Month of the Bard, 812

Perched on the edge of a garden box, dirt beneath their fingers, weeds strewn at their feet, four children the messenger pick his way up the path towards the house. The youngest, a girl by the name of Oreani, began to wander and was scooped absently into the arms of the second-eldest, a boy of bright smiles and wild, deep brown curls — she had learned to walk, recently, and proved active in her newfound freedom.

"What do you think it is?" asked the boy, eyes still fixed on the messenger as his young cousin squirmed in his lap.

"It's a messenger, Calrey," said the eldest, Calrey's brother Luco, who had a square jaw and a faint wisp of a mustache in which he took unwarranted pride. "Come on, let's go see."

They fished the elder of their cousins from the corner of the box where she had been playing. Calrey wiped ineffectively at the mud streaked across her face with the corner of his sleeve.

With an exasperated sigh, Luco lifted her onto his shoulders. "Elien is three years old, Cal. No one cares if she's muddy." He set off down the garden path, his younger brother trailing behind as Oreani squirmed and tugged at his hair. By the the time he caught up, Luco had collected the letter from the messenger.

"It's from Uncle Ghallan," he said. He moved to open the envelope but Calrey snatched it away.

"You can't. It's for Mama Marta and Papa Osmin."

"How do you know? You can't even read," said Luco.

"I can!" protested Calrey. "Plus he never sends letters to anyone else." Oreani caught the corner of the letter and began chewing it; he extracted it from her grip. They continued on.

The house sat at the top of a gentle incline, two storeys plus cellar of faded wood overlooking the family's fields, though in truth they belonged to Lord Edesket, whose sigil above the door marked his ownership of the house and fields both. The top floor on the far side showed a strip of glossy black where hung the funeral plaques for all in the household who had died since it had been established. This close to the harvest the house was quiet, empty but for the three elders and Mama Danla, who had birthed twins four months earlier and now slept on the patchwork sofa with them asleep at her side. In the kitchen they found the elders seated around the table, skinning potatoes for dinner.

"We got a letter from Uncle Ghallan," said Calrey, quietly so as not to wake the twins.

Granna Tenned wiped her hands clean on her apron and stood to take it. In her youth she had won the village wrestling competition every year for a decade, and even now, with hair more grey than black and wrinkles creasing her eyes, she was built like an ox and strong enough to carry a full-grown coat beneath each arm. She slit open the letter with her life, read it, then passed it over for Granda Stephanet and Granna Lizket to read. Her expression had gone tight and unhappy, as it often did when Uncle Ghallan wrote.

Noticing the children were still there, she said, "Luco, you take the girls and get back to work. Calrey, fetch Martanna and Osmin."

oooo

More than any of his other siblings, Papa Osmin took after his mother: broad and tall, dark eyes watching the world from beneath heavy brows. He had been the eldest of the household's children in his time, as Luco was now, but Calrey could not imagine him caring for his younger cousins and siblings as Luco and Calrey did theirs — his features knew neither anger nor joy, no sadness or fear or hurt or pride; he could not picture him as a child with tears in his eyes over a scraped knee or with stains on his clothes.

Calrey slowed as he came near, trying in vain to comb down his unruly hair with his fingers, stumbling over his feet as he tried to tuck in his shirt and walk at the same time.

"Papa Osmin, Granna Tenned wants you and Mama Marta to come to the house because you got a letter from Uncle Ghallan."

Mama Marta jogged over. A borderlander by origin, she was thin-faced and wiry, skin a few shades darker than the mid-brown common in the eastern farmlands, tight curls spilling down over her shoulders. She grinned at Calrey, leaned forward to rest her arms on the top of his head.

"Let's go, then." She snatched up Osmin's hand, lacing their fingers together. "Train tickets won't give us a problem unless we stay 'til the end of the harvest."

"You can't leave during the harvest," protested Calrey.

Mama Marta reached back to ruffle his hair. "Sometimes you need a small sacrifice to make a big change."

"What change? I thought you're going to visit Uncle Ghallan."

"Uncle Ghallan is trying to make right something that has been wrong for a very, very long time," said Mama Marta. "When we visit, we help him do that."

"I want to help, too," said Calrey.

Mama Marta's mouth flicked up at the corner. "Maybe you can." They had reached the house. She released Papa Osmin's hand to bound up the steps to where Granna Tenned stood waiting by the door. "Mail for us, I hear." She glanced back at Calrey. "Off you go."

