Six years before…
Tesara woke with a gasp, blinking in the dim candlelight, as her mother shook her awake.
“Up, Tesara, and be quick. You need to get dressed. No, don’t bother with clothes from the wardrobe. Put on yesterday’s dress.”
Confused, Tesara did as she was told, grabbing the shift and petticoat and stockings from the day before, and began to fumble into them. In the meantime, Alinesse set the candle on the table and began stuffing a nightgown, extra underthings, her hairbrush and ribbons, toothbrush and tooth powder, and another second dress in a carpetbag. Tesara had never seen her mother pack so haphazardly. Indeed, she had never seen her mother pack at all. Where was Jenny the housemaid? When her mother saw she was only half-dressed, she tsked and roughly put the dress over Tesara’s head, forcing her arms into the sleeves. Tesara knew better than to complain.
“Are we going on holiday?” she asked, confused and frightened.
“I’ll explain later. Hurry.”
Alinesse buttoned up the back of Tesara’s dress, leaving half the buttons undone, grabbed a warm coat, and thrust the carpetbag at Tesara. She took up the lamp again, and led the way downstairs. The candlelight flickered bravely but could not illuminate the staircase, so Tesara kept one hand on the wall, her fingers throbbing with energy.
Not now, she thought. Please not now. Of all times for her wild power to manifest, this moment would be significantly unhelpful.
The whole house was dark. Tesara followed her mother closely, stumbling a little, and they went into the kitchen. It was crowded. Her father Brevart was there along with her Uncle Samwell, the butler Charle, Albero the footman, Cook, her nurse Michelina, and her big sister Yvienne. The family and Michelina were all dressed in their day clothes and warm coats. The stout old nurse was dressed for traveling in an ancient wool walking coat that strained over her bulk. Yvienne carried a carpetbag and a heavy satchel. She brought her books, Tesara thought. She wondered what she should bring and her mind went blank. Only her fingers buzzed with electricity, like bees under the skin.
“Here now, Brev, what’s going on?” Uncle Samwell said, with his usual bluster.
There came a rapping on the kitchen door, and everyone started.
“The carter’s here, sir,” said Charle, as if he were saying, “Your coach awaits.”
“Thank you, Charle,” Brevart said. He took a deep breath, his eyes hollow and strained in the dim light. “Thank you all for your service.” He reached out and shook Charle’s hand. Cook was crying. “We cannot give you–”
Banging on the front door made him break off. A distant voice cried, “Open in the name of the Guild!”
Alinesse gasped. “We’ve been betrayed.”
“Hurry, we must hurry,” Brevart said. “Girls, go with your mother and Michelina. Quick now.”
Tesara and Yvienne were hustled to the kitchen door.
The knocking grew louder. It sounded as if something heavy were being rammed against the door.
“Samwell Balinchard, we have a warrant for your arrest!” came a shout from the front door.
Uncle Samwell turned ashen white and his legs gave way. He supported himself at the kitchen table. “It’s Trune.”
Tesara’s parents froze. Tesara whimpered. Trune, the Guild liaison, who enforced the Guild’s laws and punished transgressors, whom she heard her parents refer to as the Guild’s attack dog.
Trune, who knew what Tesara had done.
In extreme fear, Samwell turned to his sister and brother-in-law. “Brev–” he managed. “Alinesse–”
“Shall I hold them off, sir?” Charle said, a determined look belying his robe and slippers. The footman Albero, barely seventeen, clenched his fists as if he meant to take on the Guild’s constables by himself.
There was a crash and the whole house shuddered.
“They’re breaking in!” Michelina cried. “Alinesse, love, come with me and the girls.”
Alinesse wavered. She looked at her husband and a glance passed between them. In her young life Tesara had never seen her parents give each such a look of determined partnership. There had always been bickering and a simmering unhappiness, even more so since their troubles began.
The trouble I caused… Tesara bit her lip.
“Let the girls go away to safety,” said Alinesse. “I stand with you and House Mederos.”
Michelina began to weep. Tesara thought it sounded the same sort of forced weeping when she didn’t get her way. Tesara had grown up knowing that Michelina’s loyalty was all for Alinesse, not for Alinesse’s daughters, and that Michelina thought Tesara naughty and Yvienne pert. Why does she have to come with us? she thought.
“I’ll go,” Samwell said, his voice panicky. “I’ll go with the girls, protect them – for God’s sakes, Brevart!”
“No,” Alinesse said. “No, Sam, the girls go alone. We will face this – together.”
Brevart nodded and took his wife’s hand.
“That’s all well and good for you!” her younger brother screamed. “They’re going to throw me in gaol!”
Another blow on the front door. Everyone jumped.
