“Why do we bother wasting so much time worrying about the weather,” Senara asked, twirling a pen about her fingers. Her long, light brown hair loose and draping around her face, shading it from the torchlight. “Today, sun. Tomorrow, rain. Would the empire collapse if it had to figure out when to plant root crops for itself?”
“The seasons do change each year,” Tahnner pointed out, not looking up from the papers he was busy inscribing with his morning report.
“Doesn’t mean they’re not predictable.”
“First you tell me Pelston has nothing new to teach you, now you’re calling the Threads predictable. Next you’ll inform me you no longer require Rising or Setting to see them,” Tahnner smirked down at the papers, checking over what he had written about the snowstorms he had seen coming to the north on the twelfth day of Hibernal. “When do you desire we commence worshiping you, oh great and powerful Thread reader?”
Senara huffed and crumpled up a sheet of paper. The crunching sound alerted Tahnner to the need to duck a moment before the ball hurtled at his head.
“Threads are the same for beggars and kings alike,” she grumbled. “Not my fault no-one else seems to know how to use them. What’s that word you call them again?”
“Pervasive? Infallible? Exhaustive?”
“Maybe… anyway, it’s people reading them that get them wrong.”
“Yes…” Tahnner said, drawing the word out as he re-dipped his pen in the ink pot, trying to compose his argument. It was always difficult to win an argument against Senara’s logic. To her, the world was either one way or another, a Thread came true or it didn’t. Everything else was insignificant. “They aren’t as predictable as you’re suggesting though.”
“For you anyway. My time could be a lot better spent. Setting take it,” she cursed. Tahnner glanced up to find her pouting as her pen clattered across the floor. She glowered at the pen then her stool scraped across the stones as she stood to retrieve it.
Tahnner chuckled, returning his attention to the report he had been labouring over for half the morning. In the six years he had been at Pelston, Senara’s confidence in her own ability to navigate the Threads had only burgeoned, a feat he would have once considered impossible. Now though, he often had the impression that Pelston was fast becoming a shackle to her, blistering more every day.
“You should be careful what you wish for, not even you know what all the Threads can have in store.”
Tahnner spun on his stool at the sound of Haret’s voice. The older raveller stood in the doorway, a humourless smile twisting the corner of his mouth.
“The dispatch orders have arrived.”
Senara’s gaze met Tahnner’s, a slight frown forming in the centre of her brow. They had watched the orders come in twice a year, filled with instructions for where the newest fully-trained ravellers were to be dispersed across Ilyia, to Thread Courts in all major towns and cities. Ravellers trained in Pelston supplied half the empire. As a future raveller for the king though, he had always known he was destined for Girona. If not for Senara, he never would have cared about the dispatches. Her future was the only one which still hung in the balance.
They had known the dispatches were due soon, the threat suspended over them for the last few weeks, souring both of their moods. Senara had kept threatening to disregard her orders in order to search out the Threads of whoever was supposed to be delivering the decision from Girona.
“Where?” Senara asked, the usual mixture of mockery and merriment which lilted her tone was gone and, although she tried to hide it, he could hear the quaver in her voice.
Say Girona. Please say Girona. He stared at Haret, willing the older raveller to speak the words he longed to hear. He would give anything for her to be sent there with him. He needed no Threads to know the chances he would ever see her again if she was sent elsewhere, were small at the least.
“North, to the Daenan frontline.”
Haret’s words were like a stone hitting water, distorting everything around them, knocking Tahnner’s world off kilter as everything changed in great looming swells.
“The Council has decreed a contingent of ravellers should assist the army. They’re hoping it will speed the war up. I’m sorry, Senara.”
She stood unmoving, as if the mere mention of the northern frontier had been enough to freeze her to her bones. Even if half the reports of the war were exaggerated, then it still sounded like a miserable place, littered with seized villages, ruined fields and seasons so cold that hibernation seemed the only way to survive them. If the war didn’t kill her, then the cold would.
Senara said nothing. She just stared at the ground with eyes too distant to see anything. He wished she would do something, anything. Rail against it. Beg Haret to change the orders. Someone else should be sent in her stead. She didn’t belong with the army, she should be in Girona, with him.
“What-” Senara began, but her voice was so hoarse that she had to stop and clear her throat before continuing, “What about Fedan?”
Tahnner choked at the question. Fedan. The boy had been as good as a stranger to her for the last six years, yet still he was all she cared about. Even now, when their every plan had been destroyed, she was still worrying about him.
