Family Tree – Lindsey Duncan

Family Tree – Lindsey Duncan

“Halett,” Rithshara called out of her dressing chamber, “where is my youngest son?” She pondered the crimson headdress versus the black, and decided on the former, which didn’t pinch. There was no reason menace couldn’t be comfortable.

“Serving his unjust punishment in the underworld,” Halett replied. The dark, wiry man with the odd eyes — one brown, one blue — was clever, but occasionally, he tried too hard.

She frowned. “My youngest living son, Halett. He was supposed to accompany me on the day’s diversions.”

“I will find him.”

Thanks to a bath of eternal youth, Rithshara did not look anything close to her hundred and fifty years, but after her sixth husband’s untimely assassination — this time, it had not been her doing — she had retired and handed the reins to her daughter Glivren. That was four years ago; she now had the distinction of being history’s only recorded Evil Overmother, with the luxury to pursue her hobbies of esoteric execution methods, dream torture, and mountain-climbing.

The titian-haired sorceress arrayed herself on her resting couch with a sigh. Her oldest son had set himself up as a minor god. Her second son had made a deal with demons to open a gateway to other worlds and sought a paradise worth the plucking. Both her daughters were skilled in the dark arts. Then there was Othri.


She sat up. “Where is my son?”

“Gone. Left the city.” Halett’s words were clipped.

Rithshara had abandoned the practice of executing the messenger because it was hard on personnel, but it was tempting to revert. Save that it was Halett, who was too valuable to lose. She had almost gotten out of the habit of watching her back around him. Almost. “You looked everywhere? So quickly?”

“I didn’t have to. He left a note.”

Halett minced into the room, keeping up a brave face. She plucked the note from his hand.

Dear Mother, it began. I am afraid I have reached a point where I must follow my conscience.

That was his problem right there. Any member of his family could have helped him remove the pesky thing. He had always been a puzzle to her, befriending servants and hostages. Granted, the latter had come in handy once or twice …

She read on. I am leaving the city and the empire to devote myself as a priest to the Gods of Light. May you and our family one day wake to the error of your ways.

Truth Sings, Othri

Rithshara rose in a dramatic swirl of skirts. “Halett? We have work to do.”

In his nineteen years, Othri had grown resigned to wild rides on the back of spiny demons, or gut-wrenching teleportation that left one with a deep-seated need for chicken soup. He found he enjoyed walking.

Even though this had been the Ash Forest for over a century, traces of the Firegreen still surfaced. Vine-roses trellised up the withered trees, a trickle of water bubbled across a dry riverbed, and songbirds mocked the vultures and demon-birds who made this place their home. The old had not been completely smothered, and Othri felt its tranquility. He closed his eyes and breathed.

He tripped over a root.

“Good grief.” He picked himself up out of the mud. “Well, now I suppose I have a disguise.” He had toyed with dyeing his fox-red hair, but his family had easier ways to find him if they wished. He had always been a disappointment; he hoped they wouldn’t miss him.

“That’s a terrible disguise.”

His head whipped about, but he saw no one. Despite the voice’s raspy, thorny quality, he was sure the speaker was female.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “is someone there?”

“More or less.” She walked out of a tree trunk as if it were a doorway, a stout, brawny woman with skin the same color as the withered leaves. Grey moss hair twined down her back and shoulders and fused with both. Its color notwithstanding, she looked about his age.

Othri stared. It did not take years of eldritch training to identify a forest spirit, bound to the forest and its guardianship, but he had expected something more ethereal, more exotic.

She planted her hands on her hips. “What?”

There was no way to tactfully put words to his confusion. “Are you …”

She strode closer without seeming to move her feet. He did a surreptitious check: she did indeed have feet. “Kebra. I’m the spirit of the Ash Forest.”

“Othri. I’m nobody.”

“That’s obviously not true,” she said, “since you’re standing here talking to me. Covered in mud.”

“Well, I’m somebody,” he amended, “but nobody important.”

