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

*

Part V

*



When I was three years old, I made my mother promise that she'd take me to the festival. 

We would have gone even if I hadn't begged for days on end, I realize that now. But ever since I'd heard stories from the other children - the ones that came to play from beyond the guardhouse walls - I'd become obsessed. All the thoughts that I could possibly cram into my child-sized, underdeveloped head, concerned the Festival. 
 
"Mama," I said, because that's what the other children called their mothers. I wasn't used to being around other children and I wanted to be interesting, like them. "How long until Festival time?"

"Three days now," said my mother, smiling down at me, her presence a warm yellow fire with flecks of gold, like the sun.

"I want it to be today," I said, indignant, though I'd learned at an even younger age that Mother, not to mention the world, wouldn't ever bend just to suit my deepest desires.

"Jorge and Strahan say that the city will smell good, like roast pig and spring. How can anything smell like spring? And that the ferrymen give rides for free."

"Mmm, it's true what Jorge and Strahan say."

"I want a ride today."

"Oh my love," said Mother, her large, rough hand closing around my own. "You have to wait, just like everyone else."

"Mama," I said, turning over a heavy thought in my mind, trying not to stumble over its articulation. "If waiting makes everyone so unhappy, why don't we have Festival now? Then everyone would be happy."

Mother laughed and led me up the street, towards the large armoury and office building we'd tentatively begun to call home. "You won't believe me, but sometimes waiting is half of the fun."

I wrinkled my nose in disgust. It was such a stupid, adult thing to say. "Waiting isn't fun."

"It is fun for me, waiting to see what you'll be like when you grow up."

"When I grow up," I said, nobly ignoring her sentimentality, "I am going to be a princess and eat lots of cakes all day long."

"You'd better not get too fat, stuffing yourself on sweets," said my Mother, the sincerest picture of maternal worry. "Or I won't be able to do this anymore--"

With no warning, Mother scooped me off my feet and tossed me up, high into the air. Ignoring my laughing shrieks, she placed me on her broad shoulders where I eventually settled like a cat, feeling safe and smug. 

Or at least that's how I think that things might have happened. It's not like I can know for sure - I was only three years old. 

What I do remember, is feeling tall enough to see straight over the mountains to Scanra. So distant was the ground below, that nothing hurtful could ever reach me.

Sometimes at night, I'm visited by the memory of unfailing confidence. 

*


The solid, grey infirmary appears to be the sturdiest structure within the Bounds. Only two stories tall, the ground on which it’s built gives the impression of imposing height, and its thick walls are reminiscent of a fortress. Laundry - mostly sheets stripped from the cots inside - flap in the wind, and creep down the hill, like old festive garlands gathering dust in a forgotten attic room, windows open wide.

Hope takes a deep breath and looks up at Strahan, who stares back down at her.

“Ready?” he asks. His voice is full of blatant worry, and his sincerity elicits a small smile from Hope, despite the nerves tumbling around her stomach.

Strahan, Hope is momentarily distracted, looks very much like the young boy she used to know; a bulky woolen tunic, made by Irnai no doubt, and large fisherman’s boots add to the effect. It’s sensible dress for the damp, cold weather and Hope is very conscious of her own fashionable skirts, and carefully painted face.

A young family exits through the door, half-heartedly giving Hope and Strahan curious glances as they pass, and Hope reaches to grab the door, before it slams.

“I am,” she says to Strahan. “Let’s go inside.”

Strahan’s hand curls around Hope’s own, warm and comforting as he passes, stooping to avoid the door frame.

*


The healer on duty tells them that Duke Nealan is in his study, upstairs.

“If you’ve come for an appointment,” she says, with an air of frightening efficiency, “We’ve some time two days from now. But if it’s urgent-”

“It’s not,” says Hope and gives the healer her politest smile. “I was really just hoping to talk with the Chief Healer about something, and didn’t want to bother him at home.”

“Well,” says the woman, and frowns disapprovingly. “He’s exhausted if you ask me, worked himself half to death, and needs some alone time to recover.”

“Oh,” says Hope uncertainly. “I can come back, then.”

Strahan, who until this point appeared to have been examining the artwork on the walls of the ward, moves to stand just behind Hope. “Sara,” he says. “Have you had the fortune yet to meet My Lady Hope of Mindelan?”

The healer, pushing stray wisps of hair back into her matronly bun looks younger and quite pretty, thinks Hope, as she smiles, eyes flickering between them.

