It would not be enough. For Andoria, every curl of her mother’s lips had to be paid for. Andoria had woken up early, heated the iron in the fire until it glowed, and pressed each pleat of her dress. She had even braided her hair all by herself. Now, she stood perfectly still in a line of restless girls, ignoring the snow that seeped through her shoes and pierced her toes. It ought to be enough. She looked over her shoulder at the corner of the village square where parents and brothers were gathered, waiting for the inspections to end. Her mother stood with remote eyes and a frown. Maybe her father would reward her. The bakery was so close, just across the street. She inhaled deeply: currant cakes.
Finally, Sere Phylos, the Royal Magus, stopped before Andoria. Andoria had never seen anyone look so clean. Though her blonde hair was loose, it was kempt and straight, giving her a dignity that Andoria had seen only in men. The assistant following her had a thin face and puckered his lips frequently, no flaw too small for his disapproval.
Sere stared down at her, but Andoria held her gaze; revealing fear was just an invitation.
“Name,” Sere’s assistant said.
“Underage for mind consent alone,” he murmured. “Will you submit to a mindlink?” His voice was brisk and impersonal. Just another girl in just another village. Something about it irritated her.
“Do I have a choice?” she asked.
His lips tightened. Sere held up her hand before he responded. “Yes. You do.” She kneeled, looking at Andoria eye to eye. “Do you know what a mind link is?”
“Where you get to hear my thoughts?”
“Something like that. If you consent, our minds will be connected to each other, and I can see anything inside your head that I want. But you can explore my mind, too. I’m only looking for one thing so I will be fast.”
Andoria nodded. “Will it hurt?”
“No.” She did not sound like other adults, the lie hovering around the edge of their voices. She sounded like she was telling the truth. “Only if you want to.”
“All right. I consent.”
She heard Sere’s unspoken question, a whisper in her mind, again asking permission to enter. She wondered why Sere was asking a second time before remembering that she was too young for mind consent. Andoria granted the mindlink. A white light rushed at her, blotting out all else, and was gone as fast as it came. She was in a foyer with three doorways. She tried to peer into one, but could see nothing more without stepping forward. She looked down at the floor; she was standing on a densely woven carpet of thin threads. The bright light burst again. Blinking, Andoria saw the bakery. Her stomach lurched.
Sere nodded at her assistant who walked over to Andoria’s parents. Whatever he said made her mother sigh, a small cloud expelled into the air. She glared at Andoria who looked away. The sweet steam from the bakery drifted away in the wind. No reward, no matter what she or her father may say.
After everyone else dispersed, Sere dismissed her assistant. She turned to Andoria, bowed, and gestured to the bakery. With her parents following, they crossed the empty street. Andoria held the bakery door open for Sere who stepped over the threshold, nodding. Her father came behind her and pushed the door open wider.
“Ladies first,” he said and kissed the top of her head.
Andoria hurried inside the warmth. Late-risers were lingering over their cups. Through the back door, Andoria saw a dairyman’s cow waiting on a lead while the baker’s wife ordered the daily buckets of milk. Behind the counter, the baker looped a towel around his hand and pulled cakes out of an oven. Sere tossed three coppers on the counter and handed her a mug of honeyed milk and a small cake. Not just one reward, but two, and they were given so easily. Simpler than magic.
They found a table near the window, and Andoria climbed into her seat. She picked up the mug and let the scent tempt her.
“I came here to –” Sere began.
“If you aren’t gonna drink it, put it down,” Andoria’s mother said.
Andoria let the mug rest on the table until Sere started again and her mother’s eyes wandered away.
“I’ve been going from village to village seeking girls who have untapped talent, who have been overlooked –”
“Andi,” her mother warned. Then, she looked at Sere, as if trying to share her exasperation. Sere remained unmoved. Andoria was beginning to like this woman.
Andoria took a long sip, the sweet milk coating her tongue before she put the mug down again. She tore off a piece of cake and popped it in her mouth. She watched snow glide on breezes past the window instead of listening to the conversation about Dastari law. She wanted to ask about the foyer she had seen during the mindlink, but it was all adult talk. The entire room had been made of threads. Or something that looked like threads. But they had an intermittent patterning and an iridescent quality, almost like a spider’s web.
Her mother’s hardened voice broke her thoughts, and Andoria’s stomach clenched.
“You are allowed to take her?” Her mother said.
“It’s always been this way,” Sere said.
“But only for mages, only for boys.”
“For girls, too, now.”
“Since you became Royal Magus?” said her father, glaring at Sere.
“Skillful spinning is not limited to men. And your daughter has spinners. She is a mage. If she cannot weave, you’ll have her back,” Sere said.
Sere handed Andoria’s father a scroll and a heavy purse. After reading the scroll, he put it down and looked at Andoria, desperation in his face. A chill ran though her. He would wear that same expression when he woke her late tonight, a candle the only light. He would not beg or demand as he used to. He no longer needed to say anything. Tonight, his breath would be the only sound.
“You can have a few hours together before we leave,” said Sere.
“No, she isn’t leaving. She is staying with me,” he said.
“You don’t have a choice, do you?” her mother said. She was regarding him, eyebrow raised.
His features twisted with rage. He grabbed Andoria’s wrist, hauling her off the chair. Her feet found the floor before the chair flipped over. She clawed at his fingers, but he gripped her wrist tighter.
“Let her go,” her mother shouted. She stood up, wrenched Andoria from his grip, and then shoved her away. Andoria stumbled, using the chair’s leg to catch her balance. “Let her go. You can’t keep her.” Her father reached for Andoria again, but her mother stepped in front of him and placed a palm on his chest. “Just us again. No one interfering.”
The bakery was silent, and Andoria felt everyone looking at them. He pushed aside her mother to look at Andoria. Her mother’s gaze followed, tears clumping her eyelashes. Sere extended her hand to Andoria. She was not sure she could leave. She had never been outside her village. She rubbed her wrist, and then took Sere’s hand. They walked out into the quiet and snow, the silence broken only by the bakery door when it swung to.
Before midday she began her journey with Sere, straddling a horse for the first time and watching her village slip from sight. The trip was longer than Andoria expected, running three days. It rained the entire time. The cold drops burrowed through Andoria’s thin clothing and into her skin, cleansing her of a mother’s insults and a father’s intimacy. Her mother’s strident tones, her father’s ragged breaths, and all Andoria had become dripped off her. She could remake herself. Maybe she could even be as clean as Sere.
When Andoria arrived in Ethea, she passed through the protective city walls and into a world of bustle and energy. Men and women and like hurried past her, pushing carts or dragging children behind them. A temple stretched up to the bright morning sky. And when Sere’s warm hand wrapped around hers, guiding her down from the horse, she was sure she’d been purified. She even smelled like a newborn.
Swati is the author of SPLIT. Visit her at her website: www.swatiavasthi.com