A strange boat washed ashore, a half-starved man with wild hair and a cycle’s worth of beard its sole occupant. Heaven waxed gibbous in the sky not two bells from full, and the fishermen took the shipwrecked sailor to me. “We don’t rightly know what to make of him, Miss Yvona,” they told me. “We thought—that is, we hoped—” He trailed off.

They hoped I could helped him. I was the island’s healer now, after all, even though Mistress Madec had passed before she could teach me all of the apothecary’s arts. So they took the injured to me, and they hoped, but they had no confidence. To be honest, neither did I. He had very nearly frozen to death.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. The stranger was pale, with hair like lightning and eyes like the sky in storm. His clothes were of a strange cut and material. His boat, the fishermen informed me, was similar: an unfamiliar wood, an unfamiliar design. “Perhaps he is an explorer,” I said.

The fishermen exchanged glances. “Perhaps,” said one. “But he had no food, no water, no astrolabe, no maps, no compass. And his boat was small enough for two men to carry. Explorers do not sail on such craft.”

“An exile, then.” I drew a deep breath and they hesitated, afraid to leave before I had dismissed them, but afraid to linger lest I ask them to summon the wizard. “Send for my sister,” I said. “Tell her to please hurry.”

They relaxed. My sister, Seva, was apprenticed to the wizard. He taught her the mysteries of earth and sky, storm and flame, as one would expect; but he also taught her the tongues of all the nations of the western sea, and the sacred tongue they spoke at the center of the world, where the massive sphere of Heaven hung directly overhead. One day she would master the wizard’s arts and become the island’s protector, he said, and to perform that task she would need to be able to speak with all manner of men. They respected her, but more than that, they liked her.

I hadn’t yet gotten the fire going when I heard Seva arrive. I caught her leaning against the doorway, trying not to look out of breath. Even after running across town, she was perfect: long dark hair elegantly unkempt, a rosy glow to her cheeks, blue eyes bright.

I didn’t give her time to catch her breath. “Hello, Seva.”

“Yvona!” She kissed me on the cheek. “You wanted to see me?”

“Since when does a wizard hurry for anyone?”

“I couldn’t wait.” She smiled and sat down next to me. “Anyway, I’m just an apprentice. Apprentices always hurry.”

“Well, help me warm up some water, will you?”

“All right. Go ahead and fill the tub.” With a gesture, a spark leapt from her fingers to the fireplace. There was the faint smell of sulfur, and the logs burst into flames. I glared at her for showing off, though she pretended not to notice—or maybe she really didn’t. Sometimes I wasn’t sure she lived in this world at all.

She walked over to the fireplace and thrust her hand into the flame, closed her eyes, and put another hand into the water. The tub began to steam. After a moment she yelped and withdrew her hand. “There you go. Anything else?”

“You can help move him if you like.”

We set up the bath by the fire, facing a window to the eastern sky. Mistress Madec had always been superstitious about that. The first thing a patient should see upon waking, she always said, is Heaven hanging above the horizon, casting its golden light over the world. Even though Seva always laughed at that, I carried on the tradition. Surely Heaven was there to bring us comfort, whatever the scholars say.

Once we’d helped him into the bath, I spent some time fussing over the stranger, but there wasn’t much to do but wait and hope. Mostly I wanted to look busy while Seva watched, but I also wanted to get a closer look. His hands were blistered, not calloused, and he didn’t have the build of a man used to physical labor. The fishermen were right, then: he was no sailor. So what was he?

I always felt small with Seva around, even though I was taller than her. Her easy laugh, her quiet confidence, how quickly she learned new things, the ease with which she shouldered the burden of her apprenticeship, the way she could make everything into a game—how could I not feel that she had surpassed me in every way? But at least one of us was happy, so I tried to be happy for her.

We played cards to pass the time while the stranger slept. Seva chatted away about her studies, and I kept my focus on the stranger. When his eyes opened, sure enough, the first thing he saw was Heaven shining down on him. Ignoring both of us, he pushed himself upright and stared at it wide-eyed, as if he’d never seen it before.

I nudged Seva’s elbow and she looked at him as well, smiling brightly. “I’ll try to say hello,” she said, and began to speak careful words in alien tongues. The man finally looked away from Heaven to meet my sister’s gaze, and he shook his head at each language she tried. Eventually he spoke in his own tongue.