He moved to return to the vegetable patch when he caught a flicker of movement out the corner of his eye: Luco peeked out from around the corner of the house, finger to his lips, waving Calrey over. He looped around the house to join his brother under the open kitchen window.

Inside, Granna Tenned said, "a moment of privacy, please?"

"We'll help Danla settle the kids upstairs," said Granda Stephanet.

Hidden by the tangle of bushes, Calrey peered through the open window. Marta and Osmin stood on one side of the kitchen, letter held between them, Tenned on the other, arms crossed.

"Best hurry with whatever it is you want to talk about — we'll need to take the evening carriage from Miro tonight to have a chance of getting there in time," said Marta.

Tenned's scowl only deepened. "When you chose to birth and raise Luco and Calrey here, you made a commitment to this household," she said.

"We still hold to it," said Osmin.

"You both have been gone weeks or months at a time. When Luco was young, he called you aunt and uncle."

"I love this family, and I will always be grateful for what you have done for my brother and me, and for my children," said Marta. Her accent, usually faint, grew stronger as she spoke. "But what we are doing with Ghallan is greater than all that. It is a matter of justice, of righting ancient wrongs."

"You want war, no different than the one the Kalliders wage against Evato." Tenned's mouth was set in a hard line. Marta stepped towards her, cautious at first, then bolder, taking her hands in her own.

"Luco is thirteen years old. If he applies he might be granted an exception, but the fact remains that on his fourteenth birthday he will be of an age to be drafted into the military. The fact remains that when the tax collectors come, it is peasant children who starve, and that our children will never have a proper education, that they have been purposefully groomed to be fit only for the farm or the factory, never to work in law or government or medicine. I see the tragedy in that, even if you do not."

"Fine," bit out Tenned. "Go, then. Catch your carriage."

"We're bringing the children," said Marta.

"No."

"Martanna…" said Osmin.

"We are bringing the children," repeated Marta. "Luco and Calrey, at least. They need to see the world past the village. Besides, they're our blood. You have no say in this."

"They belong to the household," said Tenned. "They belong to Jenda and Kevince and Danla and all the others as much as they do you. If you wanted it otherwise, you should have raised them in Lanadara."

"I want them to be able to choose. I want them — all of the children, Elien and Oreani and Rinn and Evlyn, when they're old enough to get anything from it — to see more of the world than Miro and decide for themselves before conscription decides for them and their introduction to real life is watching some soldier's brains get blown out beside them. If they want to live out their lives here or die in the army, they're welcome to it. I just want them to see the world needs changing, for themselves and for the children in the cities and even for the Evatans."

Tenned sighed. She pulled her hands from Marta's grip, set them on the table. For a long moment, no one spoke.

"Mother," said Osmin. He sounded hesitant, faintly pleading.

"You are too much of an idealist, daughter of mine," said Tenned. "Fine. Go in safety and in luck."

oooo

Two weeks later, they arrived in the Talthan capital of Lanadara. Calrey had been intermittently tearful and excited since their hurried goodbyes, missing the children and worried over who would care for them with the grown-ups occupied with the coming harvest, not to mention the rest of the household from whom he had never been separated more than a handful of days. The carriage from Miro brought them to Ciet Acobansiz on the evening of the second day. At first Calrey thought it must be the capital: built into the face of a towering, rocky hill, surrounded by glimmering stone walls, it could have held the village of Miro a hundred times over or more. Compared to Lanadara, it was barely a village.

The train ride from Ciet Acobansiz to Lanadara lasted eleven days. Calrey and Luco spent the first running up and down the car and sticking their heads out the open window to watch as the prairie sped by, gradually transforming into forest, but in the cheap section with nowhere to sleep but hard wood benches, the novelty wore off quickly. Nor did the train line connect the two directly — there were days they spent hiking narrow, winding trails or sharing a packed carriage with irritable strangers, nights spent camping under the stars while bugs crawled through their hair.

