The second time Ishalat saw the Stone Prince, her heart clenched with the fierceness of her anger. He had the sword at his belt that had slaughtered hundreds of her people and the expression on his face was known for: nothing, in the terrifying manner of those who do not care what blood stains their hands if it is for the object of their own loyalty.
He felt small and very alone in the quiet woods around him. He wasn’t very big yet anyway, newly born from his power only a few years before, and while he grew, it was at the rate of all the gods—whatever that power sustained.
So even when he’d been walking alongside his older sister, her mouth curling in a bright smile, warm fingers curled around his hand, he’d been a child at her waist and unnamed yet. But there it hadn’t mattered that he was small and she was not because he knew that she wouldn’t let anything happen to him.
The woods rustled gently, creaking branches, wind-blown leaves and underbrush. His sister was the god of finding. If he just waited, she would find him.
He crawled under the brush around one of the trees with low-hanging branches and let it cover him while he waited.
It was cold out. Winter had never been particularly friendly to the wayfarer in the wilds beyond reach of city or road, let alone to fugitives, fleeing their former masters. Snow had piled deep through every thicket and stretch of the wood, ice coated the river in all but the most rapid sections, and no path was visible in any direction.
In short, Ishalt was lost, which wasn’t a terrible thing in summer when there was food for forage and the only thing that mattered was suitable distance from one’s pursuers. In winter, it could mean life or death to find shelter.
You’re always on the lookout for magical items, especially unusual ones. They’re the lifeblood of your small shop at the edge of the living mall where regular humans only wander by fate or by accident and magic-users congregate on any given weekend. So when you hear that mermaids have returned to the lake in the deep woods, you’re wrapped up in your invisibility cloak that protects against all weather almost before the words are out of your aunt’s mouth.
Love is nowhere, Abigail Mortin thought to herself. If it were anywhere left, it would be right here with her husband she no longer knew how to relate to, but she couldn’t feel love when she looked up from her kneading dough at the tired middle-aged man frowning at the kitchen table over a newspaper.
David had been buried in work and statistics so long—just a few more months, he had always promised, and they’ll wrap up this project—but by the end of those eight years when David finally dragged himself out of numbers back into the real world, they had grown apart. He knew only numbers. Abigail could not share his love for them.
Paper rustled. She watched her husband stand and walk over to her, put one hand on her hand.
“Are your hands clean?” she sniffed, kneading with a little less vim.
“Teach me how to make bread,” David suddenly said softly.
Abigail glanced up in sharp surprise. “You’ve never been a baker,” she pointed out, perhaps a little harsher than was warranted.
But David pressed his hand a little more firmly onto hers. “Please.”
It surprised her, the quiet desperate pleading in that voice. She looked up at him, uncertain, more uncertain than she’d been when he took the job as City Statistician and buried himself in a deluge of work she simply couldn’t understand.
Her heart and body softened, enough, and she nodded. Baking. She pulled out the numbered measuring cups and spoons she never used—always been taught with a pinch of this, a handful of that—but that he would understand. It was a start. It was enough.
The old preacher wearily settled his bones at last on a wooden pew, harder than the harsh land that had grown this church. Years had bent and burdened him, years of reaching out his once strong, now gnarled hands to a people with ears stiff from not hearing, mouths folded in grim lines, and jaws set each one against their neighbor.