“Ari, it’s your turn.”
Alarice, dressed in the leafy ensemble of the harvest goddess, Naega, stepped up to the front of the stage.
“Loud and clear,” Ollie instructed her. The thin, bald man directed Handelport’s spring equinox presentation for the past three decades. He had seen the best actors in middleton’s district and it had made him a stickler for perfection.
She wasn’t too worried, though. Katharina, the oldest of her five siblings, had played Naega for three years straight and she drilled Ari through the lines until she could say them in her sleep.
Ari took a deep breath and started in on her soliloquy. The layers of green, brown, yellow, and red leaf-shaped cloth weighed down her shoulders and trapped in heat like no dress she had ever worn. It was normally a boon to be warm this early in the year, but the day had dawned clear and sunny and it made for an unnaturally balmy afternoon.
Sweat trickled down between her shoulder-blades as she recited the age-old lines. The straw hat was making her head itch. But worst of all was the veil. Naega’s costume had a sheer veil that came down to her upper lip, covering most of her face. Heads of dried grain were sewn into the fabric and they threatened to make Alarice sneeze every time she inhaled. It was one of the more uncomfortable costumes, outdone only by the sea god’s. Lingus’ actor wore nothing more than a collection of knotted blue rags and a loincloth. Most days he had to force his lines out through chattering teeth. But he never quit. None of them would. It was too much of an honor, being able to represent the gods themselves at the equinox celebration.
Alarice faced the near-empty Festival Field and exclaimed her curses for the evil spirit, Tedraul, who had brought blight down on Naega’s blessed crops centuries before. As embarrassing as it had been at first, Ollie insisted on full volume projection. Her voice carried over the empty space, delivering her message all the way to those who passed by in the street.
The spring equinox was a holiday celebrating the gods’ defeat of forces of destruction, personified by the cruel god, Tedraul. They celebrated the departing of a harsh winter and the arrival of lively spring rains. The festival was almost two weeks away, but men were already out setting foundation for the giant log bonfires at opposite ends of the field, and the actors had started practice an entire month ago.
“Tis the greatest evil that denyith mankind his livelihood and thence his life. Tedraul must not be suffered to live any—”
“Masen is dead!”
Alarice cut off. Everyone onstage turned to stare. A herald stood at a street corner that touched the edge of the field.
“Masen is dead!” he cried again, calling a crowd. “Kervain is responsible! King Leonard’s army is at our borders! Masen is dead!”
“Cavas protect us,” an actor behind Ari whispered. He was dressed in the brown, wrinkled fabric symbolizing the Father Oak; the very god he now prayed to.
She didn’t turn around; she could feel their fear radiating against her back like the rays of the afternoon sun. It was a sensitivity only she possessed. The others had to rely on wide-eyed glances exchanged with neighbors to verify their shared panic.
“I’ve gotta get home to my children,” the actor told Ollie. “The king’s army’s gonna be coming soon, just you watch.”
He jumped down from the stage and the rest of the actors were quick to follow him.
Alarice’s peculiar talent allowed her to see the irritation warring with understanding in the director’s heart. She pulled her itchy hat off of her hair. Long, dirt-brown tresses cascaded down her back.
“Alright, we’ll practice later,” Ollie conceded to his sole remaining actor. “Go on home, Ari.”
She nodded, smiling at him. “Thanks, Ollie.” Alarice stepped off the edge of the stage and landed next to him.
“Be safe, girl,” he warned.
“I will,” she promised. She wasn’t as excitable as the others. If Handelport really was invaded, Ari was confident that she could at least make her way home. And then if it was bad her father would know what to do. “See you!” she waved.
Cavas’ actor wasn’t the only one alarmed by the herald’s news. Up and down the street, shopkeepers and vendors were closing up shop and putting away their wares. Shoppers and errand-runners hurried to go about their business or turned and went straight home.
The field stood vacant, a calm lake in the middle of a suddenly-churning sea. Knowing what she was getting into, Alarice took a deep breath before plunging into the crowd. All around her the fear, anxiety, and excitement of the people pressed in on her. She felt the urge to squeeze her eyes shut, but knew it would do no good; this ability of hers was magical and couldn’t be turned off.
The sensible side of her—it sounded unnervingly like her mother—cursed the fact that she had been born with this strange defect instead of some useful ability that could have gotten her apprenticed to an Artisan. But the gods had chose to burden her with this loathsome, good-for-nothing secret instead, and it wasn’t like she could demand they take it back.
Ari ducked off the main road onto a narrow alley. She followed it around to a street that wound through the business district of middleton Handelport. This part of town was rapidly clearing as the news spread and people left for home to ensure their families were safe and to calm their fears. It would take her a little longer to get home on this road, but there would be considerably less traffic.
