Tenlyres Chapter 2

Chapter Index 

Previous Chapter

Striders Cover

Ilsa and Blue made their way across Dal. That day they took less than an hour to cross town on the transit system, compared to the two hours alone and on foot when Ilsa had the last time she had been in the city. The wheels of the small transit car squealed, and it bobbed against the guidance wire overhead as the driver put on the breaks. The little round car began to slow.

She glanced at Blue. Her partner in the Unification chewed the last bite of the vegetable wrap Ilsa had bought back at the food stand. The paper napkin of another wrap Blue had already eaten lay discarded on the wrought-iron bench where they sat. Ilsa had only eaten half of her wrap, but Blue was always hungry and germs didn’t bother her.

Over the last two years, Ilsa had never seen Blue sick. Even on campaign in Morhoi when the rest of their company had been wracked by the seasonal afflictions that swept the eastern nations every autumn, Ilsa herself coughing on the edge of fever, Blue had been fearless of illness. Her immune system had not failed her.

They paid the driver of the transit car and left the tiny stopping stand, built from little more than wood and wire, for a bustling narrow street. Just a few steps from the stopping stand, Ilsa looked across the way and saw a high-but-narrow screen that stood on poles in front of a building, beside a two-meter-tall plant pile.

The screen must have been connected to the information stored in the pile, because it displayed a digitally animated image, two flags flapping in the breeze. One was the simple white ring of Dal on the traditional sky blue field. The other flag bore an eight-sided white diamond at its center, cast on a darker blue field, the flag of Ayochian Royalty.

The two flags looked all too similar to Ilsa’s eyes, but her heart knew the difference. The flag of Dal represented a city-state just trying to survive an age of increasingly advanced technology. The other was far different. With their eastern border secured by the recent alliance formed with Dal, the nation of Ayoch had been conquering territory in the far west, a thousand miles away from the Plateau of Yr. Ayoch’s royal court demanded conquest in all directions, and the Plateau of Yr held symbolic importance to them.

Some day, Ayoch would move to take over parts of Yr, especially in the center around Tenlyres.

Words in the common language of Yr solidified between the two flags on the screen. Blue set down her travel case and followed Ilsa’s gaze. She read the words aloud in her mild Chogrumian accent. “Join the fight. Protect your home.”

Ilsa wrinkled her nose. “How many people is that going to sway?”

“Too many, I would guess.” Blue folded her arms. “Let’s go.”

The image shifted again, showing a flag patterned with three vertical stripes, one white on either side of a bright red. Beneath the flag words read: Burn the flag of Chogrum. The words flashed bright and the flag vanished.

Ilsa glanced at Blue’s face. Her friend’s expression darkened, but only a little. She unfolded her arms and picked up her travel case. “Let’s go, Ilsa.”

She nodded and they started down the street. People pushed and jostled each other all along the way, but  the few that looked gave Ilsa and Blue only the briefest of curious glances. Ilsa carried her red staff, making her office clear, but she doubted anyone would recognize her despite being just a few blocks from Saint Banyeen’s Garden where she had been ordained alongside Cass Kalteri.

She had changed since those days. Likely the people here were different altogether or had simply forgotten her.

Hathani’s clergy was well-respected, but a priestess who went unrecognized was always going to be of far lower influence than one who people noticed. As a full-blooded Dalite and a locally honored priestess, Cass would surely have been known for her proverbs in this part of the city. Ilsa tried to tell herself none of that mattered in the face of war between Chogrum and Dal.

Ilsa and Blue made their way five blocks toward the eastern edge of town. In the center of the next block stood a set of tall-walled stables. Outside the building, a man led a pair of great striders by their reins. The striders took up most of the street and forced Ilsa and Blue to keep close to the buildings on one side as they passed.

At the open gate to the yard just outside the stables, there stood a burly man shouting at passersby. Ilsa did not recognize him, but as she and Blue drew close enough to hear his words, she immediately knew his type. An instigator.

“We must strike first! We must say that Chogrum has made war in the west for the last time!” He hefted one meaty fist. “Who is with me, among of all you people?”

