There were two secrets in Varenx House, and Alizhan was one of them.
Alizhan can’t see faces, but she can read minds. Her mysterious ability leaves her unable to touch or be touched without excruciating pain. Rescued from abandonment and raised by the wealthy and beautiful Iriyat ha-Varensi, Alizhan has grown up in isolation, using her gift to steal secrets from Iriyat’s rivals, the ruling class of Laalvur. But Iriyat keeps secrets of her own.
When Alizhan discovers that she isn’t the only one of her kind, and that a deadly plot threatens everyone like her, there’s only one person she can trust.
Ev liked having a secret. None of the other girls in the village had a thief-friend.
Evreyet Umarsad—“Ev” to her parents and her one friend—longs to be the kind of hero she reads about in books. But the rest of the world feels impossibly far away from her life on a farm outside Laalvur. Ev will never lay eyes on the underground city of Adappyr, the stars of the Nightward Coast, or the venomous medusas that glow in the dark depths of the sea.
At least on her weekly trip to the market, Ev gets to see her thief—the strange young woman who slips by her cart and playfully steals a handful of thornfruit. When the thief needs help, Ev doesn’t hesitate. Together, they uncover a conspiracy that draws them all over Laalvur and beyond.
About the Book
by Felicia Davin
The Gardener’s Hand Trilogy Book One
February 27, 2018
I really liked this fantasy, which features two wonderfully fresh women protagonists in a truly star-crossed romance. Honestly I don’t think I have ever read a character quite like Alizhan. She and Ev are both awesome characters. Their romance is sweet and slow-paced due to Alizhan’s magical issues with being touched, and I found it very satisfying and real.
The only downside of the book is that neither the fantasy plot nor the romance is completely resolved at the end, but that’s fantasy for you. They love their trilogies.
I recommend Thornfruit to fantasy fans hungry for great women protagonists and/or lesbian representation.
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THE GIRL IN THE MARKET
TEN YEARS AGO
When Ev was three years old, a wave had crashed into the cliffs of Laalvur. As the flood waters had drained from the lower city back into the ocean, they’d left a giant dead medusa speared on the splintered wreckage of the harbor. The monster’s carcass had lethal tentacles as long as three men lying end to end. It had taken six people to lift its massive bell.
It was a horrible story—medusas killed people, and so did waves—and Papa always made it worse by saying words like oozing and gelatinous. But Ev still wished she’d been there to heave it off the ground and throw its corpse back into the ocean. Or maybe she could have saved someone from drowning. The heroes in her favorite books were always doing things like that.
Ev was twelve now and her life hadn’t offered much in the way of adventure, but she remained hopeful. She zigzagged down the narrow street after her father and their cart, ignoring the slap and clatter of donkey hooves, wooden wheels, and leather sandals against the stone and straining to hear the water instead. A whole ocean of it, her father had promised. But the harbor was still another steep turn or two beneath them on the path, and Ev couldn’t see that far down.
Papa said sometimes the sky and the stones of the city were so red that they made the ocean look red, too. Ev had been to Laalvur before, but she could only conjure a vague memory of orange-brown cliffs pierced by dark doorways and people everywhere, even on ladders between the street levels. Her best friend Ajee didn’t believe her when she said she’d seen the city. She’d sworn up and down she was telling the truth, but she hadn’t come back with any good stories.
“Did you see a shark? Or a medusa? Or a wave?”
Ajee said it was dumb to want to be like people in books when Ajee and Ev were just going to live in the village of Orzatvur their whole lives, where there were no sea monsters and no princesses to save.
It didn’t matter what he thought. He wasn’t here. Now she was old enough to help bring their cart to the market, and she’d walked all the way from the farm with Papa. Her dog Tez had tried to follow her, and some of her cats, too, but she’d shooed them all away at Papa’s orders. She had to do what he said if she wanted to come back every week. Then she’d finally see something exciting enough to impress Ajee.
When they arrived at the lowest level of the city, Ev could hear and smell the ocean before she saw it. Even when they pushed their way from the thronged street into the open market—where everyone was unloading carts of ripe cheeses and fruits, vendors were already calling out their wares in singsong chants, and there were pack animals jostling and squawking chickens in cages—the smell of fish and salt was in every breath, and the water lapping at the city’s edge was a rhythm beneath the noise.