“Do you know what he’s saying?” I asked.

“I don’t.” Her smile never faltered, as much as I dreamed of seeing her confidence shaken by a puzzle she couldn’t solve. Instead she positively glowed with enthusiasm. “My name’s Seva.” She touched her chest. “Seva.”

“Seva,” he repeated, then mimicked her gesture. “Eindride.”

It took her a few tries to pronounce his name to his satisfaction. Then she gestured at me. “Yvona.”

For almost an hour they exchanged the names of things in the room. Seemingly pleased with the challenge, Seva dutifully transcribed all of these alien words on a scroll of parchment, but for all her learning, she still stumbled over the alien words. I tried to ignore their exchange and busied myself about preparing a hot meal for the three of us.

Then, just as I’d poured tea for everyone, she pointed out the window. “Heaven,” she said. He repeated the word, then shook his head and held out his hands, palms up, brow furrowed.

“He’s never seen Heaven before,” I said, and immediately regretted it. Seva wouldn’t miss such an obvious conclusion.

She just nodded. “I’d better get Taran.” She stood up, knocking her tea to the floor. “I’m sorry—I have to—”

“Go on. We’re not going anywhere.”

She half ran out the door, fumbled with the lock, and nearly tripped over her feet as she sprinted outside. I’d never seen her so excited.

Eindride gave me a quizzical expression, and I shrugged and set about cleaning up the spilled tea. Even during exciting cultural breakthroughs, someone has to clean up the mess.

***

Seva was the only person on the island who called Taran by his given name. To everyone else, he was simply the wizard. His magic kept the earth quiet and the seas calm, so we could harness the volcano and master the waves, but to my mind, and to many others of the island, he wasn’t a proper wizard. He was too young, too flighty, too enthusiastic. A wizard should be stern and quiet, filled with ancient wisdom. We respected him, of course, but he was . . . strange.

He lavished attention on his only pupil, who was as eager to learn the mastery of earth and sky as he was to impart his wisdom. Everything was a challenge, and every challenge was a game. It would have been galling had her progress not been so brilliant.

By the time Seva returned with her mentor in tow, she had managed to contain her excitement, if only just. She hovered just behind him, fidgeting impatiently, waiting to see what he would say. He barely acknowledged me as he arrived, and spent a long time studying Eindride. “What did you say he was called, Seva?”

“Eindride. He speaks a tongue I’ve never heard before.”

“Eindride. I’m Taran. Do you understand?”

Eindride frowned. “Taran?”

“Excellent!” Taran beamed. “He’ll be writing poetry in no time. And how do you know he has no Heaven?”

I spoke up. “When he woke up he was staring at it like he was afraid, your honor.”

“Ah! Yvona!” He looked at me as if he hadn’t noticed I was here before. “Perhaps he is superstitious? I know in many parts of the world, it is considered bad luck to look upon Heaven if you have sinned.”

“Perhaps,” I said. “But he didn’t hide. And maybe afraid isn’t the right word. He seemed . . . amazed. Like he didn’t know such a thing could exist.”

Seva added, “In any case, if his language has a word for it, he won’t repeat it.” She handed him her parchment. “I’ve written down his words for many things in the room, though of course I can’t be sure the translations are exactly—”

He handed it back without looking at it. “Can you speak to him yet?”

Her face fell. “I . . . no, Taran.”

“Then why am I here? I am your wizard, Seva, and you are my best student. I expect solutions, not riddles.” He drew himself up. “You may have any resources you require. Return to me when you have solved this puzzle, and no sooner.” He clapped her on the shoulders. “I have every confidence in you.” With that, he strode out the door.

“Does that mean he doesn’t care?” I said. For a moment I considered pointing out that she was his only student, but it seemed unfair.

“It means he wants me to figure it out.”

“Isn’t this his sort of thing his job?”

“I’m very nearly through with my apprenticeship,” she said, a hint of chastisement in her voice. “If he trusts me with it, then it’s as much my job as his.”

“I don’t know. I don’t like it.”

We sat in silence for a time. Then she said, “I want to see it.”

“See what?”

“The land with no Heaven. According to my calculations, two nightspans by ship, three if the wind is poor, and Heaven drops below the horizon.”