Torchlight shimmered in her eyes as she stared at Haret, beseeching him to give her that one thing. The ache in Tahnner’s chest threatened to burst something vital as he watched her. Her tears were from her fear of losing Fedan, rather than the certainty she would be separated from him. It broke something inside him, something he couldn’t name and hadn’t noticed growing over the years, but that was now so much a part of him that he doubted he could live without it.
A crunching sound alerted him to the papers he still clasped in his hand. The records he had laboured over for so long, were now beyond useless, all scrunched and smeared with ink.
“Girona,” Haret said, ignoring the work Tahnner had destroyed, “to join the Thread Court-”
“Him?” Tahnner scoffed, his voice ringing through the windowless chamber louder than he had intended it to. “Fedan’s a second rate raveller at best and you know it. He-”
“-isn’t your concern,” Haret’s voice was filled with a steel he rarely showed as he scowled at Tahnner.
“But he doesn’t deserve it! Only the best get sent to Girona’s Thread Court. Fedan’s not good enough for some backwater town, let alone the capital! Senara is the best, Fedan should be the one sent to the war instead of her-”
“It’s not my decision to make.” The older raveller’s voice was back to the world weary tone Tahnner was so used to hearing from him, resigned to everything.
The need to argue the point surged through him, but Haret held up his hand, silencing him. “No,” he said, “I will hear no more on this because there is nothing I can do to change it, if I could, then don’t you think I would do something about my own orders to be sent with her?”
His words echoed until they were consumed by papers and stone. Silence fell in the wake of his pronouncement as all arguments fled from Tahnner’s mind. In all the time he had been in Pelston, he had never known dispatch orders to arrive for any but the newly trained ravellers. Whatever Haret’s past crimes, it seemed that those ravellers in Girona that controlled the rest of the guild, were not finished punishing him yet.
“It’s because Fedan’s a Draeman, isn’t it? That’s why he’s not being sent north like you two,” Tahnner shot the accusation at Haret even though he knew the raveller was blameless. “His family influenced the decision, didn’t they? Senara has no-one, so they don’t mind sending her to the heart of a war. The whole system is-”
“Then do something about it, Tahnner!” Haret’s voice cut through the air like a crack of a whip. The rest of Tahnner’s righteous fury died on his lips as he gawked at the normally solemn raveller. “Fedan isn’t the only one with familial influence working for him.” The words stung despite the calm way they were uttered. “You forget who it is you’ll serve and who it was that got you there. So instead of whining, why don’t you try doing something about it? Now pack your things. I’ve had enough of discussing what cannot be changed. We leave tomorrow.”
He strode from the room, his footstep fading away as he disappeared from view. A hot flush crept up Tahnner’s cheeks as he stared at the floor, unwilling to meet Senara’s eyes for fear of what he might see there.
“I’m sorry,” he said, addressing his feet. “I didn’t mean-”
“It’s fine,” she said, swiping at her eyes before following Haret from the room. “I have to go.”
He hurried after her, leaving his crumpled, half-written report scrunched up on the table. He chased her down a flight of stairs. She was almost inside the girl’s dormitory when he caught up with her. When she stopped at the entrance, he sighed with relief. He had no desire to spend his last night in Pelston cleaning out the privy for being caught in the girl’s chamber.
“I’m fine, Tahnner. Don’t worry about me.”
“I know that.” He shot her a weak smile. “The war will be over in no time with you there to help. It’s me I’m worried about, I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
A small smile flicked across her face, but it soon vanished. Was she thinking of Fedan again? The thought tore through Tahnner and he wanted to shake her, to wake her from whatever hold the other raveller held over her.
“I’m going to help destroy the country you were born in, doesn’t that bother you?”
It was a mark of how little Tahnner had considered Daena over the last six years that the thought had not crossed his mind. He had been young when his house had joined the Ilyian Empire. Most days he forgot that he had ever once been Daenan. Now though, he resented it, thinking of it only as the place responsible for Senara’s being stolen from him.
“You know I’ve not considered myself Daenan for years,” he said, raking his hair from where it had fallen in front of his eyes when he chased her down the stairs.
Senara pursed her lips, staring at him with the same intensity she always had whenever she was wishing the Threads were visible more than twice a day. “Did you ever asked your father why he abandoned his country?”
“Why do you care so much?” Tahnner asked, hurt by the accusation in her question. “It’s not as if Daena’s ever had much hope of surviving. It was doomed long before my father changed our allegiances. You’ve seen the old maps upstairs. The country was already a fraction of what it once was before Turro joined Ilyian. My father did what he had to do to save his people.”
