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The day everything changed, Minka Belajic was halfway up to her elbows in dishwater. Then her cousin Sarain knocked on the door. It was market day, and the whole village had business with somebody.
“Leave the dishes, Minka,” Mother told her, “I’ll finish them.” She let Sarain in and kissed her cheeks, right-left-right, over the cloth scrap rug. “Where’s your coat? Don’t you know it’s winter?”
Sarain smiled. She always smiled more than Minka did. “It’s not that cold today, Auntie.” She had left her embroidered coat at home in favor of a dark knit wrap. Her loose woolen trousers tapered at her knees and vanished into laced-up leather boots thick with mud. Peasant trousers just like Minka’s, perfect for slinging a leg over a horse’s back. And they stayed out of the mountain mud better than skirts.
Minka laced her own boots behind her knees and wound herself in a length of grayish felt. Took a scrap of paper from Mother, scanned the list. Bread, of course, and onions to roast on the stove for supper…
Mother sank a few lira notes into her daughter’s open hand. “Let Sarain do the haggling this time!” she called out the door after them.
Minka ground her teeth.
All along Workman’s Row, the neighbors were settling on their porches, jabbering with each other and waiting for a sale. It wasn’t really a row—just a couple of dirt streets that lined a flat ledge of hillside. The lane trailed on between log cabins with steep wood-shingle roofs, through a stand of fir trees to the lower part of the village where the incline flaked into terraced farm fields. The village of Delablosk was enclosed by spiky evergreen forest like an eye and its lashes.
Minka laced her arm through Sarain’s and gripped the handle of her basket. “Well?” she murmured. “Have you made up your mind?” She loosened her chestnut braid and combed it out with her free hand, careful not to snag the bronze-coin tail of her earring. Her hair formed a wall over her shoulder and blocked out the world beyond. That was the thing with market days. You got a day off in the middle of the week to make your errands and catch up on other people’s business—whether they wanted you to, or not.
She and Sarain preferred to keep their business private.
“Well?” Minka pressed again after a moment. Soft mud squelched under her feet, and the winter air felt like a whisper on her cheeks. Walls of mist hung between the mountains in the distance. The mild weather had sucked people from their homes and clogged the neighborhood.
Sarain sighed. Her black hair fluttered as if the air sighed with her. Waist length, **** her—always longer than Minka’s. “I don’t know, Minka,” she said. She was half a head taller and had to lean down when she spoke.
Minka bit her lip. She had spent the last few weeks trying to convince her cousin to talk to Iriya, an old friend from school. Sarain was twenty-one to Minka’s eighteen, three years out of the schoolroom, three years working their family’s looms and spinning frames. But his name never left Sarain’s lips. And she had been old enough to get married for two years. At her age, she had decisions to make.
It was time for Sarain to decide whether to stay or go. Build a life here in the village, where she had always lived, or take her chances somewhere else. There were towns and cities out there. Bigger, busier, hungry for a weaver’s skilled hands. And there were steam trains to carry her away. But it was easy to imagine leaving home when you were warm and safe, wrapped in its familiar rhythm.
Minka could feel the choices closing in on her, too. It felt like standing on a steep slope—there was no telling when it might give way beneath your feet. As in most matters, she looked to Sarain first.
“If he liked me…” Sarain trailed off. She bent down and let her dark hair cover her words. Even the sky, gray and thick, hung low over the trees. “He would have come talk to me by now,” she murmured.
Minka stayed silent. Three women were headed their way. They were stern-faced farmers from beyond the village, older than Mother, their fingers stained with dirt. And old-fashioned by the look of it. They wore striped veils over their hair and homespun petticoats muddy to the ankles. They probably married off their sons and daughters themselves.
Once they passed, Minka said, “Maybe he’s just taking his time.” But there was something else in her throat, itching to be told.
It had been so long since Iriya first asked her about Sarain that she couldn’t remember when it happened. The plants her family grew behind their workshop were for dye, not cooking, so Mother sent Minka to buy herbs from his mother’s garden. Their brief conversations were the same every time. How is Sarain? I never see her. His eyes would search Minka’s to make sure she told him the truth.
“He doesn’t even think of me,” Sarain was saying.
“Oh, yes, he does.”
Sarain stopped and looked at her. Her eyes narrowed, amber and green, with a look as hard as gemstones.
Minka was trapped. The words had leaked out before she could stop them.
She took a step, but Sarain pulled her back. “Minka…” was all Sarain said.
Minka tugged Sarain’s wrist and made her walk on. Something had lit her throat and stomach on fire. She was done watching, waiting.