There weren’t many open spaces in the lower city, squeezed between the cliffs and the water as it was. Laalvur was named after the old god Laal, who’d supposedly laid his body down to make the Dayward side of the world. The cliffs were his right hand, with four rock fingers reaching into the sea and a long stretch of the city curving along the low, marshy coastline like a thumb.
Ev and her father set up their cart to sell fruit in the market, a cove between Laal’s middle and ring fingers, which were called Arish and Denan. The inlet and the neighborhood that clung to the cliffs like algae were both called Arishdenan.
Arishdenan held the second largest harbor in Laalvur, after Hahim. Small boats were docked all along the sunny length of Arish and the shaded length of Denan, so the inner harbor bristled with masts. The docks and decks of the harbor and the market had been rebuilt in Ev’s lifetime, since the wave nine years ago. The wood already creaked with weathering from salt and sunshine, but the boats bobbing next to it were painted blue and yellow. Fresh, brilliant colors in defiance of the fearsome sea, with lyrical names to match. From where she stood next to her father, Ev could see a small vessel called Her Heart as Constant as the Sun.
The sun was indeed constant and fierce, scattering gold reflections on the water and striping the red cliffs with shadows. The water near the city was dark and brownish, not the brilliant red reflection of legend, but even that struck Ev as strange and beautiful. From far back, sheltered between the pillars of Arish and Denan, Ev could only see a slice of sky and ocean, and still, she’d never seen anything grander.
Farther out to sea, there were ships anchored in the water. Ajee had better believe her this time.
“It must go on forever,” she breathed.
“It’s nothing but salt and poison,” Papa said. He’d unloaded half the cart while she’d been staring. “Except for the islands, but those have their own dangers.”
“It’s not poison.” Ev was too old to fall for that. The medusas were poisonous, but not the water itself.
“It is if you can’t swim.”
Papa had been all over the world, from his home in Adappyr, where it was so hot that everyone had to live in an underground city, all the way to Estva, where it was dark all the time and people built walls out of ice. He used to work on a ship. He’d been as close to the islands as anyone ever got. Ev loved his stories. She’d never been anywhere at all.
“Don’t wander off,” her father warned. “Or I won’t bring you with me next time.”
Ev heard people speaking Laalvuri, Adpri, Hapiri, and languages she didn’t recognize, and she saw pale-skinned Nalitzvans and Day tribeswomen in robes, but hardly anyone stopped to buy something. The vendors called out the same chants over and over, and a priest of the Balance gave a loud, droning sermon about how the good, civilized people of Laalvur must root out superstition and let go of their false fears of magic. It is the Year 764 of the Balance, he was saying. The time has come to embrace the truth. No one was paying attention to him. Sometimes pamphlet-sellers strode through, crying out the latest news and rumors. Her father haggled with a customer over the price of melons and berries.
Food odors thickened the hot, still air. Why did anyone eat fish? Ev didn’t care if priests said that eating the flesh of animals was part of God’s Balance. It smelled gross.
Ev should’ve brought her book. Papa didn’t like her bringing books everywhere because they were so expensive, but if he didn’t want Ev to read them, then he should stop buying them for her.
She was in the middle of a series called The Sunrise Chronicles. All the books took place in a magical world where the sun moved across the sky, and Day and Night were times instead of places. In this strange world, people could stand in one place and see the sun at one hour and the stars in darkness the next. Ev had never seen the stars. The only darkness she knew existed in windowless rooms, a luxury manufactured by humans. The sky over Laalvur was always red-gold, and the sun hung in the same low spot all the time. The idea that the sun could disappear—that the whole sky could turn black—enchanted and chilled her. What a changeable, chaotic world that would be.
More importantly, at the exact location of Ev’s bookmark, the evil Regent had just locked his niece, Aurora, in a tower for speaking against him, and now it was up to the hero, a clever and dashing wanderer named Vesper, to save her.
Vesper was secretly a prince from another land. Ev knew because she’d read the six-novel series twice already, mostly by the green glow of lamplight in her dark bedroom, hours into the shift of the Honeycreeper when she ought to be asleep. She’d be happily on her way to a third reread if only Papa had let her bring volume two.