“I can’t bear the thought of an empty sky,” I said. “Even the Festival of Night makes me uneasy.”

She sighed and gazed longingly at Heaven before returning her attention to Eindride. “Eindride, we’re going to have to learn to communicate.”

He smiled wearily and said something in his strange language. Seva smiled at me. “Do you mind if I stay here for a while?”

I could have said no. It wasn’t my burden. After only two or three bells the stranger—Eindride, I had to remind myself—was well enough to leave, but where would he go? So Seva took the room where Mistress Madec used to sleep, and, though she often disappeared for several bells at a time, over the following cycles I saw her more than I had since we had come to the island for our apprenticeships. The fear in our guest’s eyes had faded, replaced with wonder as he watched Heaven wax and wane. Meanwhile, we tried to teach him our language, and Seva made some attempts to learn his.

Eindride learned quickly, though he wouldn’t speak of himself or his people. But it wasn’t long before we could have conversations with him, and Seva, at least, was quite pleased with herself. I still had my reservations, but he was my guest, which meant he was my responsibility.

***

The rumor spread quickly that I had a man from the Darklands—or so the popular term went—under my roof. Islanders came by with injuries so minor I wondered whether they had created them simply to have an excuse to stop by. Of course they all came bearing gifts—a bottle of wine here, a hot meal there, some flowers, some difficult to acquire herbs—and they all pretended to be disinterested, but they watched him with such curiosity, such intensity, it was clear that was what was on their minds.

Seva was a diligent instructor when she wanted to be, but Taran would occasionally stop by with news that he never failed to present as urgent and whisk her away. It was seldom anything noteworthy, and never groundbreaking. On one occasion, Taran had discovered an entirely useless way to make the spell that protected the island more aesthetically pleasing.

“I know you’ve always liked the aurora,” she said. “He’s managed to make it even better! He says there’s lots of storms coming in a few bells, so be sure to watch the skies.”

Eindride had developed a habit of eavesdropping on our conversations. “You often speak of bells, and I hear them ringing sometimes, but I don’t understand them,” he said.

Immediately Seva slipped into her scholarly mode. “We call the span between chimes ‘one bell,’ though ‘span’ would probably be more accurate. Each bell . . . it’s a bit more time than you spend asleep.”

“Why?”

“Once, it was twice as long. The length of time the sky was dark during the Festival of Night. Now a bell rings once when Heaven goes dark, once when Heaven is no longer dark, and once halfway between the beginning of the festival and the end. Two bells is called a nightspan.”

He nodded. “And a cycle? How many bells?”

“A cycle is the time it takes for Heaven to wax and wane. Twenty-four bells, or twelve nightspans.”

“I see. Thank you, Mistress Seva.”

That nightspan was filled with guests. Taran had been preoccupied with the new arcane flourish on his protection spell, and, though he held the right of high justice on the island, had hardly paid any attention to complaints brought to him. The Constable came to me to ask my assistance. “Miss Yvona, I beg you, have a word with him. There’s families one bad word away from open fighting, and if he doesn’t solve it, the storm priests will.”

“Ask my sister,” I said. “I’m just the healer.”

“She’s his apprentice. You’re not.”

“Seva knows him better than I. Why would he listen to me?”

***

And then the storm priests came, as I knew they would. Seva was asleep; I probably should have been, but it’s just as well that I wasn’t. The priests, like the storms, wait for no one. Two of them awaited me at the door, in their golden robes, and glared at me.

“Yvona. Is it true you’re harboring a savage?”

“I—”

“A man from the Darklands. A man who has never seen the light of Heaven. Why was he not brought to us immediately?”

“He was injured and required medical attention.”

They shouldered past me. One of them—the one who had spoken—settled down in my chair, while his companion stood at the fireplace, his back to me. “If the rumors are true,” said the second priest, “this savage can barely speak a word of civilized tongues. Perhaps Miss Yvona does not wish to waste our time. The high priest says she is a pious woman.”

The first priest nodded. “It’s a shame for a pious woman to be burdened with such a godless sister. But I suppose even wizards have their uses.” He fixed me with a glare. “Wake your sister. I wish a word.”

Seva emerged from her bedroom, and for once she didn’t look cheerful or confident. “Your reverence?”