Mother’s list could wait. This was no longer a conversation for the street. The way news spread here, you would think even the greens in the neighbor’s garden had ears. Word would be all over the village by tomorrow if they weren’t careful. Hooo, Sarain Belajic’s after Iriya the herb boy… And if anyone else was, too, they could pounce before Sarain did.
“We should check the horses.” Minka veered toward the log shed at the end of the row, next to Sarain’s house. The Belajics kept three horses there that the families shared. Its stalls were the perfect place to discuss private matters.
Sarain had the good sense to play along. “I thought your brother did it for you this morning.”
“He’s a goosebrain. I don’t trust him.” Minka spoke just loudly enough to make sure anyone listening heard her.
“Who’s on his mind now?”
“How should I know? He’s sixteen. Everything that walks catches his eye.” That part, at least, was true.
Black-Ash, who turned white long ago, watched the activity over his stall door. Minka patted his heavy neck as she squeezed past. Sarain slipped into the stall beside him. The air was thick, velvety with dust and the tang of leather and sweat.
Sarain’s voice crept out like it had been hiding. “You really think—?”
“There’s no thinking about it. He asks about you every time.” The stall divider stood between them. Minka reached across and squeezed her hand. “You need to go see him.”
Sarain considered her cousin’s words. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
Minka wanted to shake her. A head like iron, older people would say. Instead she slapped the wood with her palm. The horses’ heads jerked up.
“No,” she hissed. “We’re not leaving until you promise to talk to him.” She leaned over the wall. Her palm stung but she ignored it. “You want to throw away your chances?” she asked. “Rot away by yourself and be a lonely old maid? He thinks you don’t like him. You need to talk to him.”
Sarain just stared at her for a moment. Then she melted, and a smile crept across her face like it had been hiding. But her hand in Minka’s was hard and taut.
“My mother wants grain from the Zadarkas,” Sarain remembered out loud as they merged back into the market. “Do you mind if we stop while we’re near?”
“Of course not.”
While Sarain ran her hand over sacks of grain, pinched them under her thumb, Minka tracked people moving through the street. Five women had congealed outside the carpenter’s, beneath its carved window frames that looped and peaked like snowflakes. Minka could make out Mistress Parin, the neighbor across the street, by her knitted shortrobe and her doughy feet that strained the buttons on her boots. The others had her backs to her.
Everyone talked in the market. Two or three you saw every day. But five—something had hooked their attention. The women’s heads were bent together like hens.
Sarain straightened and turned. She cradled a sack of grain on her hip, its weight straining the hem of her green woolen shirt. As they watched, Mistress Tare, the carpenter’s wife, crossed her porch to join the other women. She had ears as busy as her husband’s hands and a paper tucked under her arm. The women’s eyes never left each other’s, and their faces were intent and hard as spades.
It was the wrong time of year for landslides. Across the river was a spot where the new railroad pierced through the mountainside. Oh, mercy, not an accident…
“We should go to Zina,” Sarain said.
“Mmm.” Minka clasped her cousin’s hand and tucked Sarain behind her. People streamed past them on either side. She looked around for whisperers and kept one ear open to listen through the chatter.
Sarain bowed her head over Minka’s shoulder. “Janis hasn’t come see you in a while,” Sarain probed as they slithered through the crowd, “has he?”
Janis Gora, the potter’s apprentice. Minka hadn’t seen him at all in well over a week. His absence put a hole inside of her, stretching all the way to her throat. She shook her head.
The cottage they wanted had a door painted red for good luck among logs streaked gray from age. Zina perched on the porch, bird-bone thin and swaddled in shawls over a flounced jacket and petticoat from years past, with bundles of straw and twigs at her feet. Her knobby fingers were quicker at their work than they looked. When she heard the mud suck at the girls’ boots, she looked up. Her wood-bead swung into her neck, and her crinkly cheek was big with a wad of chaw.
“You two,” she said. The corner of her mouth twitched up. “What can I do for you?”
Minka smiled. But it was thin. “It seems like there’s news,” she ventured.
“We saw people talking.” Sarain took over. “Can you tell us what’s happened?”
“I can, but it’s in the papers too. You girls try reading?”
Sarain answered the elder woman’s teasing. “We haven’t seen the paper yet.”
“Uncle Brasho—” Minka pointed her thumb at Sarain to remind Zina that he was her father— “gets it first, then us.”
“Ah.” Zina turned and slipped her chaw into a bottle she hid behind her. When she faced them again, her chin was aimed at Minka. “You and your young man not engaged yet?”
