Chapter One — Kassia
The women of Dalibor did their laundry at the river the way their mothers had done it, and their grandmothers, and their great-grandmothers. Heads uncovered, hair a myriad earthy shades gleaming in dappled sunlight, they chattered and passed about bits of soap root, and paused now and again to push soaked sleeves further up their golden arms. Sometimes the conversation might turn to the way the women of faraway cities laundered their clothes in special buildings with hot running water and soap root that came powdered and perfumed in fancily wrapped packets, but the women of Dalibor were creatures of tradition, and they had the river Pavla Yeva at their doorsteps.
Kassia Telek did her laundry at the river, too. A little apart from the other women, her head covered by a scarf the color of green grass, she listened to the music of their banter and the rhythmic slap of wet cloth against rock. She didn’t attempt to join in; the women of Dalibor were creatures of tradition.
Sometimes when the older women had gone, the young ones would include her in their group and lend her soap root, or ask to borrow hers, but today the other women finished up all together and went their way. Only Panya Ogedei turned to wave at her.
When they had gone, Kassia pulled her scarf from her head. Hair the color of moonlight on cloud tumbled from beneath it. When she finished her washing she would bind the hair up again before making her way back through the village to her sister’s house. It was not law that made her cover her hair, nor tradition, nor even conscious shame or fear. It was simply that the pale stuff reminded some of a past of which they were both ashamed and resentful. It reminded all that she was shai.
Washing done at last, she climbed the stone ramp to the river road, pulling her laden handcart to the cobbled riverside plaza that housed the drying lines. The air quivered with tentative warmth, the frail Polian spring struggling in the grasp of a winter that seemed reluctant to pass. In the full light of the Sun, tiny blades of grass and fragile blossoms dared to push out of the blanket of sodden pine needles; in the shadows of rocks and fallen trees, snow still clung, stark white against the charred remains of what had been thick forest. Kassia was too young to remember the Fire, but she remembered the fear.
Her steps were slow on the cobbled path, keeping rhythm with the sound of a woodcutter’s axe somewhere in the arboreal graveyard. It was a sharp, lonely sound that reminded her, unaccountably, of death. She focused on the song of water over rock as she hung her things to dry; her sister’s aprons, her brother-in-law’s shirts and leggings, her little son’s patchwork jacket. She hugged that to her breast for a moment before fishing pins from her apron pocket and hanging it with the rest of the wash. At six, Beyla was growing so fast, he probably wouldn’t get another autumn’s wear out of the little coat. She ought to pass it to Asenka for her youngest, but the thought saddened her. Some of those patches had been sewn in place by her mother. It was all she had of Jasia Telek but for a little book of meditations, a locket, her tilted eyes, honey-gold skin and snowy hair, and the rare talents that went with them.
Task complete, Kassia set her basket with the others at the border of the drying flat and glanced back to make sure her bright red ribbon marked the end of her line. The rainbow of cloth floated in the weak morning breeze, the Sun breathing palely on it from above, tentative heat rising to it from the stones beneath the lines.
Kites. They look like a fleet of kites.
That thought caused Kassia to glance up across the village to the southeast, where Lorant sat high on its wooded hill—virtually the only place around Dalibor where adult trees still stood in any abundance. There was a small fleet of kites over Lorant today; a large white one announced the up-coming holy day in celebration of the New Year; a handful of smaller, varicolored ones sent messages to folk in neighboring villages; the one of royal red told the first yam or way-station on the road to Tabor to expect an envoy to the court of King Zelimir to be traveling that way within the week. Travel to and from Dalibor was regular now that the capital was no longer in the hands of the tyrant Tamalids, and the yam—until recently a neglected ruin—was now a fully equipped station with fresh horses, hot food and cold water for those carrying the proper credentials and communication to and from the king.
Below the royal messages, a small school of bobbing kites announced to the village of Dalibor and its environs that a graduation was near; four Initiates would become Apprentices, two Apprentices would become Aspirants, and of the current group of Aspirants to the holy station of Mateu, one would be accepted as Mateu, and four ordained as priests.