A small crowd in front of him cheered, accompanied by some impolite murmurs. Despite the darkness of Blue’s skin, Ilsa had a feeling her partner would pass unnoticed. There were other nations and cities of people who could have been Blue’s family besides Chogrum though Ilsa knew little about Blue’s family beyond the city of her birth. Wherever her ancestors hailed from, Blue could keep a low profile when needed. Being from Chogrum was not something to raise to someone like this man.

They had almost passed the semi-circle of supporters when the man raised his voice to a scream that Ilsa hoped would leave him hoarse for all his drama. He pointed past the small crowd. At first, Ilsa worried he had guessed Blue’s origin, but then followed the instigator’s finger to a second man who had been walking a short distance behind Ilsa and Blue.

“You there, what do you have to say about Chogrum?”

The lanky man wore a long-sleeved gray winter coat, with the high collar of a black jacket visible through the unbuttoned front. He had a pair of thin-rimmed glasses set on his  nose. Ilsa glimpsed a pair of scroll cases, the sort used to transport paper documents without water ruining them.

Most priestesses kept at least one such container to preserve their personal words. Ilsa only carried a smaller case because she rarely devised her own proverbs. This man had two of the heavy cylinders. Those could carry a lot of paper. Ilsa wondered why he would need so much space. Could he be some kind of bureaucrat or scholar?

He stopped and then looked up at the burly instigator. “Sir, I have nothing to say about Chogrum.”

But his accent, so similar to Blue’s, but, even more noticeable, said too much. The man must be from Chogrum.

The instigator’s lip curled. One hand clenched into a fist. “Don’t you care about the war that’s coming?”

The man with the black collar bowed his head. “What can I say? Clearly, you do.” He shifted his stance. His trailing sleeves caught a breeze and drifted as he turned to keep walking toward the stable. One of them trailed further than the other as if the arm it was covered was shorter than the one on the other side.

The instigator gave a roar of rage. He lunged out to block the man with the black collar, and in the process cut off Ilsa’a path forward. “I’ll show you some respect.”

Ilsa, Blue, and the man with the black collar stopped in front of him. His supporters fanned out on either side of him. Ilsa grimaced. “Stop being stupid. Leave this man alone.”

The loud man rounded on Ilsa. “A priestess, too! How dare you stand against this city while you carry that red staff?”

The man with the high collar glanced at Ilsa. Blue raised her eyebrows. Ilsa took a deep breath. “I carry this staff, because of Hathani, not because of Dal. Out of the way.”

“I don’t think so.” The beefy instigator folded his arms. “I think the three of you need to be punished.”

Blue’s eyes moved to the dozen or so men and women backing up the large man in their center. Ilsa knew that gaze. Her friend sized up the people because her plan was to drive them back if a fight actually started.

Ilsa shook her head. “Punishment is between the just and the unjust, not between cities or peoples.”

“Spoken like a priestess. All you Hathanians do is talk!” The instigator laughed, and then cracked his knuckles. “Tell me how your words feel when I jam them down your throat.” He took a step toward Ilsa.

She nodded to Blue. The big man shook his head. The man with the black collar held up both hands as if to hold the bigger man back. His sleeves fell back to his wrists. His left hand trembled, and his right looked slender and misshapen, as did the bony wrist at its base.  The instigator surged forward and swung artlessly at the scholar’s head with a massive hand.

The man with the black collar took the blow to the cheek. He grunted and staggered to one side. Ilsa met the eyes of the big man as he pushed the scholar to one side. She raised her voice just slightly, “Do you only strike unarmed people?”

“Chogrum killed unarmed civilians when they shelled this district during the last war.”

“I know. I lost family in that war.”

“Don’t stand up for this idiot, then! If you’re a Dalite you should be with us.”

“No. No one should be with you.”

“Hold your tongue! I’m the one with supporters behind me.” He raised a clumsy fist to strike.

He moved far too slow, but his strength could have been dangerous if Ilsa got careless. She darted to one side. The force of his punch carried him past her.

