The nettle soup tasted almost medicinal, but that didn't help to soothe away its burn as Ada's spoon scalded her tongue.
"So it's true, then. You're human." Florentin spoke softly through the rising steam.
Ada simply nodded in reply and blew across her bowl of soup. The longer she had spent at their small dining table, the closer she had studied Min and her father. They both had the lithe muscles and sharp features that Ada had noticed before in the city folk, with the man's cheeks carving down from his subtly pointed ears. He was unlike Min, whose appearance was more difficult to deconstruct and would have probably fit in amongst any other group of children running around the fountain in Little Crestbury. But her tangled hair drew attention to her thin face, and the delicate slope of her jaw met acutely at the tip of her chin.
"No one would've noticed, Papa. The Hound in the street didn't look closely, and I veiled her from Ms Armestrong," said Min.
"You saw Armestrong this morning?"
Min nodded. "She gave me the powder as always, and didn't notice the magic at all."
"It was too risky to perform such things in the marketplace," her father said, his spoon clattering down as he rubbed calloused palms into his eye sockets. "Casting Veils will tire you too quickly."
"No, it didn't! In fact, it felt wonderful to finally Cast something. I've got to let it out somehow, Papa! I can feel it bursting from my skin every second."
There was a lull in the conversation, and Ada's curiosity got the better of her unease. "What's a Veil?"
"It's a magic I can do!" said Min with a grin, although she lowered her voice as she continued to speak. "I was born able to do it, like listening to the wind, even though magic's not very common anymore. I'm not supposed to Cast anything, 'least not outside of our caravan. The Hounds are meant to be able to sense it, but they don't seem to be very good at their jobs."
"You're tempting fate, Min," her father cut in. "You say that now but what about this morning? If Hounds are following you through the streets, then what're we to do?"
"They've been suspicious of the plants for weeks, Papa. But after we move to the Este Lyceum we won't have to go down to the canal to collect the flowers anymore. They won't think to follow us further."
Florentin didn't look convinced, and his face had a waxy pallor as he picked up his spoon to draw circles in his soup.
"Your plants are magic?" Ada couldn't help but ask again.
"No, not the plants," said Min. "Not when we collect them, at least."
Her father shot her a deathly glance, his eyes dark against his ashen skin.
"It's said that every plant in the old city used to be grown with magic, every single one imbued with a power that our days no longer know," Min continued, as if reciting a passage from a book. "Papa won't tell me much of the old city, but I've heard stories. Florentin the Floristeur they used to call him, because Papa could grow any plant you asked for, magical or not. He would roam the lands with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing, a few coins, and a packet of seeds. Once settled he would grow them, sell them, and then use the money to buy more seeds, never the same as the ones he'd grown before. But after he met my mama he stayed in Wysthaven with her, choosing a life of love over constant journeying."
"That's enough," snapped her father. But at the sight of her fallen face, his voice mellowed and he cast his eyes to the shadows. "You could stay in one city your entire life and still have cause for a journey. You know that better than anyone, Min."
Ada thought that Florentin didn't seem to suit his name. It was too stately for the man that was slouched over in the stool opposite her. Steam rose between them, curling the chapped skin across his temples.
"You hide your magic. There are people who stalk the city to report your powers. And there's a lady in a tower who can punish people as she sees fit. Forgive me for asking, but why do you choose to live in this place?" Ada asked.
Florentin let out a snort, surprising Ada as he pushed his bowl aside.
"You said you came into this city. Why don't you tell us?"
The vision of shrivelled trees and an arch of bone loomed into the forefront of Ada's mind. But while they had seemed ominous, they hadn't been all too dangerous. Although, perhaps it would have been better if they had protested Ada's descent into the valley, for Wysthaven hadn't been the most welcoming city. But then the image of the man within the trees slipped from the shadows of her mind, his spectral stare making her fumble for her spoon.
Min was gazing over at her, no longer eating her soup as she lost patience with Ada's silence.
"No one could ever survive out there," she said. "Even if you stood at the very top of the tower and looked out of the valley and over the Wystwood, the trees'd run past the horizon. You'd get lost in the forest since there's no magic to guide your way anymore. You'd die out there... Not to mention if the Hounds caught you trying to escape the city, you'd be given an iron necklace before you could even plead for mercy."
Ada shivered, deciding she didn't want to know the meaning of an iron necklace. But confusion still weighed heavily on her mind, because if nobody survived beyond the city, then how had there been a man within the forest?
She watched Min go back to her soup, the young girl winding her fingers around her bowl and lifting it to her lips. With eyes closed, she breathed in the earthy scents of stewed nettles and garlic, before beginning to drink. Her father watched her too, but his mouth had sagged into a frown and the corners of his eyes were etched with lines.
Min had almost finished, when Florentin said, "Armestrong's Fair Powder, do you have it on you?"
Min patted her smock's pocket.
"Take it now."
"Papa!" she gasped. Min tried to meet Florentin's eyes, but he looked away.
"For tonight. For me." His spoon rattled against the bowl. But Min's mouth was drawn in a firm line, and she didn't move.
"Please, Minvelle!" he cried.
Min's stool scraped across the floorboards as she shoved it away. She dug a fist into her pocket and drew out the canvas pouch, which bulged between her fingers as if about to burst. But then her scowl twisted, and the pouch's string snapped as she jerked it open.
"Fine." Min tipped the contents of the bag into her remaining soup. At first, Ada thought it had been a bagful of ashes. Dull and grey, the powder fell heavily into the bowl and dissolved only somewhat amongst the nettles. But when the candlelight caught the fine swirls of powder, it shimmered a pale silver.
Without stirring the powder in, Min lifted the bowl to her mouth and swallowed the soup in one go. Immediately, her eyes welled with tears, and she stifled a moan in the back of her throat. But Min kept her stare locked with her father's. She trembled for a moment, chest heaving, then turned her back to the kitchen and rushed to an unlit corner of the caravan. Ada heard the flutter of a blanket and a loud sniff, then silence.
Florentin sighed. He stared into the dark corner, but didn't call for his daughter to return. He didn't even acknowledge Ada until he finally stood from the table and began to shuffle away. "You can sleep by the door, if you wish it."
He walked wearily towards Min's corner. Ada heard him blow out the candles as he went, one by one, and soon she was left in only her own meagre circle of light. The evening had come to a sudden end, and Ada didn't feel too hungry any longer.
She pulled off her boots so that her footfalls would be silent, and wondered if she should clean up the soup bowls as thanks for the meal. But Ada couldn't see a sink built into the tight kitchen and instead turned back to the table. Picking up the only remaining candle, she padded towards the door.
A couch with no legs and threadbare upholstery was propped up by the wall. A lumpy pillow was discarded by one of the arms, but there was no blanket in sight. Setting down her candle and boots, Ada felt around on the floor for her folded cloak. Shaking it out, she lay down on the couch and tried to spread the velvet across her. Eventually settling for cold toes, she leant down and blew out her candle.
A drop of wax fell to the floor before all light was extinguished, and the darkness hit Ada like a tide dragging her out to sea. She shifted onto her side, deciding that it was unlikely the couch would have even fit Jack. Closing her eyes, Ada thought of her family, so very far away. She distantly hoped they may be able to meet within a dream.
By the cold veil of night, in the fae city of Wysthaven, Adalyn Kavanagh buried her face in her cloak and began to softly weep.