Something heavy settled in Minka’s stomach. “Ne,” she admitted, “no. Not yet.”
Zina regarded her for a moment. “He might want to hurry up,” she said. One silver eyebrow sprang upwards. “Big news is—” her fingers went back to work— “His Excellency’s putting on some gathering and wants young women from around the country.”
That made the girls’ ears perk. The Royal Republic of Davador, despite her name, didn’t like the notion of a king or queen. She had a Guardian instead, the descendant of old chieftains, who governed from a desk instead of a throne. The Guardian was royalty—the Davadrin way, anyway.
“That son of his’s turning another year,” the elder woman added. “Twenty-some, I think? You know everyone important’s been trying to sniff out a match for him since he came of age…” She paused to work in a few more straws. “And his son don’t like the women he’s met so far, not enough to court them.”
Sarain and Minka exchanged a glance as they added the pieces together. “You mean the royal son will be there,” Sarain concluded.
“Ai,” Zina affirmed.
Minka’s stomach hummed. She and Sarain were both in love, and their roots stretched deep into the mountain mud. Still, it was an exciting thought.
“They managed to keep it out of the papers until now,” Zina went on. “How they decided this, I’ve no idea, but His Excellency wants daughters from Whitewater’s family. They still teach about him in school, don’t they?” Whitewater wasn’t the man’s name, but everyone called him that for the place where he was born, like a badge.
Sarain and Minka both nodded. “The revolutionary,” Sarain said.
Minka glanced at Sarain. Her cousin’s face was smooth and calm.
“His Excellency wants them to stay at some hotel. Couldn’t tell you the name or where it is, but the son’ll be living there too so he can get to know the girls.” She shrugged. “Why he don’t just have them at the Royal Home, I’ve no idea.” The Davadrin people didn’t like the notion of a palace, either, though no one could explain the difference.
“Did it say any more about the girls?” Sarain pressed.
Zina craned her neck up toward them. “Said between eighteen and twenty, I think,” she murmured. “There’s a list of names they’re looking for, family names. Chief Guard signed off on all the papers. Fancy seals and everything.” She nodded, once, toward Minka. “That’s why I’m asking about you and what’s-his-name.”
The money crinkled in Minka’s fist. She and Sarain exchanged a look.
People liked to forget this, but Vidovo Whitewater fathered some children before he married, too. Minka and Sarain’s sixth-great-grandmother was one of them. If someone like Whitewater was in your family, though, you knew about it. Minka wondered if legitimacy counted. She didn’t want to ask.
The elder woman kept crossing straws, over-under, over-under. “Now, I’ve heard—” she cautioned them with a glance from beneath her silvery eyebrows— “they’re supposed to send the National Guard around as escort. But that’s only rumor. Could be a week or two before we see black coats among our trees. If we see them at all.”
Minka’s heart lay heavy on her stomach. If the news was true, then Sarain was old enough to stay home. And Minka had her match already. But if soldiers came to Delablosk, they might come for her anyway. She managed to unstick her tongue and thank the elder woman. Sarain added a good-day and followed her as she stumbled off on unfeeling feet.
Minka immediately steered her cousin toward the end of Workman’s Row. Their conversation still echoed in her mind. She wanted to act quickly, before their nerves cooled and they lost their resolve. That, and she still had errands of her own.
Daughters from Whitewater’s family… You mean the royal son will be there… Minka pushed the thoughts out of her head. Beside her, Sarain’s arm was threaded through hers and locked in place.
The lower part of the village made a patchwork on the hillside. Most people had a vegetable plot and a few chickens or a goat or rabbits in the yard. The plots were laced together by log fences and bare pathways, the sharp rooftops silky green with moss. Minka escorted Sarain as far as the Koshas’. Only one more block of cabins stood between them and Iriya, and Master Kosha had promised her a good price on onions, anyway. That was one thing off the list.
Minka settled them in her basket. “I suppose we’ll see,” she said at last. She didn’t have to explain what she meant. It was the first either of them had spoken since they left Zina’s. She squeezed Sarain’s hand. “You go about your business.”
Sarain squeezed Minka’s hand in return and smiled. She was glowing like the moon.
Minka left her and strode back up the little hill, this time toward the other part of town, in the flat clearing between Workman’s Row and the mountainside. The air crackled with the juicy spice of sausage. She passed long-tailed chickens trotting about, plots of winter vegetables, the governor’s house with three stories and the little tower on top. She had other business now.
