“Rieka!” her mother scolded.
Rieka paused in her dash to the kitchen, her feet buzzing to keep moving. Tanya was on her heel and almost tumbled to the ground in an attempt to slow.
“What?” Rieka groaned. She was hungry after a day of chasing elk and wading through the icy waters of the stream.
“Your boots! You tracked in mud, and I just swept these floors!”
Rieka glanced down at her shoes, which were coated in dried dirt. “Sorry Mama,” she said with a shrug. She kicked off her boots without untying them, and one crashed into the wall, leaving a smear of mud.
Her mother was silent, but Rieka could feel her anger like one felt the heat of a furnace. It was when her mother fell silent that Rieka knew fear was in order. She stilled, her eyes searching the open door to the kitchen her mother was behind. Any second now, she would pounce around the corner. Rieka’s only wish was that she didn’t punish her by taking away her dinner. Anything else.
“Rieka?” Ren asked. “Are you going to knock?”
Rieka scowled and pounded her fist against the door. Why was she suddenly so nostalgic? There was no point, not when she could never truly return to Styrka. She was here for one purpose only and that was finishing Arlan’s god’s stupid prophecy. Once she did that, she would have gold to last a lifetime. That was what she wanted.
With that in mind, Rieka squared her shoulders and waited until the door creaked open, revealing an older woman. She was dressed in a loose, brown dress, cinched at the waist with a green, coiled rope. Her hair was looped in braids around her head, streaking grey and strawberry red. No cap sat between her braids, nor did a black mourning ribbon adorn her hair.
“You’re not married,” Rieka blurted. Nor had she ever been.
Yana’s round, brown eyes widened as did her smile. “No, I am not. I am Yana, though I’m sure you already know that if you are here at my doorstep. And I will not pretend to not know you. This is a small village and news travels fast.”
“Why aren’t you married?” Rieka asked. She had never met a Styrkish woman over the age of nineteen who wasn’t wed—unless they were a warrior, of course. The local matchmakers set most matches between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.
“Because I didn’t want to. Why aren’t you married?”
“It’s Styrkish duty and tradition to wed and raise a family,” Rieka responded instead of answering. “If you’re not a protector of the land, then you must provide the land with children who may one day be.” It was a message well taught to every Styrkish child.
“Foolish, if you ask me. If it’s not a man’s duty to bear children, why should it be mine?”
Rieka’s brows furrowed. Of course she agreed, yet… “Do you… dishonor your family for choosing that?”
Yana scrutinized Rieka then the others. Instead of responding, she backed away a step and held the door open for them. “Come in and warm up.”
Despite Yana speaking Styrkish, Ren and Kai understood and followed after Rieka. “I assume Milos sent you here for baths?”
“Yes,” Rieka said. “There are four more of us back at his tavern.”
“Well, I do usually charge a bag of rye or a barrel of fish, but I’ll take gold.” She glanced at the pouch clenched in Ren’s fist, and he lifted a brow, not understanding her words. “There’s only one tub, so whoever would like to begin can follow me.”
“I will,” Rieka said after a quick translation to Kai and Ren. She followed Yana down the hall and to a small chamber. Yana grabbed a tin tub from the corner and dragged it to the center of the room. Rieka then followed her to the back where they stopped before a water pump. After several trips of filling the buckets and emptying them into the tub, it was finally full.
Staring at the tub, another memory washed over her, as unbidden and uncontrolled as the last.
“I hate Danika,” Rieka whined.
“She is the only one who owns a good bath, so unless you’d rather bathe in the creek…” Rieka’s mother said. In small villages, it was common to not own something as luxurious as a bath, many resorting to bathing in shallow bowls filled with water.
Rieka scowled. The creek was frozen over in mid-winter and would remain that way until late spring. “Danika smells like rotten fish.”
Rieka’s mother scowled. “Danika is kind enough to allow you to use her bath, so you must not disrespect her as such.”
Rieka rolled her eyes. “Maybe she should use her own bath,” she muttered. Her father guffawed from his perch on the worn rocking chair.
“I will give you some time,” Yana said as she folded a worn towel at the base of the tub. “Just join us in the living area when you are finished.” With that, Yana left, clicking the door shut behind her.