“Your master has been ignoring our messengers. Have you noticed how many storms have broken upon his barrier lately?”

She blinked. “Yes? I mean, they’re quite lovely, I suppose, but I don’t—”

“The seer has read the storms on earth and in Heaven, and the gods wish to judge this sinful island. Tell your master that if he continues to stand in the way of the gods’ will, we will be forced to take matters into our own hands.” He rose to his feet and turned his glare on both of us. “Don’t think we haven’t noticed that the storms started shortly after this savage arrived.”

Both priests left as sudden as a storm, and Seva wordlessly wrapped her arms around me. “Their bark is worse than their bite, you know,” she said.

“You can’t know things that aren’t true, Seva.”

“Nonsense. You’re not trying hard enough.”

From the corner of my eye I caught movement from Eindride’s room. No doubt he had heard that exchange, as well.

***

Several more nightspans passed, and the priests did not bother us. It was one bell before the Festival of Night. Heaven was a slender crescent in the sky, and Seva was busy with her preparations for the festival. Eindride pulled me aside. “Where does she go?”

“Seva?”

He nodded. “When Heaven is dark,” and here he indicated the waning crescent in the sky, “she leaves. Sometimes she returns smelling like wine.”

“As the wizard’s apprentice, she has duties at the Festival of Night.”

“And you?”

“I don’t like the crowds.”

“Tell me about the Festival.”

“For two bells, when both Heaven and the First Star are dark, we celebrate . . . well, us. We used to believe that our gods were in Heaven, and had sent the First Star to light the way when it was dark. So when they’re both dark, the story goes, it was as if the gods themselves had turned their backs on us. It used to be a night to ward off the evil influences the gods guarded us against. Eventually it became a celebration of the ways we can live without our gods.”

“A strange festival.”

“The storm priests certainly don’t like it.”

“Your sister does?”

“Her master, Taran—you met him, when you first woke up—protects us from the storms and the volcanoes.”

“Volcanoes?”

“Fire from the earth.”

He nodded, and beckoned me to continue.

“He protects us, but he’s not a priest. In many ways he’s the embodiment of the festival’s ideals. So, at the festival, he renews the magic that protects us. It’s all very showy.”

“I understand. Your sister serves an important man. She honors me by paying me such attention.”

“Well, you are our guest.”

A sad smile spread across his face. “You are kind to your guests, Yvona. I wish I could repay you.”

Silence fell, and I returned to my studies. Eindride stared intently at the crescent of Heaven, almost as if he wanted to watch the very moment the last sliver of light vanished. But just as I was certain he would speak no more that evening, he said, “Tell me about the storm priests.”

A strange question. He’d asked before, and I never liked talking about them. Seva could talk dispassionately about theology and philosophy for hours, but it turned my stomach just to think about the priests. The godless world of the wizards made me uneasy, but the storm priests were toxic. Before I could answer, Seva bustled in. “Yvona, Taran has—”

Eindride interrupted her. “I wish to attend the Festival of Night.” His cheeks flushed, and he hung his head. “I apologize for speaking over you. It was thoughtless of me.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. People speak over me all the time,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. She looked at me. “I suppose there’s no harm in it,” she said. “I can’t escort you, but I know Yvona has a festival dress. If she wants to go, of course.”

They both looked at me as I tried to ignore my heart suddenly pounding in my chest. “Can I talk to you in private, Seva?”

I half dragged her into my bedroom, where she sat down on the bed. “Is something the matter?”

“You know I can’t go to the festival!”

“Well, he can’t go alone, and I—”

“Seva.”

“I can’t force you. But it will do you some good. You know it’s never as bad as you think it will be.”

“Seva.”

“I promise I’ll spend every free moment with you. You won’t be alone any longer than necessary.”

“All right. But you owe me one.”

She beamed. “That’s my sister.”

***

My festival dress was crimson, with a ribbon of pale gold trim. I hadn’t worn it since we’d come to the island, but it still fit, and Seva assured me that I looked better than ever when she helped me into it. She wore a dress of midnight blue fading into deep purple that managed to look more like the tapestry of the night’s sky than the actual sky did. I always thought of it as her dress of office.