A bright blue bird-shaped kite with a golden tail caught Kassia’s eye. The Mateu were accepting new applicants for initiation. Someday, perhaps Beyla would go to Lorant. Kassia could already sense the gift of Itugen within him and marveled at that, wondering what kind of Mateu he would make who could draw upon all elements equally. It was rare enough for a woman to be graced with Itugen’s touch—the ability to see the unseen, draw upon the forces of earth and fire—for a male, it was practically unheard of. The Mateu wielded the power of Mat, held the heavenly forces in their hands. Kassia saw in Beyla a Balance. Perhaps one day Beyla could help redeem the lot of the shai.
Hauling her little handcart behind, Kassia headed homeward along the path. Half-charred blackberry vines tumbled down to meet her, tiny blossoms struggling to open on the straggling new growth. Fifty yards along, the path met the road from Ohdan, a rutted swathe of sandy mud and gravel that followed the river course east to west. Turning south at the edge of the village, she stepped onto the main road that wound among the thatched cottages of Dalibor—the road that led to Tabor. Here the muddy track gave way grudgingly to river-polished rock.
Kassia raised her eyes to the smoke-blurred horizon. Where she walked, the cottages were little better than hovels—one room, two, no more than four at best—where her eyes walked, great houses grew from the new prosperity that had begun to spread welcome tendrils into Polia with the overthrow of the House of Arik Tamal, twelve years before, by the Zelimirids. The owners of those new houses were largely immigrants from the capital at Tabor, sent by the royal court to cement its relations with the Sacred Circle of Lorant. Their roads were not mud, but hand-cut stone and fired brick.
Change had come to old Dalibor, as well, if slowly. The mud-packed stones beneath her feet said as much; two years ago she would have been up to her ankles in muck, trekking her little cart up this street. The white-washed faces of village shops smiled from beneath their moppish thatches. And even here, thatch slowly gave way to glazed tile. The baker’s shop had little gables of it; they looked odd poking out of the thatch, like red eyebrows on someone with wheaten hair. The angle of them, combined with the dark wooden beams surrounding the door gave the shop a look of perpetual surprise. As if it had just seen itself in a mirror, Kassia thought, and laughed.
“A most becoming sound, Mistress Telek!” The baker—one of the few people in Dalibor Kassia was tempted to think of as a friend—was on her porch dusting off the rough trestle table she had set up for guests who wished to sit and enjoy her wares. “Has my little shop done something to amuse you?”
Blushing only a little, Kassia stopped and shaded her eyes from the Sun that had begun to peek above the bakery’s ridge pole. “Well, Mistress Devora, it’s only that your little shop is making faces at me.”
The older woman, puzzled, came down off her porch and into the street, peering back at the building. The laughter that escaped her was as full and rich as the little cream cakes she made for worship day. And because Kassia had made her laugh, she gave her a loaf of braided bread for the noonday meal and a cookie for Beyla.
Cookie in one oversized apron pocket, bread nestled in the crook of her arm where she could inhale its warm fragrance, Kassia went along to her sister’s house, home these last three years. The house was one of the larger ones in the old town, four rooms in all. It had belonged to the Kovar family for generations and had grown and changed shape with the passage of time. The smallest room, which she and Beyla shared, had made up the entire original cottage. It was round and had a floor of rush-covered stone. She’d woven mats for their sleeping pallets and braided a little carpet for the floor where Beyla dressed each morning. It wasn’t a very good job of braiding, but it covered the floor.
The newest part of the house was square and squat, but Asenka was very proud of it. Her husband and his brothers had built it by hand, carving the neat blocks out of native granite; the rock looked as if it had been salted and peppered with jet and glass. It might have looked fine in a setting that did not include hard-packed mud and withered trees. Kassia glanced wryly at the scruffy little patch by the front door where, every year, she and Asenka and the children tried to coax flowers to grow. Maybe this year . . .
Blaz, Kassia’s brother-in-law, spoke often about putting one of those fashionable tile roofs on the house and of sending to Tabor for silk carpets to replace the rushes, skins and hand-braided rugs that covered the floors now. He was careful to let Kassia know those things would be long in coming with two extra mouths to feed.
Kassia paused before the low stone wall that framed the Kovar house, wondering if Blaz had left for the forge. She’d tried to love her sister’s husband once, tried to include him in the gratitude she felt for Asenka’s generosity, but she found it impossible when he so often reminded her that because of her and Beyla, his three boys must share one room and his young daughter sleep with her parents. Because of her and Beyla, there were no silk carpets on the floors and no red tiles on the roof. In his heart of hearts, she suspected, he also blamed her for the blasted trees and the sickly soil and the incessant rain.
