any of that not true, then?”
“…it’s true,” I managed, wondering—not for the first time—at how different my life appeared from an outside perspective. I had not considered that the general events of my life had solidified into such a strangely positive reputation for rebellion and radical thought among the youth of Ragnor Bella. Then again, I supposed, if there had been a young man in town who had baked a cake and slain a dragon in the same afternoon when I was a boy, I would have been fascinated. “I…was not aware Sela had spread that particular promise around,” I added, after a moment. Miss Etaris laughed, which—like her anger—made her seem actually her age for a moment.
“It was after your father returned and one of the boys her year made some comment about—well, about all the rumors about him, even after things were already sorted about it, and Miss Sela—well, I wasn’t there, it was just after the school let out, but I heard that Miss Sela challenged him to a fight about it and said that her Uncle Jack was a good man and a hero besides and her brother was as well. After she won, she told him that he better not try again because you were going to teach her how to fight properly.”
I paused, leaning against the bookshelf to rest my face in one hand, and resolved to speak to Sela as soon as possible about appropriate use of force, and also about the wisdom of not bragging about your prowess, as it was always more useful to be underestimated than overestimated. “Did she now,” I said, and my voice came out only slightly strangled.
“Oh, don’t worry, I don’t think the teachers know. The boy didn’t want to admit he lost a fight to Miss Sela Buchance—or that he started a fight with a girl whose father had died earlier in the year,” Miss Etaris added.
“Good to know,” I managed, voice still weak, and pivoted away from the topic of my sister starting fights to defend my father’s honor—although I would tell him about it later, as I suspected he would be both touched and very amused, and perhaps have some advice on how to convince an unexpectedly belligerent child not to start schoolyard fights—and back to her idea. I had to admit, it made sense. “And as for the idea about the back room—well, we already have most of the romances and the mysteries in that area, we could add the adventure novels easily enough. How about on the next market day, we set up the second desk back there, and you could inform—well, anyone you think would want to know that we’re trying it, and we’ll see how it goes?”
For a moment, her eyes went wide and shocked again, the same as when I had offered her tea for the first time, and then she smiled opened and unrestrained for a moment, the kind of smile I had not seen from her before, and which—I had feared—she had learned to hide away from the world entirely. Lauren and Sela smiled like that, on occasion; I had, as a child. But it was the kind of bare-faced open delight I had only regained after returning from the grave and seeing the Mountains in the distance with my own eyes.
I was unutterably glad that Miss Margaret Etaris, for all the trials of the past month, had not lost her ability for unhidden delight.
“Thank you!” She said, bolting up from where she sat at once, as though to begin reshelving books immediately, and I covered a laugh. “I’ll just—”
“—finish going through the inventory first,” I reminded her. “We have plenty of time to move the entire adventure section once we’re through with that.”
Perhaps I should have anticipated Miss Etaris’s interest in my studies, after the way she had cornered Mr. Dart on that first market day and interrogated him about his studies in history, but I had though that the limits of her interest. I was, of course, very wrong. After Mr. Dart visited the store and the topic of the Gainsgooding conspirators came up, as it did on occasion when we reminisced about university, she began asking questions—first about those letters in particular, but then about studying poetry in general, both architectural and otherwise.
I remembered suddenly that she had come first in composition in her class, and that more often these days I would see her bent over scraps of paper, with ink-stained fingers, and did not curtail or simplify my answers as much as I would have otherwise. I explained the poetic forms that I had studied, their history and use, and the various ways information could be passed through them—from the simple transfer of imagery and emotion through the written word, its pacing and phrasing, that was the core of all writerly art, and then the deeper codes and ciphers that could be used, that could be built into syllables or poem structure, into the number of poems in a set or the number of letters in a word.
She was, I was gratified to see, an apt student, with smart questions when she offered them. At the end of what I had sheepishly realized was a lecture, albeit to an appreciative audience, she paused.
“What’s your favorite poem, Mr. Greenwing?”
