“I,” Jullanar said, lifting her chin high, the stone pillar under her hands warm from the sun, “am Jullanar of the Sea.”
Down below, where she could see beads of sweat beginning to form on his brow, her husband—soon to be ex—let out a strained, disbelieving laugh.
“Don’t be absurd, Jules.” And that would be the last time she would bear that loathed nickname. “I know you—”
“I am increasingly beginning to doubt it.”
She could see the embarrassment beginning to give way to anger in his stance and in his terrier daemon’s flattened ears, and felt a savage thrill at the flush creeping up his neck. Good, let him steam.
Below her, Umrii, who had been standing stalwart guard at the base of the pole, stirred, her great tortoise head swinging towards something at the far edge of the crowd.
"Anyway," her moron of a mate snapped, “everyone knows Jullanar of the Sea has some drab housecat for a daemon."
Oh, if the last straw hadn't been a dozen bales of hay ago, that would have been it. She drew herself up to tell him just where he could stick his drab housecat when a flash of scarlet caught the corner of her eye, an impossibly familiar voice said, "Catch!", and something brown and furry landed safely in the crook of her free arm.
She could not find it in herself to be surprised, as the little tabby cat daemon—Sam, oh her Sam—scrambled his way up her arm to drape himself heavy and solid about her neck. For several moments she could do nothing but bury her face in his fur—the scent of him, the fierce motor of his purr, the tickle on her cheek, her soul returned —but when she thought she could speak again, she drew herself up and straightened her spine, whole and herself for the first time in nearly two decades. Sambuce rearranged himself around her neck so that his rump faced her sot of a spouse, tail lashing against her shoulder.
"I," she said again, "am Jullanar of the Sea."
Her eyes flickered down to see Masseo kneeling before Umrii, in the midst of a reunion as touching and as private as the one she’d just had with Sam, and beside him, of course, stood—
He gave an odd little bow, calculated just so for Fiammetta to keep her perch on his shoulder. “In the flesh.” Around him, the crowd murmured, but Jullanar shut them out.
“Where—” she said, drawing on two decades of marriage, motherhood, and business ownership, and did not let her voice waver one iota “—have you been?”
He grinned, the infuriating little man, and said, “I was caught by a dire curse laid upon my family, enchanted, entrammelled, enslaved, and my very soul taken from me, and finally was only able to escape because one of my guards took pity on me and the Moon woke my slumbering heart.” Fiammetta squawked and spread her wings in confirmation.
Jullanar blinked at him in momentary speechlessness. Surely there was more to the story than he had said, but she did not doubt the surface truth. Masseo, standing quietly beside him and stroking the great dome of Umrii’s shell, only raised his eyebrows at her, as if to say, Don’t ask me.
Well, no. Umrii’s wordless agitation, in her slow tortoise fashion, had only begun a few days ago. Whatever adventures Fitzroy had been on before then, they had been his own.
Jullanar tapped into her vast reserves of sarcasm—one did build them up, when Fitzroy was absent—and said dryly, “Do you know, that makes perfect sense.”
“As does your desire to divorce this fool,” he said, gesturing to Jullanar’s lout of a lover, and laid in.
Jullanar watched, her lips quirking in a tiny, satisfied smile, as Fitzroy neatly and thoroughly unraveled her pig of a paramour’s bluster, a feat which she had frequently been far too infuriated to manage. It was one of the many things she despised about living with the man: he was so moronically chauvinistic that rhetoric fell flat on its face, and he knew precisely how to incense her to speechlessness. Now it was his turn. Sam’s tail continued to lash against her shoulder, and she dug the fingers of her free hand into his soft, dusty fur.
“Not enough time to bathe on the road?” she joked in a low murmur.
He sniffed. “ Your protégé ran into us and knocked us into the dust.”
“Of course he did,” she chuckled, and returned her attention to the performance below as Fitzroy turned to address her.
“Regarding your plea for divorce,” he said, with a little private smile, “you are obviously aware of the first steps,” and then went on to name them, she presumed for the benefit of the crowd. Fiammetta, growing bored, fluttered off his shoulder to perch on Umrii’s head and started to preen.
Jullanar gave him a look. “I am capable of doing research.”
“Don’t I know it! While odd laws, particularly odd marriage laws, are something of a hobby of mine.”
Were they now? They hadn’t been, before. She let him go on, wondering privately on the nature of his relationship with the supposed guard who had let him escape.
