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Dear Diary: Writing is not like riding a bicycle. Eugh, eugh, eugh. Maybe I'll get it right next time. Xoxo Fenella.

Postcards From New Hope
(Or How to Grow a Woman from the Ground)

*

Part VI

*


It’s early morning yet in Mindelan's Bound, sunlight filtering through heavy wooden slats in Hope's street-side window. Distant shouts, indicative of the weekend market, are still few and cheerful.

Hope stands in front of an oval mirror, pinning her straight hair into twists and curls. The room, behind her in the mirror, is large and mostly empty, bedclothes in disarray, visible over one pale shoulder. Hope twists a lock of soft, brown hair in her fingers and it reveals a hidden orange, not unlike the streaks of sun that crawl across the hardwood floor.

She grimaces, her reflection making a small face in return, and tugs down the locket that hangs over her mirror. It opens easily in her hands, the gold smooth and worn by her practiced hands, and displays two portraits. The first is herself as a small child, face round with youth and achingly care-free, settled on Grandma Ilane’s lap by strong but aged hands. Grandma has broad shoulders and a calm, stately look that Hope admires.

The other miniature is Mother, of course, looking exactly as Hope has heard described one thousand times over. They look alike, as mothers and daughter do, though the differences that lie between Ilane and Keladry carry the same weight between Keladry and Hope.

Hope has finer features than her mother, high cheekbones giving added angles to her face. And where Hope’s face is framed by the stylish, sweeping hair of a young noblewoman, Keladry’s locks are cropped short for combat. The small, soft mouth is the same - shared with every Mindelan cousin, aunt and uncle whom Hope has ever met - and so is the set of its determination.

But the most pronounced difference is that where the Lady Knight’s expression - that look of being caught in a far off dream - is inviting, Hope’s own gaze is sharp and unfamiliar.

Thanks for that, Mother, thinks Hope as she shuts the necklace with a snap. You couldn’t have left me a locket with the portrait of a mysterious young man - one with oddly familiar features? Or an necklace with initials engraved into the back? No, fine...

Hope is half-tempted to take a closer look when the locket drops ruby side down on the dresser, chain caught in her closed fist, but she knows that it’s only foolishness. The locket was a present to Grandma from Mother, returned to Hope when Ilane was taken by the hand of the Dark God, a long ten years past. In those miserable, tear-stained days, Hope had scoured the jewelry over and over. And again in more recent years, feeling quite shrewd, she'd looked for any number of hidden meanings.

Was her father's name written in The Book of Gold? Not likely. And the ruby, the sun's stone, was her father a priest of Mithros? Foolishness. There had been no clue then, and there wouldn't be one now.

There must have been a reason that Mother didn’t want her to know the identity of her father, certainly, but Hope has long since decided that no possible outcome could be worse than not knowing; she can deal with the truth, whatever it might be, Hope trusts herself that much, even if Keladry didn't.

Consciously leaving the locket behind (her foremothers, a forward-think diplomat and the legendary Lady Knight have proved to be of no help) Hope straightens the collar of her blouse and gives her reflection a wink.

“It’s just you and me today,” she tells her reflection, before rolling her eyes and smiling.

It gives her courage, knowing that she’s possibly every bit as crazy as her Mother.

*


The heat is bearable on days such as this, interrupted by an occasional breeze and the promise of cooler autumn days. Wind rolls off city roofs and gathers an army of dust in alleys and nooks, where slabs of stone and clay lie in wait for construction.

The wind tugs at Kel’s loose-fitting shirt and breeches, tracing the skin that is still warm from Lerant’s touch, making her shiver. She’s tired, and crawls inside her exhaustion; letting it cling like a protective armour. Down, down the winding hill, towards the knot of young men gathered at the canal site.

Oblivious to rolling walls of dust, one of the mages is talking - animatedly from the looks of his wild gestures - and interrupted frequently by his companions loud bursts of laughter.

The Prince is easy to spot, though his back is turned. His stance is a too-casual reflection of his companions posture, and the other mages tilt their heads to him in an unconscious deference.

Kel hesitates approaching the group, suddenly feeling awkward with the situation. She’s the Commander of New Hope, and she wouldn’t flinch to bark orders at any other man in the village, let alone one almost ten years her junior. But somehow the Contés demand respect.