Ilsa clenched her right hand into a tight fist, then unclenched it, triggering her Weapon Bond. Her brand burned on the back of her hand, turning the flesh a painful, angry, red. Ilsa ignored the pain. The pistol fell into her hand and she trained it on the man beside her. Her free hand slammed pulled a magazine from her pack and slammed it in to load the gun.

“I think now its time for you to be quiet.” Ilsa held the gun aimed at the big man. Her finger hovered over the trigger, but she hoped he would take the chance he had to back down. “I don’t like to threaten.”

His face turned red. “Magic. Damn it.” He backed away from her.

“Leave. Now. Stop gathering here. I think your friends will appreciate it.” Ilsa nodded past the big man to where Blue had driven his supporters. They stared back from one wall of the stable yard with wide, teary eyes. Blue had only used her mental skills in the most basic and least invasive way, but that appeared to be enough. The fight had gone out of every pale face.

The big man’s face darkened, still red with rage. He glared at Ilsa. “I won’t forget this.”

“That’s a difference between us, then.” Ilsa waved her pistol at him. “Go.”

He glowered at her, but then turned and lurched to his supporters. Blue let him by, so he could lead the others away. Fools, all of them, if they thought another war on the plateau would solve anything.

When they had all left the yard, Ilsa walked over to Blue. The Chogrumian scholar turned toward them. His pale face bore a growing bruise on one cheek. “Thank you.”

“Anyone who doesn’t want this war is a friend,” said Blue.

Ilsa nodded. “No matter which city you’re from.” Or what that city has done.

He bowed his head to her. “Thanks. My name is Lemuel Chollush. I am at your service.”

“I’m Ilsa Barrett. This is Blue.”


Blue nodded. “Just, Blue.”

“Alright, then.” Lemuel smiled broadly and then winced at the obvious pain in his face. “Shall we go inside?”

Ilsa nodded. She removed the magazine from her pistol, quickly ejected the unused bullet, and then returned the weapon to its insubstantial state. She stuffed the magazine and unused bullet back into her pack’s ammo pocket. Blue and Lemuel led the way into the stable office.

The great striders used for riding between Chogrum and Dal, on the plains without roads were valuable, but Ilsa and Blue both had plenty of money for them. Pay left over from the last battles they had fought in the eastern nations, in Morhoi. The manager gave them a weary glance, but they settled the deal quickly. Stable hands let out two striders, one with a weeping yellow mane for Ilsa, and a darker-colored straight-haired one for Blue.

The steeds were biologically engineered and cybernetically enhanced. They walked on two powerful hind legs with a set of small forelimbs curled at the front. Their hair was shaggy and long, and in the case of Ilsa’s flowing like a willow tree, and they had hairy faces. Lemuel waved to them with his long left arm as they rode out of the gate and onto the street, headed for Saint Banyeen’s Garden. Ilsa waved back. “Stay safe,” she called.

“You too.”

They passed the stony walls, the iron gate, the garden paths, and rode toward the edge of the city to find a cheap place to stay the night. Already the sun was rolling high over Yr, and they had preparations to do before leaving the city at the next dawn. Ilsa stroked the fur of her weeping strider’s mane, gently beginning her rapport with the animal.

“Goodbye, Dal,” whispered Ilsa as she rode east.


Tenlyres Chapter 1

Chapter Index

Beast Daughter

A vein of pink granite ran through the gray stone at the edge of the train tracks. Ilsa noted the color as a sign they had almost reached the city of Dal, just a few miles after taking the tunnel up to the Yrian Plateau. She laid her head against her seat, eyes still following the pink line in the barren ground where only sparse grass grew.

A few small shacks passed in the distance, right where the ground fell away at the edge.

Train wheels roared. The whistle blew. They passed the end of the pink granite vein and began to slow. The train pulled into Eshak station, on the western side of Dal.

Fingertips brushed Ilsa’s arm as her traveling companion, Blue, sat forward and peered out the window past her. Black braids fell around Blue’s shoulders. Those braids shifted only a little as the train came to a full stop.

Home. Ilsa took a deep breath. “This is it.”