I don’t know where she found appropriate attire for Eindride, a lovely green tunic that seemed to fit him perfectly. Whether she’d found it somewhere, had it made for him, or simply magicked it up, I didn’t particularly want to know. If it weren’t for his golden hair he wouldn’t have stood out at all. He walked me to the festival, and I could feel every eye in the village on me.

But I took it one step at a time. Eindride drew most of the attention, and everyone that talked to him seemed to like him—but then, everyone likes someone who finds them fascinating. He drank and laughed with them, and only once did I get a hint that something might be wrong. A young woman had been flirting with him, asking if he was a king where he came from.

When we had escaped he gripped me by the arm tight enough that it hurt. “Who is she to mock me like that? Is she important?”

“She—she wasn’t mocking you, Eindride. She was just being curious.”

He gritted his teeth and breathed deeply. “I apologize. I have much to learn about your culture.”

What seemed like several thousand smiles and nods later, Seva arrived with Taran in tow. “Taran, you remember Eindride?”

Taran bowed low. “An honor to meet you properly. Welcome to our humble home.”

“Master Taran. Seva speaks well of you,” said Eindride.

“And you speak our tongue most excellently.”

“I’ve had good tutors.”

Taran beamed. “Come and speak with me for a time, Eindride. I am sure you have as many questions as I do.” He nodded meaningfully at Seva, as if to say “well done,” before taking Eindride under his arm and walking away.

As soon as they were out of earshot, I said, “That’s it? Eleven cycles teaching him our language, learning his language, and as soon as he’s conversational Master Taran just takes him off and they’re suddenly the best of friends?”

Seva’s smile in response was a touch more patronizing than I would have liked. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m just happy I was able to help.”

“I was there, too, Seva.” More ice managed to creep into my tone than I had intended, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like I’d managed a small victory when her face fell.

“I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t have done it without you. But—it’s never been about that for me. And I know you don’t really care about recognition, either.” She lowered her voice. “Taran wants to put together an expedition to the Heavenless lands.” She hesitated slightly before the word ‘Heavenless.’ No doubt she fancied that it sounded more enlightened than ‘The Darklands.’ “We could learn so much from them!”

“Beware of what you wish for,” I muttered, but before she could say anything, a bright flare had shot up from where Taran was standing, and the crowd fell silent.

“I have two announcements,” he declared. “One of which most of you know, and one of which none of you know anything about.” He gestured at Eindride at his side. “The gentleman at my side is Eindride, a man from distant lands of which we know very little indeed, except that there is no Heaven in their sky. He has been learning our language under the tutelage of my former pupil, Seva, and her sister, Yvona.”

There was some scattered applause. Seva’s cheeks had gone red, and she had frozen in place, a glass of wine halfway to her lips. “Former pupil?” I said. She shook her head urgently.

“The second announcement, which I see from Seva’s reaction I should have delivered first: Seva! As of this moment, you have completed your apprenticeship. You are more than capable, and we can’t very well have a mere apprentice joining a diplomatic mission to uncharted lands!” A moment’s pause. “A third announcement, I suppose: I am arranging for a ship to sail for Eindride’s home. Our guest has graciously agreed to serve as a guide. Seva, as our leading expert in their language and customs, will serve as translator, ambassador, and, of course, wizard to this expedition.”

When it became clear he wasn’t going to speak more, applause broke out. Several of those nearby clapped her on the shoulder or shook her hand in congratulations—a few were doing the same for me, as well. As ever, Seva handled it more gracefully than I, but for the moment, at least, it was nice to simply bask in the glow of something good happening.

A flare shot up from Taran’s staff, sending brilliant coruscating blue and green dancing across the night’s sky. The visual effect, Seva had informed me once after she’d had too much wine, was purely for show, and was actually slightly dangerous. Most wizards simply let the excess energy dissipate harmlessly. “But what’s the point of being a wizard if you can’t make the sky dance?” she had said, and it was certainly an impressive effect.

A pair of golden robes caught my eye: storm priests. They normally avoided the Festival, but you could never be certain some of them wouldn’t show up. Some of them tried to show the humanitarian side of the Temple of the Sky, while others preached hellfire on this celebration of godlessness. From the thundersome expressions this group wore, I guessed these were probably of the latter kind.

