They call Queen Ismaire the Queen of the White Dunes, and if you've ever been to Jehanna, it's easy to see why. It's white sand and blue sky, stretching as far as the eye can see. Of course, the dunes are only white when the light is— Tethys has seen them brilliant gold at sunset and red like embers at sunrise, and grayish on the rare days clouds cover the sky. But she supposes that's why they're called the white dunes in the first place, for how they reflect the light in the sky.
All her life, Tethys has lived among the dunes, along the irrigation ditches and lazy streams that flow down from the mountains, allowing life to flourish even in the heat. She's watched the sun rise and set over the skyline and the pale stone mesas. She's climbed buildings and watched the palms sway in the wind with her legs dangling off the side, all skinned knees and bruised shins and blisters on her feet. She's walked the streets countless times and seen people come and go, watched shops open and then close and new ones open in their place, and seen life shape itself, ever-changing like the currents of a river, around the date palm groves and melon gardens and hot days and freezing nights.
So it goes. Tethys had always done what she had to to get by, and get by she does— she and Ewan have a roof over their heads and a door that locks, and she has coin in her pocket and he has real shoes, even if he grows so fast they're always a bit tight. Tethys has never asked for anything more.
Jehanna Hall sits just on the oasis, a towering structure of carved sandstone and marble, not elaborate or opulent, but intimidating in its magnificence anyway, sticking up out of the desert like a monument to the continued survival of the city. Tethys thinks that that's part of why she's so fond of the place. She herself has elbowed her way through life in the bustling streets of the city around the oasis, clawed at what she could get until she had made the city very aware that she was here and it was going to be all of Jehanna's problem. Jehanna Hall echoes that. It stands tall, pointing into the wide desert skies, as if daring the wind to knock it down.
Even now, it stands proudly, visible from nearly every window in the city, and now it serves as a reminder to everyone that the tenth anniversary of Queen Ismaire's coronation is coming up fast. The whole city is buzzing about it— with a queen as beloved as Ismaire, it's not a surprise. Tethys' dancing troupe even has the privilege to entertain at the gala the High Court is throwing, which creeps ever-closer with each passing day. All the girls are buzzing about it. Tethys has been part of more than a few conversations about what to do if a handsome noble young man comes through and sweeps them off their feet. Tethys' answer is to kick him in the kneecaps if he tries, but nobody else seems to agree. So it goes.
As far as Tethys is concerned, it's just another job, and every rehearsal is just another rehearsal. And just like any other rehearsal, Tethys leaves the guild hall in the evening and walks past the same guy who stands outside the same neighboring guild hall basically every night.
"Long session today?" he asks.
Tethys grins dryly. "Little bit. What about you, Chief? Did your mercenary friends blow you off to flirt with tavern wenches without you?"
Gerik chuckles. "Ah, there's that wit I know and love. Glad to hear you're doing alright. How's Ewan? Out of school for the summer, right?"
"Yes, and it's all of Jehanna's problem now." Ewan was a handful, but at least he was a handful that could be trusted on his own for most of the day. That was more than Tethys could've said a few years back.
"Hey, if you ever need someone to watch the scamp for a bit, you know my door's always open," he promises. "He's what, thirteen now? I say the boy's old enough to learn to use a sword."
Tethys puts a finger to her chin thoughtfully. "Well, if you were talking about any other boy, I'd say yes, you're right, that's appropriate," she admits. "But consider, for a moment, the concept of Ewan with a sword."
Gerik does consider this. He grimaces. "You know what," he decides. "You're right. I don't think Jehanna would be able to handle it."
"Well, look at this," he says as Tethys starts up the steps to the apartment block. "We were going to the same place. Fancy seeing you here."
"How neighborly," she teases. "I take it you have the rest of the night off?"
"So happens, I do," he says. "They want all us mercs rested and ready for tomorrow. Apparently that's when the real work begins— only two weeks before the party, so I guess I understand."
"You're working the party?" she repeats. "Wow. They must be short-staffed."
"I'm not in the business of turning down gigs. Papa's got rent to pay, and all." He shrugs. "What about you?"
"Theoretically, we'll start our dress rehearsals there tomorrow," she says. She stops on the staircase leading to the second story. "I suppose that means you don't want company tonight?"
"I wouldn't say that. Are you offering?"
"Oh, if only." Tethys sighs. "But I'm not nineteen anymore. I have to call it a night or I'll be dead on my feet tomorrow."
He chuckles. "How responsible of you."
"You know me."
"I'm looking forward to it, personally," Gerik admits. Tethys leads him up the stairs, past his door and towards hers. "Know some good folk in the Royal Guard. Plus, I hear the prince is getting involved— wants to have an active hand in his mom's celebration, I think. That'll be real nice. 'Course, it means his bodyguard's gonna be around." There's a teasing tone in his voice and Tethys rolls her eyes, though she can't hide the flush that comes to her ears and the smile that comes to her face.
"Well, she was very cute," she admits. "But I doubt I'll get a chance to try and fluster her again. I imagine she'll be busy keeping our illustrious ruler and heir safe, like you." She fishes her key from her pocket and unlocks the door. It swings open on old hinges that creak with the effort. It's not a very good building, nor is it a particularly good neighborhood, but it's four walls and a door that locks, and Tethys has never been one to daydream when it's hard enough to rest her head.
