Snow crunched beneath Seraiah’s boots as she raced through the streets. Her breath puffed out in little clouds in front of her. One hand clutched her cloak close, her exposed fingers stiff with cold, while the other was buried in the folds of her skirts. In her rush to leave the house, she’d forgotten to grab her gloves.
If she hurried, she might still make it on time.
She wouldn’t have had to worry about being late if she hadn’t overslept. Sterling should have woken her, but her sister had thought she was doing Seraiah a kindness by letting her sleep. She wouldn’t feel that way when Seraiah lost her job, and they could no longer afford to eat.
The threat of starvation spurred her onward.
The castle walls loomed ahead, but she was still so far away. Seraiah bit her lip as she came to an intersection. If she took a shortcut down Cedar street and cut between the houses to reach Aspen, she could save herself a few minutes and not have to run.
Normally, she avoided Aspen because it was a direct shot to the castle and therefore the busiest street. However, at this time of morning, most of the city of Ratha still slept. If she was lucky, she might get ahead of the crowds.
She hesitated one more moment, before making up her mind and turning down Cedar, praying to the gods she wasn’t making a mistake.
When she emerged from between the houses, she was pleased to find her prayers had been answered, and the street was empty.
Seraiah slowed to a walk to catch her breath and switched her frozen hand with the one beneath her cloak. A quick check of the sun confirmed she now had plenty of time to make it to the castle, and could keep her much slower pace.
A short distance down the street, however, she realized why it had appeared so empty. It wasn’t that there were no people, but rather they had gathered in front of the Grumbling Bear Inn. Many in the crowd were dressed as though they had been off to work, and some even held the reins of mules with carts attached.
Seraiah eyed the building that was less inn these days and more tavern. The front doors were shut tight against the cold, and no one stood on the raised stoop.
What could have made them stop?
As Seraiah drew closer, snatches of conversation resolved from a gentle hum into words she could understand. The whispers all had one thing in common: strangers.
Unconsciously, her steps slowed.
Strangers were a rarity in Ratha since snow had blocked the mountain pass. Anyone wishing to reach the city would have to do so via the dense woods that bordered the western side.
Curiosity pricked at her. Likely, it was a trader who’d come for the market and that’s why so many were interested.
But what if it’s not, a voice that sounded suspiciously like her sister’s whispered in her head.
Seraiah checked the position of the sun. The shortcut had bought her enough time that she could wait and see. It wasn’t the smart thing to do, but she knew Sterling would want her to look. Her sister lived for a good story, and this had the potential to be the best kind.
A few moments and then I’m off, Seraiah told herself. I can’t risk any more than that.
She squeezed in next to a man holding a particularly pungent cart—something pickled must be in the barrels—and stood on her toes, trying to get a peek over the heads in front of her.
“Nothing to see yet,” the smelly cart man said. “They’re still inside.”
Seraiah dropped back on her heels. “They?”
The man nodded. “A pair of ‘em. Arrived late last night. Heard about it from a neighbor who heard from a friend who knows the kid who sweeps the floors.”
“Are they traders? Is that why everyone is waiting out here?” If she ran out of time, Sterling might have to settle for any second hand information Seraiah could glean.
The man shrugged. “Have to be a paying customer to go inside. Don’t know much more than that. Have to wait and see with the rest of us unless you have the coin.” He turned his back to her as he calmed his nervous mule, putting an end to the conversation.
Seraiah shifted her weight and blew on her hands to get some warmth back into her fingers. She had neither the coin nor the time to go inside.
Ahead of her, a woman whispered to another, “I heard they snuck out the back, and we’re all waiting here from nothing. I’m going to head home. It’s too cold for this.”
She wasn’t the only one who heard the woman. Others questioned if there were even any strangers to begin with. A few peeled away and headed down the road. Seraiah supposed it was time for her to do the same.
She hadn’t made it far when she felt the strangest sensation. It was like a prickle on the back of her neck, as though someone was watching her. There was no one immediately in her vicinity and when she looked back, no one in the crowd was looking in her direction. They were too focused on something else.
Her eyes landed on the stoop. The strangers had left the building.
Like the smelly cart man had said, there were two of them. One wore the hood of their cloak pulled up, hiding their face, but the other, a dark-haired young woman, met Seraiah’s eyes.
She froze there in the middle of the street. It felt like minutes passed as they stared at each other, and Seraiah couldn’t shake that strange feeling.
Finally, the other girl looked away to speak to her companion, breaking their connection.
Seraiah turned on her heel and ran for the castle.
Ink pooled in the lines of Seraiah’s fingertips, turning them black. She frowned and wiped them on the piece of cloth on the table next to her. No matter how hard she tried to keep them clean, they always ended up stained by the end of the workday.
The scratching of quills on parchment filled the small room. There were three other scribes scribbling away, copying pages that would eventually be bound into books.