I nudged Seva, who immediately moved to intercept them. I followed after, though the crowds that parted for Seva seemed to close up in front of me. One of the priests, a giant of a man, was very nearly shouting when I arrived. “You can’t think to send some feckless girl to represent our culture on a whim, wizard. Credentials or no, the Temple should have been consulted.”

“I’m not an unreasonable man, your Reverence. If you can find someone who speaks Eindride’s language better than Seva, I will ask her if she is willing to let them accompany her on her journey.”

Eindride stepped forward. “If I may, Master Taran, your Reverence?”

The priests scowled; Taran simply made a “please, continue” gesture.

“I am a pious man, and though my gods have different names, I believe they are the same as yours. The gods of storm always at war with the gods of fire, yes?” He smiled. “I do not believe your gods will frown on this journey, but I do not wish to embark if your priests disagree.” He bowed deeply. “Your reverence. If you will let me pay obeisance in your holy place and speak with you in private, I think you will agree with me that this is a journey that must be made.”

The huge priest’s scowl did not soften, but he nodded. “Very well. But I will not have this wizard or his mewling apprentice anywhere near the temple.”

Eindride’s eyes locked with mine. “Miss Yvona is no wizard,” he said, “and I may need her words. Mine are not yet perfect.”

“Granted. Come with us.”

Normally Seva would have stepped in to protect me here, but she was far away, focusing all her energy on maintaining her composure. I was alone, and I couldn’t summon the courage to protest. So, with Eindride at my side, smiling a strange smile, I marched to the Temple of the Sky.

***

The Temple was open to the sky, but some magic protected it from the elements—in times of storm you could see the rain and lightning deflected by some invisible shell. I remember Seva once telling me that Taran actually maintained that magic, and that memory made me smile, despite myself.

An altar of some strange white stone stood in the heart of the temple. Eindride knelt before it, and I felt I had no choice but to do likewise. We paid obeisance for some time before one the priests said, “If you wish to speak with us, follow me.”

He led us to a small office occupied by an elderly man, his eyes staring at the darkened orb of heaven. He looked at each of us in turn as we entered. “I am told you wish to persuade us that an expedition into the Darklands with a jejune wizardess at its head is not a dangerous and sinful proposition.”

“I confess that I spoke an untruth. I do not propose to take Mistress Seva, nor Master Taran, unless you wish it.”

“Oh? Do you wish to be our ambassador yourself? A man who has lived his life hidden from the gods?”

“No.” Eindride’s strange smile returned. “My people are a godless people, wicked and sinful. They cast me out for my religion—my belief in the storm gods, though in our lands they had no name and I knew little of them, except that they were strong. They cast me out and hoped that I would die under what they would call—” He frowned. “The baleful gaze of Heaven. If they had a word for Heaven.”

“And yet you wish us to return to this hateful land?”

“I wish for you to conquer it. I was a magistrate of one of the coastal cities of the Darklands. I know their secrets. Your magic is stronger than theirs, your ships are better, your steel is sharper. But there is wealth there that is being put to sinful use—wealth that could instead be put to the service of the gods.”

“And if what you say is true, what do you ask of us in return?”

“Let me administrate your conquests. With my knowledge, you will be ten times more efficient.”

“You will, of course, take orders from our officials there.”

“Of course.”

“How many would we need to send?”

“Permit me to assist with the planning,” Eindride said. “You will not fail.”

“Very well. I am told you are staying with Miss Yvona?”

“Yes.”

“We will send for you there when we have discussed your proposal. I believe she knows the way back to town.”

We left the temple in silence. I was too stunned to speak, and he seemed lost in his own thought. It wasn’t until we’d nearly reached my cottage that he stopped and looked at me. “I wanted you to see that.”

“Oh.”

“I have been dishonest to my hosts, and it shames me. But you are kind and beautiful, and I do not wish to leave you behind. I have watched you for many . . . cycles? Is that the word?”

I nodded. I remembered watching Seva teach him the word.

“You are unhappy. You work endlessly and tend to the people of this island, and they offer no thanks. Your sister reads books and talks to strangers and vanishes on idle whims, and she is beloved. If you joined me, you would be a queen. Loved and feared by your people.”

“Why were you really exiled? You’re no more pious than Seva.”

“I tried to become more than a magistrate. I failed.”