Graystone buildings set with sparkling glass panes loomed over downtown Dal, visible in the distance above the long street outside the train window.

Blue grinned, eyes still focused out the window. “No fooling. I finally get to see the place you grew up.”

“Probably not. My mother told me they tore down our old building a few years ago.” Ilsa stood up and stretched her arms. She reached for the overhead luggage bins, where she had stowed her pack along with her red-painted wooden staff, a symbol of her office as a priestess of Hathani.

Blue shrugged. “I meant the Garden.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You want to see Saint Banyeen’s?” The garden where she had been trained in Hathani’s clergy had once been more home to Ilsa than her mother’s apartment, but those days were passed. “I thought you didn’t care about gods.”

“I don’t care about gods in particular.” Blue reached up with one long-sleeved arm and pulled down a travel case from the overhead compartment. She grunted with the effort of lowering the heavy case.

Ilsa knew from watching Blue pack, that the case contained her suit of combined armor. Blue did not like walking around in ordinary clothes, but security on the train took notice of heavily equipped mercenaries. As agents of the Unification, both Ilsa and Blue traveled with a low profile, but habits like Blue’s insistence on wearing armor were hard to kick. Ilsa knew that from experience.

She slung her pack over one shoulder. Staff in hand, she followed Blue out of their compartment and through the brightly lit central corridor to the open exit doors of the train. They stepped onto the platform.

The street that led downtown was lined with food stands and travel vendors, operating out of the sort of small motorized carts common throughout the city. Ilsa breathed in the smell of city air, fuel mingled with spicy food, fresh in the cool air. For the first time since she had left Saint Banyeen’s Garden, she had returned home.

Blue hefted her travel case and slung its strap over one shoulder. “Which way first?”

“Saint Banyeen’s is on the other side of town, but Fountain Street Hospital isn’t far from here.” The bottom seemed to drop out of Ilsa’s stomach as she said the name of the place where her mother had been committed.

“I’m hungry.”

“You can eat while I visit my mother.”

Blue frowned. “You’re going right now?”

The void sensation in Ilsa’s belly grew. “I have to see her. I won’t be long.” She paced a few steps from the edge of the platform and set one end of her staff on the pavement.

Blue raised her eyebrows. “You have to?”

Ilsa nodded.

“If you say so. I’ll get you something to eat for when you’re done.”

“I can feed myself.”

“I’m starting to doubt that. You haven’t eaten since we left Ayoch this morning.”

Ilsa sighed. “Please. It’s only been a few hours.”

“Does your mother really make you this nervous?”

“Maybe.” Ilsa held up her free hand, palm open. Her loose coat sleeve fell back. The back of her hand bore a pale brand shaped like a ring with a single dot in the middle, the evidence of one of her weapon bonds. “Please, Blue. Stop.”

“I understand. I’ll eat, then meet you outside the hospital.”

“Thanks. And sorry.” Ilsa lowered her hand, letting the sleeve fall back over the brand. She didn’t like pointing an open palm at her friend. For most people the gesture meant resistance in peace, but for someone who knew Ilsa’s bond, the motion implied a threat. When she summoned the weapon bonded to that symbol, it would appear in that hand.

“Don’t ruin yourself over any of this.”

“Over what?”

“Take your pick. Your building. Your mother. Her condition isn’t your fault, you know.”

“I know.”

“If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to see her.”

Ilsa sighed. “Yes, I do.” It’s my place as her daughter, even if she is insane.

“If that’s what you think.”

She nodded to Blue. “It is what I think.”

“Good luck,” said Blue.

“I’ll eat when I’m done. Then, we should get striders for tomorrow’s ride.”

“Deal.” Blue turned toward the food stands. “It’s a long way from here to Tenlyres.”

Ilsa nodded to Blue. She hesitated and leaned on her staff for a moment. Then she started down the street toward the hospital.


Fountain Street Hospital occupied an entire block one street south of the street that led downtown from the station. Ilsa followed a narrow lane around the western side of the building to reach the mind ward. Like the front of Fountain Street, the building was made of the gray granite common in buildings across the Plateau of Yr, from Dal in the west to Chogrum in the east.

