Of all the roles Osanna had played, teacher had never been one of them. Mercenary, guard, cook, lady’s maid, servant more times than she could count. Never had anyone put her in charge of children. Osanna had been a strange child herself and largely alone in the halls of the convent where she had grown up, so children were new and strange to her now, but she’d be lying if she didn’t admit to feeling some empathy for them both.
Osanna had wanted more than anything to be a Red Sister before she was given to the Black Order. Inga’s idolization of her people’s warriors reminded her of her own obsession with the red-cloaked women in their convent. As for Snorri, well, hadn’t Osanna called herself a strange child too? She didn’t think she was as clever as the Eskandr prince, but she certainly knew what it felt like to be other.
This empathy wouldn’t get in the way of her duty, of course. As much as Osanna liked people in general, the word of her god would always be a stronger pull.
In the end, Osanna had to ask a servant for directions to the children’s study— the keep was a large one and she had not yet walked its halls long enough to get a feel for the layout. She took a deep breath at the door, pinpointing the nerves in her belly, and stepped through. Osanna could admit that teaching frightened her a little—the discomfort of the unknown. There was so much riding on her doing this well, and she had no idea where to begin.
Osanna pushed open the door. Neither Inga nor Snorri were in yet, but the room had the open, well-aired feeling of a space often used. Books and scrolls filled shelves around the edges, and a wide, circular table took up most of the space in the middle. A game set had been left unfinished in its center, along with a haphazard pile of books, and two of the chairs had fallen over as though the children had run past them. She leaned down to pick them up and cleared away the things left on the table just as the door opened.
Snorri was ushered in by a nanny, and an idle-faced guard could be seen just outside the door. Inga followed, rolling her eyes at something but allowing it to fade from the fore. “So, what are we going to learn first?” the boy prodded, “Avincian or Parrench?”
Inga crossed her arms. “Why should we have to learn either? If I am ever alone with a Parrench, then she is my enemy. Why would I want to speak with her? If we are not alone, then there will be translators.”
“It’s a good thing you will never be queen,” Snorri grumbled, sliding into a seat.
“Just as you will never be king,” she chirped, pulling her chair out in such a way that its legs groaned and squeaked across the wooden planks of the floor. She plopped herself into it. Both children looked towards ‘Ositha’ with different flavors of expectation.
Osanna looked between the two of them for a moment and took a deep breath. “The Avincian language existed before Parrench, and your enemies borrowed heavily from it. Best to learn the original language first. Besides, Drudgunzean nobles and people of means will also likely speak it, so it will be useful in speaking to potential allies as well.”
Not to mention, Osanna’s native ease with Parrench might bring up more questions that she didn’t want to answer. She’d be long gone before the children mastered Avincian well enough to move on. Hopefully, with them in tow.
She walked to one of the bookshelves and removed a couple of titles in the language, taking her time. Among dusty historical, political, and clerical tomes, there were a few more manageable. She picked up a treatise of Avincian swordplay and a collection of parables meant to teach the young to lead.“To start, though, I need to know how much you know.”
That’s how her weapons master had started more than a decade ago, after all. And she liked to think of swordplay as a language of sorts. “Can you greet me in Avincian? Do you know their letters?”
“Salve!” they shouted near simultaneously.
“And that would be ‘salvete’ for a group,” added Inga primly.
“But ‘ave’ is just as common,” corrected Snorri.
“A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X,” Inga recited rapid-fire. Snorri looked like he was going to interject, but he merely suppressed a grin and held back, bouncing up and down a couple of times in his seat. “Is my sister correct, magister?” he inquired sweetly.
The honorific surprised Osanna, but she didn’t let it show. Instead, she grinned at him. “The Avincian Alphabet has gone through several incarnations since its inception, and that was once in use. Now though, it's a little different. Care to tell me how, Snorri?”
The boy shot a superior look at his older sister. “They added Y and Z from the Thalaks once they conquered them.”
“The Avincians didn’t conquer Thalakos!” Inga protested. “It was Iona of Epharos! Then, she joined the Avincians freely, from a place of strength.”
“Whatever,” the younger sibling replied dismissively. “The alphabet got Y and Z.”“That it did,”
Osanna said, struggling to remember her history lessons on the topic and coming up woefully blank. Speaking the language was far more useful in her day-to-day life than knowing why or how it had ended up the way it was. “I’m sure you have teachers for the history of the nations, so I’m going to focus on practical vocabulary.”