“I didn’t know your father could read the Threads?” Senara’s calm, outward appearance belied the sharp edge to her voice. “Good at predicting the future is he?”
“I only meant that it’s inevitable-”
“Then you’re a fool who should try examining his own Threads once in awhile.”
“What?” Tahnner asked, taken aback. “You’ve read my Threads?”
He was unsure if the prospect alarmed him or not.There was little he kept secret from Senara, but the thought was still unsettling nonetheless. It was considered the height of ill-manners to delve into the Threads of another raveller without their permission.
“You’ve never read mine?” she asked, her eyebrows raised in a disbelieving arch.
“No!” Not directly at any rate. Although he had treasured all the times he had found her in Fedan’s accidentally, whenever he had been searching for evidence of House Draeman’s misdeeds.
Her lips twisted in a rueful smile. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. Your father’s decisions aren’t yours. I’m just angry that I’m not going to Girona.”
“I hate this,” Tahnner said, trying to memorise every freckle scattered across her nose and cheeks. They had faded somewhat over the years, but they still made him want to trace them with his fingertip every time he saw them, carving the pattern into his memory. “When I reach Girona, I’ll convince them to bring you there too. I’ll have the ear of the king. I’ll be able to ensure they bring you back from the war. It’s so far away from here that you probably won’t even have reached the frontlines before the order arrives.”
Senara attempted a smile, but it lacked her usual levity. She brushed back an errant lock of hair from his face, a sadness marring the same gesture she had made countless times over the years.
He wanted to lean into the tender warmth of her palm, to reach out his hand and feel the soft silk of her hair as he ran it through his fingers. He wanted to meld their lips together in a kiss that would show her everything he had been unable to tell her for six years.
He did nothing though. How could he? He already knew she didn’t feel the same way, at least not for him.
Senara’s fingers stilled in his hair and he shifted, uncomfortable with the intensity of her stare. He was about to back away when her hand dropped and she spun, racing into the girl’s chamber, calling out for him to wait there. When she returned, she grasped a small knife in her hand, so old and rusted that he wondered if she kept it as a keepsake since the blade wasn’t sharp enough to cut anything other than air.
Before he managed any more than a shout of protest though, Senara had raised the knife and began hacking at a lock of his hair, the motion jerking and painful, so much so that he felt certain she was wrenching more strands from his head than she was severing. When she was finished, she did the same to her own, grimacing with every catch of the blade against her hair.
“Senara… what are you doing?”
The thought that perhaps she wanted something to remember him by caused his heart leap in his chest. Sentimentality though, had never been something Senara had mastered. He supposed it had something to do with her having grown up alone, living in too desperate need of practicalities such as food and clothes to have anything to get sentimental about.
“It’s for the Threads,” she muttered, examining the severed locks.
“Well I’m certain they’ll appreciate the sacrificial offering of my hair…” Tahnner said, feeling at the damage. The strands stuck out even worse than the rest of his untidy mop. He could well imagine his mother’s opinion on his perpetual state of disarray. The thought of her made him sad. He had heard from her less than a dozen times since arriving in Pelston, but he hoped he would have the opportunity to see her again in Girona soon though.
“I’m not going to burn it,” Senara said, waving the lock of her own hair in front of his face. “This way, if you’ve got something that belonged to me then you’ll be able to check I’m alright and everything.” She held out the lock of her hair, but pulled it back before his fingers could close about it. “You have to promise you won’t abuse it though. I don’t want you searching through my Threads where you’ve got no business looking.”
She held out the lock again, as if she were honouring him with a great privilege. Tahnner could only stare at it though, feeling as confused as he had been the day when Haret had first told him to read the Threads.
Senara let out an exasperated sigh then explained, “Keep it with you. If you lock it away in something dark. If you only get it out to use it then it’ll be easier to find my Threads than following your own back. Use it to Thread jump to mine. Whenever something happens and I want to share it with you, I’ll send you some new strands. You can trace them back and that way you’ll sort of be there with me, whatever happens.”
Something inside him tore open as pain spilled out, seeping into every part of him. He imagined not seeing her each day, not laughing at her jokes or teasing her about the way she hummed out of tune.
“I’m going to go bald,” he said, holding the hair as if it was worth more than all of Turro. “There’s going to be so much I’ll want to share with you.”