Some distance from Lanadara, the track had dipped underground, so that the final hours of their journey were spent in the dark, sound drowned out by the rattle of the wheels until eventually it came to a halt at a long wooden platform where men and women in outfits of crisp green came up and down the train, asking for papers. By then Calrey had grown used to this aspect of train travel — the demand had been repeated at every stop since they boarded outside Acobansiz. They filed off the train to climb a steep, lantern-lit staircase, pressed to one side to make room for the travelers heading in the opposite direction. People dressed strangely in the city, in bright-coloured, billowing sleeves over dark buttoned or laced vests that reached from throat to mid-thigh — once or twice they passed someone dressed in the same rough-spun shirts and trousers as Calrey and his family, muscular where the rest were hollow-cheeked, and their eyes met in fleeting solidarity.

They emerged into a circular room ringed in arches, marble floor worn to dusty brown from wear. Above, the domed ceiling a bright mosaic patterned with the silhouetted footprints that were the Traveler's sigil. Traffic moved through in a circle, people peeling off when they reached the proper archway. Osmin took his children by the hand as they joined the press. Circling the perimeter of the room, they stepped through the largest of the archways onto the street beyond. Men and women in vests and puffed sleeves streamed past, eyes fixed ahead. Buildings of brick and stone, four or five storeys in height, stretched the length of the street, porches and balconies casting it in shade. At a distance, towering marble walls peeked over the skyline.

"I wasn't sure you would be here in time." The speaker — a man early in his twenties — looked and sounded a city boy, dark curls worn long and tied back in a tail, puffed sleeves rolled to his elbows to reveal ink stained hands. Still there was something familiar in his heavy brows and square jaw.

With a grin, Marta surged forwards to wrap him in her arms. "Ghallan! We haven't missed it, then?"

"Not yet, but we need to get moving or that will change." He glanced down at Calrey and Luco. When he next spoke, his voice was carefully neutral. "You brought the children?" Then, brighter, "look how big you are! I don't think I've seen you since you were babies."

"They can't live their whole lives on the farm, no matter how much Tenned wants them to," said Marta. Moving away from the building, they were swept up by the crowd.

"She give you a lot of trouble?" asked Ghallan as they pressed in tight with a multitude of indifferent strangers.

"Less than I thought. Are we meeting up with the others?"

Ghallan shook his head. "Later. The constables have been keeping a closer eye — likely they're just worried because of the parade, but it pays to be careful."

"Are we in danger?" asked Osmin.

"Not much more than usual," said Ghallan. He peered over the crowd. "Come on. We can't see anything from here."

He pushed through, ignoring the glares and curses shot their way. Calrey had seen crowds before, at weddings and funerals and to celebrate the tresset, but never like this; bodies all around him on every side in an impenetrable wall that knit closed behind him. He stared, wide-eyed, stumbled when he ran into someone's back. When he looked up, his family had vanished. Panicked, he froze, searching through the mass of humanity, but they were nowhere to be seen. Someone tapped at his elbow and he turned.

Two or three years Calrey's junior, the girl looked like no one he had ever seen before: copper-skinned and slender, dressed in a white shirt under a shiny blue vest, where the rest of the crowd wore black or grey over green or red or yellow or orange. A white stone hung at her neck from a plain leather cord — this meant she was born in the tresset, but he could not remember which colours meant danger. All of this he noticed as background to her hair, vibrant orange-red where on everyone else he had known it was black or brown, braided and twisted up into a bun.

"My name is Calrey," he said. "Are you lost too?"

The girl shook her head. "I'm Varrick. Mother says I'm not allowed in the parade because it's only for soldiers, so I'm watching it instead."

"There's a parade?"

"That's why everyone is here today." Varrick grabbed him by the hand, towing him forward. "Mother's going to be in it. She's the youngest person ever to be made a general ever in Taltha, and maybe also in the whole world."

"Really?" They had come to the edge of the crowd, to a set of wooden blockades keeping the wide avenue beyond clear. Another mass of people stood on the other side, peering down the empty street.

"They made her general because she captured Aula City. That's the capital in Evato," said Varrick.

"Mama Marta and Uncle Ghallan were in the war, too, but they think it should be over."

"That's stupid. Evato attacked us first."

"It gives Mama Marta nightmares, sometimes," said Calrey.

"Only cowards get nightmares," said Varrick. "I've been living with the army since I was born and I don't ever get nightmares."

"Mama Marta isn't a coward!"

But Varrick was not listening. She bounced on her toes, draping her upper body over the barrier to peer down the street. "Look, it's the parade!"