“Go,” Alinesse ordered. “Be good, girls. Listen to Michelina. It is very good of her to take you to her niece. We’ll call for you as soon as it’s safe.” They were pushed out the door and into the garden. Tesara looked back, struggling to hold onto her carpetbag and stumbling, and getting a glimpse of her parents in the dim light of the kitchen before the door was closed. Then they were through the garden gate and into the alley behind the house. They could hear the commotion at the front door more clearly.
“Quick, girls,” Michelina said, her breath wheezing as she led them up to the rickety cart. The cart was pulled by a spavined, swaybacked cart horse, and driven by a rough and wild carter, whose beard covered halfway down his chest. Tesara’s heart sank. How would they make their escape in such a slow and rickety equipage?
Behind them they could hear another crash. It sounded as if the front door of the Mederos townhouse had been completely battered off its hinges. Tesara began to whimper and she clapped her hands over her mouth. She was twelve years old. She should not cry like a baby.
I should do something, she thought. I should use my powers. But she held still, immobilized by a force as strong as it was unworthy.
If she used her powers to save her family, they would find out she had used them to destroy it. Tesara felt an unpleasant fullness in her bladder.
“Come on,” Yvienne said, tugging her hand. She and Tesara half-pushed and half-dragged the old nurse into the cart, and clambered in themselves. The driver slapped the reins and they were off at a jolting pace.
The cold, wet wind came rushing from the harbor as they made their way down the alley behind the row of great merchant houses, and Tesara shivered beneath her cloak. It was long minutes before they turned onto the main road out of town, a sky of stars and a half moon slipping behind scudding clouds giving them some light to travel by. She huddled next to her sister, watching Michelina sway in time to the rolling cart. She was tired and frightened and had no time to use the water closet before she left the house, and with the bumping of the cart she knew that she would soon be in the position of having to either wet her pantaloons or ask the carter to stop so she could answer nature’s call in the darkness beside the road. She gritted her teeth and strove to bear it as long as she could.
Next to her Yvienne sat bolt upright, her posture to make even the strictest governess melt with pride. They hadn’t had a governess in months, another fault laid at Tesara’s door.
“Vivi?” Tesara ventured. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“Michelina’s niece runs a girls’ seminary in Romopol,” Yvienne whispered. “I heard Mama talking about it.” Her tone grew icy. “I’m sure if she’s anything like her aunt, it will be a useless school.” Her hand squeezed hard on Tesara’s. Tesara could tell her sister was furious. Tesara marveled at that. Perhaps because Yvienne was fourteen, a whole two years older than Tesara, she wasn’t frightened. She was angry.
“Are you all right?” Tesara whispered.
Yvienne whispered back, “I don’t care how powerful they are. I don’t care if they’re the richest men in Port Saint Frey. The Guild will pay for this, Tesara. I’m going to find out who did this, and I’ll make them pay.”
Tesara felt as if she were going to throw up. She swallowed hard, willing herself to stay calm and not cry. Babies cry, she thought again. I’m not a baby.
Yvienne shifted her weight and put her arm around Tesara, drawing her close.
“Don’t worry, Tes,” she murmured. “Wherever we go, I’ll take care of you. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
It was meant to ease her heart but it had the opposite effect. It’s only because she doesn’t know what I did. She doesn’t know that I was the one who sank the fleet, I destroyed our family’s fortunes, and I’m the reason Uncle Samwell is going to gaol.
If Yvienne abandoned her, what did she have left?
“Will our new girls stand and be recognized?” Madam Callier’s voice boomed out from her spot at the head table with the teachers. The girls all sat in orderly rows at four long tables in what had once been a grand ballroom and was now only drafty and dark and smelled of boiled cabbage and mold. Tesara caught Yvienne’s eye over at the big girl’s table, and they both stood. She was so tired and hungry, but the food – gravy over bread, with strands of gray meat mixed in – was unappetizing and congealing in its grease.
“Behold the sisters Mederos. Their family has lost all their fortune, and they’re no better than anyone else now. Worse, because they’ve never learned how to work or be useful.”
Tesara felt hatred well up in her. Her fingertips tingled. The sensation spread down through her palms.
“Would you say, Aunt, that the girls have all the manner of wealth and self-indulgence and reap the rewards of industriousness where they have never worked hard themselves?”
Their old nurse looked at her fearsome niece and then at Tesara and Yvienne.
“Indeed, Niece, the younger girl is naughty, and her elder opinionated. I’ve done my best to mold them–”
“But they will never be molded,” Madam Callier said. “Only privation and hard work will bend them to a shape more pleasing to others. So, students, when you speak to them, speak to them as you would a servant, because that is their fate. When they address you, respond with coldness. In time – in time! – you may condescend to them with kindness, but they have much to learn before they can appreciate such courtesy.”