“Ulf should be here,” huffed Inga.
“Ulf is out playing soldier,” Snorri reminded her.
“Yes, but language is important,” she insisted, and Osanna couldn’t quite tell whether she was being ironic or not.
Dietrich whistled to himself as he walked down a corridor. The halls of the Kongesalan had let him hear much of the class that had taken place, and he had wanted to see how the young royals were coming along, so he decided he’d stop by for a visit, only to find them bickering. It made him smile to himself, but he wiped it off his face as he walked into the room and interrupted the argument. ”Language is important, but so is live combat experience. I’m sure he had the same classes as you when he was your age.”
he mused as he cut in between the two youths. He’d gotten lost in the memories of his youth. Sibling rivalry brought back both fun and sad memories, but he couldn’t help his interjecture here.“That being said, you were both right and wrong on the matter of Iona. Make sure you read up on that before you have your history classes; details are very important in matters of state. Apologies for the interruption, Ositha. Please continue.”“Thank you, sir.”
The new tutor looked a little out of her depth, but she seemed to draw herself up readily enough. “How about we play a game? I’ll point to an object, and you give me Avincian words to describe it—name, color, size, shape, use… Anything you can think of. Are you ready?”
She looked at the two children, and seemingly happy with their attention, and tapped the table. “We’ll start with this.”
“Vetus!” The first few came out in a flurried exchange.
Snorri furrowed his brow. “...ligneus?” he tried.
Inga blinked. “Ah! Brunus!”
They’d slowed down now. Snorri took his time. “Comedere,” he ventured. “Somnum?” Inga added uncertainly, but her brother snorted and shook his head. “You don’t sleep on a table.”
“A raised bed is very much like a table,” she retorted defensively, “and Ositha didn’t say ‘no’, now did she?”“Regardless, your vocabulary is certainly impressive. I believe, if I’ve counted right, that came out fairly even.”
Ositha tapped her chin as if thinking. “Let’s make it a little harder. This time, give me your answers in sentences. Mensa est brunneis.”
She looked to Dietrich, still watching the proceedings, and gave him a somewhat shy smile. “Perhaps you’d like to pick the next object, sir…”
He hadn’t given her his name.
Dietrich gave a curious look at Ositha before involving himself once more. Something about these lessons struck him as unfamiliar. He knew she wasn’t a formally trained teacher, but it was a far cry from the lessons he’d had as a child. These kids were particularly rowdy as well, so he figured he’d cut her some slack in that regard.”Quic hoc est?”
he announced with more authority as he pointed at a chair that was unoccupied. He looked at Snorri, then at Inga, and then at Ositha, expecting answers from all three.
Ositha grinned at him, evidently delighted by his use of Avincian. She didn’t answer his question, but this did seem to be an exercise in testing their knowledge. “Gratias tibi! Inga? Snorri?”
“Sella parva est,” replied Inga, the glance that she’d saved for her brother a polite but challenging one.
“Sella… angusta est pro Inga.” Snorri grinned wickedly, and his sister shot him a dirty look. Even if she didn’t know the word, she could piece it together. “Inga nimis crassus est!” he giggled.
Ositha froze for a long moment, standing still at the other side of the table. She might have been testing the royal children, but it seemed as though they were determined to test her as well. Finally, she raised an eyebrow. “It seems negotiations have broken down, Prince Snorri. However, will you secure Princess Inga’s allegiance?”
“The loyalty of some must be earned,” the boy replied, “but it should be a given for family. I shall treat her how I, myself am treated.”
“You always treat Ulf better,” Inga complained.
“That is because he will one day be king.”
“A king or queen still must earn respect through great exploits, as mother and father do.”
“Is that not what Ulf seeks to do right now? Attacking the pirates that Uncle Vali suspects are in Rigevand?”
Inga scrunched up her nose. “He is going about it all wrong. He should not be skulking about behind mother’s back. He should…” It may have occurred to the girl that she had overspoken, for her eyes turned uneasily to Ositha and Dietrich, who both were adults and consulted with her mother. “What would you do?” she put to them, and, for once, Snorri nodded, either agreeing with his sister or hoping to deflect.“I would complete my mission to the best of my abilities,”
Ositha said easily, the truth quick to her lips. “As E— as the Father bids us all.”