She frowned and studied him; he felt as if his soul were being raked through underbrush. “I doubt that, but I don’t care as long as you don’t hurt my forest.”

“I’m not here to harm anyone,” he said. He had learned young that appearances were misleading, that great beauty could hide great evil, but he had never heard anything about the other way around. Kebra was far from ugly, but she had a solid strength he had not expected. “So you are the mistress of the Firegreen?”

“No, I’m the mistress of the Ash Forest. I came into being after the plague destroyed the old trees and their ever-branches stopped burning. What became of the spirit before me, I have no idea. I’m the forest as it is now: a survivor.” Kebra spoke in a matter of fact tone, but thunderstorm shadow flickered in her eyes. “It’s all I am and know.”

“I’m honored to meet you,” he said.

She snorted, turning away. “Why have you come to my forest?”

“I’m just passing through. I’m headed to the Silver City.”

“How cosmopolitan of you,” she said. “What are you going to do there?”

“I intend to become a novice in the order of Thiorsan,” he said, “and some day, a priest. If the god deems me worthy.”

“So you’re going to sit in marble halls, play endless lullabies, and meditate on the purpose of existence until you can’t feel your toes,” Kebra said. “Sounds like a great way to live your life.”

Her sarcasm was thicker than the mud on his pants. He ignored it. “I hope so. It will be a nice change.”

She stared. “From what?”

As the first answer that came to mind was “demon summoning,” and the second was “world domination,” he hesitated. His mother had created the Ash Forest in her early days, so he knew what topics to avoid. “I’ve had a rough life,” he said, awkward. He had always felt comfortable talking to people, even mad sorcerers and extraplanar beings, but Kebra turned his words upside down.

“You sure don’t look like it,” she said. “Good luck, then. If Thiorsan deigns to materialize for you, tell him I said hello.” She turned away.

“Wait!” he said. “Am I going the right …” He stopped as she stepped into the tree trunk and disappeared.

He sighed, then gathered up his optimism and his compass. He headed onwards, unable to resist whistling a hymn. His new life was near, and he had met a forest spirit. It was a good day.

Rithshara stood before her scrying pool, lacquered obsidian nails arrayed on the bone rim. It had once been some the skull of great beast called a dinosaur, a gift from her late third husband — the bones, not the beast.

“Empress?” When she waved him in, Halett continued, “I’ve given your regrets to your daughter in regards to today’s presentation of slaves.”

Rithshara had forgotten the commitment in the unnecessary drama. She found herself grateful for Halett’s foresight — not for the first time. “And you didn’t tell her why?”

“Of course not.” Beneath his servility, Halett seemed indignant.

“Good.” She traced one fingernail across the murky surface, spelling out her enchantment in invisible calligraphy. “Othri,” she breathed to the pool. “Show me my son.”

The pool’s surface quivered and cleared, depicting a small, rotund toddler with scarlet curls. He played under a thorn tree with a puppy he’d somehow found — not a proper hellhound, but a scruffy moppet. She remembered that day — an early warning sign of his softness.

Rithshara sighed. “Show me my son today,” she amended.

The pool’s surface rippled again, and an image formed of disheveled Othri tramping through a forest.

“That’s the Ash Forest,” Halett said.

Natural outings were not Rithshara’s idea of a vacation, and she had not set foot under the Forest’s bowers for decades. “So it is,” she said. “And not far from the border. How in the world is he traveling, by horse?”

Halett leaned over the bowl. “By foot. Horses will not tolerate the Ash Forest.”

Rithshara laughed. “Walking? Now I’ve heard everything.”

“It is, if nothing else, a reliable method of transportation.”

She wasn’t sure whether to be impressed by her son’s determination or annoyed by his stupidity. “He might have stolen one of Glivren’s brooms, at least.”

“I expect he didn’t want to give you any reason to chase him.”

“As if I would abandon my darling boy.”

“Children usually don’t know their parents that well,” Halett observed. When she shot him a look, he added, “I’ve a daughter, Empress. She’s nine.”