The procession was led by a construction of glimmering bronze in the shape of a horse, long-legged and proud, striding forward unperturbed the cheering crowd. The woman riding on its back was slight of build and small of stature, muddy red hair cropped short. Strings of metal beads adorned the front of her long blue coat, stretching from shoulder to hip. Elaborate gold stitching ringed her sleeves above the elbows.

"What's that?" asked Calrey, pointing to the metal horse.

"A mechane. Basically it's a regular animal, only it's made of metal so it doesn't get tired or hurt. Only the army has them now, but mother says in a few years everyone will."

She waved at the woman on the mechane — her mother, Calrey guessed —, unperturbed when she failed to respond. Other mechanes followed behind her, some tall and elegant, others low and wide, riders all dressed in blue and strung with metal beads, though the embroidery on their sleeves was of sliver or bronze. Behind them marched foot soldiers, attired in green, the oldest among them of an age with Ghallan, the youngest within a few years of Luco. The line carried on for a long time, walking in lock-step.

oooo

His hands were sore from clapping by the time the final soldiers marched past, his voice hoarse. Varrick had filled his ears with information about troop arrangements and arms and cities the Talthan army had captured.

"I need to go now," she said as the crowd began to disperse. She darted away down the parade avenue, unmindful of the stares that tracked her progress. Alone once more, Calrey was acutely aware of the great mass of people at his back.

"Do not wander off." Osmin emerged from the crowd, taking Calrey's hand in his own. Relieved, he pressed close as they wound their way back towards Marta and Ghallan and Luco.

"Rumour is Relle Ekanniel's in line for the throne," Ghallan was saying.

"Is she even eligible?" asked Marta.

"Tangentially. Her sister is married to Prince Andrel. It's enough of a connection to have her legitimized into the line of succession and named heir — Ekanniel isn't a big house; there's no other political reason for that match and no way King Amathis would let his grandson marry for love and lose the opportunity for a political match."

"I served under her when she was a captain. I can't imagine her leaving the field," said Marta. "If she wanted to be queen, she would have married Andrel herself."

"Amathis Kallider is old, but he isn't sick — maybe he figures by the time he dies Ekanniel will be looking to retire," said Ghallan. "Besides, who would turn down the job of queen?"

"She's twenty-four years old; he'll be waiting a long time."

"And looks a decade older." Ghallan turned down an alley, the rest trailing after him. "She has been a soldier since she was twelve years old, been badly wounded twice — the first time nearly killed her. No matter how much she likes commanding that army, soon enough her body won't take it. Besides, she has a child to think of."

Marta laughed. "I don't think she's likely to develop a conscience about that after six years."

They reached a three-storey brick building with a steep staircase bolted to the side and began to climb. Ghallan pushed open a blue door on the first landing. The room inside was windowless and dimly-lit. Clocks, large and small, simple and ornate, covered every inch of the wall, set on stands and hung from the ceiling, each set to a different time. It was surprisingly deep, though narrow, the walls lined with plush chairs.

Ghallan settled into one of the chairs, long legs stretched out. He said, "the real question is, are we better off with Relle than one of the alternatives? If Amathis dies without naming a successor, his daughter will have the throne by default, at least in theory."

"Ekanniel is competent, by all accounts," said Osmin. "She may end the war."

"And if she can't, she'll drag it on until the day she dies rather than surrender," said Marta.

"Besides, you're missing the problem. Relle Ekanniel could be the best ruler in Talthan history, but that doesn't change the fact her successor or her successor's successor could burn us to the ground."

"Why do you care? It only matters whose in charge if you're nobility," said Luco.

Marta reached out to ruffle his hair; he ducked away to avoid her. "That's why I care. Let the nobility play their games, them and the merchants — nothing good has ever come from a merchant — but let the peasants govern themselves."

oooo

As promised, a steady stream of people trickled in over the following days, most between Ghallan and Osmin in age. Calrey found himself with little to do: they were all friendly enough, in a perfunctory sort of way, pausing to ask about his schooling or his home before they gathered in tight groups, heads bent in discussion he struggled to understand. Forbidden from venturing out into the city, he often found himself alone, sent to chop vegetables in the kitchen above the clock room or mend clothes or clean. Luco did not have the same problem — he had taken to Uncle Ghallan's friends right away, and for the most part they seemed happy to entertain him when he joined in their discussions.