She set her pace at a brisk walk. Her hat bumped against her thigh with every step and the cool spring breeze caressed her sweaty neck. Though she couldn’t see any of them, Alarice could still hear the heralds bellowing their story in short sentences. Masen is dead. King Leonard had him killed. He was branded with the traitor’s mark. The army is at our border.
She walked quicker and headed for an alley that would lead her on a short cut towards home.
Fifteen feet away from the mouth of the side street, Ari suddenly stopped. She sensed people in the alley. Men. Strong feelings of anger, vengeance, hatred, and fear roiled in their hearts.
There was no telling how many there were at this distance, but Alarice knew one thing; all of them were intent on murder.
Someone stepped out of a store up the road from her. The men’s anger doubled, as well as one’s fear.
Ari looked at their target. He was a forty-something-year-old man, with short dark brown hair, a straight, handsome nose, and thick eyebrows. The clothes he wore were fashionable and expensive; a long-sleeved tunic of rich purple and black trousers with well-made black leather boots and a matching leather belt. Orange embroidery flashed at his cuffs and collar. His mouth was quirked up in a smile as he started down the street at an easy pace, seemingly oblivious to the dire cries of the heralds. His breast glowed in her sight with the special light that only Artisans possessed.
Alarice found that she was having a hard time breathing. Indecision boiled up inside of her. What should she do?
Nothing, her mind told her. You can’t just go up to a man and tell him he’s about to get jumped. What will you tell him? You sensed his murderers with your magic heart-reading abilities? Don’t do it, Alarice!
But her heart fought that sensible side of her. For all twenty years of her life she had kept her strange talent a secret. Growing up, her family hadn’t had time for a five-year-old’s “fantasies”. And being able to see and sense everything about someone’s personality was too strange to reveal to any of her friends. Better to hide such things and just be plain like everyone else.
But what about now? Ari realized suddenly that no matter what, her conscience would never allow her to just walk by and let a man get killed. Not when she had seen it so plainly.
But what was she going to say to him?
It didn’t matter. The fancy man was almost to the alley now and she had to do something.
Impulsively, Alarice ducked her head and put on Naega’s straw hat. She pulled the veil down over her face and started walking quickly.
The man in front of her remained oblivious right up until she passed him. Ari reached out suddenly and grabbed his arm, pulling him to a stop. He looked down at her, surprise written on his face and flickering in his heart. Now that she was touching the man, his magic shone like a sun in her eyes. Every concise little emotion he felt was clear to her. She shook off the shock of it with the capability born of long practice.
“Come this way,” she muttered.
“Uh, alright,” he agreed, still a little stunned. “You know, it isn’t every day that I get accosted by a young woman,” he told her conversationally as she turned him back the way he came. Ari nearly groaned; he thought he was being very clever.
“I’m sorry,” she told him quickly. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but there were a bunch of men in that alley ready to kill you. I know you’re an Artisan and all, but they would’ve taken you by surprise and I didn’t know if you could’ve dealt with ‘em all.”
His astonishment and confusion washed over her.
“Anyway,” she continued before he could start asking her questions, “you’ll be fine as long as you go another way. I’d suggest circling around to wherever you’re going, but that’s just me. And watch out for more of them. Good day.”
She released his arm and ducked into another alley before he could catch hold of her.
“Wait!” he called.
But Alarice was already gone. She ran through narrow streets and dodged around corners, desperate to keep him from following her. Her breaths came in short gasps and her heart was pounding frantically in her chest. Sometime during it all she managed to get the ridiculous hat off her head; it was much easier to see without all of the bits of wheat blocking her view. She lifted her heavy skirts up and zigzagged through the familiar roads around her neighborhood.
Only when Ari was convinced that she had lost him did she allow herself to slow down and catch her breath. She couldn’t believe what she had done back there. Had she just saved a man’s life? Or revealed her secret to a complete stranger? Both, probably.
Alarice tucked her hat under one arm and walked quickly home. The familiar sight of her family’s textile store set her heart at ease.
The door was closed and barred; her father had closed up shop for the day. Ari circled around the building until she reached the back door of the shop which was also the front door of her home.
The house was bustling and a little more chaotic than usual when she slipped quietly in. Her mother, Celine, was at the dining room table, rearranging the chairs so that she could fit two more in the already-crowded circle. Gretchen, Ari’s youngest sister, was “helping” her, but the teenager’s mouth was chattering nonstop, moving a lot faster than her hands. Celine’s plain, homey face was showing more and more exasperation at her daughter. The short, dumpling of a woman ruled her family with a tough love and her patience was notoriously short.