“Well,” Rithshara murmured. Halett had been a trusted hand for years, yet she never would have guessed. She’d have to pay more attention to him in the future. “In any event, this makes things simple. I shall bring him back promptly.”

Halett cleared his throat. “If I may make another suggestion?”

He had to be aware that for lesser minions, those were frequently last words. “Continue.”

“If you go to retrieve him yourself, it will make too big a show,” he said. “This thing needs to be done quietly, to match his disgrace. I would recommend sending an ice dragoneer.”

She considered. Halett was right: the last thing she wanted was to provide fodder for gossip. An Evil Overmother had her tyrannical image to maintain.

“Very well,” she said. “Send the dragoneer.”

Othri had never walked this far in his life, and the novelty had worn off. He plopped down on a stump and eased his boots off to massage his feet.

“I suppose it builds character,” he said.

The sudden chill in the air surprised him. Though the fire trees had long since burned out, lingering embers flickered in their trunks, and Othri had grown used to their warmth. In summer, it might have been stifling, but on this early spring day, the heat had served as a comforting cocoon … until now.

In the distance, a harpy shrilled over her meal. Otherwise, the forest was still. Wary, he slid off the stump, crouching and wishing he still had his boots on. The canopy rustled.

He dove under the nearest bush as a blast of icy breath seared through the clearing. It froze stump, ground, and boots.

Ice dragon! He rolled to one side, peering up through the maze of hoary leaves. The dragon’s wings flashed; he caught just enough glimpse to see the saddle and rider.

He continued rolling, crawling elbows and knees into deeper underbrush. His heart throbbed in anxiety, making it difficult to breathe. He was a traitor to his family and might be treated as such.

Something snagged his pack, and he resisted the urge to plead for his life. He grimaced and yanked, but the crackling of branches told him his adversary was only a thorn-bush.

The sound caught the attention of the dragon. It wheeled with a cry like shattering ice. Othri winced and tried to crawl faster. He debated lurching to his feet to sprint, but once upright, he would be exposed and barefoot.

Arctic blasts poured around him. The nearby trees frosted over, lacquered in hues of unnatural blue. The sweat froze on his back, but the ground beneath him was undisturbed. It meant he wasn’t in the epicenter. The dragoneer didn’t know where he was … yet. He breathed out cautiously, watching it fog, and lifted his head to peer through the icicle trees.

The dragon’s powerful wingbeats vibrated the air. Twigs and ice-coated leaves shattered. The dragon circled overhead … retreating? He dared to hope the rider might have given up.

Othri flinched down as the dragon swept back overhead, a second layer of ice frosting over the first. So much for hiding. He tucked his legs beneath him, ready to leap — stagger — to his feet.

The nearest trees caught flame, blazing skywards in sunset coruscation. He gasped at the beauty.

“Are you going to stand there and stare, or are you coming?” Kebra’s voice demanded.

Othri almost toppled searching for her. Her face gleamed in the fire. “How do I …”

“Just plunge into the flame,” she said, impatient.

It occurred to him, through force of habit, that this would be a very easy way to kill him, but he wanted to trust her. He stumbled upright and charged the tree.

Heat flared around him, but did not burn. Bark rasped across his skin, yet the tree was soft, a cushion of feathers. He tumbled through into a clearing.

Kebra stood before him, arms crossed. “You have ice dragons chasing you,” she said, “so you’re obviously not nobody. Who are you?”

There seemed to be nothing for it. “I’m the son of Overmother Rithshara,” he said.

Moving like a gale, she slapped him. “You idiot!”

This had happened so many times, he had a conditioned response. “Yes, I am. Terribly sorry.”

Kebra stared. “You … what?” Recovering, she went on, “You really thought you could just walk away? That they wouldn’t follow you?”

“I honestly didn’t think they’d care,” he said.

She snorted. “Well, thanks for not thinking, because now my forest is a target.”

He swallowed. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave as soon as I can, I promise.”

“And when you get to the Silver City, is that really what you’re going to do? Live a cloistered life in the service of priesthood?”