The next day after Rising, Tahnner, Fedan and a boy who was being dispatched to the Thread Court in Eanadir, dragged their trunks down to where Senara and Haret already waited outside the guild. Since each of their records of indenture would need updating by the guild keepers, all of them were bound for Girona first, before being sent on to their separate locations. It meant adding a couple of extra days of travel to Senara and Haret’s journey, but Tahnner was grateful. He was far from ready to say goodbye.
He sat beside Senara in the carriage, Haret on his other side. Neither said much, both choosing to stare out of the window. Memories of the journey to Pelston six years ago sprung to his mind as they began the long, winding descent. That carriage had been a lot more comfortable than the perfunctory one they were in now, which jarred as the wheels hit every rock on the road’s surface. His emotions too were nothing like they had been on that last journey. He was not afraid as he had been back then.
No-one spoke, so the company proved as solitary as the journey had been with his father. Senara stared out the window, but Tahnner knew she was blind to everything they passed. When her calloused fingers reached out and grasped his, his heart lurched in his chest. He gave them a reassuring squeeze, noticing the way Fedan’s eyes fixed on where Senara’s hand joined with Tahnner’s. As if he felt Tahnner’s gaze upon him, Fedan met his stare before his eyes swept across to watch Senara, his expression unreadable. Tahnner squeezed her hand tighter, reassuring himself he had not already lost her to the other side of the empire.
The dry estervan heat made the journey uncomfortable. He was almost relieved when Girona appeared in the distance, looking like a small mound of gold as sunlight reflected off the various gilded objects ornamenting the city. The outer wall loomed over them when they reached the entrance, the towering doors just as daunting as he remembered their being.
He wished it had been hibernal, full of short days and early Settings. Had they made the journey during in the darker seasons then Setting would have occurred whilst they were still on the road. As it was though, the sun hovered some distance above the western horizon as they queued in the heat, awaiting entrance into the capital.
Every Setting since he had joined the ravellers, someone had dictated what his goal would be from each reading. Find out where the stone originated from. Watch the western horizon for wrogen. When will be the best time to plant root and leaf crops? Had Setting passed during the journey from Pelston, then he might have used the Threads in whatever manner he desired. One final bout of freedom before control over his readings was handed to the king. He could have sifted through Senara’s futures, trying to learn of anything which might help her in the north, even if the chance of it coming true was almost negligible. He might have searched for his family’s Threads. He both longed to see his mother again and feared how much she might have changed in six years. He had been so afraid he was forgetting what she looked like, that on a day the ravellers had predicted the weather too unstable for Thread reading, he had tried to follow his own Threads back, searching out his mother’s. He had been too afraid of losing his mind to linger long enough to find her in them though.
When they made it to the front of the queue, the carriage was inspected by the city guards. Having spent so long in Pelston, he had almost forgotten how the rest of the empire viewed ravellers, one look at the guard’s face though as he noticed the black robes of the carriage’s occupants, was enough to bring back memories of every superstitious nonsense he had ever been told.
Haret handed over their papers and instructed them to show their guild marks to the guards. They had barely tugged down the left shoulder of their robes before the guard was waving them through.
The noisy essence of the capital hit them the instant they passed through the thick gates, every sound amplified as it echoed off the low arches sheltering the walkways of the lower quarters. People shouted to the guards, telling them to hurry up with the checks so they could get out of the city before nightfall. Others swarmed around the queued folk, trying to sell them everything from cups of water to silks for shading themselves from the burn of the estervan sun. The chaos of it all made Tahnner wish he were back in Pelston, with its quiet calm and unadorned beauty.
As the carriage rolled up a winding road, through the streets to the heart of the city, he stared out the window at the houses stacked haphazardly on the outskirts. He wondered how he had never before noticed how the city was a monument to the Threads. Gold decorated the houses, worked into the designs with more accomplishment the further they journeyed into the wealthier districts.
They stopped at the guild keepers first, an ominous building carved directly into the rock face about halfway up the city. A keeper noticed their presence the instance they entered the building and they were soon engulfed in a flurry of activity. The indentured people the keepers had been attending to were abandoned as they saw to ravellers. Keepers updated their records and papers of indenture, requesting all the relevant information from them. Tahnner felt uncomfortable with the attention. The last time he had been so fussed over, he had been in Turro. The swarm of activity felt both familiar and strange to him, like old clothes which he had used to wear often, but now found no longer fit. He glanced over at Senara and was unsurprised to find her looking just as uncomfortable. He was all too glad when they were finished with the guild keepers and back in the carriage, away from the wide, staring eyes of the people of Girona.