Swallowing her bitter thoughts, she opened the little wrought iron gate Blaz had fixed in his stone wall and went into the yard, leaving her handcart outside. She’d taken no more than two steps up the beaten path when a snow-capped whirlwind of giggles swept her up in a boy-sized hug.
“I smelled the bread, mama! Can I have some?” Her son’s golden face was turned up to her in eager expectation, his tilted brown eyes grinning from beneath a thatch of white, sun-dappled silk.
His mother laughed and dredged her pocket for the cookie. “The bread’s for dinner, Beyla, but Mistress Devora gave me a cookie for you.” She held it out. “You’re like a little mouse—always looking for a sweet crumb.”
It took no more than a second for the ‘sweet crumb’ to come to his expectant hands. It was a large cookie, moist with molasses, fragrant with spices. He sniffed at it blissfully. “I’m going to share it with Lenci,” he said, and turned his eyes behind him. “Is that all right, mama? May Lenci have a bit of my cookie?”
Kassia glanced over her son’s head to where his four-year-old cousin Lenci watched, one grubby finger hooked in her mouth. “That’s good of you, Beyla. I’m sure Lenci would love a bit of your cookie.”
He sniffed the cookie again, sighed and turned sparkling eyes on his mother. “I’ll thank Mistress Devora the next time I see her, I promise.”
“Hmmm. Hoping she’ll give such a courteous young man another cookie, I’ll bargain.”
Grinning, he bounced away to where the little girl waited for him, his hands already working to tear the glorious treat in two.
Still smiling, Kassia continued on into the house. Her sister Asenka was there at the table that divided kitchen from living area, carefully slicing carrots into a stew pot. She glanced up as Kassia came in, then tossed her head and smiled, her eyes shifting to the long loaf of bread in her younger sister’s arms.
“Ah, Kiska! You went by the bakery, did you?” Her brow knit ever so slightly. “I’m not sure we can afford—”
“Mistress Devora sent it along as a gift for our dinner. That and a cookie for Beyla. He’s sharing it with Lenci—I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Asenka’s mouth twitched in something that was not quite a smile. “Why that’s sweet of him. He’s a good little boy. Very helpful around the house. And you . . .” She broke off, turning her eyes back to the carrot she was slicing. Shik! Shik! whispered the knife. Shik!
Kassia wrapped the bread in a piece of linen and laid it on the sideboard, eyes distracted momentarily by the satiny sheen of the polished surface. Her fingers caressed the wood, letting the grain of it pull them back and forth.
“And our neighbors are so giving,” Asenka blurted. “Baked goods, clothing, extra milk . . . Why I was saying to Blaz just yesterday how easy this past winter was compared to . . .” Her voice dissolved beneath the susurration of her knife.
Kassia watched her older sister out of the tail of her eye for a moment, reading the averted eyes, the flushed cheeks, the too-crisp movements of her hands. It required no shai faculty to taste the unease in the little kitchen. She turned to Asenka, preparing to ask what was wrong when the open front door was filled with Blaz Kovar.
Asenka jerked upright, then hunched her shoulders again. “You frightened me,” she said, in a tone that did not quite accuse him. Coming from the usually even-tempered Asenka, it sounded almost waspish.
Blaz, his broad face closed and emotionless, glanced from Kassia to his wife before pulling a rag from his belt and wiping his hands with it. “Have you spoken?”
Asenka’s face seemed paler than it had a moment ago. “No. Kassia just came in. She was helping me with din—”
“You’d best be telling her your news, Aska.”
Asenka brought her head up, color returning to her face in a flood. Her eyes locked momentarily with her husband’s, then Blaz was gone. Asenka gazed down at the carrot in her hand as if she’d never before seen it.
Her sister looked up at her, face pale again. “It’s just . . . I . . . Oh, Kassia, I’m pregnant.”
Kassia caught a flash of the underlying emotions, then. Like her sister’s expression, they fluttered back and forth between a frown and a smile—anguish and felicity. She smiled. “Are you happy, Aska?”
“I . . . Oh, of course I’m happy, Kassia. It’s just . . . well, it’s a bit of a surprise. I don’t know how it happened.”
Kassia raised her brows. “Aska, by now, you don’t know how it happens?”