Behind a wrought iron fence with traces of snow at its base, the outer wall of the mind ward was painted with a peeling mural of white roses, another symbol of the goddess Hathani. The mind ward had been funded by contributions from temples and clerical gardens all over the city. Saint Banyeen’s had offered a sizable donation. Ilsa’s mother had been freely committed to the ward because of Ilsa’s affiliation with the garden.

Ilsa trudged through the open gate in the fence. She went up a patched blacktop drive to the four-doors-broad entryway of the mind ward. The place looked like Ilsa felt inside, like it was fighting a losing battle.

She stepped inside and crossed a floor of white tiles to the front desk. The nurse working there looked up at her. Dark eyes moved to Ilsa’s staff. “Good morning, priestess. How may I help you?”

“My name is Ilsa Barrett. I’m looking for my mother.”

The nurse nodded to her, then turned to the bright screen of a tablet where it sat upright on the desk. A ten-centimeter-long interface pin jutted from one side of the tablet and connected to the green and mossy side of a domesticated plant pile where it rose up through a hole carved through the desk.

Plant piles were easy to keep indoors. They grew wild the world over, each one capable of storing vast amounts of digital information within its genetic repository. The larger the pile, the more data it could hold. The one set in the desk was tiny by most standards, but it probably contained copies of all the patient records for the mind ward.

The tablet screen bore a news bulletin, warning of a Chogrumian force’s advance toward the center of the plateau. The desk nurse ignored the bulletin and tapped a few keys on her tablet’s touchscreen. “Is your mother, Luca Barrett?”


“She is on the second floor. Room 216.”

“Thank you.”

The nurse squinted at the screen. “She has another visitor at the moment.”

Ilsa’s frowned. Who would visit her maddened mother? For that matter, who else still living in Dal even knew her?

“Is something wrong?”

She forced her expression to return to a polite smile. “Nothing.”

The nurse smiled at her. Laugh lines crinkled at the corners of her mouth. “Have a good visit, priestess.”

If that was possible, Ilsa would not be so worried. She had not seen her mother in over seven years. Luca Barrett had spent a decade in this place, and Ilsa doubted that would help matters. Despite the care the facility offered to its patients they were still effectively prisoners.

Ilsa walked past the desk to the main hall of the mind ward. She found the stairway the same place she remembered it, near the elevator on one side of the hall. She climbed to the second floor, stepped into a low-security hallway, and then followed it straight to Room 216. Everything was where she remembered though a fresh coat of paint may have gone over the interior walls, unlike the mural outside.

She stopped at the door. With the sound of her boots on the tiles silenced, she heard a voice from the other side. It belonged to her mother, soft, ethereal, and barely audible.

“I’m always happy to see you. But I’m afraid you worry too much, Cass.”

Cass. Ilsa’s breath caught. She knew that name all too well.

“I’d worry more if I didn’t visit enough.” The voice that replied took Ilsa’s mind back to Saint Banyeen’s Garden and years into the past, an old friend and a betrayer.

She had first met Cass at her initiation as a neophyte when they had both been thirteen years old. The short form of High Priestess Uopemm marched across a garden path, strands of gray hair drifting in a slight breeze. Ilsa and Cass stood beside a prayer altar at one end of the path, both with their long hair, traditionally left untrimmed for a month prior to beginning training in the garden, tied back into long ponytails. Cass’s hair was red-blond, Ilsa’s, so black the highlights could have been blue. Each held the stem of a white rose in both hands.

The high priestess looked Cass up and down, said the blessing of Hathani in old Yrian, which sounded completely different from the modern version of the language nearly everyone spoke on the plateau. Cass bowed to the high priestess. Uopemm gave her a curt nod, then turned to Ilsa.

Nervous under the high priestess’s gaze, Ilsa shifted the rose in her hands. One of the thorns cut her already-branded palm. The high priestess did not seem to notice the blood that flowed between her fingers. She said the blessing. Ilsa bowed, silent despite the pain. Then, Ilsa and Cass set their white roses on the altar to complete the ritual.