I did not have to think about the answer. “On Being Incarcerated in Orio Prison by Ariadne nev Lingarel, for…many reasons, both of structure—it’s a lovely poem—and personal importance.” Personal importance seemed insufficient to describe the conversation I had with Ariadne in the Woods, the understanding passed between poet and reader, that my appreciation of her poem had brought such joy and peace to her even long after death. I smiled, remembering it and, as always when I remembered the Woods, remembering the peace and joy that suffused the air there.
“It must be good,” Miss Etaris mused aloud, “for you to look like that about it.”
“Not strictly about it,” I hastened to clarify. “Just…circumstances around it.” I was not sure how she would take hearing that I had died and returned; I suspected she would think I was playing a joke on her, and was not sure how to dispel that belief. “It is a wonderful poem, though, if a bit complicated.”
That warning aside, I did smile to see her bring a copy of the poem—which we did have in stock, as I had ordered two copies and only one person had been interested in it (that the person was Fitzroy Angursell was something I still did not know how to wrap my head around)—to the counter, and watched as she carefully counted out bees from the same small wallet that she tucked her pay into at the end of every week.
“If you have any questions about it—” I said, and she laughed at me without malice.
“I know where to find an expert,” she returned, and in the next few days I saw her poring over the book in her spare time, watching with slight embarrassment but not much surprise as the irritated furrow between her brows deepened. I would never tell someone a poem was too complicated for them—it went against every bone in my body—but I had been a half-decade older than her, had several classes of poetry under my belt, and still credited half of my insights into the poem into the intuitive leaps aided by wireweed. It was an extremely difficult poem to study, and to attempt it at thirteen—for she was studying it, clearly, notes collecting in the papers around her—was perhaps a bit hasty.
Three days later, she approached me again.
“Alright, what’s your second-favorite poem,” she said, the armor of her haughty indifference drawn up around her again. I considered her comments about fathers and brothers disapproving of one’s interests, about how her aunt had chided her mother for an interest in novels, and of course of the late Saya Etaris’s strict propriety. I wondered what they would say about a young woman interested in radical poetry, and how that could push someone to pretend to care about nothing. It was a fighting tactic, as well—to conceal one’s weak points by acting as if they didn’t exist, and hoping that you never betrayed it to someone who would strike, because the hit would be too terrible to bear.
“If you’re interested in structured poetry,” I said,and then hesitated before recommending it, as even in study they were…emotional, heavy, the kind of writing that seemed to scoop out your soul and hold it up to you for study, sunlight pouring through it like the small window of light the poet described so achingly. And yet, for a young woman with walls of indifference up around her for defense, grappling with the truth of her mother’s imprisonment in a marriage she had not wanted… Well, the poems had meant a lot to me, when I felt alone and beset on all sides. “The Correspondences of Love and the Soul are a set of ninety-nine perfectly-constructed sonnets, and also one of the best series of poems in modern Shaian.” While also being comprehensible to someone not high out of their mind, which was a bonus.
“I remember mother mentioning them at some point,” she said, and then shook her head as if to dismiss the thought. “Sonnets, you said?…I’ll see what I think of them.”
And if the next day at work her eyes were slightly red-rimmed, and if I caught her tracing out airo, that central part of the central sonnet, that declaration of unmistakable existence even in the most impossible circumstances, on the wood of the desk and any piece of paper put in front of her—well, I too had read the Correspondences.
“Thank you,” she said, quieter than she usually spoke, as we were packing up. “For—the poetry recommendations.”
“Anytime,” I said, and meant it.
We closed the store earlier than usual the day before market day, and I set about moving a spare table from one of the other rooms to the back room as Miss Etaris eyed the shelves critically, rearranging book after book. It was a quiet sort of work—it had been a quiet sort of day. Slowly but surely, the talk about Jullanar of the Sea was dying away, replaced by the realities of late summer in South Fiellan, about the talk that Lady Jessamine was going to hold some sort of summit in Nên Corovel with intermundial guests, of the latest fashions out of Chare or the recent betrothal of the Duke of Fillering Pool to the Ironwood Heiress (Hope had confided to me more privately that she and Hal hadn’t ruled out an elopement, just in case the formality grew to be too much for them; I assured the pair of them that my aid was still pledged to their service in that matter) and whatever new strangeness was afoot in the Woods Noirell (which I would have to check on, if it seemed more than idle rumor).