Sometimes in the evenings when he and Calrey were upstairs cleaning up after dinner, the table cleared away while the adults huddled over their empty plates, so deep into the conversation they might have stayed that way, attracting vermin, all night, Luco would try to explain, though privately Calrey was not sure he knew what he was talking about as much as he liked to pretend.

"They want the farms to be separate countries," he said, handing him a plate to dry. "So our house and all the land we rent would be a country, and the same for all the other households."

"Oh," said Calrey. He did not think this sounded like a very good idea, but Ghallan's friends all seemed very educated, so probably they were right.

Another time, Luco said, "they're going to have someone regular replace the king."

"Like Princess Sarya or Prince Andrel?" asked Calrey.

"No, I mean someone really regular, like Uncle Ghallan."

"He wants to be king?"

"No, Calrey, do you not know what an example is?"

Downstairs, Calrey settled into a plush chair at the far end of the room with his knitting — there had been a little wool in one of their bags and with it he had begun a pair of socks. Likely these would be too small for the twins by the time they returned home, and besides after the tresset it would be summer, but the household was young yet. Soon there would be other children for him and Luco to care for. He could tell them of a strange dark room where sometimes the tick of countless clocks slowly faded into the background, so that he only remembered it was there in the silence of the upper room. Maybe he would tell them other things, too, like how there was no place for him here, how secretly Mama Marta knew all sorts of strange, complicated words they would never hear her use, and that Luco and Papa Osmin understood what they meant, and then he would tell them not to go if anyone invited them to the city.

A loud bang startled him from his thoughts. He looked up to find the door thrown open and a woman panting in the doorway, face flushed, straight dark hair flying loose from where she had it pinned back. She stepped into the suddenly silent room, shutting the door behind her.

"A raid!" she gasped. "Soon. They found the flower shop. Someone must have sold us."

All at once the room erupted into a flurry of motion. The guests had brought gifts; books and sealed crates Calrey and Luco were strictly forbidden to touch, all hastily gathered up. Calrey found himself with a stack of tomes piled to his chin. Hand planted on his shoulder, crate tucked under her other arm, Marta steered him towards the far end of the room where Ghallan and a man with a shaggy moustache rolled back the carpet to reveal a trapdoor. Between them, they heaved it open to reveal stairs steep and poorly lit, nearly a ladder. Calrey edged down backwards, books clutched to his chest, Luco's feet an inch from his face as he climbed down after him. Finally he hit solid ground, dark but for a square of light filtering in from the room above.

They set everything on the floor in hasty piles. The guests settled on the crates or the floor, talking quietly amongst themselves, but Marta hurried her sons upstairs, brushing dust from their clothes and combing their hair flat with her fingers. Together they rolled the carpet back over the trapdoor.

"We're just a family visiting your uncle, okay? He owns this shop, no one else has been in or out except customers," she said.

"But the people in the basement haven't bought anything," said Calrey.

Marta put her face close to his. "When you're asked, you are going to tell them no one is here except us, otherwise we will all be in lots of trouble." Up close her eyes were very, very dark, lit by some fierce, raging fire. He did not shy away; she was Mama Marta still, for all her fingers clasped too hard on his shoulders. Something twisted and hard took root in his stomach, tightening his throat.

"I'll tell them," he said.

oooo

They were still gathered at the far end of the room when a knock came at the door, sharp and insistent.

"Sit down and act natural," whispered Ghallan. Unhurried, he picked his way towards the door as the knocking grew more insistent. Calrey took up his knitting. Luco lifted a cup of tea from the table and stood frozen with it in his hand, uncertain. With a final glance backwards, Ghallan opened the door. Two men and a woman stood in the doorway, dressed all in grey: grey jackets over grey vests over grey shirts and grey pants.

"Good evening to you, constables," said Ghallan. "How may I be of assistance?"

An iron-haired man of an age with Granna Tenned stepped forward. "I'm Senior Constable Kelsan. These are my colleagues, Constables Tarash and Ikmet. Are you the proprietor of this establishment?"

"I am."

"Anyone else here, beyond who I can see in this room?"

"No, sir."

"Get yourselves lined up against the wall. I want papers." He gestured to Tarash. "Search them."

