Cloud Village had barely changed in the eight years Lisette had been gone.
There were still the same wooden houses with weathered boards and pitched roofs, brown all over, doorways facing dirt streets and the scraggly common. The same huddle of goat and sheep pens to the west, the same long gardens behind every house stretching into the forest’s shadow. The meeting hall stood on the eastern side of the common; it was the largest structure in the village, and the only one made of stone.
The same smell of livestock hung over the place. The same feel of magic suppression pressed down on Lisette from all sides. The bracelets on her wrists felt like manacles, despite the catch she could undo at any time.
The only thing that was different was…
“Where is everybody?” Her voice rang out, directed at Wulf’s back. Tamsin, who’d been talking to one of their escorts, stopped. The other men in the hunting party, all youths Lisette had known as boys, faltered as well.
Wulf said nothing. He didn’t turn, didn’t change stride. On he went, towards the meeting hall. After a moment, everyone trailed after him. Tamsin gave Lisette a pleading look, mouthed, “Come on,” and followed.
Lisette clenched her fists. That was Wulf, unhelpful as ever. What had she expected from the man who invariably found her when she used magic illicitly and took her back home to her mother?
“Lisette,” said a young man next to her. “Please come. You’ll see.” It was the first time any of the villagers had acknowledged her by name, the first time anyone had shown signs of recognizing her.
She narrowed a glare at him, but he stood his ground and met her gaze with a direct one of his on. His eyes were brown and concerned.
Her memory twitched. “Aiden, right?” she said.
He nodded, then ducked his head. “Olina and I were married last year.”
Lisette stared at him, speechless. He was now her brother-in-law. Of course, Olina would marry some time. Why had she never considered this? And Micah…he would be almost old enough to go on hunting parties. Her head whirled, trying to assimilate all these changes.
“Congratulations,” she said finally, lamely.
Did his cheeks redden? “She wants to see you. Please come. Dusk falls, and there have been attacks in the village.”
“All right.” She had come this far, she should see it through.
But… Olina wants to see me? Lisette snorted. Not likely!
Everybody turned out to be inside the meeting hall. Lisette’s nostrils flared at the reek of cooped-up bodies. Nut candles burned inside lanterns, adding their own pungent aroma to the odorous atmosphere. Wavering pools of yellow light dotted the hall. Shadows gathered in between, thick as cobwebs.
Lisette had forgotten how meager light in the village was. At Heartwood, in Carradia, in big cities and small villages elsewhere on the continent, people used rune lanterns freely. They didn’t spoil their eyesight squinting in the dimness.
She felt a stab of anger. My people, stuck in the past. They’d rather be proud and primitive than accept that magic is not evil after all.
Suppression was built into the very bones of the hall, milk-white veins snaking through stone blocks. Its presence gnawed against Lisette and fanned her ire.
She was almost the last into the hall. Behind her, Aiden closed the door, shutting out the cool dusk and the fresh air. Lisette fought down the wild urge to hit him with her collapsed wings, wrench open the door, and run screaming into the night.
Instead, she lifted her chin, folded her arms, and waited as the people in front of her edged out of her way and into the rustling crowd. In her periphery were dim figures with pale faces. She refused to look closely enough to recognize anyone.
A small space cleared in front of her. Tamsin and Wulf stood in the middle of it. A tall, broad-shouldered woman strode forward to greet them. Her gray-gold braid swung behind her.
Mother. Lisette’s stomach clenched.
Tamsin smiled at the headwoman of Cloud Village and said something Lisette was too far to make out.
Jonquil turned. Her blue eyes met Lisette’s. Something flashed in them. Lisette steeled herself. The stares of a hundred people prickled her skin. The room seemed to hold its breath.
Jonquil said, “Daughter.”
Bile churned in Lisette’s stomach. A painful lump stuck in her throat. She couldn’t have said a word even if she’d wanted to.
She jerked her chin downward. The gesture was curt, ungracious.