Ari’s father, Casper, was speaking with his two oldest sons, Roderic and Emery. Both were in their twenties and had grown to imitate his sound stature and reliable nature. Their father acted as calmly as he always had—but then, Casper was usually cool-headed. It was only when she looked at his heart that Ari was able to see just how worried he really was.
Behind Casper, and trying to act as nonchalant as possible, was Wald, her younger brother. He was doing his best to eavesdrop on the “men’s conversation”, but he was just a little too eagerly curious to be successful.
“Wald!” Katharina hissed from the corner of the room. For some reason Ari’s big sister was here with her two children. One wailed in her arms while the other toddled around underfoot, delighted by all the excitement.
“Leave Da alone! Go fix up the cash box if you’ve nothing to do.” Wald scowled at her. If it were any one of his other siblings, he would have ignored the order. But Katharina was eight years older than him, and she was used to getting her way with her younger siblings. He slumped and slunk into the shop through the curtained doorway.
“Gretchen, go help your brother,” Celine told her daughter firmly. She had had enough of Gretchen’s nonstop talking. As the glum Gretchen disappeared into the shop, her mother sighed, shook her head, and left for the kitchen.
Emery noticed Ari first. He was leaning against the wall, listening to their father, when he caught sight of her, still standing by the door. His expression changed to one of relief, which caused her father to turn around and catch sight of her too. Casper was not a very expressive man, but Ari wasn’t fooled by his small smile. She could see the mass of worry in his heart come undone. It was washed away by relief and gratitude.
“Thank the gods,” he murmured.
“Da,” she said, walking forward to hug him. “Don’t worry, I’m fine,” she reassured him, speaking into his plain tunic. Hugging a person always felt to Ari like she was immersing herself in their heart. It wasn’t something she usually found enjoyable, but her father’s heart was overflowing with love and it was nice to soak it all up for just a minute. “Just got a little delayed by the crowds is all. Equinox practice went well.”
“Good,” he said simply. That was Casper; a simple, good man.
Her mother was back from the kitchen. She was happy to see her daughter, and insisted on a hug, but she was also irritated with her for taking so long. Hugging her felt like embracing a bunch of roses; sweet-smelling, but prickly. Ari pulled back after only a second.
“I’m fine, Mama.”
“You’d better be,” Celine scolded, but she had a smile on her face. “Now come on, girl, help me with supper. The world might be goin’ to pieces, but we still gotta eat.”
“Oh, Mama, the world’s not goin’ to pieces,” Ari said as she smiled and followed her mother into the kitchen.
“With the way people are acting you’d think it was! Goodness. We had to close up early today. People go thieving left and right at the first sign of trouble. If we’re lucky there won’t be any riots in this part of town.” Celine handed her daughter a spoon and pointed her to a boiling pot of vegetable stew.
“Do you think it’s really going to be that bad?” Ari asked as she started to stir. She tested a drop on her tongue and added a bit more pepper.
“Who knows. There’s no being sure if it’s really Kervain’s fault. But if they send that army of theirs in you can be sure Handelport’s not gonna go without a fight. Things should be alright for a day or two. Then we’ll find out what their king’s going to do with all this.”
“What do you think they’re going to do about Masen being killed?” Alarice wondered.
“Well, no one’s exactly complainin’ about that man. He took as much taxes as old King Henrik wanted to, and that’s the reason we split with Kervain in the first place.”
“One of his underlings will take over,” Casper said quietly from the dining room doorway. “They’ll start dealin’ with the king. If they’re tryin’ to avoid war, this might go quietly. The king doesn’t want war either, or he’d have sent his army in by now. If they get mean, though, it’ll get bad.”
Celine shot a worried look over her shoulder at her husband. Alarice could sense that they were both more anxious than they were acting, and that they were doing their best to be brave for their children. They didn’t hide such feelings from each other, though; the past thirty years of eking out a living on the edge of crime-ridden downton had made them a perfect team.
“We’ll be fine,” her mother said with forced assurance. “Go get the bowls on the table, Ari, and don’t forget to set places for Katharina and her children.”
Alarice was just opening the cupboard when a loud pounding sounded at the door. The bolted, shop door. She shut the cabinet as everyone hurried to look into the shop.
“Hello?” an inquiring male voice called on the other side of the strong wood panel.
Casper pushed through his crowd of children and emerged into the shop. The man kept pounding.
“Who is it?” Ari’s father asked loudly from the inside of the door. The pounding stopped.
“My name is Wilson. I…well, I have a few questions, but could you open this door? It really is uncomfortable to have to yell through it.”
Ari edged a little more around her brothers and peered at the door. On the other side was a heart that she felt was familiar, but she just couldn’t recall…
Her father unbolted the door just as she figured it out. He pulled it open to admit the fancy Artisan she had saved on the street.
“Hello,” he said with a broad smile.