Ev sighed and sat down on the stones to sweat in the shade of the cart. She slouched. Her mother would be horrified.
That was when Ev saw the girl.
She thought it was a girl, anyway. It was definitely a kid, a little younger than her and a lot smaller, crouching under one of the other carts. Rags the color of mud. Long tangled hair the color of—well, Papa should stop complaining about how often he had to haul water because his spoiled daughter loved bathing so much.
Ev froze. It wasn’t just that she’d been caught staring. The other girl was round-eyed with terror. Trails of sweat cut through the filth on her skin. She was staying so still that she was trembling with the effort of it. Tez had been like that, before Ev had coaxed him out from under the bush where she’d found him.
Ev put a finger to her lips, and then, when her father wasn’t looking, she reached into the cart and stole a handful of thornfruit. Their hard, brown rinds pricked her palm.
She lobbed one—carefully, casually—under the cart, so that it rolled to a stop within the girl’s reach. The girl stared. First at the fruit on the ground, and then at Ev.
Ev caught her eye, and then plucked a thornfruit out of her hand and held it up to demonstrate. She dug into the rind with her thumbnails until it split and popped open, revealing its sweet red insides. She pinched the fruit from its casing and ate it.
The other girl’s hand snapped out from the folds of her clothing. She snatched the thornfruit from the ground. She brought it so close to her face that her eyes crossed when she looked at it, and she squeezed it until it was nearly flat between her fingers. Satisfied with her examination, she imitated Ev’s demonstration, peeling off the outside and dropping it. Then she popped the red part into her mouth and swallowed it.
It was weird, and funny, but Ev didn’t want to scare the girl by laughing. Instead, she tossed her another one. It landed a little closer to Ev than the first.
The girl crept forward, still trying to stay hidden under the cart. But she accepted the gift.
Her hand was so thin. Under all the dirt, her face was thin, too. She must be an orphan. She must not have a home. Ev’s chest went tight. What had happened to this girl? Who had let it happen? Why hadn’t someone protected her?
The priest of the Balance had said something about this in his sermon. He’d told a terrible story of families abandoning their own children on the Temple steps, if the parents feared the child was Unbalanced. Some people dreaded that word and preferred to say touched. The priest stressed that the Temple would, of course, take care of any children found on its threshold, as the sacred Balance required and as the Temple had always done, but that such action was not necessary—there was no such thing as magic.
Was that why this girl was alone in the market? Had her family abandoned her because they thought she had magic? And if her family had abandoned her, why wasn’t she in the Temple Street orphanage?
Ev didn’t know if magic was real. The priest had said, “The good people of Laalvur do not live in the grip of superstitious fear.” According to him, Laalvuri were not the barbarians across the sea in Nalitzva, who slaughtered all those suspected of magic. The people of Laalvur—proper, decent folk—welcomed all kinds. Some children were strange. Madness was part of the Balance, too.
The priest had said all that, so it must be true, but still Ev couldn’t imagine her parents abandoning her, or any parents willingly leaving their child on the Temple steps, no matter how strange.
But she knew from living on the farm that people sometimes left litters of kittens in sacks on the side of the road. Cruelty was part of the Balance.
But so was kindness.
Ev held out her hand with half a dozen thornfruit in it. The girl reached out, but her arm was too short. She would have to crawl out from under the cart. In the shadows, her eyes were wide and dark. She shook her head minutely and pulled back, drawing her baggy tunic around her.
Ev pushed herself to her knees and leaned forward.
It was just enough movement to get her father’s attention. He immediately saw the girl and Ev’s outstretched red hand, and snapped, “Ev!”
The girl darted out, knocking into both carts, spilling and splattering a fall of ripe fruit all over the stone. Another merchant, seeing split melons and crushed berries on the ground, yelled “Thief!”
Ev stood up and shouted, “She didn’t steal anything!” She’d never shouted that loud in her life. But no one was listening, and Ev’s father grabbed her shoulder and kept her from running into the fray.
The girl had spindly legs but she was nimble. She wove between the carts, colliding with crates of produce and people alike. A man caught her with one hand. She yelped and stabbed her sharp little elbow into his stomach. He let go.
