As far as hearth fire tales went, Ryane supposed it was a pretty one. The dark haired Clan Heir wandering somewhere, power like ice in her veins, fire on her palms, grace like the world had spent two decades waiting for resting on her head. Ryane didn’t believe in lost children discovering noble births. In her experience, the very lost were luckiest to never learn about the sailors or carpenters or tavernkeeps or scroungers who had chosen to leave them. She had long ago decided that her parents were less gorgeous mystery and more gory history better ignored. But it was pretty.
She figured the mutiny that no one ever talked about – but often whispered about – had written plenty of marvelous stories.
It had all happened so secretly, out in the middle of the ocean where the Clan Lord’s magnificent ship rolled on azure waves and hung under sparkling stars. Or so she imagined. She didn’t think Clan Ladies stood for anything so mundane as blue or twinkling. She figured even enemy blades gleamed on the ship. Even when they were held by your brother-in-law. Maybe especially.
No one heard much about it until it was done. The Clan Lady with her husband murdered. Her brother-in-law sailing home to take his throne. And somehow Emmany, the dark-haired baby they’d been parading around the world, gone. They said the new Clan Lord dropped her over the side of the ship in a long boat for Fate to claim rather than spill a child’s blood himself. Some said Fate took her. Some said Fate hid her.
Ryane knew she was dead. There were too many children, left all on their own, losing breath. A baby never could have made it off the open ocean, never could have learned to walk and talk, steal and run, hope and negotiate and settle, and survive, on her own.
It was just too pretty to believe that she had. Pretty like the mansions on the hill. Pretty like the men and women in them. And Ryane couldn’t believe the idiots were still whispering.
But today, it was sweet enough to her.
Half-hidden behind the garden hedge, she combed her dark-hair behind her ear. Instinctively, she looked down at her fingers, watching for smudges. The dye had taken better than she thought it would, looked more natural over her real golden brown than she could have hoped, and had stopped coming off on her fingers after two days. She tugged on the sleeve of her thin dress nervously.
Lady Bethney was sitting in the wooden woven chair, bent over her books, penning idle notes in the margins or across the pages scattered on her knee. A servant set a drink beside her and another stood at the back door and another moved somewhere in the house, crossing through the dozen rooms on some errand. Bethney’s son, Garred sat across from her, turning through his own books and they looked up from time to time to pass business between them. Her husband had been there a moment before, but left for some afternoon party dressed in a coat that shone in the sunlight. It had gotten very quiet after he left, and now Ryane was listening to her own breath, her own heartbeat, wishing there was some noise to cover her footsteps in the grass as she came around the hedge.
They didn’t look up immediately. The drink-bearing servant saw her first, and paused, half turned away and blinking, as if she might be a ghost which he was supposed to ignore. Lady Bethney caught his look after a moment, and stopped to, her hand pinned to a page, just about to turn it. Garred didn’t look up at all, until Ryane had come so close she was throwing a pale shadow over his work.
And they all stared at each other, silent, glancing around their small circle, anticipating what might come next.
“Who are you?” Lady Bethney finally asked, her voice smooth and steady.
“No one,” Ryane murmured.
“Interesting,” Garred said. He leaned back in his chair and looked at her, amused.
Lady Bethney glanced at him, then raised one hand, one finger, and the servant turned immediately for the house, leaving the three of them alone.
Ryane met Lady Bethney’s eye. “I know what you are,” she said.
Lady Bethney tilted her head, curious.
“You’re one of the rebels,” Ryane said. “And you’re looking for her.”
“I don’t think I know what you’re talking about,” Lady Bethney said.
“You’re lying,” Ryane said. She glanced at Garred. “You bought from a friend of mine. And he told me.”
“What exactly do you want?” Lady Bethney asked quickly. She still looked easy, sitting in her chair with her skirts spilled around her, head inclined – just so – to listen. But she was suddenly looking bored, hands returning to their places on the pages.
“I want…” Ryane stumbled, realizing very quickly that she was no one, and she had walked into this yard with nothing, whatever secrets she knew.
“Do you actually think you’re Emmany?” Lady Bethney asked, quicker.
“No,” Ryane whispered.
Lady Bethney turned in her seat, away from Ryane, back to her work. “Then I don’t know what–”
“And I know that doesn’t matter to you,” Ryane snapped.
Garred raised his eyebrows at her, his smile stretching farther.
Ryane ignored him, refusing to tear her eyes away from Lady Bethney. “And if I thought for a moment that you were idiot enough to think it did, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “We both know that little girl is dead. Long ago dead. But the way everyone carries on about her, whispers about her, tells stories about the ways she might have survived, and the ways she might come back. She’s a pretty story that you can use. And I’m…” she faltered, swallowed. “I’m a nothing that you can use.”
Lady Bethney looked at her son without turning her head. There was a smile creeping onto her face and it made them look very much alike as they leaned back on their shoulder blades. She looked at Ryane after a long, lazy moment.
“And what is it you want?” Lady Bethney asked.
Ryane took a deep breath. “I will help you in any way you ask,” she said carefully. She took another breath. “I just want to sleep warm tonight. And tomorrow night. And the night after that.”
Another pause. Then Lady Bethney nodded.
Ryane steadied herself on her heels. There was nothing pretty about the calculated look that Bethney gave her, or the equal one she returned. But she felt safer in the rawness.