She… fumbled. She hadn’t been about to say the Father at all, though Dietrich had watched her spit on the symbol of the Quentic faith. As he watched, Ositha paled as though realizing her mistake had been seen. “Do forgive me,”
she said finally, “I was forced to pretend to act as a Quentic for years before they found that my people kept the true Gods.”“And in what city did they find you, Ositha”
Dietrich asked in Drudgunzean, switching seamlessly from the Avincean he’d spoken earlier. There was something terribly wrong. He had to be sure before he acted, though.“Meckelen, my lord. Though my mother was a convert, and we traveled often. Both my parents were merchants.””And who is the liege lord of Meckelen, Ositha? A daughter of merchants of stature enough to know good Avincean would have certainly met him once or twice.”“I think you may be overestimating my reach, my lord. My father only wanted me to know the language so that we could trade outside of our homeland. I know only what I’ve heard from rumor, and that’s quite old now. Is it still Lord Apsel Derichs?
That was the moment Dietrich was certain. His suspicion was first pricked by her accent, which was not a fluent one from Lindermetz. The second had been her near referencing of Echeran, and the third had been her not knowing her liege lord's name. He thought for a moment that he might be crazy, or exaggerating, or that he might need more proof, but he was certain that he wouldn’t make a mistake like this. He was him, after all. When had he ever made a crucial error, one of this magnitude? As his mind raced, he looked at the kids. He couldn’t cause a scene here. Should he get them to safety? No. He would just hold his suspicion until after. There, she could better be dealt with. Here, there were vulnerabilities. He forced his face to move to a friendly smile and spoke once more.“Not anymore. Forgive my intrusion; I’ve not been gone for long, but I miss my homeland, and I find all of it beautiful, even if Lindermetz is particularly infested with Quentics.”
he laughed slightly and smiled as friendly as he could fake, switching back to Eskandish as he addressed the kids once more.”Adults must carve their own path, Inga. You cannot stay under your mother's wing forever and report to her every movement that you make, especially someone who will one day rule this vast empire. But you should treat each other better. Family is the only people who you can always count on to have your back. You are bound by blood. Don’t let it fall apart because of silly squabbles.”
he reminisced about his brothers, sisters, father, and mother. If he was right, then they would need each other more than ever soon. He would stay with them for now and make sure they were safe, and then he would make his move.
O S A N N A
The first thing any decent sneak does in a new environment isn’t to spy or kill or steal. That all comes quite a bit later, after a tedious amount of planning or else a decent dose of good luck. And one can’t even begin planning until establishing one’s cover and creating what necessary relationships one might require.
No. The first thing any decent sneak does is find a way out.
Osanna waited until the keep was silent before rising from her bed. At this hour, even the servants would be sleeping, and if a guard happened to wander through the halls, well, they wouldn’t see Osanna. She needed to be doubly careful, though. That lordling who had interrupted her teaching earlier was onto her, thanks to a spectacularly novice slip-up. Osanna cursed to herself. She was an assassin, not a godsdamned kidnapper!
She half wanted to run now, to disappear down the nearest bolt hole and head back to Parrence, but she had been ordered by her faith to do what she could for this cause, and Svend had risked much to get her in.
If nothing else, she would have to see it through for now.
Osanna pulled on the pair of trousers she’d worn under her dress that first day, as well as a dark green blouse and boots. She didn’t have her sword, but she slipped a dagger into her waistband and covered herself with her cloak. It would be easier to hide magically if she was already difficult to see in the dark.
The secret tunnel Osanna had sensed earlier that day lay in the kitchens, hidden in the far back of one of the keep’s tremendous pantries. She found her way down to it easily, despite the dark of the halls. Moonlight pierced the gloom at regular intervals, and the long wait in her rooms had accustomed her eyes to the lack of light.
Besides, this was what she’d been made for.
Osanna cloaked herself in shadow as she stepped into the kitchen just in case there were prying eyes about, up for a late-night morsel or prowling the halls. It was strange to see the cavernous room so empty—during the day, it was so filled with cooks and servants that there never seemed to be enough room. Now, hanging vegetables threw strange shadows, lit slightly by the fire’s low embers. In a keep of this size, the kitchen’s heart never quite went out.
A young boy slept near the hearth, his mouth slightly open and his young face slack. He must be one of the servant’s get, but he didn’t worry Osanna. He was still young and untroubled enough for the deep, limp sleep of a child. She stepped past and into the pantries, leaving him to his dreams. The servant boy was the same age as Snorri, but somehow she didn’t think the prince would lie so easy, and they would not have much in common in play.