Walter, the head scribe, glanced up from his own work and caught her looking around. He opened his mouth, likely about to reprimand her for resting, when a knock sounded on the door.
The other scribes lifted their heads and swiveled toward the door as though they were marionettes.
The knocker didn’t wait for permission to enter, but pushed the door open and stuck her head inside.
“Welcome, Miss Ariya. How may we—”
“My lady requests Seraiah’s presence,” Ariya said, as though Walter had not spoken.
The heads swiveled to look at her.
Seraiah ignored the stares and dipped her chin. “As my lady wishes.”
It took all of her control not to grin until she was on the other side of the door. “What does the lady require of me today?” Seraiah asked.
“A stroll around the garden, I should think,” Ariya said, returning her grin and looping her arm through Seraiah’s. She tugged Seraiah through the shelves and out of the library.
“You know one day Walter is going to catch on that Lady Zahara doesn’t know who I am and wouldn’t request my presence for anything.”
Ariya waved her concern away. “He wouldn’t dare say anything. Besides, I outrank him.”
“He claims to be her cousin,” Seraiah said.
Her friend snorted. “Several times removed, maybe. I’d say he’s a closer relative of your family mule.”
“Ariya!” Seraiah smothered her laugh as they walked through the halls of the castle to the garden door.
“You know it’s true. When are you going to leave that stuffy room behind and join me as a lady’s maid?”
Seraiah’s laughter faded, remembering how close she had come to being late this morning. “You know I can’t. I’m lucky to have the scribe job as it is. If not for that . . .” she trailed off, shaking her head.
“I’m sorry,” Ariya said.
“It’s not your fault.”
“Still, I wish there was something I could do.”
“Not unless you can magic away the endless winter. If there was trade again, things might be different.” Thinking about trade reminded her of the strangers she had seen. She still didn’t know if they were traders or here for something else.
Ariya arched a brow. “Magic? Is that what those books you’re copying are about?”
Seraiah sighed, focusing back on the conversation. “No, but it’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Imagine being able to snap your fingers and make all the snow disappear.”
The two of them stood at the top of the stairs leading to a once vibrant garden that was now blanketed in white.
Ariya snapped her fingers and pretended to look around. “Hmm, I suppose I will have to practice.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Seraiah said.
They set off through a garden that was mostly snow and dead trees. It was hard to remember what this place had looked like when it was green. The time before the snow almost felt like a dream at this point.
“You look tired today,” Ariya said. “Did something happen? Does someone in your family have the fever?”
“No, nothing like that. I didn’t sleep well last night. Sterling snores, you know.”
It was a lie. Dreams were the reason she hadn’t slept well, but no one besides her sister knew about those.
Though it was mid-afternoon, the feeling of unease that often haunted her after the nightmare lingered. She’d been having the same dream for years, but for some reason, it was bothering her more now than it ever had before. All throughout the day, her thoughts kept turning back to it.
Those eyes—her sister’s eyes—there was something not quite right about them.
The dreams don’t mean anything. They were only dreams—or at least that’s what she told herself.
Ariya didn’t question her answer and moved on. “So anything interesting happen lately?”
It was a tradition of these walks for the two of them to trade stories and gossip.
Seraiah hesitated. She could tell Ariya about the strangers, but she really didn’t know much about them. Instead, she relayed a story about a neighbor that Sterling had overheard at the market.
When it was Ariya’s turn, she shot a furtive look around the empty garden, checking for eavesdroppers. Of course there were none because it was freezing outside.
“I heard that Lady Zahara is planning a ball,” she whispered.
“Whatever for?” Seraiah asked. It wasn’t possible she had the resources for such a thing. The castle inhabitants may have lived better than those outside of it, but not by much. It had been ages since anyone from beyond Ratha had brought new goods.
She thought of the strangers again. Perhaps that was why they were here. Then again, if they were guests of Lady Zahara, they wouldn’t have been staying at an inn in the city, and Ariya would have mentioned them right away.
“That part is not important,” Ariya said with a wave of her hand. “What is important is what are you going to wear to this ball?”
Seraiah laughed. “What makes you think I would be invited to a ball?”
“Of course you would. I would insist, and then you’d dance with Hudson.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I would not. I doubt he would even ask.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be mean to the poor boy,” Ariya said.
“I’m not,” she protested. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. This ball likely isn’t real anyway.”
Ariya pouted. “But if it is, would you go with me?”
Seraiah sighed. Her fingers tingled from the cold, and her nose and ears had already gone numb. “I will think about it.”
Ariya brightened. “Good. Next time we walk, I’m sure I will have more news about it.”
“I look forward to it,” Seraiah said as they finished their loop of the garden and climbed the stairs back into the castle.
The two girls parted ways, and Seraiah took her time walking back to the scribe room.
If she was being honest, there were only two things she looked forward to: the end of the snow, and the end of her terrible dreams. Neither of which she was likely to get.