Then she was off again. Ev wanted to run after her and help her, but her father was still holding her back, and the girl was too far away now. Instead, Ev bit her lip while she watched.
The girl might run down the length of the harbor. From there, she could head around the narrow point of Arish into the next V-shaped inlet, Hahimarish, or she could take the switchbacked path up into the higher levels of Arishdenan and the hills of the city beyond. Either might be enough distance for the merchants to give up on following her. She’d caused some chaos, but she hadn’t actually stolen anything, and she was just a girl.
She did head for the upper city, but not the way Ev expected. The girl ran deeper into the market. Then she scrambled up the steep wall to the next street. She moved like a spider, side to side, using her hands and her bare feet to hold onto the rough stone.
A man latched on to her ankle. She kicked him off.
Ev’s mouth dropped open. The girl was so small and the man’s grasp had been so solid. Ev knew how hard it was to get free of someone’s hand, since the boys at school grabbed her all the time. You had to wrench free right at the weak point of their grip, where their thumbs met their other fingers, or else it didn’t work.
The girl hadn’t done that. And her kick hadn’t even connected with his face. The man had grabbed her, she’d jerked her leg, and his hand had just opened. Almost like he’d been shocked by the feel of her skin.
The girl kept scrambling up the red cliff face of Arish. Why was she going up? How was she going to get away?
Laalvur was cut into the cliffs, with one street that zigzagged from the top of each cliff to the bottom. Some sections of the path had shortcuts—stairs cut into the stone, when the grade wasn’t too steep, or ladders when it was. The cliff faces of Arish and Denan were connected by a network of wood and rope bridges, crisscrossing Ev’s view of the sky.
The girl pulled herself up to the street. A few men from the market had run after her, taking the long way around. They might have caught her, except there was a ladder directly in front of her. She jumped on it and started to climb. The men followed. She grabbed the top rung and stomped on the face of the man behind her.
Barefoot, and so small, she couldn’t have done much damage. But the man was surprised. His foot slipped, knocking into the man behind him, and all three of them went down in a pile.
There was a lot of shouting. The girl dodged everyone in her path. This time, she was running toward Arish Point, rather than into the V of Arishdenan. Ev twisted to watch her.
They were going to catch her. Someone had to do something. The girl was so far away now, but maybe if Ev ran, she could still get there in time. Ev just had to get free of her father’s grip. She stepped forward, and he spoke.
Her full name came so often at the end of sentences like stop bringing animals into the house, Evreyet or stop climbing trees in your nice clothes, Evreyet that her parents no longer needed to say anything but her name. Papa and Mama said “Evreyet,” and Ev heard, Don’t sneak out of school with Ajee, Evreyet. Don’t read novels all shift after we send you to bed, Evreyet. Don’t start fights, Evreyet.
Her parents had said that last one plenty of times and it wasn’t even true. Ev never started fights. She only finished them.
While Ev’s father was holding her back, the girl from the market scurried up a second ladder.
Ev’s nails were biting into her palms. The girl shouldn’t have gone up. The street was narrow and crowded, but now she’d made a scene. She couldn’t hide. She was trapped. Any second now, someone was going to catch her. The men from the market were still pulling each other up from the ground, dusting themselves off, but they were shouting at people in the street to stop her.
Above Ev, a bridge was creaking. The girl had dashed to the middle of it.
People waited for her on either side. The bridges were sturdy but small, meant for one person to cross at a time. But no one needed to step onto the bridge to catch her. She had nowhere to go.
The girl clambered to the top of the wooden railing, gripping it with her bare feet, holding her arms wide for balance. Then she raised her arms above her head, placed her palms flat against each other, and dove.
Her tiny form sailed down, slicing into the air between the two cliffs, and cut smoothly into the water.
The ocean resumed its calm sway to and fro.
Ev’s heart rattled against her ribcage. She bit her lip. The girl didn’t come up for air.
What if it really is poison? Ev thought, and then forced the thought away. That wasn’t true. There weren’t any medusas in Arishdenan inlet. They lived in farthest depths of the sea.
Behind Ev, the market returned to business. People righted their overturned crates and carts. The men who’d chased her began to make their way back down to the lower city. People grumbled, but life had to go on. There was work to be done.
