Spire Albion, Habble Morning, Tagwynn Vattery
Bridget sat in the dim vaults of the vattery, back in the shadowy corner where the cracked old vat had been removed. She wedged her back against the corner and held her knees up close to her chest. She was cold, of course. The chamber was always cold. She noticed only when she paused to think about it: She’d lived too much of her life in this room for it to be truly uncomfortable.
“Bridget?” called her father’s deep voice from the entrance of the chamber. “Bridget, are you back here? It’s time.”
Bridget hugged herself harder and pushed a little farther back into the corner. The rows and rows of vats scattered the sound of his voice, sending it bouncing around the chamber. She leaned her head against the cold, reassuring solidity of the cinderstone wall and closed her eyes.
This was her home.
She didn’t want to leave her home.
Her father’s voice, gentle and deep, came again. “Take a few more moments, child. And then I want you to come out, please.”
She didn’t answer him. She heard his gentle sigh. She heard the doors to the chambers shut, leaving her with the quietly gurgling vats and the faint glow of a few scattered secondhand lumin crystals.
It wasn’t fair. She was perfectly happy doing exactly what she’d done ever since she was a small child. And it was a good and necessary duty. Her father’s vats provided the finest meats in all of Habble Morning, after all. Without someone to tend them, people would starve. Or at least eat inferior meat, she supposed. Personally, she took pride in her craft. She’d rather starve—to death, if necessary—than eat that ridiculous rubbery chum that Camden’s Vattery produced.
It was ridiculous. Her family wasn’t one of the High Houses, except in a fussy technical sense. She and her father were the only remaining members of the Tagwynn line, for goodness’ sake, and it wasn’t as though they were running out buying new ethersilk outfits every other week. Or at all. They lived no better than anyone else in Habble Morning. She hadn’t asked to be born to the lineage of some overachieving, bloodthirsty Fleet admiral, no matter how respected a role he played in the history of Spire Albion. It wasn’t as though she and her father enjoyed any particular privileges.
Why on earth should she submit to an outdated, rigidly traditional obligation?
She felt a small surge of outrage and tried to ride it into something larger and more determined, but it dwindled and flickered out again, leaving her feeling . . . small.
She could pretend all she liked. She knew the real reason she didn’t want to spend her year in the service of the Spirearch.
She was afraid.
There was a rustle and a very light thump, and she looked up to see one of her favorite people bound lightly from the top of the next vat, land in silence only a few feet away, and sit down, regarding her with large green eyes.
“Good morning, Rowl,” she said. Her voice sounded little and squeaky in her own ears, especially compared to her father’s basso rumble.
The dark ginger cat purred a greeting and padded over to her. Without preamble, he climbed into her lap, turned a lazy, imperious circle, and settled down, still purring throatily.
Bridget smiled and began to run her fingers lightly around the bases of Rowl’s ears. His purr deepened and his eyes narrowed to green slits.
“I don’t want to go,” she said. “It isn’t fair. And it isn’t as though I can actually help anyone with anything. All I know is the vattery.”
Rowl’s purring continued.
“We don’t even own a gauntlet or a sword, unless you count our carving knives. We don’t have enough money to get them, either. And even if we did, I don’t have the faintest idea of how to use them. What am I supposed to do for the Spirearch’s Guard?”
Rowl, having had his fill of getting his ears rubbed, stretched and turned over onto his back. When she didn’t begin immediately, he swatted lightly at her hand with a soft paw, until she started scratching his chest and belly. Then he sprawled in unashamed luxury, enjoying the attention.
“But . . . you know Father. He’s so . . . so good about honoring his obligations. When he gives his word, he keeps it. When he sets out to accomplish something, it’s not enough simply to accomplish it. He needs to be the best at it, too. Or at least try to be. He served his time. He says it’s important for me to do it, too.” She sighed. “But it’s a whole year. I won’t get to see him at all. And . . . and the neighbors and the people in this corridor. And . . . and the vats and the shop and . . .” She bowed her head and felt her face twist up in pure misery. She gathered Rowl in her arms and hugged him to her, rocking back and forth slightly.
After a few moments, the cat murmured, “Littlemouse, you are squishing my fur.”
Bridget jerked guiltily and sat up, loosening her embrace. “Oh,” she apologized, “please excuse me.”
The cat turned to meet her eyes with his and seemed to consider that for a moment. Then he nodded and said, “I do.”
“Thank you,” Bridget said.
“You are welcome.” The cat flicked his tail back and forth a few times and said, “Wordkeeper wishes you to leave his territory?”
“It isn’t that he wants me to go,” Bridget said. “He thinks it is important that I do so.”
Rowl tilted his head. “Then it is a duty.”
“That’s how he sees it,” Bridget said.
“Then there is no matter for consideration,” the cat replied. “You have a duty to your sire. He has a duty to his chief. If he has agreed to loan one of his warriors to his chief, then that warrior should go.”
“But I’m not a warrior,” Bridget said.
The cat looked at her for a moment and then leaned his head forward to rub his little whiskery muzzle against her face. “There are many kinds of war, Littlemouse.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“That you are young,” the cat said. “And less wise than one who is old. I am wiser than you, and I say you should go. It is obvious. You should trust a wiser head than your own.”
“You aren’t any older than I am,” she countered.