Resisting the temptation to grimace, Kel placates herself by making a clue for one of Neal’s word games. Seven letter synonym for aggravating, especially before breakfast? Royalty.

Kel’s presence attracts the notice of a blonde-haired mage and the Prince turns, alert, and negating Kel’s moment of indecision.

“Sir,” says Jasson. “Do you have a minute? We’ve found something - ah - interesting.”

*


The stairs creaks, and Hope imagines the townhouse twisting to bear her shifting weight as she stalks across the foyer towards the front door. Half-way through the entrance hall, Will calls to her from the parlour.

“I’m headed to the market,” answers Hope.

There’s a silence before Lady Jocelyn responds. “Come talk with us, dear.”

Hope hesitates, but only for a second, before she sighs and gathers her skirts in one hand, increasing her agility. Soon Jorge will be waiting at the edge of the market, where the wooden boardwalk turns into cobbled stone. Hope can picture him standing just under the market gate, looking tousled from a morning of work on the water, and with a vague smile of greeting on his weather-beaten face.

“Hope?” Calls Jocelyn again.

Yes, best keep this brief. “Yes, coming,” answers Hope.

Jocelyn is seated, looking quite glamourous for a quiet day at home. Will is standing - lounging really, against the mantel - looking scholarly in his reading lenses, and tracking two year old Lysander’s playful movements with a serious expression.

They really are the picture of domestic bliss, Hope can’t help but think. There’s fondness there, she acknowledges, with just a touch of irritation.

“Ope-ope!” grins Andie, attacking her with his toy sailboat.

Hope makes a half-hearted face at her nephew before turning to his father.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something, Will,” says Hope, gratefully accepting a cup of tea from Jocelyn. The older woman, looking tolerantly amused pulls her son back by his trousers and settles him, squirming, onto her lap.

“Sure,” says Will, and gives her the big brother smile of bountiful knowledge.

Hope takes a sip from her cup. “I want to know why are people so, well, strange about Giftedness in the Bounds.”

Will raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

“Surely you’ve noticed!”

Hope thinks carefully before continuing. “Strahan’s complexion, when I used my Gift, rivaled that of dead Aunt Myrna’s ghost-”

Here she pauses, watching expectantly and half-bemused as Jocelyn kisses the beads hanging around her neck.

“-And I’ve noticed things since then; people from Lower Town change the subject, and you never use your gift in front of company.”

Will exchanges a glance with his wife. “Things are different here, Hope.”

“That’s just what he said,” Hope retorts in exasperation.

“The Gift has its uses,” says Lady Jocelyn gently, wrapping her arms tighter around her son before continuing. “In the lower city, where I grew up, people are distrustful of those individuals who wield both magic and authority.”

“There are stories,” Will begins thoughtfully, pausing to remove his spectacles. Hope thinks, with a sudden jolt to her stomach, that he looks quite grown-up and world-weary. When did that happen? “Stories of imprisonment and torture at the hand of the Gifted. The Scanran War wasn’t in your lifetime or mine, but some remember very clearly the atrocities of corrupted Gifts.”

“There are very few people still alive that lived through that time,” admits Will. “Your friend Strahan’s mother, Irnai, was just a young girl then.”

Hope takes a moment to digest this piece of information, while Will and Jocelyn share another indecipherable glance.

“Distrust is bred in the bone, and taught in the cradle.” Hope's foster brother looks distinctly unhappy.

Jocelyn smiles, her red mouth sad and sweet. “Oh come now my love,” she says broadly, with a wink to Hope. “We don’t ask for our gifts, and I have made good from mine.”

This makes Hopes choke on a sip of tea.

“I didn’t know that you have The Gift,” protests Hope when she is done coughing, and Will has stopped laughing, behaving more like the pig-sucking big brother that Hope knows. “Master Sylvan comes to teach me every day during the week, and you’ve never said anything!”

Jocelyn laughs warmly, and Lysander copycats, gurgling happily. “I save my gifts for the theatre, my own sweet revenge.”

“I don’t understand - “

“Small things mostly,” says Jocelyn airily. “To make my voice carry, or for the audience to feel heightened emotions. Just don’t tell your friend Strahan; there are those who would think it a player’s betrayal.”