It was not that I had forgotten my assistant’s circumstances, certainly, but she had also borne up under them so valiantly that I had, perhaps, relaxed my watch for things that would upset her.
And so I was perhaps only slightly less surprised than she seemed, when she slid a book off of the shelves, looked at it, and promptly burst into tears.
I dropped the table instantly—and hurried over, to see her clutching a green leatherbound volume to her chest, one that I recognized: Durgand’s Valiance and Shock: An Account of the Infamous Red Company’s Nefarious Deeds. I had forgotten that we had a second copy,to replace the one that Jullanar of the Sea had annotated and gifted to me for Winterturn; it also should have been shelved with the histories, not the adventures, although I supposed I could understand the uncertainty. Perhaps it had been a small joke of Jullanar’s, as she had—I had learned, through the annotated copy—some opinions on its accuracy.
Miss Etaris hugged the volume to her chest as though it was her mother come home again.
“I—I just—” She began, and then was interrupted by a wracking sob. I thanked the Lady we were in the back room, where a few chairs for reading had already been set out, and fetched a quilt from one of them to drape around her shoulders as I guided her, carefully—and making no attempt to take the book—to sit, and took the chair next to her. She shuddered as my hand left her shoulder, and so I replaced it.
Were this Sela or Lauren or any of my sisters, I would have taken her into my arms and held her until the sorrow passed, but with my prickly young assistant, I was unsure if that would be appropriate or—more importantly—welcome. I waited with my hand on her shoulder, feeling the sobs through her body, and—when she quieted, after a moment, said—because it was true— “I am so sorry.”
This brought forth a new wave of tears, and with them—as though she had raised floodgates, and all that she had kept back behind the walls of reserve and distance was loosed with the tears—words.
“I—I know I shouldn’t—I know it was the right thing for her. For her to do. She was—even when she was saying goodbye, even when she was leaving, she was happy. I didn’t realize I’d never seen her truly happy before until she left. How could I not have known? She was—she was—all this time, and she never said anything, and I never knew!” Her voice pitched up into a wail. “And grandmother—grandmother was so horrible, and I didn’t even know she was being horrible—she’d say these things, about the Red Company, about how good it was that they were gone, about how rumor said that before the Fall Emperor Artorin’s forces had captured Fitzroy Angursell, and I thought—I thought it was just gossip, I thought—I didn’t think, and Mama never said anything—”
I did my best not to speak or even think ill of the dead, but I found myself profoundly unsurprised that Saya Etaris would have spoken like that in front of the daughter-in-law she had blackmailed into marrying her son.
“If she had told you,” I said, after a moment, “you would have been party to treason—to knowing the location of a traitor and not revealing it to the authorities. And of course you were a child, but for someone trying to make their name on a discovery of the Red Company…” I trailed off. “There would be many willing to overlook that, for the fame they would gain on successfully proving to have caught Jullanar of the Sea. She was likely acting to protect you, if that happened.”
She sniffled, hands still locked around the book, but nodded.
“She always talked about old friends. I thought—we all thought—she meant friends at Galderon from the revolution! And that that was why she didn’t give any details, because it wasn’t proper to speak about that—but—but now I know, and I have all these questions, and I can’t even ask them because she’s gone! And I can’t even be—I can’t even be mad at anyone that she’s gone, because grandmother is dead and father didn’t know, he didn’t know she was—she was being blackmailed—and she’s happy now, and what kind of horrible person would I be to be angry that my mother is so happy? She’s happy now, and she’s with—she’s with her friends, she’s going on adventures, and I want her to be happy and I want her to have adventures but—but—”
Her voice cracked and broke, and she had to try again.