“Oh, come now, Lisette.” Tamsin hurried over, took her by the arm, dragged her forward. “Everyone wants to see you. Don’t be shy.” She smiled at Jonquil. “It’s awkward for her, you understand, after all this time.”
“I suppose,” said Jonquil, still looking at Lisette. Her eyes were heavier-lidded than Lisette remembered, but still keen. Her eyebrows rose. “You are here unwillingly?”
“I have no fond memories of this place.” Lisette spoke through stiff lips, held herself tall and tight. Her neck ached, her head pounded. She looked past Jonquil, to the table behind her laden with food. She recognized the layered cake that was a staple of all Cloud Village celebrations. Had her coming interrupted a wedding feast or coming-of-age rite?
Jonquil nodded her head, accepting. “Still, I am glad you came.” She turned to Tamsin. “Thank you for bringing her.”
“Oh, no, well, I…” Tamsin stammered.
“Wait.” Lisette’s eyes narrowed. “Have you two met before?”
Surprise flickered in Jonquil’s eyes. “Did Tamsin not tell you?”
The pieces clicked into place. Jonquil’s lack of surprise at seeing Lisette. Tamsin arriving at Heartwood and asking Lisette to come along to the Spines. Her airy assurance that they wouldn’t go near Cloud Village, her insistence that Lisette get over what happened in the past.
The vial that Tamsin had held earlier, the one with the label: C.V.
Tamsin was speaking, very quickly. “Oh, for goodness’s sake, Lisette, I had to get permission from every village chief to survey their territories. It’s not a big deal—”
Her words nibbled at Lisette’s hearing. She only half-comprehended them. Lisette watched Tamsin’s mouth move and her hands flutter, and all she could think was how much the other girl resembled a puppet. A puppet with desperate impatience in her eyes, while her hands and mouth moved in meaningless ways. A puppet whose veneer of sophistication covered only self-interest.
Her chest felt tight.
“Frejalanders,” said Lisette distantly, “have nothing to do with magic. They wouldn’t allow strange mages to just dig in the area. What did you offer Cloud Village, Tamsin?”
Tamsin’s mouth remained open, but no more words came out.
It was Jonquil who answered. “A chance to meet my daughter again. A chance to…mend bridges. It was not my intention to trick you into coming here.”
Lisette gave a bitter laugh and held out her hands, showing the suppression still upon her wrists. “Is this your idea of mending bridges?”
Jonquil gazed at her steadily. “It is still the best way to protect our people. Magic use attracts predators. It attracts Chaos. That has not changed, though since you left, our thinking on other matters has.”
The bands around Lisette’s heart melted to fire, ran molten into her veins. She welcomed the heat. “Lies,” she snapped. “I have no idea why you dragged me back, but I’m not going to play happy families with you.”
“Lisette!” appealed Tamsin.
“Don’t talk to me.” Her words flashed with anger, but Lisette couldn’t even bring herself to look at the other mage. “You used me. Bringing me to the Spines was only a part of your business deal. You don’t care a jot about Amber and Naia, about rescuing them.” She snatched the bracelets off her wrists and hurled them to the floor. They landed with twin thuds.
A blaze ran through her entire body. Good. Anger was better than…the other thing.
“I’m through here.” Lisette whirled on her heel, her wings flaring and sparking behind her. “I’m finding Amber and Naia, and we three are going home.” She glared at Aiden, frozen by the door. “Unbar that door right now, before I smash it into splinters myself.” Magic snaked through her veins and whispered in her suns. It wasn’t the glad goldenness she was used to, but something with a burning and venomous edge, like the bite of a copperhead.
Aiden’s gaze flickered beyond Lisette’s shoulder. Lisette gritted her teeth, her fingers twitching with power.
“Wait!” The voice wasn’t Jonquil’s, but younger, higher, more ringing. And also familiar.
Lisette took in a breath so sharp, it hurt.