Fitzroy scanned the crowd and beckoned Mr. Greenwing over from where he had been malingering near the bookshop. She hoped he had been enjoying the show, and perhaps taking notes, given how his amorous efforts had prospered thus far.
“The next requirement is a witness holding imperial title, Viscount St.-Noire.”
Just what sort of conversation had these two had out in the road? Well, Sam would surely tell her later.
Mr. Greenwing’s roadrunner daemon trotted at his heels, and now flared her feathers to catch the sunlight, her wingtips and long tail iridescing a lovely blue to match his teal frock. “We are hardly impartial,” she admitted.
Fitzroy waved a hand in their direction. “Oh, I must say that I am not always fully convinced of the merits of impartiality, though I have certainly heard many advocate for it.” Jullanar had to bite her lip to keep from laughing aloud. Oh, she had missed him. “Now—a witness holding a Rondelan title?”
In short order, Fitzroy proceeded to collect Sir Hamish Lorkin, Master Torquin Dart, and a mug of coffee, and produced, somehow, an Imperial writ of pardon for the entire Red Company.
“Oh, I forgot how ridiculous he can be sometimes,” she murmured to Sam as an aside, as her buffoon of a bedmate blustered something about forgery.
Sam paused in the midst of licking his paw. “Did you? I never did.”
Fitzroy was extemporizing, “Neither forgery nor flight are skills of mine, sirrah, and I may tell you that I have spent a great deal more time and effort on the latter.”
Beside him, Masseo— laughed .
It was certainly a snicker, perhaps a chuckle, dare she say even a chortle. Masseo! Well, it had been a long time.
Now that she was looking, she could see the differences in them both. Older, of course, than the last time she had seen them, but time changes more than flesh. Masseo stood easier, more relaxed, less glum and gloom than he had been in the old days. He seemed more at peace with himself.
And Fitzroy. He looked—old, she thought. Well, time had passed differently in different parts of the former Empire, after the Fall. Undoubtedly it had been longer for him than for her. Still, there was something behind those laughing golden eyes of his that she was certain had not been there in their youths. And Fiammetta had not said a word since they had made their presence known, which would have been unheard of, once.
And yet he gestured and flourished and speechified as he always had, boasting about the deal he had made with the Last Emperor, and she couldn’t resist a jab.
“Oh, don’t be absurd, Fitzroy. Your advice on questing is always the same: decide on your object and then go look for something else entirely.”
He tried to look dignified and hurt at the same time, and mostly just succeeded at looking silly. “There are refinements. Anyhow: the Last Emperor was satisfied with my advice.”
Master Dart—the Chief Magistrate this year, she was reminded, and how he had grown from the awkward youth she recalled inheriting the estate—returned the pardon and said, “Then by all means, let us finish this divorce proceeding. If you would, sir?”
Fitzroy turned to Jullanar with another flourish. “Indeed! There are three possible outcomes. Do you wish for the simple divorce, where you keep his name and half your shared belongings? For the second, you return to your father’s name and house, and only those items which are demonstrably yours may come with you.”
Unfair, she thought, to tie the name to the belongings, but so it was. “Etaris is a better name than Thistlethwaite.”
“The third option is to reject the patriarchy entirely and walk away a free woman with neither surname nor anything appertaining to one.”
Jullanar paused. She had not come across that possibility in her research. It must be a very obscure legality indeed. She turned it over in her mind, slowly, like an interesting fruit one has come across which may or may not be poisonous.
Fitzroy flickered a private smile at her—not at all the same smile he used for the crowd—and continued, “Of course, you have by your own merits already earned an epithet and entrance into the halls of heroes.”
The halls of heroes did not concern her in the least, at that moment. She thought, very carefully, about what she would be leaving behind. The name was meaningless, except that it was also her children’s. The house had been inherited from her father-in-law, and would not go to her in any case. The belongings within it that she cared for she had already packed. The bookshop…
Jullanar smiled and pulled the iron key from her pocket. “Mr. Greenwing,” she said, “are you interested in business ownership?”
Bless that boy but he was quick off the mark, all the more so now that his mind was free of any meddlesome curses, drugs, ensorcellment, and vindictive former paramours. That she knew of, anyhow. He said, “The Duke of Fillering Pool has mentioned that I should think about diversifying my business portfolio.”
And in short order, Jullanar had sold half her life, signed away the other half, and stood in the market square of Ragnor Bella as Jullanar of the Sea, untethered.
