1. Old paths

When Sandrilene fa Toren first walked the grounds of Winding Circle, she wore mourning black. At 28, Sandry wore it again.

The air was thick and sticky, almost as heavy as the old, earthquake summer. Dedicates did not stop their work as she passed—gardens were still tended, workshops clattered and hummed. No one paused to question her as she let her feet stray from the kept paths and onto grass; it tickled her feet and legs, staining her skin—leaving her skirts untouched.

She would not be Duchess for another week. There was no need to bow.

(—The best thing about housing a religious organisation, Vedris once told her, Is that there is always a group of people who are dependant on something more than me.

—That, Erdogun had replied, wry as always, Is also its problem.)

Sandry had always favoured her uncle.

We're coming, you know. Daja's mindvoice was a whisper in her mind. Fast as we can. Even Tris.

I heard that!

I think you were meant to, Coppercurls.

Listen, you. Tris was acerbic as ever. Some of us have students.

Lakik help them all.

Oh, hush. Sandry sent. All of you.

As far away as Namorn, they hushed. Sandry smiled and shielded as she thought of them all: her foster-family, scattered and busy but grown enough in their magery to reach her and squabble.

Briar was somewhere on the grounds, of course. She should tease him for calling to a trickster street god, since he'd made vows to Mila and the Green Man the year before.

Daja had met up with the Kugiskos in Namorn, travelling with the Caravan Idaram and an armload of commissions.

Tris… was Tris. And wherever she was, in whatever direction, there were always children who needed to learn to read.

Her uncle was dead, and they were coming. Friend to friend. Her Uncle was dead, and she would be Duchess. They would see her instated.

Her uncle was dead. Since Longnight, and a surprise, no matter his age or the amount of practice he had had—all near scares and a faltering heart she had bound more than once. Over ten years, there had been debate and preparation. Tris had been sent on search for the Duke's middle son. His brothers had bickered each other into irrelevance. You, my dearest, Vedris had said, face lined and voice shaking only a little at the news Tris sent that Mattias would not return, are my heir. And from then, of course, it had only been a matter of time.

Sandry's thoughts tumbled, all centred on that single thought. Vedris was dead. And Sandry, forgetting that the woman she had become was grown from the girl who slept with nightlights and wept for her long-dead parents, kept her shield up tight and pinched her arm sharply to stop herself from crying.

You would think
, she thought, I would be prepared for this.

Discipline was cheerful and white to her left, sunlight baking the roof. Sandry slowed, but did not walk to the door, her body swaying a little with half-suppressed motion, one hand wiping irritably at her eyes.

"Sandrilene. Should you be here?"

The voice was familiar, and concerned. But not, it seemed, about her tears. Sandty looked up, squinting a little against the afternoon glare and the clean, vibrant yellow of the First Air Dedicate's robes. It had never, she thought, been a good colour on him. And he had never cared.

"Hello, Crane," she said, sniffing discreetly, raising her eyebrows and feeling as if that small, inquisitive gesture might pull her together. "I can be anywhere I like, just now."

The tall Dedicate smiled thinly. "I recall," he said, "You said equally silly things when you were ten."

"And I was right."

"You were headstrong."

"I," said Sandry, voice warming, a true smile slipping into it, "Was right. Do you have any tea?"

***

2. A strange conversation

"It still doesn't feel real." Sandry shrugged, the motion visible behind fine blue crockery, her voice echoing just a little off reinforced glass and marble walls. The air was sharp and clean, the last traces of his latest Yanjing blend clear and astringent in his mouth. Sandry, though still pale, was less pink about the eyes and nose. One hand was curled lightly about her cup; the other clenched too fast to her skirt, spoiling the line.

"You've worked alongside your Uncle and His Lord the Steward for years," Crane said. He couldn't help it. He had never soothed well, and if she had wanted soothing, than surely the young woman knew better than to talk to him, when Lark was only steps away. He did not, he reflected, know what Sandrilene might want from him.

The look on her face was very strange. A mix of appalled—so she had wanted sympathy—and weary, but also a wry amusement that made her look just the accomplished woman she was.

"I was talking," she said quietly, "About his death. Not my qualifications."

"As I have just realised. My condolences go without saying."

Sandry blinked. "I think you just said them."

"—I—"

"—Badly."

Crane passed a hand over his eyes. He was, to his mortification, blushing. Sandry had uncurled her fingers from her dress to pat his free one. Light pressure and the rasp of skin on skin.

"You," he said, swallowing. "Are good to miss your uncle. That is fair and right and only serves...it only serves to show—" words. He had never been good with words, even when using too many of them. He shut out Rosethorn's imaginary laughter as he continued. "It serves to show what love you have for people." Crane shook his head, ignoring her faint gasp. "But it does not excuse maudlin and useless worries about your suitability to carry on from him."

"Crane?"

"I have seen you grow up, Lady Sandrilene—" He was standing. When had he stood up? –"And you are better fit to Emelan than anyone I know. Better suited than my father was to his demesne or his Vassal-King to his kingdom."

Sandry was staring at him, her blue eyes wide. He hoped—Asaia help him, he hoped—that her siblings were not privy to his words. He was not sure where they had come from. Slowly, the woman stood, walking around to his side of his small dining table.