Rieka shook off the effects of her memory. It was a stupid memory. One Rieka hardly knew she still had. But now that it appeared, the details sharper than ever, she could envision Danika perfectly. Her wispy, white hair; her sagging skin; her sharp, narrowed blue eyes that pierced her like ice. Rieka had never hated Danika for her smell, though the old women did have a stench unmatched. Rieka had hated Danika because the woman insisted Rieka was too weak to become a warrior. She was right, but…
After shucking off her grimy clothes, Rieka dipped into the bath. The water was cold on her skin, and she immediately began scrubbing. Within seconds, she was shivering.
“Rieka!” Tanya shrieked.
Rieka snickered, dashing away. Tanya’s cheeks were bright red from the cold, and she shook her coat, attempting to rid it of the snow Rieka had just thrown at her.
“You’ll pay for that,” Tanya warned, stooping to gather a handful of snow in her knitted mittens.
“You have horrible aim, I think I’ll be fine,” Rieka retorted with a smirk.
Just as she had predicted, when Tanya threw the snow, it missed completely, crashing into a nearby pine. Rieka tossed her head back and laughed, her voice echoing through the valley.
Tanya crashed into Rieka, sending her flying into a pile of snow. It soaked into her hair and skin, chilling her flesh to the core. Rieka’s grin never slipped, and she only picked up more snow and rubbed it over Tanya’s face.
Rieka shook her head vigorously and pulled herself from the tub and wrapped the threadbare towel around her shoulders. She had to stop thinking about Tanya. About her family. About Styrka in general. Why had she asked to enter the village in the first place? All it did was bring back unwanted memories she had no intention of reliving. That part of her life was over and good-riddance.
After she had dried the best she could, Rieka tugged back on her old clothes, the dirty fabric itching against her now clean skin. She braided back her wet hair and marched out of the bathing room and down the hall.
She found Kai and Ren sitting awkwardly on a padded bench, watching Yana knit a blanket. “Wonderful!” Yana said, setting aside her wool. “Who’s next?”
After Ren was situated in the bathing room, Rieka watched Yana’s knitting needles as they twisted and twirled, building a blanket. “You are Styrkish, but your friends are not,” she pointed out dumbly.
“They’re not my friends.”
“Why would you be travelling with foreigners if they are not your friends?”
Rieka grasped for any lie she could give. “Business,” she landed on.
“Foreign traders are not allowed past the port cities unless the Chief allows it,” Yana said matter-of-factly.
Of course Rieka knew that. Foolish—
“What city are you from?” Yana asked, her voice light. Unassuming. She would be an imbecile to not be suspicious of Rieka.
“I don’t see why that matters,” Rieka snapped.
“Just curious. You look like someone I once knew, is all,” she said with a shrug.
Rieka didn’t know why, but she found herself telling the truth. “Azov. I’m from Azov.”
Yana tapped her pointed chin, her eyes looking to the vaulted ceiling as she thought. “I knew a woman from Azov. She had a daughter. But the most unfortunate thing happened, and her daughter was banished. That couldn’t be you, though.”
The blood drained from Rieka’s face. No. She was lying. Rieka had never heard her mother speak of a woman named Yana. Though they were close in age, it was impossible. Why would… How…
“Another foolish tradition, if you ask me. No second chances. They are so desperate for perfection, they deny perfectly good candidates because they don’t match the standards that were set.”
Rieka’s brows reached for her hairline. She had never heard a Styrkish citizen speak so poorly about Styrka. Never heard the idea of the Styrkish way being anything less than ideal. At least not so openly.
“The standards are what make Styrka what it is.”
“No,” Yana said, turning back to her knitting. “The standards are what restrict it from becoming better.”
“What is this?” Ren asked, poking at the food on his plate.
After he and Kai had finished bathing, Yana had sent them on their way. Not once had she requested their names nor did she return to the subject of Rieka’s mother. She wasn’t sure whether or not to be grateful.
“Sarki,” Rieka said, taking a bite. Ren’s lip curled in disgust. Rieka rolled her eyes. “It’s good. It’s just meat and tomatoes wrapped up in boiled cabbage.”
Ren took a tentative bite and grimaced.
