Two months before this catastrophe, Yena had been a Lesser Fate in good standing. Unbeknownst to her, she had been one of the most trusted of her kind, receiving some of the most important and most glamorous assignments from the Three. There was no way for her to know this—no ranking of the Lesser Fates, no list of their membership. Aside from the Three, no one even knew how many there were, and many of the Lessers lower down on the ladder didn’t even know there were others of their kind. But Yena knew that, at least. It had been the first sign of the Three’s trust in her when they gave her an assignment in partnership with another Lesser, a barrel-chested, unassuming man whose real name had never passed his beard-wreathed lips. Yena had taken his cue and kept her name secret as well, speaking to him only when it was absolutely necessary. They had worked together in an efficient and companionable silence for nearly half a year, working themselves seamlessly into the coldly elegant court of Late New York’s High Comptroller. Her bearded friend, with his stout country looks, played her man-at-arms, and she walked the careful line of a courtier, glittering and trading barbs just enough to charm the sophisticates that surrounded them, but not enough to dazzle. The one thing no Lesser wanted to be was memorable.
Most of their time together was spent in the passing of almost invisible signals, exchanged in an eye blink when they could pass each other under the guise of coincidence. It was a comparatively simple project, and a surprisingly pleasant one, the kind that Yena preferred. The rise of a certain callous and potentially insane young cousin to the Comptroller was to be thwarted, clearing the way—unbeknownst to her—for his younger sister, a clear-eyed girl who already showed significant promise. Even if they’d been prone to idle chit-chat, Yena never would have admitted her preference for happy endings to her hirsute co-worker. It was part of their job description to enact the will of the Three without personal judgment; it was, frankly, the only road to sanity. But still, there was something quite satisfying about leaving behind rising towers instead of smoldering ruins.
Five months and change was all it took to see their task well and truly done, and Yena was lounging in the courtyard of her apartment when the message came. From the outside, nothing had changed. There was still a tall, lanky woman draped diagonally across an elegantly gleaming chair, her silk robe falling in crisp lines to the marble floor. Only the faintest furrow between her eyebrows gave away the growing, nameless need that was building inside her to take out her scroll and open it. Nothing was glowing; there was no ringing or humming or anything so cheap or obvious. Her fingers simply itched to touch it and see it, compelled by a curiosity that came from outside her mind.
She tried ignoring it for a while, though she knew that she had only a few minutes before it became unbearable. The rill of water around the bounds of the court had been giving her idyllic fantasies of a few days of rest—but now the tug was becoming insistent, almost a physical pain, a gripping contraction that started in her chest and crushed her entire abdomen until, finally, breathless, she shoved her hand into her pocket, pulled out the scroll, and flipped it open with an impatient gesture.
Opaque black-brown eyes skittered back and forth over the small parchment, froze, and then danced over it again. A thin, wheezing sigh whistled out of her nostrils, and she slowly rolled it up once more, her heart calm but hard and heavy. It appeared that the Fates saw fit to outweigh her good deeds with evil.
A curious peddler came to the unfortunately named town of Dokshitz from the wet and rocky Northwest road, shoving an overfull cart with cracked wooden wheels along the roots and stones until she limped into the town square. She was promptly greeted by a crowd of children and several of the men who deemed themselves the town’s patrician class, absurdly somber and upright amidst the fearless questions of a dozen half-feral girls and boys. With her burnt sienna skin and her men’s clothes, the peddler was like nothing they’d ever seen before, but the two groups reacted in completely different ways. The children were delighted, engrossed, and utterly blunt. They demanded to know why her face was so dark, why she was wearing such ugly clothes, whether or not she was on the road alone because she was cursed (or, alternately, a witch), and anything else they could come up with.
The patricians watched her silently for a time, fenced in by their black wool coats. These patricians considered their minutest movements to be of the utmost importance, so long as they were in the public eye. (Their private movements were important only if they were admirable.) Their silence was carefully weighed, and came burdened down with intention, designed to express both the resolve to appear polite and their immediate disapproval. When the peddler did not appear to be cowed by this, the eldest and most crooked of them spoke up.
“Peace be unto you, stranger. And what sort of goods are you bringing to our town?”
“And also unto you,” she responded easily. “Nothing that would interest gentlemen of your quality. Trinkets and gewgaws for children and ladies, liniments and ointments, pastilles, comestibles, and a few invigorating beverages of my own devising.”
The end of her list produced some excitable wheezing and bristling of eyebrows among the gentlemen gathered there.
“Hem, these beverages would not be of an intoxicating nature, I hope and pray?”
An avaricious gleam sparkled in the speaker’s eyes, and Yena saw it flicker into those of his companions.
“Not in the least, honorable sirs. I would never dream of bringing mead, wine, or spirits into your virtuous town, and certainly not five or six casks of hard liquor. I am very aware of the consequences.”
There was a great deal of solemn nodding, and the children, bored, began to trickle away.
“As it should be. You must know, even in whatever town you come from, that we are bound, though it grieves us, to confiscate any such wares promptly.”
Another voice, a sweet young spring rippling through the old men’s thorny scrubs, interrupted their exchange.
“I’m sure she’ll let you choose exactly which bottles to confiscate, Avram.”
Feigned disapproval changed to ferocious indignation at the girl who bustled up to the cart, and Yena found herself smiling at a young woman who managed to glow despite her plain gray dress. The girl began talking again before she could be interrupted.
“I’m Hazel. I’ll take you somewhere you can unpack and get those cleaned off,” she said, pointing to Yena’s boots, which were indeed crusted in several layers of mud, some of it still dripping.
“Hazel, this is entirely—“
“That would be wonderful, Hazel,” said the black-haired peddler. She turned to give a small bow to the patricians, who now huddled and clucked together. “Your townspeople are both gracious and considerate, and I thank you.”
“God be with you,” muttered their leader, and it sounded rather like an insult. Yena smiled and nodded.
“And also with you.”
Hazel’s resting place turned out to be the stables behind the village’s only inn. Half the stalls were empty, and the rest were occupied with lazy-eyed, swaybacked veterans of the cart and plow, most of whom hardly looked up at the newcomers before placidly dropping their heads to the fly-sprinkled hay.
“Do you make antagonizing your betters a habit?” Yena asked mildly as she swung her pack to the ground. If she’d expected Hazel to strike back, she was disappointed. The girl just smiled, a true smile without a hint of hardness, and her dark eyes were velvety plums above her dimples.
“I think they like it,” she said, in a tone that suggested she believed herself. She wiggled down into a more comfortable position on the door of the empty stall behind her, and then began fishing around in one of her many apron pockets. “They know I don’t mean any real harm, and it’s good for them to feel like they do something important.” Yena allowed herself a proper grin, her white, straight teeth showing sharp against her chapped lips. Hazel drew out a paper package, unwrapping it to reveal a dense square of honey cake. She broke off a piece, and when Yena finished wiping her hands off on her pants, placed it in her open palm, moist and crumbling. Yena tossed the entire chunk into her mouth, swallowing half before asking:
“Don’t you want to know my name?”