Jullanar lowered herself to the ground as the crowd, still murmuring excitedly, drifted back to their shopping. Sam was draped about her neck, still purring like anything. She was, at this point, not certain she could see herself ever letting him out of her grasp again. Master Dart had already led her decidedly-now-ex-husband away quite firmly by the elbow. Jullanar found Mr. Greenwing standing beside Fitzroy and Masseo, looking rather dumbstruck about the whole thing.
She raised her eyebrows at him. "I’m no longer your employer, Mr. Greenwing, but I don’t recommend you dawdle here too long—I rather imagine the bookshop will be a center of gossip this afternoon, and it wouldn't do to miss out on the business." Then she took pity on the boy and added, "We'll be along later to collect my bags."
"Of course." Looking only faintly disappointed, he favored them all with one his most elaborate bows, heel click and all. His roadrunner accompanied him with another iridescent tail-flare, and they hurried off back to the shop.
She turned back to her companions. Masseo gave her a quiet smile. "You seem quite fond of that boy."
"I am." Jullanar scratched behind Sam's ear absently. "He's had quite the string of adventures this past year—perhaps even to rival yours, Fitzroy."
Fitzroy scoffed. “We’ll see how he’s fared in a decade or two.” Returned to his shoulder, Fiammetta let out a warble of firm agreement. Up close, Jullanar could see that the magpie daemon’s black and white feathers, once glossy and proud, were uneven and somewhat ragged, as if they’d been plucked and worried at and had not yet fully recovered.
Fitzroy noticed her looking, and spread his hands, his smile for a moment turning rather sad. “Some habits are harder than others to break.” What was it he had said? My very soul taken from me…
She frowned at him firmly for a moment. “Indeed.” She turned to Masseo, who had not, that she had seen, yet removed his hand from Umrii’s shell. “Thank you, and thank you, and thank you thrice, for all you’ve done for Sam.”
He smiled at her—really smiled! “It’s returned in kind. We got along well, the two of us.”
“Umrii was a great help in the bookshop,” Jullanar said, casting a fond look at her erstwhile ersatz daemon. “She has a knack for matching customers to books even before they’ve opened their mouths.”
“She’s always been a great judge of people,” he agreed.
She laughed in delighted surprise, remembering—as he surely did—Umrii casually and deliberately tipping over the small boat containing the early members of the soon-to-be Red Company and all their belongings, the day they had added Masseo to their number. “Masseo! Was that a joke?”
“I have been known to make them, from time to time.”
Fitzroy, who had let them converse for nearly a whole minute uninterrupted—possibly a new record—put in, “He’s made not one, not two, but three jokes in the forty-eight hours of our reacquaintance. You will find him much changed.”
“Then I look forward to meeting this new Masseo.” She curtsied, and Masseo made an ironic half-bow in response.
“And you?” Fitzroy said, finishing the round with an odd little flourish. “You seem much the same as you always were, but dare I make the presumption that up till less than an hour ago you were a highly respectable citizen of this town?”
“Indeed. You would be scandalized at how upstanding and correct I have been.” She considered the kind of talk that was no doubt already swirling through the market, and winced. “And on that count, I ought to go speak with my children before they hear about this from someone else.” Sam went very still on her shoulder. She could not think how she was going to begin that conversation, but she had never been one to shy away from a difficult task.
“I see. Masseo and I have some supplies to purchase from your most picturesque market—shall we meet when we are finished at Elderflower Books, formerly owned by a dear friend of mine?”
It had been much easier to leave home in her youth, when there was nothing much worth staying for. But she had built herself a life here, a good one, husbands notwithstanding, and she found the prospect of leaving it—actually leaving it, not merely planning to—more difficult than she had expected. Perhaps it would help that Sam had no roots here, other than hers.
Jullanar’s house—the house where Jullanar had lived—was in one of the finer neighborhoods of Ragnor Bella proper, near enough to the main street to be merely a pleasant stroll to any place of note in town, but far enough that the bustle and noise of market day faded into the distance. People watched her, whispering to one another, as she strode the familiar streets, and so she was careful to keep her back straight, her breathing steady, and let her only concession to nerves be to bury a hand in Sam’s thick coat. She could feel him trembling, just slightly, and his tail was lashing again.
“We’ve faced down armies and stolen from gods,” she murmured to him. “I want to flee more now than I ever did then.”