“No we haven’t met - My Lady.”

Sara brusquely offers her right hand, which Hope gladly takes in her own.

“Just Hope, please,” returns the younger girl. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Sara smiles kindly, if hesitantly, and turns to Strahan.

“And you, Tomas and Irnai Vann’s son. What mischief brings you here?”

Strahan manages to look convincingly affronted. “Is that what you think of me?”

The healer rolls her eyes. “Take the back staircase, and don’t overstay your welcome.”

With a grin, Strahan offers his thanks to Sara, which are waved off with a stern look and threats of what will she will personally do to them if Duke Nealan should faint in mid-afternoon surgery.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” whispers Hope, over her shoulder, as they creep up the rickety stairs.

There’s a silence in which she can practically hear him frowning.

“You need to stop apologizing for being who you are.”

Hope makes a face. She hates when Strahan acts decades, instead of just a few years, older than her. Especially when he’s wrong.

“And stop scowling at me,” says Strahan. “Your face will get stuck like that.”

*


The Vassa River turns from a dark blue on the surface, into a cold, empty black. It’s hard to imagine that the river might have a bottom, as the current rushes, often thundering, though the valley.

People often say that at night, in the dark, you can hear singing by the river banks; the voices of women and children. It could be the wind against the water, and the rolling waves that make it seem so.

Rarely is the water calm, but there are those that insist the singing is loudest on the nights when a leisurely paddle is not out of the question, and the ferrymen are joined by a flock of silent, swaying boats.

Of course, there are those that would have you believe the Vassa has claimed one thousand innocent lives. Men, women, children called to the river in the middle of the dark night and incapable of resisting the Vassa’s siren song, lulled to sleep by the promise that the river will keep their secrets.

The river isn’t so wide that the city stretches across its grasp, and sprawls onto the far bank; tiny cottages dotting the distant landscape.

Perhaps there is someone singing after all, just on the other side of the water.

*


It doesn’t take long for Kel to decide that she doesn’t like Jasson of Conté.

“It’s irrational,” she tells Lerant, who is blearily stumbling out of his work clothes, into King’s Own issued sleepwear. “He’s young and smart, and perfectly competent.”

Lerant eyes Kel through narrowed eyes, while smothering a yawn. “He reminds you of his father.”

“No. Well, yes, how could he not - he looks exactly like him.”

“And, also, there’s that you like to do everything yourself. It must be hard sharing the command with someone equally efficient.”

“I do not!” says Kel indignantly, sitting up in Lerant’s cot.

“Shh,” placates Lerant. “You’ll wake the other men.”

“Is that really what you think of me?” whispers Kel.

Lerant climbs into bed beside Kel and kisses her, sweet and lingering.

“That you’re loud and have a secret plan to deprive your soldiers of sleep?”

Kel grins in the dark. “No, the other thing.”

“Keladry my love, no one is as terrifyingly efficient as you.”

Her hands find their way into Lerant’s hair, one tracing the stubble across his jaw, the other tangled at his neck.

“You’re sweet.”

“I am no such thing,” denies Lerant. And bravely, he follows this with, “Give him a chance, Kel, he’s one of the good ones.”

“Since when are you best friends with His Highness?”

Lerant’s mouth finds its way to Kel’s neck and her breath catches in spite of herself, when his teeth scrape her skin.

“I’m not - but you know I can’t resist arguing for anything you’re against.”

This elicits a laugh from Kel.

“Guess what we found tonight on the canal site,” continues Lerant.

“What?”

“I told you to guess.”

Kel twists awkwardly in the scratchy woolen sheets that are common to the Northern barracks, propping herself up on one arm.

“Ah - a sense of humour?”

“Human bones,” replies Lerant, unable to wait out the game he started.

“That’s not funny,” says Kel. “Obviously I was wrong.”

“No, really,” says Lerant, and Kel feels sick to her stomach.

“What, and no one thought to tell me about it? I’m just the commander of New Hope.”

Lerant shifts too, guiltily, and and it annoys Kel immensely.

“Jasson’s men are dealing with it,” admits Lerant reluctantly, bracing against the angry silence that follows.

“I have to go sort this out,” says Kel, climbing out of bed, untangling her limbs from his.

“No,” says Lerant. “The beauty of delegating is having more time for sleep. And other things that stop you from going crazy. Like me.”

“Lerant-” protests Kel.