Her sister waved the carrot, laughing, but still not releasing her anxiety. “You know what I mean. Blaz . . . well, he’s been on one of the herbals. I’ve never known them to fail if they’re taken as they should be, but . . .” She snorted delicately. “I’m certainly not going to accuse my husband of carelessness.”
Kassia nodded. So, Blaz had finally found a way to be rid of her. “Five children. Do you know what it is yet?”
Asenka shook her head. “Blaz wanted me to go up to Lorant and have one of the Mateu cast a divination, but . . .” She glanced at the door and lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “I wanted you to do it. I’m surprised you didn’t know I was pregnant before I did.”
Kassia laughed. “I don’t know everything, Aska. Sometimes when I’m distracted, I don’t . . . listen very well.”
“You’ve been distracted, I know.” Asenka gave the carrot a shake, then started peeling it. “Blaz . . . isn’t an easy man to get along with always.”
Blaz wasn’t an easy man to get along with ever, Kassia thought, but she kept her peace. “And now he wants me to leave—oh, not that he hasn’t always wanted me to leave, but now he has ample reason.”
Asenka’s head came up, eyes glinting. “This house is half mine. I should tell him if I want to let part of my half to my own sister—”
“Aska, there is not enough room in this little house for nine people. There isn’t enough room in it for eight, but you’ve made do. I understand this isn’t your decision. Please, don’t torture yourself that you should have done more. Beyla and I will go.”
“But where will you go? Janka’s in no better situation than I am, and you make so little with your herbals and such. I suppose if you had more reading students, you might—”
Kassia moved to lay a gentle hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Let me worry about that, Aska. I’ll think of something.”
She would have to think of something, for Beyla’s sake, whether it was coming up with more exciting herbal cures and enhancers or finding more folk who wanted to learn to read and write. But neither of those things were entirely practical. She wasn’t the only one in town who could do adequate herbals and there were a good number of folk who wouldn’t touch anything she’d prepared anyway. As for reading—those that wanted to learn usually went to Lorant and those who didn’t, simply didn’t. What did it avail a blacksmith or a shepherd to read?
Despair was trying to settle on her. There really was very little she could do in a village like Dalibor and the thought of moving to a city like Radom, Ratibor or Tabor terrified her. Asenka was right about Janka, too—not only was their elder sister’s situation similar to Asenka’s, but even if it weren’t, she’d hardly be inclined to take her younger sibling and nephew in. That reality, perhaps, was the hardest for Kassia to bear.
Feeling her sister’s melting eyes on her, she murmured, “I’ve got to go think,” and fled outside. But first, she thought, first, I have to get this wretched weight out of my soul.
She wandered aimlessly for a while, making an effort to think, but doing very little thinking. At length, she found herself back down by the river, standing on a little stone jetty that thrust into the broad stream to shield the village fishing boats from the current. Her eyes went where they would, and they would go across the river to the dark tangle of dead trees and brush that almost hid the ruins of lost Dalibor.
There had been cottages among those trees once, not that long ago. She had lived in one of them with her husband, Shurik, and Beyla. From where she stood, she could just catch a glimpse of a broken wall. Stone—that would have been her parent’s house. Her house, and Shurik’s, had been made of wood. It was gone, washed away along with her father, her husband . . . her life.
The river smelled gently green and sang sweetly, yet it was easy—too easy—for Kassia to bring back the terror and fury of that night three years ago, when the storms had reached their peak, when the Pavla Yeva, swollen and enraged, had swarmed her banks and over-run the lower reaches of Dalibor.
Because both mother and daughter were shai. That’s what the villagers had said. Because of them, the river had escaped its banks. Because of that, Mat had taken their men.
It was true in a sense; Jedrus Telek and Shurik Cheslaf had died because they lived on the northern bank of the Pavla Yeva and they had lived there because their women were shai. Since that night Kassia had lived more or less in hiding—her hair covered along with her burgeoning shai senses, her magics bottled up to be dispensed only in the most mundane or secret of ways, she clothed herself in bright village garb while her mind, her soul, wore widow’s black.
This was an anniversary of sorts, Kassia realized. This was her third spring without Shurik, without her family. Three years, and she still mourned. She squeezed her eyes closed and thanked Itugen and Mat that she yet had Beyla. Had she lost him, too . . .
Anger welled in the reaches of her heart—a rising swirl of furious pain. She tore the green scarf from her head and flung it to the stonework at her feet, leaving it behind her to flutter in the capricious breezes off the Pavla Yeva.