The hidden door was made of stone, inlaid so perfectly within the floor as to be invisible to the naked eye. It was half-covered with storage crates that Osanna moved, careful not to disturb their layer of dust.
It took too long—and a small amount of borrowed lard— to get the hinges moving, but really, that was perfectly fine with Osanna. It meant that this particular entrance hadn’t been used in some time. Beneath the cover, a rickety wooden ladder fell away into darkness so thick not even the assassin’s sharp eyes could pierce the mire.
For a moment, Osanna just listened, breathing softly through her mouth until she could make out the gentle snores and occasional pop of coals from the kitchen. From below, she heard nothing. It smelled dry despite the wetness of this damnable climate. The air that filtered up was cold.
Osanna reached for her reserves of power, calling on Arcane to give her sight in this darkness. It was not a spell she used often since it was inefficient to use it and her cloaking spell at the same time, but she doubted she would need shadow in the pit that awaited her. With Arcane strengthening her sight, the ladder lit up beneath her, thick with empty spiderwebs and dust. Osanna pushed past them, closing the door over her head and descending until stone reached her feet once more. Around her, the narrow stone passages branched off in either direction, and she padded off to explore the near-endless stretch.
In the morning, Osanna woke to an insistent knock on her door. It was early, the light coming through her window pale and wan, and her head pounded from too little sleep and water. She had only returned to her bed a few hours ago. The tunnels beneath Meldheim were more extensive than she could have possibly imagined.
Osanna dragged herself out of bed, splashed her face with water, and pulled a dress over her head before answering the door. Two maids stood there, similar enough to be sisters. Both towered over her, and one wore an unpleasant frown. “Did you think you were going to sleep all day? Got the cushy tutor job, so you don’t have to do any real work?”
Osanna started, shocked by the early morning assault. “No, of course not! Whatever you need done!”
The other servant, a thinner girl with big eyes, smiled. Her name was Ada, if Osanna remembered correctly. “See! I told you she would. I knew she was a good sort when we talked yesterday.”
The first woman sniffed. “Lina is sick today, so you’ll take her chores.”
Two hours later, Osanna pushed herself up from a hearth on the second highest floor of the keep. Her back ached. She was coated in ash up to her elbows and more dusted the front of her gown. There were probably streaks across her face and in her hair. Osanna rarely, if ever, regretted a late night, but this was starting to look like one of those times.
She pushed herself to her feet like an old woman and hefted her bucket of ash. She could carry another fireplace load, easy. And there were only two more on this floor as far as she could tell.
The hallway outside was just as empty as it had been all morning, aside from the occasional guard passing by, and Osanna was careful to wipe off her hands before reaching for the next door handle. It didn’t budge.
Osanna went still. There was still no one in the hallway around her. There hadn’t been for some time. There were a few pins in her hair, keeping the black mass out of her face as she worked. If she got caught picking the lock, she was dead. It was a long way down to the secret passage she’d discovered the night before. On the other hand, the Eskandr had something in here that they didn’t want people stumbling in and finding, something that might aid her people. The archbishop’s words came back to her. She was to treat this mission like it had come from the highest echelons of her church.
Osanna pulled the pins from her hair and inserted them into the lock, feeling for the mechanisms that would allow her to click open the door. Seconds passed. The tumblers began to fall into place. Boots sounded on the stair.
When the door swung open, Osanna slipped inside and closed it behind her, greeted by a sudden rush of animal smells. It was damp and hot inside, dark except for the light of a smoldering fire still going in the hearth. Tables lay strewn with strange tools, the walls draped in thick, dark wool, unpatterned and stained by soot. Outside, the soldiers on watch tramped by, and Osanna cloaked herself more out of habit than need. Her heart was pounding.
That had been too close.
On the mantle above the fire sat rich boxes of fine, oiled wood. Osanna set down her ash bucket and opened the nearest one, only to hold her breath in wonder. Inside, swaddled in thick velvet wrappings, sat two gleaming eggs. She opened the next box and the next, each holding a different collection of strangely-colored embryonic creatures. Most of the eggs were quite large, but there were a few that might fit comfortably in her bucket.
Osanna closed all the boxes from the first and lifted the two melon-sized eggs it held carefully into her bucket, burying them in warm ash. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with them—not yet— but if the Eskandr royals kept them so carefully then they must be of some use.
When the room was put back in order, Osanna eased the door closed behind her and slipped off with her prize.