“Kel,” says Lerant, not giving an inch. “They’ll tell you everything they know in the morning.”

He, too, climbs out of the cot, long fingers closing around Kel’s wrist.

“Fine,” says Kel after a moment, because Lerant is too stubborn, and morning is barely a few hours away. “So, this thing you call sleep.”

Lerant places a chaste kiss on Kel’s forehead.

“If you’re not sold on sleep, I have some other ideas...”

There’s a sudden assault of objects being thrown at the cloth walls of Lerant’s small space, interspersed with groans. “Get a room,” hollers one sleepy voice.

“They’re just jealous,” says Lerant, when he and Kel are done exchanging amused grins. “That the most beautiful woman in the world chose me.”

Kel snorts. “I’ve been called a lot of things before...”

“Like terrifyingly efficient?” Asks Lerant, smiling.

“Mm,” says Kel, “I really like that one.”

*


Duke Nealan is hunched over his desk, reading a thick text that looks to be a few hundred years old, and devouring a dessert pastry that flakes carelessly across the book. When the aged healer looks up to see Hope and Strahan peering at him through the half-open door, he briskly drops his reading glasses on the text and stretches, extending his linked hands forwards, palms outwards. Strahan flinches, visibly, at the sound of the Duke’s cracking bones.

“Hello, your Grace,” says Hope, interrupting the awkward silence that follows.

“Ah, yes, young Hope,” says the Duke musingly. “I was wondering when I would see you again.”

Strahan elbows Hope imperceptibly; she chooses to be a bigger person and steps into the small office, smoothing her skirts.

“I was hoping - if you have some time, that is - to talk with you about my mother.”

Duke Nealan smiles thinly, “Keladry.”

“Yes.”

“And Vann’s Son, what part do you play here?” The duke raises an eyebrow at Strahan, who is fidgeting in the doorway, having chosen not to enter the room.

Strahan’s mouth quirks before he responds. “Research, Sir.”

“Oh, how so?”

“I am to play a healer in a new work commissioned for Festival,” answers Strachan. “You might know the playwright.”

Duke Nealan cackles. “I just might. Are the scenes filled with dry wit and lofty idealism?”

“Why, your Grace, it’s as if you read my mind.”

Hope watches the exchange with detached amusement, trying not to care that she feels left out.

“My son,” explains Nealan despairingly. “Is a playwright.”

“A talented one, at that,” protests Strahan.

The Duke coughs behind one hand, and Hope can see the edges of a smile.

“Of course he’s talented, he’s a Queenscove.”

Hope laughs, taken with the healer in spite of herself, and he looks at her, apparently startled by her presence.

“Young Hope, why don’t you have a seat.” He gestures towards a dusty chair. “Does your Goon intend to stay?”

Hope turns to see Strahan, who is looking decidedly non-committal.

“I can stay,” he offers quietly. “If you want me to.”

Hope answers with a shake of her head.

Strahan looks unsure, tilting his head slightly to the side, as if weighing the situation. “Should anyone require my presence,” he says finally, bowing with a flourish, “I will be downstairs. Doing research.”

There’s a pause that follows Strahan’s abrupt exit, and clings to his footsteps, echoing down the stairwell.

“I have heard much about you,” says Duke Nealan, Chief Healer of the Realm.

“And I of you,” responds Hope evenly. “It’s a great honour to meet the man was - and is - held is such high esteem by my Mother and foster parents.”

“I can only imagine,” says the Duke at length, his tone reading as a warning. “What you must be feeling, or think you want to know. I loved your mother as I did my own sisters, and there are confidences that I will not betray. The past is not a place for the young to dwell.”

Hope stares incredulously, before casting her eyes downwards and grasping about for inspiration. In the end, she calmly unfolds a handkerchief from her cloak, and bites her lower lip; the distaste on her features coming from the taste of thick red lip colouring.

“I only wanted to know what she was like,” says Hope. “You know better than anyone.”

The Duke taps his fingers on his desk, and eyes the child of his dead best friend, considering her warily. Oh come on, thinks Hope to herself, while composing her face. It’s only half an act, after all.

It takes a moment of tense stalemate, but Nealan’s face does eventually split into a twisted smirk.

And then he says, to her surprise, “You would have been good for one another.”

Hope looks at the Duke, and for the first time they are able to meet halfway. “We were.”

*


Part One Part Two Part Three
Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven
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