They lined up against the wall. Luco took Calrey's hand and squeezed. Marta handed over their papers in a stack while Tarash moved down the line, hands patting none too gently over their bodies. Kelsan studied the papers with pointed intensity. Ikmet hung back, one hand resting on the holster at his hip.

Kelsan stopped in front of Marta. "Martanna Vesseris, born Tamask. Rank of corporal, until a dishonourable discharge for reason of disobeying orders and striking an officer. What do you have to say to that?"

Marta grinned, hard and flat. "Only that it was just about the proudest moment of my life."

Kelsan raised an eyebrow. "These your children?"

"They are, not that it changes what I said. I know plenty of people with children, but no one else has knocked out three of Relle Ekanniel's teeth."

"You admit to your offenses?"

"I don't seem to have much choice, seeing as it's right there on my documents." Marta shrugged, languid. "Of course I have some problems with that whole debacle being seen as a wrong on my part, but I won't deny it happened."

Kelsan moved on. "Ghallan Vesseris. This wouldn't be the first time you've given us trouble."

"I'd say you have it backwards, you being the one intruding upon my home and place of business, not to mention a rare visit from my family, who live all the way in Miro — far and small enough you plainly have not heard of it."

"They must care about you a great deal to make the trip, especially with this terrible noise."

"One becomes used to it."

"And it has certain advantages, does it not? Makes it quite difficult to, say, listen in on anything being said here."

"I certainly wouldn't know anything about it," said Ghallan, smoothly. "Am I to take it the constabulary has attempted to record conversations in my shop? I'm sure we would have made an effort to be more interesting, had we known."

Kelsan ignored him. "And Osmin Vesseris. Exemption from military service on the grounds of essential labour, no criminal record to speak of. You find yourself in strange company." When Osmin did not respond, he pressed on. "Enough of this. Is there a room where we can speak in private?"

Ghallan smiled, hard-edged. "You're welcome to the kitchen — it's just upstairs."

"What's your name, boy?" Kelsan had reached Calrey's place in the line, second from the end, and crouched down in front of him."What's your name, boy?" Kelsan had reached Calrey's place in the line, second from the end, and crouched down in front of him.

"Calrey."

"Very well, Calrey. Let's have a talk, you and I."

oooo

Kelsan paused at the top of the stairs, head ducked to avoid the low, sloped roof, white paint smoke-stained from the stove. Ghallan slept on a cot at the far end of the room, everyone else on bedrolls they kept stored in the cupboards during the day. After a time, he ambled over to the table with its two mismatched chairs, motioning for Calrey to follow. There they sat, staring silently at each other. Kelsan leaned forwards, forearms on the table.

"Do you like it here, Calrey?"

"It's okay. I like home better, though." He had not paused to think on the answer and regretted it the moment it left his mouth — it seemed a betrayal to say such things to someone outside the family. "I miss the outdoors, is all, and my little cousins. Me and Luco take care of them usually."

"You're not allowed outside?"

"They say it's dangerous, but I don't know why."

"I do." Kelsan reached across the table, gave Calrey's hand a gentle squeeze. "Your mother, father, and uncle have gotten themselves in a bit of trouble. I can help them out, if you let me. All you need to do is answer my questions as accurately as you can."

"I don't think I know anything," said Calrey.

"That's okay. We'll start really easy." Kelsan smiled, encouraging. "How about you tell me why your family is here?"

"We're visiting my uncle Ghallan."

"Do you do that often?"

Calrey shook his head. "I'd only been as far from home as Miro until now."

"And your parents? Was this their first visit, too?"

Calrey shook his head. "Usually Mama Marta and Papa Osmin go a few times a year, when Uncle Ghallan sends them letters."

"What do they say, those letters? Do your parents seem happy to receive them."

"Mama Marta is. I think Papa Osmin misses home when he leaves, but they always go together." He leaned back in his chair, tense set of his shoulders slowly relaxing. Sitting together at the table, talking, he discovered he had missed easy conversation, where he did not have to puzzle over unfamiliar words. "Sometimes it makes Granna Tenned angry, because they leave during the harvest. Granna Tenned is our head of household."

"Do you think there might be another reason your Granna Tenned gets angry?" asked Kelsan.

Calrey thought on this. "Maybe she's afraid Mama Marta won't want to live in the household anymore."

Kelsan smiled, indulgent. "I'm not angry you lied. It's very brave of you to try to protect your parents. I need you to keep being brave and tell me the truth, so I can help them."