“Well, we had a sword in those days.”
“Perhaps I should have ordered one from Mrs. Allen the blacksmith in my preparations. Foolish of me.”
“Very shortsighted,” he agreed, as she rounded a corner and the house that had been her home came into view.
Jullanar could see that some garbled version of the morning's excitement had already arrived, for her children were both waiting on the porch as she approached. Ben was standing on the steps with a face like thunder, his shoulders broad and square between the delicately carved support columns. His stance was a poor imitation of his father's, but it was an imitation nonetheless.
His face contorted several times while she walked up the road, as he fought to keep his composure, she thought. His daemon, a little terrier much like his father's but splotched with brown, had laid her head down miserably between his feet.
As Jullanar drew close enough that she thought she ought to say something , he turned and walked through the front door, letting it slam shut behind him in that precise way she had asked him and his father both kindly to refrain from. After a few moments she could hear the back door slam shut as well. There would be no heart-to-heart with him before she left.
Fiona was another matter altogether. She was sitting very still on the porch swing, hands clenched into fists on her knees, drawn into herself in a quiet way that reminded Jullanar so much of Pali that her heart twinged. Fiona’s daemon, on the other hand, had enough motion for both of them. Not yet settled and even less settled than usual, Peto flitted and scurried and creeped about her, changing from form to form almost without stopping. One moment a hummingbird, the next a frog, a rat, an iridescent beetle. Then Fiona's gaze fell on Sam, wound tensely over Jullanar's shoulders, and her eyes grew wide.
"That's not Umrii," she said, sounding as if she were trying very hard to seem indifferent.
“Umrii is the daemon of a dear friend of mine.” Jullanar fought to keep her voice even. Sam had dug his claws into her shoulder, and she focused on the sharp pricks of pain instead of the look in her daughter’s eyes. “This is Sambuce. Sam, this is Fiona and Peto.”
Peto had landed on the porch railing and changed into a cat much like Sam, ginger-brown the color of Fiona’s hair, and Jullanar’s. Sam was a darker brown, and larger, but not by much. He leapt gracefully from her shoulder to the railing, where the two daemons stared at each other, unmoving. Jullanar felt the loss of his touch like a phantom limb, an ache she had learned to ignore over the course of twenty long years, and which returned now tenfold. She wanted to sweep him up into her arms again. Instead, she turned to her daughter.
“Miss Featherhaugh said you have divorced Da.” Fiona held her voice admirably level, her back straight, her composure steady. Had Jullanar taught her that? “She said you have given up all your worldly possessions and are going to leave Ragnor Bella forever. And then Miss Auber said that you accused Da of all sorts of crimes and the Squire arrested him. And then Mrs. Fetwright and Miss Blankenset said that you announced to the whole market that you are Jullanar of the Sea and you are going to run off to marry Fitzroy Angursell!” This litany ended in a sort of wail.
Jullanar couldn’t help but smile a little. “My, the rumor mill has been busy.” In all honesty, there was more truth in it than she had expected. “Fiona, I won’t deny that some of the things you’ve been told are true, but I’m sure you know better than to take every word of market-day gossip to heart. Shall I address it in order?” Fiona nodded tremulously, and Jullanar went on, “I have divorced your father. I have given up most of my possessions, and my surname, as a condition of the divorce, and I have sold my bookshop to Jemis Greenwing. I am leaving Ragnor Bella, but I swear to you—” She paused here, making sure her daughter was looking her in the eye. “I swear to you, Fiona, by the Lady’s Midsummer, I am not leaving forever. I am still your mother, and I love you and will never stop loving you, and I will always come back.” Her gaze flickered to Peto and Sam, who were still eyeing each other, though Peto had relaxed the aggressive arch of his spine.
“As for the rest,” Jullanar went on, “your father has certainly committed several crimes, and the Chief Magistrate is obliged to investigate them to the best of his abilities. I do not know what the outcome will be. And finally—” she had said this aloud twice today, after keeping it close so many years, and this time was by far the hardest “—yes, I am Jullanar of the Sea. But there is nothing in the Nine Worlds or any other that could induce me to marry Fitzroy Angursell!”
Fiona burst into tears.
Peto leapt from the railing into her lap, and she buried her face in his gingery fur. Jullanar realized with a sudden clarity that she could not recall the last time she had seen her daughter cry. The girl was thirteen; there were undoubtedly tears being shed, but they had become something private, at least from Jullanar. She stepped onto the porch and reached a cautious hand out to lay on Fiona's shoulder, but the girl shied away, and Jullanar contented herself with sitting quietly beside her on the porch swing waiting for the sobs to subside.
