“New curtains, dammit, I should have thought of that today. White lace, I think, then with sort of a nice, soft brown overlay for when I actually want to keep out the light…”
I hadn’t stopped moving, not from the time I awoke until now, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. True to her word mum met me early and we spent the day taking care of everything, first meeting with the head carpenter and negotiating the price of good furniture, a counter for the entry room. I debated with the blacksmith over just how much work a cauldron deserved, and, thanks to maman, I had gold enough to make the deal go my way, earning the promise of a smooth, balanced piece.
I went from store to store, buying kitchen supplies, tools for gardening, food and drink and tableware and anything I could think of to make this house a home. For now, I was up on tip-toe, mimicking the work I’d done in the Sanctuary not long ago, using my broom to twist around and pull down those pale cobwebs in the high corners as mum busied herself listening to my chatter, making a list.
“Did I remember to buy seeds? Suppose it doesn’t matter, with winter on the way it’s not the time for – “
The door creaked open. I stiffened instinctively, finding myself oddly relieved to recognize the face in the threshold as Antoinetta, bearing a basket and a sunshine grin.
“Good morning! I heard the good news and wanted to come see.” She sashayed in, placing the basket on my little kitchen table. “And to bring a housewarming present, of course. Breton tradition, right?”
“I’m not sure we can claim that one exclusively, dear, but it’s a good tradition nonetheless.” Mum examined the basket as I craned over my shoulder to look, the smell of fresh rolls filling the house with a new sense of warmth. “These look delicious. You’re ready for tomorrow, I trust?”
“Mhm! I mean – “ Antoinetta seemed to remember her place then, going pink and giving a dip of her head. “Yes, Speaker Abelle.”
Ignore it. Ignore it. Don’t let that taint this, all of this good, all this hope. I bit my tongue and turned back to my work, dragging the bristles along the ceiling and holding back sneezes at what fell. “You’re – epth!” I sputtered and rubbed away the itch that had drifted down on my nose. “You’re leaving together, then?”
“Antoinetta has work down in the Imperial City. My carriage will need to stop there, anyway. And I’m sure she’ll be lovely company on the trip.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Another dip of the head as mom held back a smirk. Did she like being addressed like that? Did she tolerate only as a matter of respect between ranks? I lowered my broom, scrutinizing the corners with a nod.
“When are you both…”
“Early tomorrow morning.”
Don’t think about it. Kvatch isn’t that far, and you’ll have your own home soon. She can come see you. You lived five years without her, before. You’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.
She’ll be happy, there. And that – maybe that was what still hurt most. Knowing why she was going there and what she was going to become, and that she’d take joy in it.
“But what about you, hm, Dusty?” Antoinetta swept in from behind, prying the broom from my hand and grinning. “Take a break for a second, will you? I heard you’re opening a shop!”
“That’s the plan.” Her smile was infectious. I grinned back, relinquishing it as she threw it to a corner.
“Sounds like fun! Got a name yet?”
“I do, actually.” Mum glanced over in surprise. “I was thinking about it all day.”
“Well, dear.” She arched a brow. “Don’t keep us in suspense!”
“I’m calling it The Dusty Cauldron.” They exchanged a look as I glanced at them. “What do you think?”
Antoinetta’s nose wrinkled. Mum took a breath, the exact sort of sound I’d heard before when she was being delicate with me. “… Darling, wouldn’t – wouldn’t ‘dusty’ make one think the cauldron wasn’t used much?”
“It’s not like about the cauldron being actually dusty, it’s just a silly little play on words!” I tried not to pout. “I like it, I think it’s clever. Netta?”
She shrugged. “S’not going to be my shop.”
“You both have no sense of humour.” I took my broom back up, not to sweep but to thwack it against the ground with one hand, down like a staff as I made my point. “It’s a good name, and it’s my shop, and that’s what I’m going to call it.”
“You call it whatever you like, darling, as long as it makes you happy.” It was mum’s turn to take the broom from me again, this time without struggle before glancing over at Antoinetta. I’d never get my sweeping done, at this rate. “If you wouldn’t mind, dear – I’d like a few moments alone with Dust.”