“Wait,” said Olina again. Lisette didn’t—wouldn’t—turn around to look at her sister. Let Olina be just a voice in the darkness behind her. She was leaving, and they couldn’t stop her. She was a trained mage now. They could no longer cage her.
So why was she still stuck to the floor, her body shaking with rage, dangerously close to tears?
“You’ve been gone for eight years,” Olina went on, steady, controlled. “Things have happened, things have changed. Don’t you want to know about them?”
No! yelled Lisette inside. But her traitorous lips were locked tight, her treacherous ears wouldn’t stop listening.
“Almost two dozen people were taken by Chaos. We’ve had three successive years of bad harvests. Papa died—we sent a letter. Did you receive it?”
Yes, Lisette had. She’d had no answer to make. With Papa gone, there was more, not less, reason to stay away from Cloud Village, away from the people who had rejected her. He had been the only one to give her his blessing when she’d left with Master Zoya and the rest to go to Heartwood.
Her voice throbbing with controlled emotion, Olina continued, “And yet people got married and had children.” She recited a list, the names falling on all of Lisette’s raw places, filling her with a swelling ache. “I got married, too. I’ll thank you not to explode a door all over my husband.” Wry amusement touched her tone.
The next moment, it was gone. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “How is Micah? At least tell us that.”
Those few words broke through the horrible immobility smothering Lisette. She swung around, the movement jerky, unbelieving. Her eyes met her sister’s for the first time in eight years, clashing against Olina’s blue gaze, so like her own. “What do you mean by that?” Her voice was a strangled whisper.
Olina stood there, gold to Lisette’s dark. Her head was held as proudly as ever, her face smooth and unlined, but something crept into her eyes.
Jonquil, at her older daughter’s shoulder, said, “A year ago, Micah began showing magic, the same as you. It was bad. We couldn’t control it, not without burying him in suppression. A mage was passing through, and we spoke to her. She agreed to take Micah to that school of yours, and we sent Wulf’s grandson Raoul with them. We had a letter from Raoul saying they had gotten there safely a month ago. We haven’t heard anything since. Raoul hasn’t returned.”
Lisette felt all the blood drain from her face, rush to her feet. The world tilted.
She said, still in that tight whisper, “He never came.”
The air seemed to grow thin in the aftermath of a collective inhalation of breath. The candle flames wavered, casting flickers all over everything. Tamsin made a move, checked. Olina’s mouth and eyes rounded.
But Lisette’s eyes were on her mother. Jonquil’s expression hadn’t changed, but all of a sudden, she looked older, heavier, grayer, as if the sun had hidden behind clouds and taken away its gilding warmth.
Lisette opened her mouth, snapped it shut. A sudden pressure shoved against her back. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Urgency thrummed in her bones, shook her out of the moment.
Outside the hall was a buildup of magic.
Lisette whirled and lunged at Aiden. His mouth gaped open as she shoved him to the side. “Everyone, get against the walls and get down!”
The thick oaken door exploded.
Time seemed to slow down as magic surged out of Lisette. The flesh around the puncture wounds in her neck burned.
A wall of light, dark gold, its edges streaming black, sprang up in front of her. Wooden debris and metal bullets crashed against it. Lisette’s insides flared; she fought to stay planted, keep from reeling back.
The spell rippled, held just long enough to stop the barrage.
The wall disappeared. Lisette took a staggering step backward. Her entire body felt as if she’d been mercilessly pummeled.
The gaping doorway opened into a grey dusk. Three figures stood in it, out on the tiny common. Magic pressed against Lisette, including a familiar, ominous crackle. Her muscles twitched, remembering electricity jolting through them.
“Stay back, everybody,” she ordered, and strode out of the building.
Author’s Note: This scene was troublesome. I wrote it, moved it to a different place in the sequence, added stuff to it, revised it. There’s so much going on with Lisette’s emotions, revelations and betrayals. And now Lightning Guy is back. Urk.