The roads from the guild keepers to the upper levels were steeper than the climb from the lower districts. It was the Thread Court and not the Palace though which sat atop the city, watching over Girona with an unobstructed view of Rising and Setting, able to see down into the lives of all the citizens. Not even the rulers of an empire were greater than the Threads.
Tahnner had never forgotten the round, windowless tower of sandy brown stone that was Girona’s Thread Court, although he had expected it to appear less domineering to him now than it had back then.
The carriage drew to a stop outside the tower, but neither Tahnner nor Fedan moved. The Thread Court was the elitist institution the empire could boast, a place of justice and of learning, but all Tahnner could think about was that in eighteen years he had only ever managed to make one friend, one person who understood his uncontrollable curiosity, one person who felt the same. His excitement for entering into the Thread Court paled in comparison to the pain of losing her.
Senara had the mind of the boldest captain, hungry to explore what others couldn’t even contemplate the existence of. Where Tahnner abided by the rules, he doubted she even knew of their existence. He couldn’t bring himself to step out of the carriage, away from the world of boundless knowledge and unfettered curiosity which she inspired. She was like the Threads the first time he had seen them, blinding and all consuming. She dragged him into a world as full of wonders as it was terrors, but what would his life return to without her? He couldn’t go back to being the lonely boy his mother had locked away in windowless rooms every night.
He turned, needing to tell Senara how much her friendship was worth, of everything she meant to him, but when his gaze lifted to hers, he found Fedan and Senara staring at each other as if trying to sear the image of each other into their vision.
Tahnner shoved his way out of the carriage. Stepping out into the balmy city street, he tried to ignore the heavy feeling, the struggle as he left a crucial part of himself behind.
He had already retrieved both of their trunks by the time Fedan exited the carriage. The vehicle leapt into motion an instant later and he could hear the clatter of the wheels upon the uneven stones as he kept his eyes fixed on the Thread Court, unable to bear the sight of Senara disappearing from view. Beside him, Fedan stared after the carriage, his eyes transfixed long after it had trundled out of sight.
“We should go in,” Tahnner said, his voice clipped as he let the bitterness he felt pour into each word.
Fedan said nothing, still staring after the carriage.
“Suit yourself,” Tahnner muttered, setting off in the direction of the Thread Court. He stopped as he met with resistance and turned to find Fedan grasping his robes.
“It’s not as bad as they say, is it?” he asked, fixing Tahnner with pleading eyes. “Daena, I mean. I’ve heard… stories. My father told me-”
“Don’t pretend you’re worried about what will happen to her,” Tahnner snapped. “If you cared at all then you wouldn’t have ignored her for the last six years.”
He wanted to hit Fedan, wanted to cause him a fraction of the pain he had wrought in Tahnner over the years, a pain made all the worse by Fedan’s indifference. Senara would have given the ingrate everything. All he ever had to do was ask. Tahnner had received less from Senara in six years spent adoring her than Fedan had thrown away every single day in Pelston.
“I- I didn’t. I didn’t ignore her-”
“And I can see the Threads in moonlight,” Tahnner said, hefting his trunk up and climbing the steps to the Thread Court. He had always considered Fedan an idiot for not reciprocating the way Senara felt about him, but trying to argue it felt more pointless than debating theology with a raver.
“Setting isn’t far away.”
Fedan’s words reached him as he climbed the top step. He turned to find Fedan staring down the western slope of Girona to where a warm orange light crested the distant Crag Land mountains, bathing the rooftops of the houses of the lower levels.
“The Thread Court Ravellers might not be expecting us until later,” Fedan said, turning back to face Tahnner, his eyes filled with desperation. “We could tell them the carriage wheel broke, or that we had troubles getting into the city.”
Tahnner stared down at Fedan, at his hunger to glimpse whatever he could grasp of Senara’s future. He recognised it because the same need coursed through him, urging him to abandon his duties to the ravellers, to his family, to race down the hillside after her.
He could ignore his obligation to the ravellers. He might hide out somewhere in the city and await Setting, submerging himself in his desperate search for solace in Senara’s Threads, for whatever comfort he could find. If he did so though, then Fedan would do the same. Whether it was more due to disgust at the idea of letting Fedan loose upon Senara’s Threads or from his own unwillingness to do anything for a Draeman, he turned from Fedan and walked inside the Thread Court to announce their arrival, into the place that featured in the nightmares of so many Ilyians.