“—but why couldn’t she have been happy with me?”
I put all thought of propriety aside and pulled her into a hug, for as hard as she clutched the book, it was not her mother, and it could not hold her back. She froze for a moment and I feared I had overstepped, but then she clung to my coat hard enough to crease the fabric and sobbed openly into my shoulder.
“When my mother married Mr. Buchance,” I began, unsure if it would help but incapable of doing nothing, “I was furious, and I hated myself for being furious. He was so kind, even to me, even when I was not kind to him, and he took care of her. He was the first person to come through after the Interim, and he—he made her happy, he made her so happy. I felt horrible for hating him for it, because it felt like if she married him, it would mean my father would never come home, ever again. It felt like I was giving up on a dream I had held for years.”
She did not look at me, but I could feel her stillness, waiting for where this was going. “It took me a long time, to forgive myself for that. But—but sometimes what makes the people we love happy still upends our entire lives. Sometimes it can be the right thing, for them—it can be a good thing—and still be profoundly upsetting for the people around them. Your mother being happy now doesn’t mean you aren’t left without a mother, and with secrets about your family even you didn’t know becoming the talk of the town.” I sighed.
“I just wish—I just wish—I don’t know,” Miss Etaris managed miserably, from where her face was still pressed against my coat. “I wish it hadn’t all been a lie. But if—if grandmother hadn’t been horrible, if she hadn’t been blackmailing mama, then I never would have existed at all. It was all always a lie.”
“Not all of it,” I said, thinking about the Jullanar formerly-Etaris who I had known. “She may not have wanted the marriage, but she did love you.” I was completely certain of that. “She asked me to look after you while she was gone, and announced to the entire town that you and your brother were the best things to come out of that marriage. When you came first in Composition she spent the morning telling me about it, before leaving so she could be there when it was awarded. That wasn’t a lie.”
Miss Etaris sniffled and pulled back; I offered her a handkerchief to wipe her eyes, which she took gratefully. Her other hand was still wrapped around Valiance and Shock.
“That only kind of makes it better,” she admitted, and I nodded.
“I know. There isn’t anything easy or quick that will make it better, or that will undo what your grandmother did.”
“…do you think she’ll come back?” She asked, voice quiet, and I couldn’t help a small laugh, without much humor.
“I don’t think I’m the person whose opinion you want. I’m the foolish little boy who always believed his father was coming home.”
“Well, you were right,” she said, looking up at me. “He did.”
“He did,” I agreed, and glanced down at the book. “And—well, I can’t promise anything, because that isn’t how the world works, but in all the stories, did the Red Company ever not achieve an objective they set out after?”
“I don’t know all the stories,” she protested, but she was beginning to smile, a little. “But…not in the ones I’ve heard.”
“I’m not sure what adventure she’s off on now,” I admitted, “and I don’t know how long it will take, but—I would be very surprised if she didn’t return to visit you. That doesn’t make it all better—” Oh, how I knew that the return of an infamous parent didn’t always make things better “—but I believe she’ll come back.” Perhaps not forever, but—but then, eventually Miss Etaris would be making her own way in the world, as well. Forever was so rarely possible, in any form.
She sniffled again, quiet for a moment.
“…thanks,” she said, into the quiet back room of the store. “…I don’t suppose you’ll still keep me on? Even though I’ve been dreadfully unprofessional.”
That was such a ridiculous thought that I snorted.
“Miss Etaris, within my own first week of employment, I invited an agent of the Indrillines into the store—” not that that was all Violet was, but that was too much to explain now, “—caused the store to be closed for a morning to handle the fallout from a cult meeting that Mr. Dart and I interrupted, threw myself into a burning building while on the clock, and spent the entire time miserably sick and half out of my mind. Your professionalism is a dramatic increase in the store’s standards.”
“Truly?” She asked, blinking up at me, and I nodded. “A burning—was that the one with the mermaid?”