"But I was telling the truth," said Calrey, suddenly uneasy in the face of Kelsan's smiling encouragement. "We're just visiting my uncle."

"What do your parents and your uncle think of the king?"

"Uncle Ghallan says he's old but he's in good health so probably he will live a long time, and then Relle Ekanniel might replace him because her sister married the king's grandson."

"Do they think he's doing a good job?"

"I don't know."

"Come on, now. I can only help if I know the truth."

"I don't know, I promise," said Calrey.

"What do they talk about, your parents and your uncle?"

"I don't know," repeated Calrey. "I don't understand what it means." At some point he had begun to cry without noticing, tears dripping silently off his face. Kelsan patted his hand.

"I'm sure you tried your best." He stood. "Come along. It's time to speak with the others."

His family sat on the floor, backs to the wall, watching the pair of constables as they paced the room. Calrey offered a tremulous smile when they turned towards him, though his face was still damp with tears and none looked convinced. Kelsan called down from the top of the stairs for Luco to come up; he and Calrey locked eyes as they passed. Osmin reached for him when he sat, only to snatch his arm away when Tarash shook her head.

The clocks on the wall jostled when he leaned back, digging into his skin, so he slumped forwards over his knees to stare at the wall opposite. A square piece hung at eye level, the frame of dark, reddish wood polished to gleam, the face painted with delicate, gold-feathered birds splashing in water. The second hand ticked steadily onward.

Tarash and Ikmet paced, silent. Osmin stared fixedly ahead. Martanna stretched out her legs, feet pointed out like she was hoping the constables would trip. Her fingers drummed rhythmically against the carpet, sound drowned out by the tick of the clocks. She wore a peculiar smile, not entirely unlike the one she wore when she and Granna Tenned had the worst of their arguments. For the first time it occurred to him that Marta could hurt people — not like in the village wrestling competitions or even knocking out General Ekanniel's teeth, but properly, the way that killed people. That she probably already had, back in the army.

Luco stomped down the stairs and sat heavily between Calrey and Osmin. Their father stood to join Kelsan upstairs. They waited. Ghallan and Marta turned to face each other. Both looked tense. Luco could not sit still: his legs jittered, his nails picked restlessly at loose threads in the carpet. The bird clock chimed the hour with a gentle, fluttering burst of song.

oooo

Calrey had drifted into a stupor by the time Osmin reappeared. He knelt before his children, glanced over at Kelsan, who had followed him down the stairs. At the senior constable's nod, he pulled them to their feet. Luco allowed him to hold his hand, though ordinarily he was in the habit of loudly announcing he had outgrown such behaviour.

As the door closed behind them, Kelsan said, "I want every inch of this place searched."

"Traitor!" snarled Marta, but Osmin did not turn back.

Outside it was bright and a touch cool, the streets bearing the mark of recent rain, though the clouds had cleared. At the top of the stairs, Osmin took a long, slow breath. No one spoke until they reached the street, where Luco pulled himself free.

"What did you do?" Osmin reached back for his hand, snatched him by the sleeve and tugged him forward. Luco planted his feet. "What did you trade? How come Mama Marta and Uncle Ghallan aren't here?"

"They have business here," said Osmin.

Luco wormed free once more. Wordless, he turned on his heel and sprinted away.

Osmin stared after him, tensed. "Where is the train station?" he asked Calrey.

"I don't know."

Osmin swore. This had, as far as Calrey was concerned, never happened before, but he had no time to process this strange turn of events, interrupted as it was by a stranger turn of events: Osmin lifted him into his arms — it had been a few years since he was of a size to be habitually carried. Awkward and gangly, he wrapped himself around his father as he hurried down the street. They crossed the street where they had watched the parade. The domed roof of the train station came into view. Osmin sped into a half-jog. Outside the gleaming marble building, he set Calrey on a bench.

"Wait here for me," he said, and then he was gone, vanished back down the street. Calrey shifted uncomfortably, damp seeping in through his clothes. People streamed in and out of the building, footsteps rapid, eyes fixed forward, never looking anyone in the face— he was invisible here, like he never would have been back home.