Ewan looks up from the low table. He has schoolbooks and papers spread out in front of him and a quill in his hand, but Tethys knows him better than to assume he's taking notes on his summer reading. "Hi, Tethys! Why'd you bring Gerik home again?"
"He walked me home, like a gentleman," Tethys replies with a playful grin.
Ewan snorts. "Yeah, 'cuz that hallway is so dangerous."
Gerik puts his hands up. "I'll get lost," he promises. "Evenin,' squirt."
"Well, I'll see you tomorrow, right, Tethys?" Gerik asks. "Might cross paths during the day, you never know."
"I wouldn't count on it," she replies. "But we'll see. Good night, Gerik."
"Aw, what, no goodnight kiss?" he teases. Tethys rolls her eyes and shuts the door. From behind it, she hears him say, "Yeah, alright, that's fair. Good night."
She sighs and drops her cloak on the rack by the door, next to Ewan's and above his battered shoes and singed school bag. She moves to the mirror hanging above the basin, takes out the golden hoops dangling from her ears, and replaces them with little round studs. Ewan shifts at the table, his elbows on top of the papers and probably smudging his ink. Tethys puts the earrings away and starts to wash off the makeup, just like she does every night.
"Hey, why's Gerik even your friend?" he asks. "You two like to insult each other a lot."
"It's only teasing, he knows that," she replies. "He's the only one I trust in this damned city. Except for you, of course."
Ewan grins. "Well, what was he saying about the job tomorrow?" he asks. "That mean you have the night off?"
"We're supposed to be paid handsomely enough for entertaining at Queen Ismaire's party that none of us will have to worry about rent or membership fees for a week, at least," Tethys replies. She takes her hair down, unwinding it from the elaborate updo that, once upon a time, tugged so hard it made her scalp ache. She supposes she's just used to it now.
"Oh, wow, for the queen?" Ewan remarks. "Sounds exciting. You know you'll be walking down hallways that every accomplished mage in Jehanna's walked, right?"
"So you keep telling me." She walks by and musses Ewan's hair. "It's another job, Ewan, just like any other. It's just working me hard enough that I probably shouldn't take night shifts at the tavern or I'll collapse mid-song, and we can't have that."
"Mm-hmm." He doesn't sound convinced. "Well, I'm glad you're home. It gets really boring around here."
"You know you're old enough to go out without me," se replies. "So long as we don't have a repeat of the thing with Guard-Captain Adan."
He sighs. "How was I supposed to know he was gonna have a lady over? You've seen him! He looks like someone tried to make a snowman out of crud you scrape from between boot treads!"
"Sorry." He pouts, despite knowing he's too old for it. "It's true, though. And I don't wanna go out, it's too hot."
"Fair enough, I suppose." Tethys stretches her arms above her head. Her wrists brush the ceiling, and she feels her sore muscles protest. "Sorry, Ewan."
"Hey, Tethys," he ventures. "Can mages be mercenaries? I know I'm not a real mage, 'cuz I haven't started mage school, but…"
"I suppose if a mage wanted to fight for coin, nothing would stop them," she admits. She lies down on the creaky sofa, which accepts her weight, though it's not too happy about it. "Why?"
"Hm? No reason," he says, like a liar.
Tethys raises an eyebrow. She pushes herself up on her elbows, picks up a sock from the floor, balls it up, and tosses it at him. "We've been over this."
"Yeah, yeah," he grumbles. "You always say that."
"Any business that'd hire a kid your age is not a business I want you getting mixed up in," she says firmly. "When you're, say, sixteen, then fine, you can work if you want to. But until then, you leave it all to me."
Ewan glares halfheartedly at his textbooks. "Okay, fine. I just wish I could help, you know? Then maybe you could stop worrying so much."
"I don't worry," she promises. "We're doing fine right where we are, and I'm in no danger of being out of a job any time soon. You focus on getting into that school and becoming Jehanna's next top wizard, and I'll be here making sure you've got the means to actually do that. You can pay me back when you're rich and famous."
"You always say that," he points out.
"It's always true."
"I bet you could be rich and famous if you decided to," he says. "You're a real good dancer. I bet people would come for miles and miles to see you on a stage."
Tethys chuckles. "You're a sweetheart, Ewan."
"I mean it," he insists. "How come you're not all about show business and stuff, anyway? All the other dancers are. It's all any of 'em will ever talk about. I thought that's the only reason people become dancers in the first place."
"We're fine right where we are, Ewan," she says, and she means it. "Maybe you might find it boring, but I'd call it stable."
"I don't get you," Ewan mumbles. "If I were going to the castle tomorrow, I'd definitely be thinking about it. Like, maybe it's your big break. Maybe the queen will decide that your dancing is so pretty, she wants you to be a courtier or something."
Tethys chuckles. "That's a nice idea, Ewan, but I don't think it'll happen. I'm honored to perform for the queen and all, but really, there's nothing different about it from any other performance."
Ewan hums. "I dunno," he says.
"I promise," she insists. "We're not going to experience some life-altering event tomorrow. It's just another job."
She leans back on the couch, looking up at the ceiling, and rolls her shoulders. She's suddenly reminded of how tired she is— it'll hurt in the morning, but this nothing Tethys hasn't long since gotten used to. She knows she's right, and the world won't suddely change tomorrow, but it wouldn't hurt to get a good night's sleep in the unlikely event that it does.
And that's exactly when things start to change.