Cass’s had been clean, but Ilsa’s flower was spotted with blood.

Almost fifteen years later, Ilsa took a deep breath outside the door to her mother’s room in the mind ward. She opened pulled it open and stepped inside.

Cass sat in a chair by the head of the bed, pale red hair cut short now that she had the freedom of a full priestess. Her red staff was propped against a wall in the corner by a south-facing window, through which light filtered into the room. She wore a plain black shirt and trousers. Her coat hung on a hook by the door.

Mother and Cass turned together to face Ilsa. Luca looked surprisingly well, for a middle-aged woman who had been a prisoner since her mid-forties. Her formerly pure black hair had strands of gray in it, and her face was pale and lined, but she did not look like a miserable prisoner. Her eyes bloomed with recognition when she saw Ilsa’s face.

“Is that—?” She hesitated. “Is that you, Ilsa?”

“It’s me, mother.” Ilsa walked to the foot of the bed and let the door shut behind her.

Cass stared at her, eyes wide. She put her hands on the arms of her chair and pushed herself to her feet, eyes still on Ilsa. “I can’t believe it.”

“You thought I’d never come back?” Ilsa shook her head. “You were wrong.”

Tears began to build in mother’s eyes. She pushed herself to her feet, hospital gown trailing about her ankles, and then walked to the foot of the bed where Ilsa stood. They were the same height, mother, and daughter, but her mother had not passed many of her finer features to Ilsa. Mother’s face in her youth had been the model of Dalite beauty, but Ilsa’s was far too blunt, too harsh. Mother opened her arms to embrace Ilsa.

Those arms were frail, all but devoid of muscle. Ilsa hugged mother back, still holding her staff. The emptiness she had felt in her stomach when she left the train remained, even in that moment. Ilsa stepped back from her mother and felt the beginning of tears in her own eyes.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Mother wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m so happy to see you, Ilsa.”

“I wanted to see you, mother.” Ilsa sniffed back a trickle of tears.

Mother cried openly. “You haven’t written since the middle of summer. I worried you were dead. Your work is so dangerous.”

“You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a priestess of Hathani.”

“A mercenary priestess,” said Cass from the corner of the room, “Isn’t safer than any other mercenary, east or west of the plateau.”

Ilsa turned toward Cass, words she wanted to shout at her former friend already on her lips. She spoke softly. “Don’t forget why I went east, Cass. I sure haven’t.”

“I wasn’t the one who requested you leave Saint Banyeen’s. And I didn’t make you leave Dal, or Yr, either.”

Ilsa walked around her mother and planted her staff between herself and Cass. “You told them about my father. The rest followed.”

Cass grimaced. “The High Priestess already thought she knew.” She took her staff from the wall and started toward Ilsa.

Mother stepped between Cass and Ilsa. She raised her clean, empty palms as if to hold them both back without touching them. “Peace, both of you. What’s done is done.”

“Yes. It is.” Ilsa grimaced.

“Ilsa, please. Cass has been good to me. She’s helped me stay sane while you were away. The visions aren’t so bad when I have visitors.”

Ilsa lowered the end of her staff. “You still have them? You never mention them in your letters.”

“You don’t want to hear about them. The doctors call them hallucinations, and I thought you would agree.”

“Mother. I—” What could she say? She did not believe her mother had mystic sight. The ancient legends of those who could see spirits were nonsense. Even the Oshomi Nomads who lived in the center of the plateau didn’t really believe in them, except for the small band that lived around the Guardian of Tenlyres.

“I see them all the time. My parents. My brothers.”

Trauma hallucinations, the doctors had called them. Ilsa remembered from years ago when she had first had mother committed. Mother’s whole family, including both her parents and all her brothers, had died in the war with Dal’s rival city, Chogrum forty years ago. Ilsa’s father had been from Chogrum. Since her childhood, she had wondered how her mother could have loved him, knowing where he came from.

Ilsa put a hand on mother’s shoulder. She looked into mother’s eyes. “It’s alright. I’m here.”