"That," she told him, a little thickly and head tilted to the side, "Was a speech. I do hope you'll be at the Citadel next week, since that'll be my turn to give one."

Crane sniffed. "I'm a First Dedicate of Winding Circle, girl. Of course I'll be there."

She hugged him, but only after he'd already made a first, fumbled step forward to do the same. He felt her shudder, and the tightness of her back and shoulders as she laughed, one of his hands instinctively moving to brush her fine hair—which was less gold than it once was, but felt very, very soft.

***

3, The Duchess's Citadel

He had not been there.

Well, not close. She had seen his sash, the yellow of his robes standing out against the other First Dedicates. But there had been no way for Sandry to read his face—or anyone's—as she stood before them all and spoke of futures and findings, families and fears. She had felt, even with the warmth of her siblings in her mind—Briar and Tris's cheering audible long before it should have been—rather small.

Sandry sniffed. "Well," she muttered to herself, flopping down on her bed and untying her hair from its elaborate braiding, "I'm meant to get better, not taller. I was chosen. I am right for this. Crane was right."

Crane. The conversation in his Greenhouse's inner rooms the week before had lingered in her mind, with the scent of lavender amongst his clothes, and the inadequate stitching. He had been pompous and awkward, and very much himself when she had felt altered and strange. And it had been lovely.

There was a letter on her desk.

Sandry blinked, wondering why she had not noticed it before. Curious, she stood, dark blue skirts—still embroidered with black—swishing slightly as she moved to retrieve it. A small, solid weight of good, linen enriched paper in her hand.

To Her Grace, Sandrilene fa Toren, Duchess of Emelan:
First Dedicate Initiate Crane, Winding Circle, Emelan:

Dear Sandrilene,

I did not want to intrude, in the happy mess of well-wishers and potential new hangers-on that thronged around you in the wake of your very fine speech. Your Uncle, were I of that school believing in the omnipresence of the dead before their reincarnation, would be proud. As I have never believed anything quite that arcane, however, I should, in truth, only say that I think he should be proud.

Writing to you serves another purpose. There is something somewhat unsettling in knowing that the ten-year-old girl who stood up for abominable dogs despite an otherwise good head can now make me blush. Correspondence, therefore, is something of a balm.

Still, my embarrassment is hardly the point of this letter. The point is that, Sandry, you were magnificent. I look forward to years of haranguing you in future Temple-Civic meetings. (That last bit, in case you were unsure, was something like a joke.)

Yours, most sincerely,

Crane.

4. Selected correspondence:

To First Dedicate Initiate Crane, Winding Circle Temple:
Sandrilene fa Toren.

Crane.

What a letter! Do you write to your family like that? Your sisters? Rosethorn? It has been several hours and I still don't know what to make of it. I'm not entirely sure whether I should feel complimented, or if I should kick you in the shins. Not, of course, that I can really kick anyone in the shins, these days. I think that was Erdogun's first Duchess lesson. I shall ask Briar to do it for me.

Thank you, still, for your letter. I've never read anything quite like it, yes, but I also think I would quite like to read some similar ones again, if I haven't just gotten your back up too much. I shall send this to you, with my affection, in the next post.

Yours,

Sandry.

To Her Grace, Sandrilene fa Toren, Duchess of Emelan:
First Dedicate Initiate Crane, Winding Circle, Emelan:

Sandrilene.

I was surprised—though I should not have been—to discover your decision to talk to Dedicate Briarmoss re: my shins, was a real threat. Luckily, my bruise-balm is second to none, and so I do not have to think of you as I get out of my bath every day. As to my skills as a correspondent, I have no sisters to write to and Rosethorn and I have always found it more economical to converse with notes.

You have now been Duchess for two weeks. I trust you are settling well. I have heard no news to the contrary.

Yours sincerely,

Crane.

Dear Crane,

Your flaws as a correspondent have been duly noted, and shall be overlooked. There's just something nice about getting letters, isn't there? At least, the personal ones. I could do without questions about other people's daughters, or marrying myself to other people's sons. Who says a lady can't be eligible at 28, so long as she has a Duchy.

I do wish I could visit, but find myself rather overwhelmed with lunches and dinners, along with the delegation from Aliput. I would have liked to see more of your greenhouse.

Yours, wearily and with affection,

Sandry.

To Her Grace, Sandrilene fa Toren, Duchess of Emelan:
First Dedicate Initiate of the Air Temple, Crane; Winding Circle, Emelan:

Dear S,

Attached are the original blueprints for the Greenhouse's construction, back in 1021. Please be careful with them, they are fragile and quite dear to me. I have also included two tisanes: the redleaf is for you, should the compulsory dining provoke indigestion. The tisane in the blue packet is for any son you feel presses their suit too strongly. Its effects are subtle, but felt.

My regards, C

To: That silly, dear man who keeps using formal letterhead when he doesn't have to.

Crane, I cannot poison my guests—though the gift is appreciated more than you know. I shall keep it somewhere safe, and think of it when flustered. The redleaf has been wonderful.

The plans are fascinating. How old were you when you dreamed them? It all makes me wonder at Rosie's strong objections, just a bit. (Though you must never tell her.)As to their frailty, I think that, when you need them back, you should come and get them in person.

Love, S.

***

End of Part 1.