A draft from the windows caused the candle flame to waver. Tesara wriggled her fingers and the draft became a little breeze. Under her encouragement, the edge of the tablecloth at the teachers’ table lifted up. Madam Callier was still going on when Tesara pulled her hands sideways under the cover of the table. Her sharp motion from across the room caused the tablecloth to fling itself violently into the air, spilling water, food, and candles into the laps of the teachers, Michelina, and Madam Callier herself.
Girls shrieked. Teachers shouted and scrambled backwards. Tesara looked up as wide-eyed as the others, trying to act as frightened as anyone else.
Only Madam Callier sat still, covered with food and wine. The woman mopped at the mess on her face and her impressive bosom with a damp napkin. She didn’t have to cry for order. The entire school settled down. She looked directly at Tesara, and Tesara’s triumph turned to fear.
Madam Callier got up from the table with tremendous majesty. She strode over to Tesara, everyone falling back before her. Tesara quailed, wondering if she should apologize, knowing it was too late. Madam Callier loomed over her.
“So, the stories were true,” she said. She reached out and Tesara was compelled to offer her hands. Madam inspected them, and then she said, “Place them on the table.”
Many an exasperated governess had rapped Tesara’s knuckles in punishment. Relieved she would get off so easy, she placed her hands flat. Madam tsked as if she were foolish, and made Tesara fold her hands awkwardly, not as fists but with the knuckles against the tabletop. Somewhere a girl began to sob, and another girl shushed her.
Madam took out the brass-knobbed baton she always carried, and she smashed it down on Tesara’s hand. Pain shot up into her arm. Tesara screamed and tried to wriggle away. Madam easily grabbed her wrist and held her hand in place. The baton did not finish the job the first time; Madam had to strike two more times before the joints cracked.
“Little girls with naughty fingers must learn a lesson,” she said. She let Tesara go and she fell to her knees keening and sobbing, trying to shake the pain from her fingers and only making it worse.
There was another shout and for a brief instant Yvienne was next to her, and then her sister was hauled away, screaming.
“Don’t hurt my sister! Don’t hurt my sister! You evil witch! I’ll see you before the magistrates!”
Yvienne’s voice faded away, and Tesara closed her eyes, sobbing with pain. It was all her fault. This was her punishment for her wickedness.
I want to go home. I just want to go home.
The Harbor Master has stated that all vessels that have not paid their docking fees for the quarter must be moved, by tow or under sail, to the West Pilings, or be fined 10 guilders per day. Dock sources say that the move is to open up berths for an expansion by House Iderci after their ship, the Iderci Empress, comes out of the shipyards for her maiden voyage. She is expected to be the largest, fastest ship in the St Frey shipping fleet. In other business news, the Guild is to review the charges against House Mederos this afternoon, in the first step to determining if the offending family has met its civil and criminal obligations and is to be released from further sentencing. Guildmaster Trune and the council will preside over the proceedings.
– Dockside Doings, Junipre, Treacher’s Almanac
Tesara pretended she didn’t hear the loud whispers as she browsed the open window display of Sturridges, on the Mile. The fine gifts emporium was decorated for Saint Frey’s Day. It was filled with gilded ribbons and chocolates, delicate porcelain, and fragile silk scarves of yellow and green for spring. She cocked her head exactly as if she were contemplating the difference between a delicately painted blown-glass egg and a cameo brooch, and in the meantime, took in all the none-too-subtle gossip around her. She and her sister had only been home two weeks, but the rumor engine of Port Saint Frey was nothing if not efficient.
“I can’t believe she shows her face in public.”
“Look at that bonnet. Can you imagine?”
“She’s gotten so worn. I heard she and her sister were reduced to scrubbing floors at a school for paupers.”
Tesara schooled her face into a smile and turned to face her tormenters. The cluster of merchant misses huddled near the door, and as one they gasped and fled inside the store, their skirts rustling as they whisked inside to safety, where she dared not follow. She could look all she wanted, but she knew what would happen if she tried to enter. Even worse than the gossip of her former peers would be the crossed arms and forbidding posture of the shop girl. The humiliation of denied entry would finish what the misses had wrought – her complete and utter dismissal from society. Once more alone, she turned back to her private contemplation of the lovely things she could no longer afford.
Her fingers ached, and she rubbed her hands absently, a routine gesture, her crooked fingers swollen and misshapen. Her fingerless mittens were no match for the brisk winds coming off the harbor. In the spring, no matter how fine the day, the winds of Port Saint Frey bit, and bit hard. Despite the almost constant pain, her hands felt leaden and dull.
It was exactly like Madam Callier to eliminate an aggravating problem with forthright action, Tesara thought, trying to will away the pain. A troublesome new student had a troublesome talent? Problem solved with brutal efficiency. It had worked – for six long years, she had not experienced even the slightest frisson of electricity. Madam Callier had not only broken her will, she had broken her power.