“They aren’t my only visions, Ilsa. I see a horse with girl’s face, white roses in her hair.” Mother’s eyes went wide. She trembled as she looked Ilsa. “When she talks, she sounds like you, my daughter.”

“Mother, please try to calm down.”

“She has pale skin, pale like ours, but her face is shaped like a nomad’s. Why does she speak with your voice? Why does my beast daughter visit me?”

Cass approached slowly from mother’s other side. “Luca, your daughter is here, your real daughter.”

Mother blinked and turned to Cass. Ilsa kept her hand on mother’s shoulder and looked at her tear-streaked face. “I’m here, mother. Everything is safe.”

She nodded, and then wiped away her tears with her hand. “Thank you. Thank Hathani, and all the gods, for both of you.” She looked from Cass to Ilsa. “Ilsa, I’m so glad to see you. It’s just, my beast daughter frightens me.”

“A sight like that would scare me too.” Ilsa wished she did not have to tell mother the rest. “I wanted to see you, mother. But I can only visit you today. Tomorrow I’m leaving again.”

“You’re leaving?” Cass scowled. “You just got here.”

“I have something to do. I’m riding east in the morning.”

Mother deflated. All the excitement from first seeing Ilsa faded from her face. “Why do you have to go? Are you here to fight against Chogrum?”

“I’m not.” Ilsa sighed. “I can’t tell you where I’m going. It’s for the Unification.”

Cass’s scowl turned even darker. “Unification is never going to happen, Ilsa. Your mother needs you.”

Ilsa shook her head. “I’m going, but I’ll come back. I promise.”

“Is it dangerous, this mission of yours?” mother asked.

“I won’t lie to you.” Ilsa squeezed her mother’s shoulder gently, and then released her grip. She turned toward the door. “But I will be back. Saints preserve you, mother.”

Mother said nothing. Ilsa marched out the door. She made it most of the way down the hall to the stairway before Cass caught up with her.

The red-haired priestess clapped a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. “Ilsa, stop.”

Ilsa whirled and swung her staff one-handed. Cass blocked the blow with her own staff. Wood rebounded from wood. They glared at each other.

“What do you want?”

“We’re on the edge of war with Chogrum,” said Cass. “Why are you going east?”

Ilsa lowered her voice. “I’m going to Tenlyres. Cass, you can’t stop me.”

“I wish I could. But you’re right. I should never have told the high priestess about your father. She only suspected you, but she wouldn’t have dismissed you from the garden if I hadn’t confirmed what she thought.”

“An apology? You’re a few years late, Cass.”

“I regret it every day, Ilsa. You were my best friend. I would never have told her if I had known what she would do.”

“Whole lot of good that does me now.” Ilsa took a deep breath and drew her staff up, away from the lock with Cass’s weapon. “But I’ll remember this.”

“Be careful. Tenlyres is going to be even more dangerous than usual with war brewing.”

“I know. Thank you for visiting my mother. Saints preserve you, Cass.”

“Be red.” Cass nodded to Ilsa.

Ilsa turned and continued on her way out of the hospital. She recognized Cass’s words. They were the beginning of one of her proverbs. Cass always had been good at writing those little scripts.

Blue met her on the street outside the mental ward, dark hair and skin glowing in the light of midday.

“That really was quick,” Blue said. “You alright?”

“I’m fine.” Ilsa’s stomach growled. “But I’m hungry.”

“Good. You admitted it.” Blue smiled. “Let’s eat.”

“You waited?”

“Of course, I waited. You’re like my sister, even if you try to live like you don’t have a body.”

Ilsa smirked at her friend. “Thanks, Blue.”

“Food, then striders. It’s a few hundred kilometers even to the Western Lyre.”

“It is.” Ilsa nodded. Her smirk faded away. “And I hear there’s a war on its way.” She turned over Cass’s parting blessing, one only Hathani’s clergy really used. Be red, Ilsa thought, like blood on a rose. She clapped Blue on the shoulder.

They started down the street, heading to the east side of Dal.