"I should not have kept it a secret from you and your brother for so long," she said at last, speaking softly. "There were reasons, and they may even have been good ones, but the fact remains that I should not have done it."
This seemed to break Fiona out of whatever throes of emotion she had been trapped in, for she raised a tear-streaked face from Peto's fur in surprise.
"That you're Jullanar of the Sea? I've known that for years; I'm not stupid ."
Mother and daughter stared at each other in equal bewilderment for a long moment, and then Jullanar started laughing, and found she couldn't stop. All the tension of the morning, of the last week, of the past twenty years came roiling out of her all at once.
When she had finally come to a stop, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, she waved a hand at Fiona, who had raised her chin to endure this display in frosty indignation. "No, no, I'm not laughing at you," Jullanar hastened to reassure her, still chuckling. "It's just— this morning, in the market square, Fitzroy told me something I already knew, and I said to him, 'I am capable of doing research,' just like that."
While Jullanar had been laughing, Peto had become a gecko and climbed to glare balefully at her from Fiona’s shoulder. Now, she watched as he became the gingery cat again, and leaped gracefully to the porch floor to allow Sam to begin vigorously grooming his ears. Jullanar could feel the contentment rolling out of Sam, as sure and as real as she could hear his purrs.
“ Anyway ,” Fiona said, still trying to hold her faintly insulted air, though Jullanar could see it wavering, “I figured it out ages ago, so maybe you’re not as good at keeping secrets as you thought. But why—” her voice cracked here, and Jullanar braced herself for a fresh round of tears, but Fiona bulled on, “—why aren’t you taking me with you?”
“Ahh.” Jullanar sat back carefully in the swing, understanding dawning. “Do you want to come with me?”
“I—” Fiona stopped, seeming as if this had never occurred to her. “I don’t know. Maybe! You never asked.”
“Fiona.” Jullanar held out a hand, and her daughter took it, uncertain. Her fingers were warm, and not so much smaller than Jullanar’s. “If you tell me that you want to accompany me—without qualms, so certain you wish to come that were I to tell you no you would pack a bag and follow us in secret until we were too far to turn you back—I would not refuse you. But in full honesty, I don’t know our destination, or what we will encounter on the way, or when we will return to Ragnor Bella.”
Fiona thought this over for a few moments. Jullanar waited patiently.
"If I truly wanted to join the Red Company," Fiona said at last, "sneaking away to follow you in secret would be the most appropriate way to do it."
"Short of falling out of the sky, or orchestrating some unlikely coincidence, I think you are correct," Jullanar agreed.
"But as you've given me permission, it wouldn’t be secret, or sneaking." Fiona wrinkled her nose. "Mother! Did you do this on purpose?"
"Not in the slightest. In fact, I only thought of it around the same time you did. I only wish I were so clever."
“Humph.” Fiona grunted and sat back, crossing her arms tightly as she thought. Presently she said, “Well, I don’t think I do want to go, right now. We’re supposed to do Aurelius Magnus next at school. And there’s another composition contest soon. Maybe I’ll write about the Red Company.”
Jullanar tried to suppress her delighted grin at this, so as not to discourage the girl. “Well, you’ll have a stupendous primary source, or perhaps three or more, if I’m back by then. I’m afraid I don’t know enough of where we’re going to give you an address to send letters to, but I’ll write you when I can, and let you know if we’ll be in one place long enough to receive anything.”
“I suppose that’s all right then,” Fiona said grudgingly, and that was that.
They made their goodbyes, rather more stiffly than Jullanar would have liked, but she could see that Fiona was still upset—though more annoyed than angry, Jullanar judged.
As she turned to leave at last, Sam once more draped over her shoulder like a heavy shawl, she had not gotten more than two steps down the road when Fiona called, “Wait!”
Jullanar turned back in surprise.
“Did you really—” Fiona stopped, seeming to gather her courage. “Did you really threaten the Lord of Voonra with a sword?”
Jullanar thought on this for a moment. “I’m afraid not,” she said, and let this sit for just a beat before she continued, “It was two swords.”
She swept her daughter a low curtsy, Sam balanced neatly on her shoulder as if he had always been there. Then she turned, lifted her chin, and walked towards something new.