Othri had borne her indignation as the rightful product of her forest coming under attack, but now he felt he had to defend himself. “I’ve lived a life full of black magic and ambition. Don’t you think I want to get as far away from that as possible?”

“So travel the world,” she said. “Visit the Great Library of Tareish. Roam the Golden Dunes. Dance in festivals in every city. Dine in taverns where they don’t speak your language. Learn a musical instrument they’ve never heard of in the Empire. It’s what I’d do.”

She was right: there was a greater world, but he doubted he was equipped for it. The priesthood was safe, assured shelter from the chaos of the Empire. “So why don’t you?”

She flinched. “I can’t. I’m trapped within the bounds of the trees. I can only see where the Ash Forest’s seeds have flown, but having adapted to this waste,” she raked a hand around her, “they don’t grow well anywhere else. They have to be planted deep in ash.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, regretting the question. “I could take a sapling with me when I leave.”

“So all I would get to see is the halls of Thiorsan?” she countered.

“Isn’t that better than no halls?”

She turned away, drifting between the trees. By now, he was certain her feet didn’t move. “I guess.”

“It’s the least I can do,” he said, “after I’ve put you out.”

She paused, glaring over her shoulder. “Are you going to move? The sooner you leave, the faster things will go back to normal.”

“Can’t we just step through a tree again and be at the edge of the forest?”

“I can,” she answered, “you can’t. It takes a lot out of me to move a mortal.”

Othri scampered after, wincing as a broken branch scraped his foot. “You don’t have to look out for me.”

“Yes,” she said, “I do.” And despite his polite questions and bright remarks about their surroundings, she said nothing else for some time. He was used to being able to get through to people, but Kebra was as bleak as the forest she guarded.

“What do you mean, you think you had him? Where is he?” Rithshara glared up from her velvet couch.

“Well …” the dragoneer faltered. “My mount had his scent and we had frozen down the area, when a bank of trees erupted into flames. When the smoke cleared, we had lost his aroma. We circled for over an hour, but couldn’t pick up another trace.”

Rithshara wondered what her youngest son smelled like: violets and timidity? “You are dismissed,” she said. The dragoneer tripped over the rug in his haste to absent himself. “You warned him to expect the worst, didn’t you, Halett?”

He shrugged. “I may have done, Empress.”

She found herself impressed again. When had she come to rely upon him? Pity her son didn’t have the same instincts. Othri had a knack for people, but it was the wrong one. “A worthy thought. Perhaps I should have … no.” Disappearing dragoneers would doubtless draw dubious attention to this diversion of hers. “The spirit of the forest has involved herself, Halett.”

“How do you know it’s a woman?”

“Divine division of labor,” she said. “Females take rivers and forests; males take oceans and mountains. It’s aggravatingly sexist.”

“What do we do now?”

“There’s nothing else to be done: I shall have to go myself. You will accompany me.” Rithshara sighed. “I hope it won’t take much to bring the boy to his senses.”

“I don’t see how it could,” Halett said. “The advantages he has by being under your wing are tremendous.”

Rithshara nodded absently, accepting that. Learning to flatter was a basic skill of underlings. She expected it from Halett as a matter of course. She rose and moved to her bookshelf. She skimmed tomes bound variously with skin, bone and fruitcake, pulling one out. “I’m opening a portal as close to his current location as possible. I expect you will defend me from the forest, if necessary.”

Due to an abundance of heroes who thought they could topple the Empire, the imperial armory had acquired a stock of magical weapons. These had been distributed to top officers, and Halett carried one of sufficient strength to cut through whatever enchantments the forest had to offer.

“My arm is at your service, Empress,” he said.

She paused, arching an eyebrow. “And the rest of you, I should hope.”

“Even my freckles.”

“You don’t have freckles.”

He cleared his throat pointedly.

She laid the book out on her ritual stand. To an outsider, the ancient language would have sounded like a cross between gargling and a madrigal.

The portal flared into existence, white and oozing. She took Halett’s extended arm and stepped through.