“I see.”

“Will you join me? You will be loved, respected, worshiped.”

“I’ll . . . think about it.”

“That is all I can ask.” He took my hand and kissed it. “Good night, Miss Yvona, most regal of hostesses.” Then he turned and walked off into the night. Perhaps he was rejoining the festival—I didn’t care to follow.

The cottage was empty and dark, and I pulled all the curtains in my room, lay down on the bed, and wept until I fell asleep.

***

I awoke to find Seva seated on my bed. She was not smiling, which always looked wrong, but she was otherwise quite carefully composed. “Seva?” I said. “How long was I asleep?”

“Well, I wasn’t here when you fell asleep. But it’s about three hours since the bell to end the Festival.”

“Where is Eindride?”

“Here. Asleep. I was worried about you. First I abandoned you to the temple, which was selfish and terrible of me, and then I found all the curtains drawn, which you never do, and—”

“Seva. It’s okay.”

“Are you okay?”

“I . . . need to tell you something.”

I recounted, as well as I could, what had transpired at the temple and on the walk home. She tried to look thoughtful, but though her face remained neutral, her whole body sagged like she’d just taken a blow to the gut. “This is my fault,” she said.

“Is it?”

“I should have pressed for information, been more skeptical. It’s a wizard’s job to question everything, even the things we don’t want to. Especially those things.”

“He’d have lied.”

“Or maybe he’d have—asked me to be his queen instead of you, and I could have him arrested or made sure he couldn’t talk to anyone else about it, or—I could have done something. I should have done something.”

“Well, you didn’t.”

She glared at me, but the anger faded as quickly as it had arrived. “You’re right, of course,” she said, and very slowly lay down on the bed and buried her face in the covers.

“I’m not going to do it,” I said.

She lifted her head to look at me, frowning with evident confusion. “Of course you aren’t. You’re solid as a rock.”

I blinked. Was I? Were rocks really afraid to speak up for themselves? “And if you can think of something to do, I’ll see that he doesn’t suspect anything.”

“Okay.” She sat up and closed her eyes. “Okay. See if you can get maps, information, anything. We can . . . I can warn them. It’ll take a while to raise up an invasion fleet.”

I nodded. “He’s using me as a translator, in case he has trouble with words.”

“Excellent.” She kissed me on the cheek. “I will tell—actually, no, I won’t tell Taran what the plan is. I’m a wizard now, the same as him. As soon as we have the information, we sail.”

***

Eindride was overjoyed when I informed him that I would rule at his side as a queen. “No one suspects anything,” I told him. “Seva still thinks she’s leading the expedition.”

“I do feel bad for her,” he said. “She is very kind, very gentle. But she could never be my queen.”

The next day we received word that the storm priests had accepted his suggestion. We spent the day locked away in the temple, discussing troop movements and maps. I committed them to memory as well as I could. Once the discussions had concluded for the day, I deflected Eindride’s amorous advances by asking him even more questions: “How will we rule? How will we ensure the storm priests don’t betray us?”

And he tried to answer, though in truth his plan past ‘raise an army’ had a few flaws. For propriety’s sake, I told him, we would need to sleep in separate beds. “Seva is shrewd, and she can’t be allowed to suspect.” So, whenever he went to sleep, I would stay up in my room and write down everything I could remember, and slip it under Seva’s door. Before Heaven had waxed full, she had all the information she needed to set sail, and Taran had provided her with a ship and crew.

I couldn’t afford to see the ship off—the charade needed to remain at least until she was far enough away that no pursuit could follow. So we met in quiet a few hours before, and embraced and promised that we would see each other again as soon as we could.

“I don’t know what I’ll do without you,” I said.

“You’re strong. Taran respects you. The people respect you.”

“I hope that’s enough.”

“It will be. You’ll surprise us all.” I imagined I could just see the sail of her ship vanishing over the horizon, bound for empty skies, but I knew that thought for the wishful thinking it was.

I endured two more nightspans of secret planning and speculation before I slipped off to see the Constable. I detailed everything I had learned about Eindride and the priests. “I’d like Eindride arrested and brought to trial before the wizard,” I said. “I believe the right of high justice is still his?”