Calrey did not often find himself so completely lost as he was now: at school he floundered, impatient with the closed-in walls and the painstaking deciphering of numbers and letters, but this was only a tiresome diversion from his day, something he only needed tolerate until he reached his tenth year, less than two years away now. When he looked around he saw in his family the person he would be, an adult and then an elder, a farmer and a caregiver. Watching the steady stream of people pouring through the entrance to the train station, he knew none of them, who they had been and who they would become. Luco called him stupid sometimes — he devoured ideas the way Calrey did open air, read for hours at a time under the lamplight, so he woke red-eyed and under-slept — maybe it was true or maybe not but back home it didn't matter; books and newspapers were a rarity, nothing more than an amusing diversion.

The sun crept steadily onwards. Calrey had indulged in a bout of brief, self-indulgent tears and had since fallen into a soothing rhythm of absent-minded people-watching. At first he did not notice Osmin coming towards him: shoulders hunched, eyes red, he looked a poor imitation of himself. In his hands was clasped a box of polished, gleaming black. Calrey had seen one like it once before, when Granna Lizket's sister died and they had gone down to the village for the funeral. The lid to her urn had been covered in white rings, each divided into twelve sections of uneven size, representing the nine months and three tresset periods of each year; the first and last incomplete to show the time of birth and death respectively.

Thirteen rings, the last less than a third complete, showing only the three months of spring, adorned the box Osmin held tight in his grasp.

oooo

Black smoke poured past the window as the train juddered steadily onwards, away from Lanadara. Seated on a nailed-down wooden bench at the back of the cheapest car, Calrey frowned over his knitting, which Osmin had collected from the clock shop. Osmin stared down at the box, held steady in his lap.

"An accident," he had said, and nothing more.

The children would not understand. Calrey did not know how to explain it to them. He would never allow any of them to leave for the city, even when they were adults and some moved away to different households.

Voices drifted over from somewhere ahead — Oked began that night, the second tresset bringing a baking, dry wind to herald the start of summer. Osmin traced a fingertip over the final, incomplete ring on the urn's lid, unmoving even as his second son pressed tight against his body. He would not hear of joining the festivities, and for all Calrey wished to be past this great yawning pain, to wake and find his loss faded to an old, dull ache, he had not asked again, nor moved from Osmin's side. They would carry these memories between them: the younger kids would know Luco as a story, an ancestor to thank rather than as the brother who cared for them.

oooo

The tresset had come and gone by the time they left the train at Acobansiz, eleven days later. The air was calm and still with the dawn of the month of the Soldier where earlier it had been blistering hot, wind strong enough to knock a grown man from his feet. It was evening by then, too late to catch a carriage, so they walked, stumbling in the starlit dark.

Granna Tenned sat in the wicker rocking chair on the porch when they reached the house the next morning. Blank-faced, she took the urn, placed it gently on her chair, turned back and hit Osmin across the face.

oooo

Light streamed in through the dyed canvass panels of the nine-sided structure that once had been a temple to the Farmer. Set in the packed dirt floor was a heavy stone cap engraved with fruit and legumes and wheat, piled together to form the Farmer's sigil. The seventeen members of the Vesseris household — three elders, nine adults, and five children — squeezed into the narrow space to pry it free, revealing the endless well beneath: a dark hole in the ground, unfilled even after centuries of use. Granna Tenned removed the lid to Luco's urn. She poured out the ashes, white-grey dust swirling down into the darkness to join the ashes of all who had died in the village and the surrounding farms before him.

"To our ancestors and to our land we give your servant Luco Vesseris, on this land born, nurtured and nurturing in turn. May he be free in death."

They settled the cap back over the well. Tenned stared down at the lid of the empty urn — later it would be nailed to the outside of their house. No one spoke until they had filtered outside.

"Congratulations," said Papa Delow. "You have lost Luco and my sister both. When are we to hold a funeral for Martanna?"

"She is not dead," said Osmin. "She chose to remain in Lanadara of her own free will. When she dies, that is where her funeral will be held."

Delow started forward. "Do you disown her? Is that what this is?" Tenned stepped between them, one hand planted on Osmin's chest, though he made no sign of having noticed the threat, gaze unfocused as he stared out over the fields.

"Tragedies breed tragedies, if we let them," said Stephanet. "Will you heal this rift, or shall we commence drawing our battle lines?"

Tenned turned away, hands dropping to her sides. "Enough. Allow this loss its place, and no more."