On the other side, she inhaled. Ah, the Ash Forest … a monument to the achievements of her youth. She drank in the decay and darkness, smiling as a spectre flitted overhead.

Othri was somewhere here, and every moment closer to disappearing. She murmured another spell, her voice growing to eldritch strength. She whooped, her voice powering through the trees. It reflected back to her, mapping out what lay beyond.

A counter-melody interrupted, discordance that made it impossible to pick up the echoes. She scowled.

Halett rubbed his ears. “Empress?”

“The spirit of the forest is interfering with my powers.” She pursed her lips. “Well. I can take care of that.”

“Better than Thiorsan’s eunuch-mangled yowling, isn’t it?” Kebra asked.

“It is certainly different,” Othri said, trying to be tactful. The pain in his feet was distracting, but that was no cause to be surly.

“I’ve blocked your mother’s seeking spell, but she’ll come up with something else soon. We need to move.” She put action to words, zipping through the trees without regards to human locomotion.

“Or she’ll hurt your forest,” Othri murmured.

She whipped about to face him, vine tendril tresses moving in sync. “That’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

“I’m not,” he said firmly. Fear flowed up in him, but what would his new life be if he paved the way with blood? Or whatever vital fluid ran through the veins of a forest spirit.

Kebra folded her arms, expression cross. “So you’re going to go back. Just like that.”

“If I have to.” He would only be giving up a change of scenery, after all. Perhaps Kebra’s harping had some ring of truth, and Thiorsan’s halls, as superior as they were to his family’s palace, might eventually become familiar and even boring. “Who did she bring with her?”

Her eyes unfocused. “Just one man — scrawny sort with mismatched eyes.”

“Halett,” he said. He remembered the man, a trusted but invisible part of the imperial entourage. At times, he had envied Halett his competence in their world of conspiracies. His brain, scampering about in search of some other solution, almost tripped over an idea. “I need to talk to him.”

“Do you really think this is going to be solved by talking?”

“Just this once,” he replied, “it might be.”

Kebra heaved a gusty sigh. “She’s already sent him to scout the area, probably so he doesn’t see whatever mysterious feminine ritual she’s about to enact.”

“I always thought that was a metaphor for something,” Othri said.

“Do you think I’d tell you if it was? All I have to do is ask the forest to close in around him.”

“Let’s do it.”

She led him through the forest, the trees twisting and pirouetting out of her way. He watched in fascination as the patterns became a corridor, impenetrable on either side. Kebra gestured; he followed, keeping his limbs close. He was not so sure the trees would not snap at him in passing.

Othri heard Halett first, crunching through the underbrush and cursing. The trees shifted, and he stumbled into view.

“Othri!” Halett jerked upright. “What kind of mad chase is this?”

“One you started, as far as I can tell,” Kebra said.

Halett’s eyes narrowed, assessing her. “Milady,” he said, frosty in his absolute politeness. “This is not your fight. It’s time he went home.”

“I’m afraid I’m not going home, Halett,” Othri said.

Halett slid a hand to his sword hilt. “I’m afraid you are.”

“That’s odd, neither of you looks afraid,” Kebra said. Othri was grateful for the words, for he certainly felt the fear. Not so much of Halett, though the man was formidable; he was afraid what his mother would do, and how the forest — and Kebra — would be affected.

“I don’t belong there,” Othri said. “I’m just going to be a continuing disappointment to my mother until she decides to get rid of me permanently.”

“That’s her luxury,” Halett countered, “but not necessarily. You seem smart and adaptable, Othri. You could find a way to follow the family line.”

“You have more faith in me than I do. Maybe you’re right, but that’s not who I want to be. And do you really want me there, Halett?” he asked. “Or would you rather her attention go to someone more deserving?”

Halett stiffened in surprise. “It’s not my place to decide who is worthy and who is not.”

“You would make a better son than I would,” Othri said. “If I had my way, you’d just take my place.”

Halett opened his mouth, shut it. Othri pressed on. “I want her to let me go.”