Hope nods conspiratorially. “Don’t worry about me, my lips are sealed.”

“Speaking of Strahan,” says Will, tilting his head, and giving her the look; an expression she’d seen countless times on Pa’s face back at Jesslaw, when he was tip-toeing guiltily around the house, avoiding Ma at all costs.

Hope’s pulse quickens. “Let’s have it out, Jesslaw. You are my brother and the sun will still rise in the morning - unless you’ve tracked mud across the foyer again.”

At the deliberate misquote of Ma’s familiar words, Will’s mouth twists somewhere between a smirk and unhappiness, and settles on a hard line of determination.

“I know you like to be independent Hope, but you’re our ward and a young noblewoman.”

Hope’s heart sinks.

“We can’t - I can’t - let you wander the city at all hours,” continues Will. “Not alone, and especially not with young men. It’s not responsible. And it’s not safe.”

Hope can feel herself staring. She’s not sure where this is going, but the sudden wave of dread is overwhelming.

“So,” concludes Will with great finality, and some apprehension, “we’ve hired a maidservant who is to be your chaperone. Jocelyn and I hope you’ll become great friends.”

And almost pleadingly, “She’s a lovely girl, Hope.”

*


There’s a mound of loamy silt at the excavation site, a stack of neatly categorized human bones - skulls smiling guilelessly in a row - and one of Jasson’s mages down on hands and knees in the dirt.

“Kel,” she says, offering a hand which the mage takes after wiping his own on a pair of muddy breeches.

“Tresler,” replies the man, bobbing his head in acknowledgment.

“I hear that you’re a biologist.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“What do you make of these bones? Can you tell who they were?”

“Well,” begins Tresler, as if he were a professor addressing a particularly interesting question from a pupil, “they were all men, that much I have been able to determine from the evident sexual dimorphism in the skeletons. And at a rough guess they’re roughly thirty years deceased. Of course without proper equipment and formal laboratory facilities, it’s impossible to determine exactly what the cause of death may have been... sickness, a raiding party perhaps.”

“Not old age?”

“I’m afraid not, the bones belong to men ranging from youth to old age. It becomes increasingly difficult to pin down their exact ages as they pass through youth, tooth and bone development becoming less indicative. But from what I can tell, the majority appear to have been in their prime.”

The whole thing makes Kel’s skin crawl. She turns to Jasson, who has been standing to the side, a look of casual interest on his face.

“This doesn’t bother you?” asks Kel, eyeing him irritably.

“Should it?” returns Jasson, curiousity flitting over his features.

Kel gives him a look of incredulousness, before fixing her stare on a distant mountain peak. “Is there word that anyone lived around here at that time?”

“It seems doubtful,” says Tresler cheerfully.

“But we can write to Corus and have the records checked,” adds Jasson.

There’s a pause in which the wind gathers strength, separating Mage, Prince and Lady Knight into their own silent thoughts.

After a moment’s consideration Tresler sighs aloud, hands on hips. “Hmmm. Curious.”

It sets Kel’s teeth on edge, the way that he carries on, as if it’s no more than a puzzle to be solved. It's rare that she takes such an instant disliking to another individual. Some of the mages seem quite approachable, and yet she can't find blame for the way in which New Hope's villagers avoid the magic-users. Between the thirteen men, their camp practically crackles with The Gift. As for Tresler, Kel can’t decide if Jasson genuinely likes the man, or has simply had more chance to practice patience with him.

“What’s curious?” prompts Jasson, perfect teeth flashing in an indulgent grin.

“Well, the skeletons, they number twelve.”

Kel glances side-long at the Prince. “Is that significant?”

“It could be,” says Tresler with great anticipation.

Jasson just shrugs. “We’ll have to ask Tomas.”

It’s like pulling teeth from a gelding, thinks Kel. Only a good deal less enjoyable.

She smiles pleasantly. “And who is Tomas?”

Jasson eyes Kel warily. “He’s the mathematician.”

*


Strahan kisses his mother on the cheek and drops an apron into her cart with an exaggerated sigh of relief. He turns to Hope and bows, making a great show of bringing her hand to his lips. “My Lady.”

Hope smiles back, before playfully wrinkling her nose. “You smell like fish.”

“So does Jorge,” points out Strahan. “And you spent the day wandering the market with him.”