“Of course – of course, Speaker.” Another bow.
“Thank you for the rolls, Antoinetta. I’ll – I’ll see you when you come back, yes?” A wave and she was gone, the door creaking to a slow close behind her. “What is it?”
“I just thought we should – say our goodbyes now. I don’t know that I’ll have time in the morning, and given how early we’re leaving…”
I’d known it was coming, of course, and braced myself for it. Tried to keep from letting the sinking feeling sink too low, from letting my feelings show. “I’m so grateful, mum. For everything.”
“Just make the best of it, my love. Be happy. I wish you the very best of luck, even knowing you won’t need it.”
I wanted to wish her well in return. I wanted to. But knowing where she was going, what she was going to do, to be when she got there – I hid it all in a hug instead, kissing her brow as she often did mine. “I will, I promise. You’ll come visit, won’t you?”
“Whenever I have time. If you need anything at all, pass a letter to the Sanctuary and they’ll get it to me. You’ll be fine, chérie.”
I’d felt this before. This sense of bittersweetness, this raw love and hope so delicate it felt like glass. Fear and hope. ‘Make the best of it. You’ll be fine.’ Not the first time she’d said that to me.
Hopefully this time, it would stick.
“I know I will, mum.” Another echo. I grinned at her, swallowing to keep tears at bay. “I’m yours, remember?”
“Damn right. And before I forget…” She pulled something from her belt, and I froze. Her dagger. Offering it forth with a small smile I couldn’t read. “It tangled you in this, but perhaps it also saved your life. If you hadn’t held it when Lucien had come…”
I’d be dead. She didn’t need to say it. For all my mixed feelings, the blade still meant something to me. It had saved me then, and it had cut my ties with my old life when I was a girl. I accepted it, wrapping my fingers around the cool metal.
“I love you.”
“And I you, Dust. Always.”
I was alone when twilight fell. Alone, but not lonely. I would miss her, dearly. I missed my life at the Arcane University, everything I’d had to leave behind. I missed the certainty of the future I’d once held in mind.
But I let my mind wander to better things. What potions I could make and sell, what services I could offer the people here. I put on the fire and dragged a chair close, sat close enough to hear sparks pop and feel the delicious heat as the chill of evening settled.
I can do this. I can be happy, here. Or at least I can try.
I was half-asleep when a knock on the door startled me. This time of night? Was it mum again?
I almost didn’t recognize him. Not like this, dressed smartly in everyday clothes and a mannerly smile on his lips. It was only the glint in his eyes, the way he inclined his head that made it all rush back. “May I come in?”
The trade. The argument. My protests, and my proving him wrong –
I felt my face flare red and turned, scoffing. “You say that like I have a choice. Come on, then.”
“Not a very gracious hostess, pet.”
“Forgive me, I hadn’t had the chance to offer you tea yet. Give me a moment to keep up, won’t you?” I was already bristling, covering up my annoyance and my embarrassment with a mocking sweetness. “Can I help you with something?”
“Just thought I’d come by to see how you’re settling in.” He surveyed the main room, shrugging off a short cloak misted with the fog settling in. “Abelle chose well enough. Pity it’s near the chapel.”
“I like where it’s at. The bells sound lovely.”
“You’ll tire of them soon enough.” More out of a need to keep busy I indeed poured us tea, offering a mug as he continued. “Your poisons were adequate, for our purposes.”
A chill down my back. “They haven’t been – already – “
“No. But I did make a point of looking them over, and the formula is pure. I had – concerns that you might try to undermine us, make something less than lethal with the fool idea of saving a life at the cost of your own.”
I’d thought of it, but the idea hadn’t lasted long. It would have been pointless rebellion. With or without my potions, the targets would die. And I wanted to live.
Even if it was as a coward.
I turned away from him again, letting my mug hit the table with a thump. A bitter, sour taste grew at the back of my mouth, making me grimace. I didn’t need this. I didn’t want my fresh start, my chance at freedom and making a life out of this, to be tainted by the reminder that…
That it wasn’t really freedom at all. Accept it. I screwed up my brow and inhaled deep, fists uncurling. This is the way it’s going to be, and all you can do is make the best of it.