“So you can go off and do nothing in particular,” Kebra said, sotto voce, possibly to the vines. The words stung; he told himself she wasn’t right, but wasn’t sure he believed it.

“She won’t,” Halett said. “She can’t allow the world to see her son betray her.”

The loyalty in Halett’s voice both impressed and relieved Othri. He knew he could settle any doubts on that count. “I know. And I have an idea.”

The ritual Rithshara intended would be swift and irrevocable, which was why it took so long: it had been designed to give the spellcaster time for second thoughts. For her, the delay was merely annoying. Second thoughts were something that happened to other people.

She glanced about the mire-laden clearing with some irritation. Why had Halett not returned? If the forest spirit had somehow overcome such a trusted lieutenant, she would feel Rithshara’s wrath, and not simply because the Overmother had an image to maintain. As her attention shifted, she realized the forest thrummed.

The trees parted, revealing the trio of Halett, Othri — he was barefoot, she noted with bemusement — and a wood-knotted woman who must be the forest spirit.

“Ah,” Rithshara said, “it all makes sense now. This is about a woman.”

Othri blinked owlishly. “What? No, it isn’t about Kebra.”

“She doesn’t seem like his type,” Halett said.

“What about my type?” the spirit asked.

“I wouldn’t presume to guess.”

Kebra turned to Othri. “Will you please get these people out of my forest?”

Up until this point, Rithshara had watched with bemused tolerance. “I would be careful how you address ‘these people,’ ” she said, “seeing as some of us are responsible for your very existence. I trust you have come to surrender yourself?”

“I haven’t,” Othri said.

“Then I have no other recourse but to force you.” She dashed away the ritual trappings with a swipe of her sleeve, grasping the dagger. A touch of blade against her skin summoned blood and power. Her whispers sent it whirling out, spiraling into rusty tentacles. They surged for Othri. “It’s for your own good.”

Halett stepped between them. “No.” He brought the armory blade around in a theatrical arc, slashing through the air and the spell.

“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded.

“Hear him out.”

She narrowed her eyes in displeasure and repeated the spell, punching out the words. The tentacles doubled and tripled, evading Halett’s impressive technique. One set of bands coiled around Kebra, restraining the spirit. The rest converged on Othri.

They stopped.

The darkness hovered at the threshold of his body, refusing to bind him. Clearly confused, he wobbled back. In the contrast presented by her sorcery, Rithshara saw why. Purity. The boy was too good, in all the wrong ways.

“We both know I won’t live up to the family legacy,” Othri said, regaining his calm. “In the end, I’m only going to embarrass you.”

“We are an empire and a bloodline,” Rithshara said, “but most important of all, we are a family. We must present a united face to the world.” She reached for a maternal tool more powerful than sorcery: the guilt trip. “Do you want to put your siblings in danger?”

“I don’t think anything I could do would put my siblings in danger,” he said, “but I wasn’t made for this kind of life. Halett, on the other hand, is ideally suited. He is quick, clever and strong. Tell the world we were switched at birth. He is your true son, and I … am nobody.”

Rithshara stared, astonished beyond dignity. “Are you truly suggesting …”

“You’re right,” he said, “that your son should be menacing and cunning. Of course you understand that can’t be me.”

She hesitated, knocked off course by the fact he was agreeing with her. “You have the ability. It’s in your blood.”

“Maybe, but I don’t want it. Isn’t ambition better from someone obsessed with it?”

“Here now, let’s not go that far,” Halett murmured.

She shifted her attention to him. “I suppose you support this idea, Halett.”

“Yes, Empress, I do think the idea is sound,” he replied, “though you understand my personal bias.”

Kebra snorted. “Personal bias.”

If only Othri would apply that mindset to the family business. Rithshara contemplated Halett. Othri was correct there: she could not have designed a better heir.

Suspicion reared its head. She tightened the magic threads surrounding Kebra. “What is your role in this? If you have poisoned him against me, I will destroy you.”

“No,” Othri said, “you won’t. She had nothing to do with my departure.” Deliberately, he stepped to the spirit’s side … and the tentacles around her receded, fleeing from him.