“Jorge smells like the river, and hard work,” argues Hope, eliciting an appreciative laugh from the man in question. “You smell like fish.”

Strahan rolls his eyes, and changes the subject. “Who’s your friend?”

The pink-faced girl who has been standing awkwardly a few feet away, tries valiantly to look as though she is not the topic of conversation.

“She’s not my friend,” insists Hope, glaring at the girl.

“Huh.” Strahan raises an eyebrow and moves directly in front of the stranger, waiting until she reluctantly looks at him.

“Hello, I’m Strahan,” he says, extending his hand good-naturedly.

“Orwyn,” answers the girl with an uncomfortable glance at Hope before shaking his hand.

Strahan looks back at Hope, who is determinedly avoiding eye-contact, and grimaces apologetically at Orwyn.

“Why is it that Orwyn here is following the two of you around, and what have you done to make her so miserable?” asks Strahan at length.

Her miserable!” exclaims Hope.

Jorge gives Strahan a look that says he’s not involving himself in this argument for brotherly love, or money. “I’ll walk you three as far as the theatre,” he says leadingly.

“Oh no,” returns Strahan with a look that screams for help. “You can't leave us and wander off to the river tonight - there’s something we need your help with, right Hope?”

Hope gaze reluctantly flickers over Strahan, Jorge, Irnai’s busy figure in the background, and finally settles on Orwyn.

“I’m not so sure it’s a good idea now. Considering...”

Strahan shifts irritably. “Well make up your mind. Some of us have things to do that don’t revolve around you, you know.”

Both Jorge and Orwyn hastily look away, wincing.

“You’re right,” agrees Hope violently. “I don’t know why I even asked for your help. Consider yourself off the hook. You're absolutely free to do whatever it is you do when you're not trailing after me.”

“Good,” Strahan’s words are all venom and no remorse; they’re drawing attention now, Irnai watching in dismay. “I only agreed because of who your mother is anyways. It was curiousity plain and simple. And Carlan’s crowd is right, you really are no more than a-”

“Enough,” says Jorge. It’s quiet, but firm enough that it stops Strahan mid-sentence.

“I deeply regret my brother’s foolish words, Lady, and am sure that you will find in your heart to forgive him. I assure you that Strahan didn’t mean any offense.”

Strahan protests angrily, “I did, too!”

“Also,” continues Jorge smoothly. “I thank you for your company today, I couldn’t possibly think of a better way to enjoy the market.”

These last remarks bring a pink tinge to the cheeks of Hope’s otherwise colourless, and drawn features. But her tone is still white-hot with rage as she turns and snaps at Orwyn.

“Let’s go. We’re done here.”

*


The canal is dark, and seemingly bottomless in the night-time shadows. The only movement on the still, slow water is a small wooden craft, a cross between a raft and a primitive boat. Two figures lie backs against unsanded wood, tucked under a thick woolen blanket, and drifting away from they city. The smell of mouth-watering outdoor roasts, and drunken shouts of festival cheer fall just short of their careful isolation.

“I can’t believe you built this,” says Kel, turning her head so that her nose is less than an inch from Lerant’s. His hair, uncut and curling at the tips, brushes her forehead.

Lerant’s mouth twists into a smile, she can hear it in his voice. “You’re a hard woman to get alone for any amount of time. The logical course of action was to strand us at sea.”

Kel leans forward and kisses Lerant; soft, lingering, and without reservation.

He twists to deepen the kiss and the raft flails accordingly, making Kel laugh, and Lerant moves away in indignation before joining, sheepishly, in the laughter. Kel pulls Lerant forward for another kiss, and with his mouth on hers, her last coherent thought is that she needs to tell him.

“I love you.”

Lerant smiles into her cheek. “I know you do.”

“Hey,” teases Kel, since it’s her turn to be indignant. “There’s barely over a foot of water in here. I could literally get up and walk away.”

“Your socks would get wet,” warns Lerant with a sniff. And then in a much warmer tone adds, “Please don’t.”

Kel closes her eyes and smiles happily into the dark, placing one last careful kiss on the side of Lerant’s bearded jaw. “I won’t.”

"Ever?"

Kel's chest tightens, her heart beating loudly. "Never."

*


Part One Part Two Part Three
Part Four Part Five... Part Seven
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