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The Swallow and the Nightingale

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Her life in the care of Esperanza is startling in a number of ways, from the lack of color in the buildings and the land to the wary stares of the people of Espada to the debilitating low quality of all the basic human needs that these people have got. She has to stay on her feet, and try not to betray too much surprise, and most of all she has got to learn.

Even though he’s the kindest to her, Julio is usually out practicing under his brother and Paulo’s watchful eye, or off on missions that he won’t tell her about (for her safety, he says, and she knows that Esperanza simply doesn’t trust a strange Daltania hearing about their plans when they’re afraid she’s a spy). And so all her learning is done at the foot of the sister between her rescuer and the captain.

Fiona Raguel is fierce—

(“Scrub,” Fiona barks out over an armload of dishes, “a lot harder than that, that’s not scrubbing.”

Even though she’s far too cowed to squeak out a but, it must show on her face, because Fiona sets down the dishes on the counter with a violent clatter and comes at her with enough force to make the floorboards under their feet groan. Roughly, Fiona presses on the back of her hand and moves it against the pan roughly enough that her triceps start to burn.

“Now look,” Fiona tells her, and she does: There’s a patch of clear black underneath the dishrag that there wasn’t before. “This soap is cheap, it’s weak, and if you don’t use a lot of elbow grease the pans aren’t going to get clean even if you stand there wiping them until your fingers are big pink prunes.”)

Fiona Raguel is gentle—

(“Here,” a voice says, and apropos of nothing a sprig of tiny purplish-blue flowers she’s not familiar with falls into her lap.

“Um,” she manages, and cranes her neck back in time for Fiona to walk out of her range of sight and sit down next to her. “What are these?”

“You can chew them directly or crush the petals into paste and put them on your hands,” Fiona says, pointing at the blooms themselves. “The soap that we use here to wash dishes will crack your skin if you’re not used to it, so it’s better to start treating yourself as soon as your hands get irritated. The flowers grow just about everywhere, I’ll teach you how to find good ones later.”

“Thank you,” she says, not sure what else she should say, and Fiona smiles.

“I have you helping me with the scut work and you’re not complaining, so the least I can do is make sure you don’t hurt yourself while you’re at it.”)

Fiona Raguel goes after what she wants—

(“I’m glad I could get you naked this early,” Fiona remarks casually, pinning her hair back into its lopsided ponytail.

Her mouth drops open, and it flaps there for a moment before she’s able to respond redfacedly—“I beg your pardon?”

“You are such a noble,” Fiona remarks in a satisfied-sounding tone, as if commenting on good weather or a night’s work well completed. “It’s your hands, Alyssa. I’ve never been to bed with anyone not covered in calluses before—your fingers are really soft. I thought that’d feel nice, and I was right.

“So, I’m sure glad you’re experienced and honest with what you want. The way I’m working you, you’re probably going to toughen up after a couple of weeks. As it is now, I at least get to enjoy your fingers being smooth while they still are.”

The first thing she thinks, once the dull shock of embarrassment has cleared, is that Fiona is so frank about sex as to be Natalia’s exact opposite, and that that’s refreshing to a degree that amazes her.)

—Fiona Raguel is, all in all, the kind of person she knows can teach her a lot of things that she still needs to know about the world.