“She’ll be alright,” Papa said, and patted Ev’s shoulder. “You, on the other hand, have a mess to clean up.”
Ev nodded but didn’t look at him. Nothing broke the surface of the water. It was only when her father tapped her on the shoulder that she came back to herself. Ev glanced down at her hand, hanging limp at her side, her palm sticky with the pulp of crushed red fruit.
Half a shift dripped by, four hours heavy with the odors of the market and the ocean. Ev waited patiently while customers came by and inspected their cart, lifting the melons to see how ripe they were and picking through the thornfruit. She counted their coins afterward.
When no one was buying anything from her, Ev watched the painted boats bob in the harbor. It had been too long now, and the girl wasn’t going to burst through the glassy surface of the water. Ev was disappointed not to see her again. She nurtured a secret hope that the girl had slipped away unseen. The alternative was too awful to contemplate.
Ev had seen animals die at the farm. And all her grandparents were gone—Mama’s parents had both died when she was little, and Papa’s parents had died before she was born. She knew about death. But she’d never seen a person die. She shuddered.
The low chatter of the market crescendoed into chaos and then went silent. A group of guards in grey uniforms forced their way into the crowd, pausing to interrogate people. The crowd split in two suddenly, as if answering an unheard order.
A woman strode into view. Ev’s first impression was a swishing whirl of fabric. The woman was wearing the same type of loose trousers and long tunic as Ev, but the similarities ended there.
Ev’s clothes were sewn from plain blue cotton. There was a little scroll of pink-and-green floral embroidery decorating the sleeves and the open V of her collar, because Mama always wanted everything to be beautiful and she was willing to spend hours hunched over her needle and thread to make that happen. The rest of Ev’s tunic was simple. It fell straight from her shoulders, short-sleeved and knee-length so as not to get in her way. Like the rest of her, it was damp with sweat. She’d wiped thornfruit pulp on the thigh of her trousers earlier, right under where her tunic had a split seam at the side to allow her to move freely.
Ev didn’t usually spend any time thinking about what she was wearing, but just being in the woman’s presence made her feel scruffy.
Ev had never seen anyone wear so much fabric—she didn’t even know what kind it was. Not cotton. Not even the finest wool. It whispered and glinted in layers of lavender, shot through with strands of silver. The woman’s tunic went all the way down to her ankles, flaring out like a dress, and its bottom edge swung with a heavy band of embroidery. The cuffs of her trousers, barely even visible underneath her tunic, had matching embroidery. Ev thought of her mother’s painstaking work and wondered how many shifts had gone into these clothes. To wear something so luxurious down into the harbor, this woman must be very, very rich.
She must be a member of the Council of Nine that ruled the city. The Council had a representative from each of the nine richest Houses in the city. Of these, there were four Great Houses and five Lesser, and the wealthy scions of the Great Houses lived in mansions up on the tips of Laal’s fingers.
Which of the Great Houses would have guards with grey uniforms? Mama would know. Papa, fiercely suspicious of Laalvur’s rulers and upper class, considered it a waste of time to talk of such details. But Ev knew the names of the four Great Houses despite him: Solor, Katav, Garatsin, and Varenx.
Varenx House was the only one ruled by a pale-skinned woman of Nalitzvan descent. A legendary beauty.
Was the woman really Iriyat ha-Varensi?
How could she be anyone else?
She moved smoothly through the market. Her guards—clearly, the guards belonged to her—held the crowd back. She stopped occasionally to speak to someone, and when her brief conversation ended, she walked forward unimpeded. Even if she’d been dressed in rags, she would still have been commanding—enchanting, even. It was more than her stride, and more than the cleared path in front of her. She seemed to own even the empty air around herself, changing it with her presence.
The woman was covered from head to toe. Ev’s mother had told her that this was the latest fashion among wealthy women, supposedly for modesty and protection of their delicate skin. Ev recalled her mother gushing about how Iriyat ha-Varensi had started the trend herself, with her devotion to charitable work at the Temple of the Balance. She helped care for the orphans who were left at the door.
Iriyat ha-Varensi might be religious, but there was nothing modest about the wealth on display in this woman’s outfit. All that cloth, and so much of it embroidered so delicately. The woman had even covered her hair and her face, leaving only a strip for her eyes.
