I am so terrifyingly behind in Camp NaNo right now. D:
But here is the prologue to my project, Box of Bones. I’m not sure it’s a prologue I’m going to keep in the final product, but it’s where I started and it helped me get into the project in the first place. Enjoy!
Tiva cleaned the last dish and set it on the rack to dry with the others. The windows were open out onto the cobblestone street below, and the breeze carried in the smells of dust and daffodils. Tiva would miss all this while she was away. It was always the mundane things she missed the most.
Her father was quiet at the kitchen table behind her, staring down at the blue veins of his hands. He had used to argue with her right before she left- oh, how they had fought- but he’d learned it wasn’t worth it. She would keep doing what she did, and there was nothing he could do to stop her. Or at least, there was nothing he was willing to do that would stop her. He knew the thread she walked on in her line of work. It had taken only the smallest misstep for her husband to fall off that thread. Her father wouldn’t risk her falling as well. There were risks enough without his adding to them.
Tiva wiped the table and the counter tops and dried her hands on her apron. She cleaned the lamps and swept the floor, working room to room in their tiny home. She saved the chamberpot for last of all, and then scrubbed her hands with lye soap and the sink water before draining it from the basin and hauling it out to the street. She watered the bright flowers lining her whitewashed wall and then tossed the last of the water down the street, watching the grimy water disappear in the cracks between the sunbaked cobblestones. A lean gray cat darted out of an alley to lap up the water before it disappeared, watching her with amber eyes.
She went back up the stairs, untying her apron, and hung it on a peg inside the kitchen door. She buffed the basin in the kitchen until it shined, brushing her fingers lovingly across the glazed images of the Mother and the Twins.
Everything was done. It was time to leave.
Tiva kissed her father on the top of his bald head, squeezing his shoulder, and he pressed his hand over hers. She rested her cheek against his forehead, staring down at the tabletop with him.“I love you, Papa.”
“Be careful, Tiva.”
“I will. Just a few months and I’ll be back again.” She stepped back, giving him a playful smile as she went for the door. “Don’t kill my flowers.”
She got her bag from her room and went back down the stairs, the wooden steps groaning beneath her heels. She turned up the streets, greeting neighbors she’d known since she was a girl, and went farther and farther from her home, into the parts of town she had always warned her own two children against.
The sun rose higher and shone straight down into the narrow alley. Sweat prickled down her neck and her back, and more and more people retreated into their homes to wait out the afternoon heat. Tiva walked on, her palm sweaty on the handle of the bag. Her belly fluttered with queasiness and she couldn’t quite still her pattering heart. She wasn’t worried. She always got like this before a job, every time. It was nothing to worry about. Just something to live with.
Finally, she reached the grocer’s shop and went down stone steps to the dark cool of the interior.
A man at the counter called to her before her eyes adjusted to the dark. “Tiva, my beauty. How’s that grandbaby of yours?”
Tiva’s face broke into a brilliant smile, her eyes crinkling into merry laugh lines. “She gets heavier every day. I don’t know what Mahli’s been feeding her.”
He laughed. “How’s she adjusting? Her husband helping her out?”
“He’s been a saint.” Her eyes adjusted and she stepped down a narrow corridor lined with baskets and bins of fruit and vegetables, fresh from the countryside. “And his mother too. They take such good care of my girl.” She flicked her fingers over her heart in a small blessing. Her children had all the gifts she could wish for them, all the ones she hadn’t had herself- steady homes, good communities, bright futures. It was everything Tiva had fought so hard for all those years. With just a few more jobs, she could guarantee their futures. Then she could tell them the truth.
“Good.” The man grunted, his chair creaking as he rose up onto his one leg. He grabbed his crutch from the wall and hopped after her. “And Werrin?”
“Oh, he complains endlessly, the thankless beast. Even after all these years.” The man chuckled and she added, “You’d think I apprenticed him to a bear for all his whining.”
He shook his head. “Youngest. It’s in their nature.”
“All the same, he’s progressing. He made me the most beautiful basin for the kitchen. It’s hard work, but he’ll manage it.” She paused at the door in the back, hidden behind a pillar, crowded with stacked baskets.
“Takes after you then.” He paused at the basket of nespera and tossed one to her. “Take care of yourself, beautiful.”
Tiva caught it with a laugh. “You, too, Barik.” She lifted the bag over her shoulder and shimmied sideways through the narrow gap, pushing the door open with her hip.
The hall was black as the door swung closed behind her. Without a window to the outside, it was cold and dark, a welcome change after the bright and heat of the outdoors. The sweat on the back of her neck chilled her and she let out a breath, starting forward. She, and probably scores of others like her, knew every step of that corridor. The only ones who didn’t know the steps weren’t supposed to be there. They never found their way back out again.
She turned down a side corridor and down an uneven flight of steps, the stone worn and sloping. She shouldered her way through the door at the bottom of the steps, biting into the nespera, its bright sweetness hitting her tongue at the same moment she noticed the lamplight from the next room.
A woman sat at a table, two other men busily pouring over stacks of paper. The woman smiled up at Tiva tiredly. “Thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow.”
Tiva shrugged, heading into a little alcove at the back of a support pillar. “Werrin’s master needed him back. May as well get an early start.” She held the fruit in her teeth and untied her headscarf. She started unbuttoning her blouse and asked, “Nera still mad about the last batch?”
“Oh, she’s always mad about something. You just do your job and she’ll do hers. Don’t worry about it.”
But Tiva did worry. Nera had a say in Tiva’s bounties. She had a say in Tiva’s assignment pool. Maybe the others liked Tiva, and still remembered her husband, but Tiva didn’t like complications. Her work was complicated enough. She kicked her skirt aside and dug through her bag, pulling out a tunic and a pair of trousers. They were rough and ugly, stained and worn in patches and streaks. Not shabby enough for begging, but not nice enough for respect, they were the kind of clothes you wore when you didn’t want to be noticed.
It was more than subtlety, though. Tiva always changed her clothes before a new assignment. She didn’t know why. She just knew that it made things easier in her head. Tiva-at-home wouldn’t like the things that Tiva-abroad had to do. Best to leave all that behind.
Tiva stuffed her clothes into her bag and went back out to the table. The other woman pushed a stack of papers to an open chair and Tiva sat, setting her bag against her ankles.
Tiva did a lot of things for the Plum Army. And she’d been at it long enough now that, most of the time, she had the right to choose the things she did. If she didn’t like an assignment, she didn’t take it. She made her way through the stack of assignments, reading each description, and placed them face down in one of two piles. Maybe, and No. And then she went through the Maybe pile again, dividing it into Still Maybe, and Not This Time. It was important that she choose carefully. If she failed her mission, she didn’t get paid. If she failed it badly, she didn’t get to come home again.
Her husband had failed his last mission badly, all those years ago. She wouldn’t do that to her family again.
Finally, there was only one page left in the Maybe pile.
The woman frowned down at the paper as Tiva handed it back, staring at it for a long moment. “Huh.” Her eyes flicked up to Tiva’s. “Didn’t know you were a sailor.”
“Close enough to pass for it.”
“You sure? It’s pretty a specialized assignment.”
She shrugged. “Alright, then. I’ll have the girls draw up the papers. They’ll be ready for you in…” She glanced down at the page again. “… Dahlsport in a week. Twin’s luck.”
Tiva stood, lifting her bag. “Twin’s luck.” She scooped the nespera seeds into her hand and headed for the door, leaving Tiva-at-home behind her.