Rieka turned to Kai who hadn’t touched the meat pie he ordered. “If you’re worried about your prince, don’t be,” she said, gulping down some ale. “Yana isn’t going to hurt him.”
“What did you talk about?” he blurted, his brows furrowed.
Rieka lifted a brow. “Why does that matter?”
“She’s suspicious, isn’t she?”
Rieka shrugged. “Why wouldn’t she be? A bunch of foreigners show up in her village without giving her their names or their reasons for being there. If she wasn’t suspicious, she’d be a fool.” The truth was, Rieka was concerned. Not for the others, but for herself. If Yana was suspicious of anyone, it was her.
“What did she say?”
She rolled her eyes. “She asked where I was from. And asked what we were doing, traveling through.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“Regardless of what I told her, nothing is going to happen. We are staying here one night and will be gone by morning. No amount of suspicion will cause them to refuse our service.”
Despite her words, Kai wasn’t comforted. He was smart not to be when everything Rieka said was a lie. No matter Yana’s unconventional beliefs, the majority of Styrkish believed in loyalty to the country above all. Even an inkling of suspicion that Rieka was an exile would be enough to capture her and drag her to Aryotsk. And with the company Rieka was keeping, suspicion of her dishonor would be expected.
Rieka gulped the rest of her ale and leaned back in her chair, her eyes falling closed. She didn’t want to let Kai see the truth on her face. The truth of her worry. Her fear.
The prospect of being captured and brought to face judgment before Styrka’s court was a horrific one. She had already faced that court once. She knew she couldn’t face it again.
“I’m tired,” Rieka said, standing from her chair. “I’m going to bed.”
Kai’s brows furrowed in concern, and Ren only glanced up at her. “You only had one mug of ale,” Ren said.
“You can have my other one,” she told him before stalking from the dining area of the tavern and up to their room. There were only two small beds and not much floor space. How they were all going to share it was a mystery, but one Rieka didn’t want to solve. Instead, she shucked off her axe and collapsed on the nearest bed, dimming the oil lamp beside her. Her fingers traced the worn quilt upon the bed. Each patch and stitch was familiar. Comforting.
“What are you doing?” Rieka asked.
“Sewing your wedding quilt,” Rieka’s mother said. A lock of her blonde hair fell before squinting, blue eyes, a crease forming like a bridge between her brows as it always did when she was concentrated. That line never left even when her brow was smoothed.
Rieka leaned into her lap, her eyes wide with wonder. “What does this mean?” she asked, sticking out a pudgy, childish hand to point at a patch with sharp red triangles, the points centering to a flower.
“This patch is about you. Each patch signifies something important. As you gain life experiences, more patches will be added. But this one will be the center because it is the pattern that shows who you are.”
Rieka furrowed her brows. “I’m not a flower.”
Rieka’s mother smiled gently. “You are surrounded by shards, protecting you and protecting others. But within that all, there is a flower. Bright, beautiful, and resilient.”
Rieka sat up, her breath racing. She pounded her fist against the mattress once. Twice.
She stood and reached for her axe before realizing there wasn’t room to swing without destroying something. With a huff, she paced the room, her footsteps loud and heavy.
This was ridiculous. All these memories were useless. There was no point in mulling over the past because the past was done. Gone.
She couldn’t let it plague her. Not when she knew it didn’t plague anyone else. Her mother didn’t stay up at night and replay memories of her. Tanya didn’t think about the times they played as children. Her father didn’t remember the way he would laugh when she said something snarky. They didn’t care to remember, so why should she? Why should she miss them when they didn’t miss her?
Rieka slumped back onto the bed, her mind and body drained. She scrubbed at her face and eyes as a lump rose in her throat. She was an idiot. A pathetic, weak idiot. The Styrkish didn’t cry. They didn’t long for the past.
Rieka couldn’t help but wonder what happened to her wedding quilt. Had her mother burned it? Had she tossed it in the furnace with rage the day Rieka was banished? Or had she buried it? Had she hidden it deep beneath the earth to never again see the stars, the worst insult that could be given?
Rieka wondered if her mother ever thought about that quilt. If she did, it was no doubt in regret of the time she wasted on a disgraceful daughter. Rieka couldn’t blame her. She couldn’t blame any of them for hating her. For forgetting her. In their shoes, she would’ve done the same.