When Mama talked about fashions, Papa liked to say that rich people covered their faces so no one could recognize them when they were committing crimes. After taking in the sight of this woman, Ev didn’t think that was very likely. She would never forget this.
The woman had eyes the color of an ash plume on the horizon. A warning in smoke from the distant peak of Adap. A dangerous grey.
“Excuse me, young man,” she said, and the fall of fabric over her face fluttered as she tilted her head at Ev.
Ev stiffened. “I’m not a boy.” Ever since she’d cut off all her hair—braiding and washing it was such a waste of time and boys were always grabbing it in fights—people made this mistake. Usually, when she corrected them, they frowned in disapproval. No one seemed to care that the first snip of the scissors had made Ev lighter and happier.
Iriyat examined Ev again, and then Ev’s father. Ev bit her lip, acutely aware of their difference. Ev had grown up on a farm an hour’s walk from the city, but she took after her Adpri father instead of her Laalvuri mother, so sometimes people treated her like she didn’t belong.
Laalvur was a port city that welcomed everyone. Only sometimes it didn’t feel very welcoming. When Iriyat looked at Ev and her father, was she thinking the same things that the Orzatvur village school kids said to Ev? They say Adappyr’s a paradise, and the only people who leave are the ones who get kicked out. The criminals. I bet your father’s a murderer!
But Iriyat’s gaze softened. She held up a hand in apology to Ev, then touched it to her heart. Unlike the rest of her, her hands were bare. Her pale skin surprised Ev. Not only because that color, faint peach-pink like the inside of an unripe melon, was rare in Laalvur, but also because it made no sense. Whether Iriyat was covering herself for modesty or sun protection, she ought to include her hands. Where were her gloves?
No other part of her was exposed. She was even wearing leather boots. Her tunic had long, tight sleeves, and the fabric at her neck went right up to her chin. An imposing silver collar ringed her neck. All those layers with all that jewelry on top. Ev was hot and tired in her own clothes, built to be practical in the heat.
Iriyat ha-Varensi showed no sign of discomfort. It was only Ev who was sweating, burning under the gaze of those eyes. Iriyat was no taller than her, but Ev felt as if the woman towered over her. She’d breathe easier if Papa came over. He was taller than everyone.
“I hope you can help me. I’m looking for a girl,” she said. “A tiny little one. Black hair. About nine years old. She might be dressed in rags, the poor thing. I had word that she was here earlier this shift, causing trouble.”
What was her connection to the girl? Did she want to help her? That would make sense. Someone should help her.
Ev’s father came to stand behind Ev. He put a hand on her shoulder. Ev didn’t look up at his face, but she guessed he was scowling.
Iriyat wasn’t intimidated. “Oh,” she said. She had a beautiful laugh. Her jewelry jangled. “You must think me very rude. I’m so sorry not to have introduced myself. Iriyat ha-Varensi,” she said, as if it were funny to have to state her own name. Her voice was not unkind.
No wonder the whole market had stopped for her. Ev tried to keep her eyes from widening. It was like meeting a real-life queen. She could have been in a character in one of Ev’s novels, or one of the goddesses from the old religion. Varenx House had been founded two hundred years ago by Nalitzvan aristocrats who’d fled religious persecution in their home and established themselves as cloth merchants in Laalvur. Iriyat had come to power at the age of eighteen, after suffering the tragic deaths of both her parents in the wave that hit the city when Ev was three.
None of that impressed Papa. “I know who you are.”
Mama would be mortified to hear that he spoke to Iriyat ha-Varensi like that, but Papa was from Adappyr, where no one was richer or more powerful or more important than anyone else. He did not like rich people, and he was not afraid.
Mama always said that was because he had no sense.
Iriyat inclined her head. To Ev’s amazement, she unpinned one side of her veil and moved it away from her face.
Revealing her face made her even more imposing. She wore a pleading expression that matched her huge, sad eyes as well as her clothes. Age had hardly touched her smooth, unmarked skin and full lips. “Can you tell me anything of the girl?”
“There was a girl,” Papa said. “Looked like she hadn’t had enough to eat.”