She could almost believe that she was mistaken that six years ago she had sunk the family’s shipping fleet from her bedroom window.
“Miss Mederos? Tesara?”
Tesara turned to see a young man calling her name and her heart sank. Oh please. Oh no. She managed a smile and a curtsey, and hoped that both looked easy and confident.
“Mr Saint Frey, what a pleasure.”
“Please, we’re old friends. Jone. Remember?” Jone Saint Frey smiled a charming little smile. It did not mollify the bitterness in her breast, so she smiled wider, hoping she wasn’t clenching her teeth. How much longer could she keep smiling? Couldn’t he see the tendons in her neck were about to snap with strain?
“Of course. Jone. How are you? Your family?”
“Well, thank you. We are all in fine health.”
He had grown up after six years. He was tall and thin, and he had the pallor of a man who spent much time indoors. He had the long sideburns and mustache of a fashionable young man in Port Saint Frey, and his trousers were of fine summer wool. His coat was gray, and she wagered the pocket square of bright scarlet perfectly folded like a splash of blood over his heart was silk from the Qin traders. He must be twenty now, Tesara thought. Yvienne’s age. They had been friends as children, getting into as much mischief as coddled children could, though they were from entirely different spheres. The Mederos family had been one of the wealthiest merchant families in the city, but Jone Saint Frey was a scion of the House of Saint Frey, the founding family, and mere wealth could never compete with nobility like that.
Of course, it only made her current status even more laughable. Why was Jone even talking to her? Oblivious, he went on.
“And you? Your sister? You’ve been away at school, haven’t you?”
“Yes. We’ve just returned home.”
A pauper’s school, indeed. The misses had the right of it. Two weeks before, Madam Callier had called them into her study and told them to pack their things; their parents had written for them to return. She gave them back their dusty valises and their old clothes, all far too small now for any good, and packed them into a cart much as they had arrived, only this time without their old nurse. A year after their arrival, Michelina had succumbed to a fever, brought on by the damp mountain air of the north. The girls had not mourned their last link to home. Even toward the end, Michelina had made it clear she blamed them for her exile.
Tesara had been eager to come home, but had quickly discovered that everything had changed. Except for Sturridges, of course.
There was a silence between them and Jone made a rueful face, as if he were at a loss to carry the conversation. Still, he did not seem ready to take his leave. He turned toward the window.
“A fine display, isn’t it? Sturridges always goes all out for Saint Frey’s Day. Have you been inside? Perhaps you can advise me on gifts for my mother and my aunt.”
“I’m afraid not,” Tesara said, grateful for a chance to escape. “I’ve only time for window shopping today. But anything from Sturridges – I mean, I’m sure you will find something suitable.”
“Well,” he said. “Then I won’t keep you. Enjoy your excursion, Miss Tesara. It’s a fine day for it. And Happy Saint Frey’s Day.” He made a bow, she curtsied, and then she continued on her way down the fashionable Mile. The street thronged with shoppers and their servants carrying baskets, but no one else acknowledged Tesara, even though the curious turned toward her and then away, as soon as they recognized her.
Jone had it right about the day being fine – the dazzle on the sea almost hurt the eyes, and the white clouds chased across a deep blue spring sky. The merchant fleet bobbed at anchor in the harbor, far below the Mile. She had missed these days during their long years at school in the mist-shrouded mountains of Romopol. She wasn’t nostalgic for the cut direct, given by all their former society. She wondered why Jone had come up to talk to her – surely the return of the “poor Mederos sisters” was the talk of the drawing rooms and salons all along the Crescent and Nob Hill. And there was all the news in the paper – today was the day of the first hearing, to determine if the family had satisfactorily paid for their crimes.
If you counted Uncle’s six years in gaol, and her and Yvienne’s purgatory in Madam Callier’s Academy, the answer was yes. But Tesara knew from the hard-won perspective of all her eighteen years that Port Saint Frey would never forget and never forgive.
A gust of wind came up and blew back the brim of her outdated bonnet. Tesara held it down with one hand and with the other grabbed the front of her old-fashioned pelisse. It had been her mother’s when she was young. The cape was good wool and she kept it well brushed and tidy. You couldn’t even see the darns where she had repaired moth damage unless you were very close.
She didn’t use to care about clothes. She had been a child then, and she hadn’t understood that clothes were very much more than just something to cover one’s nakedness. Clothing signified wealth, or lack thereof. Station or standing. Service – or served.
To anyone walking the Mile who did not recognize Tesara Ange DeBarri Mederos, she was nothing more than a lady’s maid who wore her mistress’s hand-me-downs.