“I am cat,” Rowl said smugly, “which means I have made better use of my time.”
“Oh, you’re impossible,” Bridget said.
“Yes. Cat.” Rowl rose and flowed down onto the floor. He turned to face her, curling his tail around his paws. “Why do you wish to dishonor and humiliate Wordkeeper? Would you change his name?”
“No, of course not,” Bridget said. “But I’m just . . . I’m not like him.”
“No,” Rowl said. “That is what growing up is for.”
“I am not a child,” she said.
The cat looked around speculatively and then turned back to her. “Rather than do your duty, you are hiding in the darkest corner of the darkest room in your home. This is very wise. Very mature.”
Bridget scowled and folded her arms over her stomach but . . . she said nothing. She was acting like a child. Rowl was right. He generally was, but did he have to be so irritating about it?
“You are afraid,” Rowl said. “You are afraid to leave the territory you know.”
Bridget felt the tears welling up again. She nodded.
“Why?” Rowl asked. “What is there to fear?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
Rowl just sat, green eyes penetrating.
Bridget bit her lip. Then she said in a very small voice, “I don’t want to be alone.”
“Ah,” Rowl said.
The cat turned and vanished into the deep shadows of the chamber, leaving her feeling smaller and colder and even more alone than before.
Bridget wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and swallowed the tight feeling in her throat. Then she stood up. She left her hand against the cool stone for another long moment, and tried to think of that familiar sensation coursing into her, infusing her with strength. Rowl was right, in his smugly annoying way. Her family did have a duty. There might not be much left of House Tagwynn, but it was still a good House. After all her father had done for her, after all the love he had given her when her mother passed, she owed him more than embarrassment—even if no one thought it embarrassing but him.
It was only a year. Only one . . . long . . . strange . . . lonely . . . terrifying year.
She walked slowly to the chamber door.
When her father opened it, she looked up at him. Franklin Tagwynn was an enormous block of a man, his shoulders almost as wide as the doorway. His arms were thicker than many men’s legs, and the muscles sloping up to his columnar neck were like slabs of stone. He wore his white apron, and his belt with its vatterist’s carving knives. His rumpled hair was the color of bare iron, and his eyes looked tired and concerned.
She tried to smile for him. He deserved it.
His answering smile was tired, and she knew she hadn’t fooled him. He didn’t say anything. He just enfolded her in a gentle hug. She put her arms around his solid warmth and leaned against him.
“There’s my brave girl,” he said quietly. “My Bridget. Your mother would have been so proud of you.”
“I’m not brave,” she said. “I’m so afraid.”
“I know,” he said.
“I won’t know anyone,” she said.
“I expect you’ll make friends quickly enough. I did.”
She huffed out a tired little breath. “Because I’ve made so many friends in the Houses already.”
“Bridget,” he said, his voice a gentle reproof. “You know you’ve never really tried.”
“Of course not. They’re pompous, spoiled, egotistical brats.”
His chuckle was a low rumble against her cheek. “Yes. I know that they seem that way to you. But you had more responsibility thrust on you than most children when you were young—especially the children of the Houses. You had to grow up so fast. . . .” He leaned his cheek against her hair. “I can hardly believe it myself. Seventeen years went by so quickly.”
“Daddy,” she said quietly.
“I know you haven’t cared much for the other children of the Houses, but they aren’t all bad. And most of them will grow up. Eventually. You’ll see.” He leaned back from her and held her at arm’s length. “There’s something I must speak to you about. One more responsibility I must ask of you.”
She nodded. “Of course, Father.”
He rested his huge hand fondly on her head for a moment, smiling. Then he said, “I need you to look after someone for me.”
She tilted her head and blinked. “Pardon?”
Behind her father, two cats sauntered into the room. The first was a very large grey male, a muscular beast with many scars in his otherwise smooth fur, and notched ears. The second was Rowl. The ginger cat sat down behind and slightly to one side of the grey, and his whiskers quivered with amusement.
Her father spoke very seriously. “Clan Chief Maul has decided that it is time for the Spirearch to recognize his tribe as citizens of Habble Morning, which, to his way of thinking, obviously means that his line is no different from one of the other High Houses. As such, he acknowledges his obligation to detach a member of his family for service to the Spirearch. I offered you to Rowl as a guide, to help him learn the ways of the Spirearch’s warriors.”
Bridget blinked for a moment and then felt her face turning up into a wide, wide smile. “Wait . . . are you saying . . . are you saying that Rowl is going with me?”
“No,” Rowl said smugly. “You are going with me. It is much more important that way.”
Chief Maul glanced at Rowl in what might have been vague disapproval. The younger cat blinked his eyes once, slowly, and seemed to Bridget to be insufferably pleased with himself.
“This is an important duty,” her father said. Laughter sparkled in his eyes. “And I know it will be a sacrifice for you. But are you willing to do this, for the sake of House Tagwynn’s good relations with the chief and his clan?”
Bridget turned to Rowl and held out her arms. The ginger cat padded over and leapt up into them, nuzzled his cheek against hers again, and settled down comfortably. His softness was a favorite blanket, and his purr was as familiar as one of her mother’s barely remembered lullabies.
“Well,” Bridget said. She nuzzled her cheek against Rowl’s fur. “If it’s for the House of Tagwynn, then obviously it is my solemn duty. I’ll manage.”