Iriyat’s lovely face crumpled, and she touched her hand to her heart again. “Poor thing,” she said. “She’s an orphan, you see. I took her in, but she’s a curious creature, given to wild flights of imagination. Sometimes she likes to run away. I doubt she’s been able to find much to eat in the past few triads. Can you tell me where she went?”
Papa tilted his head toward the water, and Iriyat’s eyes went wide.
“She jumped,” Ev volunteered, dissatisfied with her father’s silence. He didn’t seem to like Iriyat, but she looked so sad and worried. “From all the way up there.” Ev pointed to the bridge above them. “I watched for a long time, but I never saw her come up. Do you think she’s okay? Does she know how to swim?”
“I couldn’t say,” said Iriyat, even paler than usual.
“What exactly,” Papa said, “does a girl like that do in your household?”
“Oh,” Iriyat said. “I know she probably looked terribly ragged when you saw her. I’ve tried my best to keep her fed and clothed since she’s been in my care but she’s—” Iriyat paused, searching for a word. “Difficult.”
“But you want her back,” Obin observed.
“She’s in my care,” Iriyat said, and there was a hard edge in her voice.
She didn’t seem to like being questioned. Ev wished her father would be more cooperative. He was treating Iriyat like she’d done something wrong. All Iriyat wanted was to help the girl, which was what Ev wanted, too.
The slight change in Iriyat’s tone had no effect on Ev’s father. Obin remained stonily silent.
“I’m sorry to keep you from your affairs. I’ll take my leave,” Iriyat said, and she reached out toward Obin with one slender, bare hand.
She obviously expected him to clasp her hand in his. He didn’t.
Ev stared at her father, mortified. She turned back to Iriyat and said, “What if we see her again?”
Iriyat took a shuddering breath, straightened her shoulders, and smoothed her unwrinkled skirts to calm herself. Then she pulled her veil over her face again, pinning it to the cloth that covered her hair. “Please send word to Varenx House if you do.”
Ev nodded, too stunned by the possibility of visiting Varenx House to say anything at all. That girl would get the help she needed, and more. The house sat at the tip of Dar, the lowest of the four fingers, but it was still high above the city. Situated at the tip like that, anyone in the house would be able to see for ages. All that ocean. It must be so beautiful.
The Great Houses sat like glittering gems at the tip of each point, with their thin red stone towers catching the light. Or at least that was what Mama said. Ev had been disappointed that the houses had been so far away early this shift when she and Papa had arrived, and now they were too low down in the harbor to get a good view. But she’d been invited to see one up close! Maybe even to go inside! All she had to do was catch sight of the girl.
Mama said the Great Houses were all dug deep into the cliffs, with their lower floors hollowed into the rock. The richest of the houses, Solor, had more floors than anybody knew, and the lowest ones were all vaults filled with treasure.
Iriyat ha-Varensi left in a bloom of silvery lavender skirts. She parted the crowds just as she had before, and Ev’s father watched her go out of sight before swearing, “Smoke and fire.”
Papa had grown up with the smoking peak of Adap looming over his home, and he always swore like that. Mama scolded him when he did it in front of Ev. Once, he’d even said smoke and fucking fire while Ev was standing right there. But at least he hadn’t said it in front of Iriyat ha-Varensi.
“You were so rude to her, Papa,” Ev said with quiet horror. She crossed her arms over her chest. They’d met a famous person, an important person, and Papa had been even grouchier with her than he was with everybody else. And she’d been so beautiful, and so sad. “We should’ve helped her more. She was upset.”
“If she was so sad about that girl, why wasn’t she treating her better?” Papa said. “That girl was desperate to get away from something.”
“She said the girl was an orphan! The girl ran away!” In fact, Iriyat had said she’d taken the girl in—meaning the girl must have run from Varenx House. But why would she do that?
“People say all kinds of things,” Papa said. “Doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth.”
“But how can you know if somebody is lying?”
“So you might be wrong,” Ev said. Iriyat had been on the verge of tears. She had a reputation for helping orphans. Why wouldn’t the girl want to go back to Varenx House, where she wouldn’t have to hide under carts and eat thornfruit off the ground? “She could be telling the truth.”
He shrugged again. Ev spent the rest of the shift carefully scanning the harbor, the market, the streets. She did not see the girl again.
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