“It was indeed,” I said, and the story of that particular adventure—although I left out the portions pertaining to my unwitting wireweed addiction and the nature of the party at Dame Talgarth’s that I had smuggled myself into—seemed to buoy her spirits through the rest of the day, and by the end of it she had even put down the copy of Valiance and Shock.
As we finished arranging the back room, though, she gave it a long look.
“I…really don’t know any of the stories,” she admitted quietly. “Mother never talked about the Red Company—or not in those words, although I heard stories about her friends from her time at university—I thought they were just, just other revolutionaries, but…” she trailed off, looking at the book again. “I suppose they may not have been. But I don’t know. I have so many questions, and I don’t even have her here to ask them to.”
I looked at the book for a long moment, considering, and then made a decision; I doubted this was the intent with which Jullanar had given me this gift, but then, when she’d given it to me I knew she was half-certain Fitzroy Angursell was long dead, lost with or before the Fall.
“Your mother annotated a copy of those, actually,” I said, nodding toward the book. “I don’t think it’s wise to let them get too far from the store—there’s some information in there that is…well, I suppose they do have the pardon, but I doubt she would want it to be spread widely. But when we have a quiet day, or you’re looking for something to read while you watch the till—”
Her eyes were wide as she looked at me, the quilt—which she had kept draped, capelike, over her shoulders as we finished setting up the room—falling to the floor. “Truly?” She said, and I remembered again that moment when I had offered her tea, and she had been a thirteen year old child handed a small wonder for the first time. “Even though it’s—don’t you worry it’s not the sort of thing I should be reading?”
I wondered who had told her that the Red Company wasn’t an appropriate reading topic for young ladies, and thought again about how delighted she had been when Mr. Dart or I answered her questions about poetry and history. Her awareness of how young women—and possibly even older women—would want a space to purchase books their relations may not approve of.
“Of course,” I said, nodding towards the stairs. “I’ll fetch the first volume down tomorrow. As you’ve pointed out, I’m a radical from Morrowlea. I would be doing my university a disservice if I did not take umbrage at the very idea there were books people should not be reading.”
It was months still before Miss Etaris showed me her first poem. She’d made her way through the entire first volume and half of the second of Valiance and Shock, and while the days she seemed to pursue her self-appointed study of poetry mostly featured the slim scarlet-bound copy of Correspondences that she had purchased with her wages (we had an ongoing debate on whether or not, as an employee, she got a discount; I had persisted on the fact that she should not be paying full price), the dark-green copy of On Being Incarcerated in Orio Prison had reappeared a few times.
Even I had been able to pick up that she was writing her own poetry, as well, but I had not asked to see it, and she had not offered until the end of one shift, when she thrust a folded piece of paper into my hands.
“Don’t read it now,” she said indignantly as I started to open the paper. “Not with me here! I just—you know what good poetry is like. So I want you to read it, and tell me if it’s any good. If it’s the kind of thing I should keep doing.”
“Of course,” I said, surprised and honored.
After she left for the day, I unfolded the paper. The title had been written and crossed out many times, as did the name of the author.
The Empty Seabed On the vanishing of the ocean The Missing Sea Missing
Etaris of Ragnor Bella of the Sea
I wake alone where once the tide arrived
The ocean-shore familiar, dear to me,
And watch the revelations in the deep;
Bare sand and ruined vessels. My sight connived
To hide the truth and wreckage ‘neath the sea;
We do not know the secrets that we keep.
Do I rage against the tides’ deceit?
The secrets that it wished me not to see?
Or do I walk the seabed, creep
Bare-footed into shipwrecks, just to greet
The truth and treasure left behind for me?
“Are you looking to be a poet, then?” I asked, the next day.
She shifted and looked away, scuffing a foot on the floor. “Or an adventurer. I can’t decide yet, but, I was thinking—I’m glad that mama is off and is happy, and that we’re going to be getting new poetry and songs from Fitzroy Angursell, and there will be new adventures of the Red Company, and that’s all wonderful, but—but—” She paused, and then crossed her arms, defiant and stubborn. “Well, why should they get to have all the fun?”