“Something the matter?”
I softened my tone now. “… What is a Speaker, Lucien? What do you do?”
He tilted his head. “What makes you ask this now, hm?”
“If I’m going to be – a part of this, even unwillingly, I need to know. Even if I don’t want to know, and believe me I do not,” A harsh syllable, withering into a sigh. “… I need to. I need to know everything, and when you told me before that I wasn’t ready…” I made a face at his smile, even as polite as it was. “Don’t look so smug. Yes, you were right.”
“But now you are. You’ve given your blood and service, your word to the Brotherhood. Your work will lead to the deaths of innocents, in exchange for your own life.”
I wanted to argue, the same reasoning I’d been trying to ply on myself. They’d die, anyway. At least sometimes, I can make it painless. I can make it quick.
I didn’t. I picked up my mug again, wrapping my hands around it and holding tight. “… So you’ll tell me, now?”
The strangest thing, to have this man sitting in my new home, sipping my tea and telling me, in that low, silky rumble, everything I didn’t want to know. Hands folded, features shadowed and flickering in the firelight as he explained.
Sithis. The Dread Father. Not some horrific daedra or lord over death as I’d pictured, but the ruler of emptiness. Vast, endless expanse, yearning, hungry, blank and yet filled with the potential of endless chaos. A being beyond understanding.
And yet, he had a bride. Lucien spoke of the Night Mother in such gentle tones, expression distant, but loving. When he spoke of her embrace it wasn’t with the grand, booming voice of a priest spouting glory of the Nines, but something quiet and deep and intimate.
More businesslike then, his explanation of the Dark Brotherhood’s structure, and indeed, the apt metaphor of the Black Hand. Four fingers, and a thumb. Four Speakers, and a Listener.
I kept silent, only moving to refill our tea when it grew cold. I let out a sigh when he’d finished, letting my shoulders slump.
“I understand how – how someone could find some sort of sense of purpose, in this. All of this. The business end and the – the side of belief. How someone could find family in it.” And for people like my mother, orphaned and alone and angry…
How sweet, the Night Mother’s accepting embrace must have seemed.
“Someone. But not you.”
I laughed without humour. “No. Not for me.”
“No? And this is?” A line of amusement, contempt grew between his mouth and cheek. “A pretty little house with a copper kettle and tea on the hearth, a husband and children? And here I'd hoped perhaps you might be interesting."
I scowled. “You don’t know a damn thing about what I want.”
“I think you made what you want quite clear the other night, pet.”
My face turned red again. I made a point of not meeting his gaze as I took his empty mug, primly putting it with mine back on the table. “Will that be all, Lucien?”
“For now. You will receive your orders for new potions and poisons by Fredas.” He stood, shrugging his cloak back on as I walked him to the door. “Ah, and one more thing.”
He turned on me, so quick I nearly lost my balance in recoiling. Not angry, not attacking, but all my memories of the night we met flooded in and I hated myself for the whimper I gave as he caught my chin, as he stared intently into my eyes for a long moment.
“You are free of the Sanctuary, but not of us. We are watching. Should any secrets reach unwanted ears, it will be likely not only you but your mother who suffers the consequences, and everything you are beginning to build will come crumbling down. But if you are obedient, and discreet…”
“Believe me, I am painfully aware of my servitude.” Did he feel the tremble of my jaw in his hand? How much I wanted to spit and snarl? But it wasn’t with anger or disdain he spoke, not the way Ocheeva had.
“It’s for your own good to keep that in mind, pet.” I pulled back the moment he released me, running my hand over the tingling spots the contact left. Then the smirk returned. “I’ll be sure to come and see your little shop, once you’ve set to business.”
“Don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
I slammed the door behind him and fell against it, swallowing a deep breath and digging my fingers into the wood. No. No, don’t let them ruin this. You’re going to be fine.
I’ll make the best of this. I can do that – I know I can.