“I had no role in this until Othri tumbled into my territory,” Kebra said, apparently unmoved by the threat. “The result doesn’t affect me unless you decide to start destroying the forest … again.”

Rithshara ignored the pointed addendum.

“But one thing I know,” Kebra continued, “is life grows from the consequences we didn’t intend. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. You could drive yourself mad trying to stifle everything that branches out — or you could embrace it.”

Rithshara regarded Othri’s anxious, unassuming face, a visage that wouldn’t hold guile or malice. He stood barefoot, mud-spattered, but straight as an arrow with determination, and so counter to everything the family stood for that her powers refused to touch him. With a pass of her hands, she released the spell.

“You understand,” she said, “that you will never have the same chance for power, influence, and wealth? You know the riches you’re giving up?”

“Yes,” he said, “and that’s all right by me.”

“You understand you will not be able to command the peasants in your new home to obey your every whim?”

He blinked. “I figured I would look after my own whims.”

She really had no idea what to make of him. “Very well,” she said. “I will put the plan into action as soon as I return to the palace.”

He heaved a gusty sigh. “Thank you, mother,” he said. “I will miss you — and the rest of the family — but this is what I need to do.”

“I will miss you, too,” Rithshara said, “but it appears there’s no dissuading you.” She paused. There was something missing. Realizing what it was, she did the unthinkable.

She embraced him.

Othri held onto the hug. This goodbye was harder than the first, but the knowledge he was free — really free — filled him with possibility. He hadn’t imagined he would be able to get them both to agree, but the right words had just seemed natural.

“Thank you,” he said.

“This is all very touching,” Kebra said, “but can we get the evil overlady —”

“Overmother,” Rithshara corrected.

“Whatever,” the spirit snapped. “Can we get her out of my forest, please?”

Othri snuck a sideways look at Halett and caught a glimpse of the man’s smirk. He had no worries; Halett would be just fine.

“Just remember who made it your forest,” Rithshara said.

“Oh, I remember, believe me.”

Halett pulled Othri aside. He tensed, waiting for some dire threat, but also feeling an eerie confidence that he could talk his way out.

“Do you need boots,” Halett said, droll, “or are you making some kind of point?”

“Definitely the former,” Othri said, fervent.

It was a quick exchange. Othri wasn’t about to complain when it turned out Halett’s boots were too big. It seemed some kind of metaphor.

With an inordinately complex gesture, his mother opened the portal. She and Halett stepped through. Demon birds caroled in the trees as the light winked out.

It was Kebra’s turn to breathe a sigh of relief. “I didn’t expect that to work.”

“Could I get a few dozen seeds from you, please?” Othri said.

She crossed her arms. “I don’t want dozens of sprouts channeling me devotional hymns and pitiful prayers for hours on end. It will drive me crazy.”

“How would you tell the difference?” he asked with a small smile.

She barked laughter. “Fair.”

“I’m still going to the Silver City,” he said, “but not to become a novice. I never thought I had any strengths: now I know I have at least one.”

“You’re good with people,” she said, “considering you just got that bastion of evil to do something decent.”

He nodded, finding confidence in her agreement. “I have the chance to go anywhere. It seems a shame to waste it.”

“Right.” Kebra turned her hand over. Seeds spilled between her fingers. He stretched out the bottom of his shirt to catch them, and transferred them to his pockets.

“I could,” he said, “plant one in Thiorsan’s courtyard —”

“Don’t you dare,” she snapped. She pivoted and flowed through the trees, vines and leaves bending to greet her passage. Othri watched her go, smiling. His first encounter outside the Empire hadn’t gone so badly.

She paused, turned back, hands arrayed on hips. “Well? Are you coming?”

“Coming?” he echoed, puzzled.

“I’m escorting you to the edge of my forest,” she said. “You’ve caused enough trouble today.”

He grinned. “I’d welcome the company.”

Talking, sometimes bickering, they crossed the Ash Forest together, with all the world beyond.

Your thoughts?

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