He didn’t argue or question me in the slightest, just said, “Yes, Mistress Yvona,” and set off. Within the hour Eindride was brought before me in chains, his eyes full of hate at his betrayal. An hour after that, the storm priests came calling. They’d sent the huge one—Golven, he was called—and a number of others. They looked eager for a fight.

“Constable. By order of the High Priest,” said Golven, “you are to release Eindride from his chains, and deliver this woman over to us for questioning.”

That was it, then. It had been a foolish plan, but without Eindride—“I’m sorry, your reverence, but I can’t do that.” The Constable stepped forward, hand on his weapon.

“You’re standing in Heaven’s way, Constable. For what? A marital spat?” He slapped me across the face. I cried out and fell to the floor. “The bitch is less than nothing.”

The constable and his men drew their weapons. “I’m going to have to ask you to wait here while we send for the wizard, your reverence.” He nodded at the others. “The rest of you may leave.”

Several moments passed before Golven nodded, almost imperceptibly, and the rest of the priests withdrew. Golven was chained up and locked in the dungeon like a common criminal.

Taran arrived shortly thereafter, followed shortly by the high priest. “Wizard!” the priest hissed. “It is time you end this charade. This woman—and this man, too—have both sinned and—”

“I’m not sure there Is a charade. I do know that your friend here struck Yvona, and she’s a good friend of mine. I think she deserves an apology. Don’t you, Constable?”

The constable merely shrugged. The priest folded his arms and said,“Order him released, and I’m certain he will say he’s sorry. Will that satisfy you?”

“Well, this is all very curious. I’d very much like to hear from everyone before I make any decisions.” Taran elbowed the constable gently in the ribs. “It’s about time you brought me something interesting!”

The high priest rolled his eyes. “Very well. If you would send for Golven—”

“No.” Everyone fell silent, and it took me a moment to realize that it was my voice that had spoken. I continued, “Golven has committed an act of violence against me, which, by common law, demands that he be punished as a violent criminal.”

A smirk crept across the high priest’s face. “Ah, but as a priest, Golven stands above the common law.”

Taran smiled brightly. “Priests are called to be peaceful, aren’t they? I’m certain there are oaths. I learned them once, in the hopes of coming to understand how boring you lot are.”

“Yes, very well,” said the priest. “I will see that Golven is . . . suitably punished.”

“Not good enough. I want him defrocked,” I said.

We locked eyes for a moment. It was the priest who backed down first. “Very well,” he said. “Are you satisfied? Will you release Eindride to us?”

Taran shrugged. “I certainly am! This is the most excitement I’ve had in days. As for Eindride, I don’t see why we can’t have a little chat.”

“I am not satisfied,” I said. “How much do you trust my sister’s judgment, Master Taran?”

“Oh, implicitly!” He leaned in close. “She’s the only one who will tell me if the aurora isn’t up to my usual standards, you know.”

“You know that she has set sail to prevent Eindride from starting a war. Are you going to undermine her?”

“I suppose that would make us both look a bit silly, wouldn’t it?” He shrugged. “Sorry, Your Priestship. My hands are tied.”

The high priest narrowed his eyes. “No matter. We can sail without him. But I will not forget this insult. You will both be judged.”

With that, they departed. The constable clapped me on the shoulder and smiled, and Taran settled down into a seat. “That went well, I thought.”

“Did you . . . order the constable to listen to me?”

He gave me a blank expression. “Why would I do that?”

“I just thought—I mean, he arrested Eindride, and stood up to the priests for me, and—”

“He did, didn’t he? You did very well. A credit to your family.”

“So this was a test? You would have—”

“Everything is a test, Yvona. Some things more than others.” He patted me on the head absently. “This wasn’t one of the deliberate tests, if it helps.”

And he left, too, leaving me to wonder what had just happened.

Word of my exchange with the high priest spread quickly. Some of the nearby villagers stopped by my cottage just to check up on me, and one or two said they’d help keep an eye on the place. Rumor of the invasion spread, too. Not everyone seemed to mind, of course, but those that did raised as much hell as they could. When the priests finally launched, it was a cycle late, with less than half the ships they’d planned for.

Somewhere out there, Seva was watching strange constellations drift through an open sky, trying to warn an alien people of an invasion. It would be several cycles, if the maps were to be believed, before she’d even know that she was right about me once again.