She had only been to Lady Sylvania’s house thrice before, but she knew the route like she knew the halls of the Citadel. Her breath was coming fast and hard by the time she found the squat cottage at the edge of the village, with the weathered teal door and dead flower bushes hanging from the windowsill. The window that looked into the sitting room was open, and the smell of baked cherry hung on the air.
Her shoes clacked against the stones that made the path up to the door, and she rapped her fist hard enough to make sure it was heard through the house. Sylvania nor Elsie had good hearing anymore.
The door swung open after a few moments. Sylvania peered down at her, nodded, and then stepped aside. “Inside,” she said, as if this was a planned visit and not spur of the moment at all. “Take your grubby boots off. This isn’t a stable.”
Ember wordlessly complied, setting her shoes and socks aside and followed Sylvania into the sitting room. The old ivory floor was covered by an ornamental rug. Elsie had told her it had come all the way from Summermount. It glittered when the sun hit it right. Sylvania said it was its own source of light in Summermount, under the constant vigilance of the sun.
Veins of magic-dust filled hoses ran up the walls and snaked across the ceiling, lighting up the room with a light spell. Sitting on a giant cushion near the window, next to the fireplace, was Risto, the village spellweaver. They looked to be in a trance, eyes shut. Their veins were dark and pulsing, the signature of their casting.
“Elsie’s made a cherry pie and we’ve got tea on. Have you eaten today?” Sylvania asked, eyeing her sceptically as if able to tell her condition if she peered hard enough.
She’d had breakfast already, but cherry pie? “If I say yes, can I still have a slice of pie?”
Lady Sylvania smiled. “As if I would refuse you. Elsie! Eugenia’s here!” She hobbled off into the kitchen, silver braid swinging across her broad shoulders.
“Little flame!” Elsie shrilled from the kitchen and came into the sitting room as a speed that was uncanny for the old joints she always complained about. She swooped Ember into a bundle of limbs and Ember had to catch her, so she didn’t fall over. “It’s been months!”
“Yeah,” she said, all the fight leaving her at once. “I should have come sooner. With the expedition leaving, and Isadora and Mishal…” She frowned.
Elsie patted her arm and nodded, face twisting sympathetically. “That must have been hard on you.” Then she smiled and turned back towards the kitchen, blonde strands of hair that were nearly white bobbing around her ears. “Pie will fix you right up, yes? And tea! You’ll need some tea. Maybe Rizzy will even spare us some good news about clear skies ahead, hm? Yes.”
She found herself not five minutes later ushered onto one of the cushions on the floor, with a tray beside her that held a wooden carved mug full of tea that smelled of liquorice, and a similarly designed plate that had copper leaf designs engraved along the edges with a piece of pie on it.
“Something’s troubling you,” Sylvania said, sitting on a higher cushioned armchair across the floor from her. “What’s on your mind?”
Elsie, from her place snuggled beside Sylvania, watched her like a hawk as she scooped bites of pie happily into her mouth.
Something dropped into her stomach. Heavy. Like lead. She sipped some of her steaming tea. It was pleasantly hot in her mouth.
“It’s too hot to—” Elsie tried to warn her and then stopped with a wince. “Goodness, flame, you’ll burn yourself.”
She set the tea down. It was warm against her fingers. “It’s not hot enough,” she said, distracted. Elsie frowned, but she glanced towards the window and ignored it. “What’ll happen to a kingdom that loses its trueblood heir?”
Ori had already explained, but she needed to hear it from someone else. Someone who knew everything already. Someone older, who had experience.
“They say the kingdoms fall, when they lose their trueblood rulers,” Sylvania explained. “Some of the monarchs right now have distant cousins, but they’ve all only had a single child as of now. Except the Divine Kingdom.”
She turned back towards Lady Sylvania. “The Divine Kingdom?” She’d never heard of the Divine Kingdom.
“It’s the old name for Glacier’s Keep,” Elsie explained, patting Sylvania’s arm. “She’s just a pipsqueak, love, you can’t use names old enough to be fossilised.”
“You’re old enough to be fossilised,” Sylvania grumbled.
Questions filled her mind like a water faucet to a cup, and she took a thoughtful bite of her pie. How did she ask? Did Sylvania and Elsie know what had happened to the trueblooded heirs? What happened with Glacier’s Keep? The way Sylvania had worded it, they say the kingdoms fall, did she not believe that?
And then Risto gasped, eyes flying open. They were dark, a stormy grey that spread through their sclera and made their irises look black. They sucked in several deep breaths.
“Tea for them,” Sylvania said.
Ember sprang to her feet and raced to the kitchen for a mug of tea. She dished out a slice of pie, for good measure. Cassius always said magic made him hungry.
When she offered the slice of pie to Risto, they took it with shaking hands and nodded to her without ever truly looking towards her. They’re eyes were still dark, glassy, and unfocused. Their dark brow was furrow deeply, and they ran a hand through their wiry, frazzled hair.
“Well?” Elsie prompted. “Storms in the future? Shall we batten down the hatches in the coming days?”
Risto stared at their pale hands and rubbed them, as if the feeling had been lost to their fingers. “I saw ash.”
She sat down, folding her legs to her chest. “Ash? What’ddya mean?”
They looked immensely troubled, fidgeting on their cushion. “Yes. I felt an oncoming warmth, smelled the freshness of clear, cloudless days ahead, tasted the sweetness of rain on the air and… and I saw ash. I saw ash falling from the sky, and smoke billowing to the sky, to the stars.”
From the corner of her eyes, she saw Sylvania and Elsie exchange a glance.
“But it doesn’t rain ash,” she said with a snort. Unease curled in her belly.
Risto met her eyes for a moment, and only a moment. Something pale and grey passed through them. Then they turned to stare out the window, at the clear sky above.
“No,” they agreed, voice low and wisplike. “No, it does not.”