Her thoughts were quick to land on Janis and his clay. The stuff had taken her place lately. It encased his hands in a gray shell, cracking and slimy, to where she couldn’t touch him when she saw him.
She and Janis had sat together in the village schoolroom, where he slipped her flowers—potato flowers with purple throats, from his family’s field—and asked her to help him with history. After their class got their final marks last spring, he’d joined the potter as an apprentice and traded the soil etched into his hands for clay. He liked taking dull, gray lumps and caressing them into plates and pots that nourished but went unnoticed. It was sort of how Minka felt about coloring wool and tangling it into cloth.
And it was two years now, or near enough, that they had been courting. Minka would be nineteen when winter ended, and Janis around Midsummer. They’d had plenty of time. She was starting to itch for a wedding, for a house of their own, to finally be grown up and settled. If only he would just ask.
She felt hollow without him. He could busy himself longer than there was light in the sky. Lately, he did.
There’s a list of names they’re looking for… Chief Guard signed off on all the papers…
Minka tugged the best prices she could figure out of old Master Parin for two loaves of bread, barley and rye. Maybe this time Mother would be content. The loaves sank in her basket like stones.
Beside the blacksmith’s shop, Threefoot stood like a sculpture in her paddock. The mare’s dark ears were pricked forward, sharp and still. She greeted passers-by with a neigh from the depths of her throat. Her hooves were all but buried in mud. Minka ran a hand over the mare’s dark bay head, cupped her fluttering nose. The sweet dust of horse scent was a weight that steadied her. And Miko, the mare’s owner, might have need of her services.
The smith’s shop kept its inhabitants wrapped in hard clanging and bitter blue smoke. The smell filled Minka’s throat like medicine. Sure enough, Miko, the head apprentice—all solid strength from his leather apron to the top of his coppery head—waved through the back door.
“I won’t be able to work her today!” he called, meaning Threefoot. His smile was broad behind his beard. “You take her out later, I’ll have something for you!”
Something would be a handful of spare coins, or a lira note if he had it, in a leather pouch he hung on a nail by the doorway. Minka raised her arm high in understanding.
In her head, Zina’s report kept bubbling up like a spring. Soldiers in their black coats, coming to take her away. Minka pushed the memory back down. Her place was here. If His Excellency wanted her, she reminded herself, she’d be of no use to him. She’d make sure of it.
She found Janis scrubbing clay from his wrists, his plain linen shirtsleeves folded back to his upper arms. His back and shoulders drooped.
Minka set the basket inside the door and admired him. He had always been slim, but his arms and shoulders had a graceful ripple. The shop’s dull light made his hair glow pale gold. It was nearing his collar again.
Then Janis heard her and was in front of her. His green eyes warmed her belly. But they were ringed with gray and had lost their spark. His arms were around her, pulling her to him.
She held him close. Sometimes there wasn’t much to say. Not here, at least. All of the thoughts and the happenings since she last saw him flitted right out of her head. It was just the two of them. One second near him was enough to wash away the time apart.
“Did you finish what you needed?” she asked as she released him.
Janis was looking at the floor. Stubble glinted on his sharp chin and the slope of his cheeks. “Nearly,” was his response. It was flat. Uncertain. “There’s a batch to go in the fire yet.” He glanced out the shop’s small window.
“I miss you.” It came out a plea.
“I know.” Janis’s forehead was wrinkled. “It’s… been busy. There’s a customer in Siben,” he went on—that was over in the next district— “some merchant, his daughter is getting married—he wants a whole set. Plates, bowls, mugs, all of it…”
Minka took his hands. She knew where the aches and tiredness hid, deep inside the cups of his palms. She squeezed and pressed in circles. His hands were more toned now, shadowed with strength from working the clay. The mess about royal sons and her family’s history had faded in the back of her throat. Now wasn’t the time, she decided.
Janis loosened his hand from hers. “I can’t stop for too long, Minka.”
“All right.” She cupped his cheek. It was warm and familiar, the hairs underneath pitting his skin. “Will you come by tonight?” she offered.
He sighed. “Likely not.”
“Then when?” She traced the slant of his eyebrow with her thumb and waited for the worries to soften from his face. But they didn’t.
Janis pondered. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said at last.
Seeing her mouth twitch, he went on, “I am sorry.” He looked her in the eyes as he said it, into something deep inside of her. His eyes were cool and sad.
Janis took her in his arms again and kissed her. It landed on her cheek, not her mouth. She turned her head to kiss him properly. But he was already ushering her out the shop door.
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