Summer officially arrived in Karameikos with the first of Klarmont, bringing warm days and clear skies to the lands of the grand duchy. This, the longest day of the year, was marked by a Traladaran holiday known as the Day of the Straw Men, when the people made little figures out of straw and whispered their misdeeds of the past year to them, then burned them in bonfires. It was a festive occasion for the northern town of Threshold.
For Roman Kiprusoff, student mage, summer meant the end of classes for the year, and he spent a few days on a riverboat heading upstream from Specularum to Threshold. He wasn't really looking forward to going home. Summer meant the social season, and since his older brother Stefan had gotten married last year, his mother's matrimonial ambitions were now focused on her second son. Roman had a summer of accounting lessons and cotillions to look forward to, and would really rather have stayed in Specularum.He wasn't a very good dancer, and didn't particularly enjoy accounting. He missed the Day of the Straw Men, but that was all rightif his mother had found him making a Straw Man she would have whipped him within an inch of his life. His family had their own pew at the Church of Karameikos, where the town's Thyatian minority worshipped, and all traces of Traladaran superstition were strictly forbidden.
Unlike the Kiprusoffs, Melantha Ailarion's family actually was Thyatian, but they weren't exactly known for church-going, and she'd made a Straw Man on the first day of summer anyway. You couldn't be too careful. She had a lot of misdeeds to confess to from the past year, and later that night while the bonfires were burning down she committed a few more. The gods would just have to understand.
Nadya Petrov's family, being simple woodsfolk from the logging community across the Waterolde River from Threshold, took part in the holiday without either overconsciousness of their social status or a nagging sense of irony to trouble them.
Four days later, Roman's riverboat docked at Threshold, and he was welcomed back by his family; the servants made his favorite foods, and in general it didn't seem so bad to be back. Then the first cotillion rolled around. As usual, it was in the Town Hall. Baron Haladane didn't live there, but in his fortress outside of town, and his status as a Patriarch of the Church forbade him from taking any great part in the town's social life. The Town Hall had been more or less taken over by Threshold's mercantile class as their main gathering place.
Threshold was a small town, and Roman knew everyone there, mostly merchants like his own family, about half Thyatian and half Traladaran. He could talk to the former, at least. His mother, Misa, steered him to a corner table while a minuet played.
"Sit right here," she told him, then glided determinedly across the room to speak with another woman. The second woman moved slightly, revealing a pleasant-looking brunette girl about Roman's age standing behind her. A moment later, his mother was towing this girl across the room toward him.
"Roman, I'd like you to meet Alexandra Gindarmio."
Alexandra curtsied; Roman stood up and bowed.
"She's the daughter of Kristophoro Gindarmio. Why don't you two just sit here, and I'll get you some wine, dear." She bustled off.
"Hi, Roman. How are you?" Alexandra didn't seem terribly enthused.
"Hi. Great. Happy to be here," he said without too much evident insincerity.
"So what's it like living in Specularum?"
"It's great! I love it. There's so much to do there." He wished he was there right now.
"Really? Do they have a lot of balls there?"
He hesitated. "I guess. Probably."
"But you don't go?"
"There are advantages to that," she sighed. "I didn't really want to be here tonight."
Roman's mother flitted by with wine and vanished again.
"I just got back."
"So what are you going to do for the summer?"
"Probably go to more of these," he sighed. "Unfortunately."
Another family walked in. Alexandra sniffed. "Look at Stephanie's dress, I can't believe that." It was an odd, purple and green striped confection.
"Doesn't fit in," he had to agree.
"So, do some magic for me," she challenged suddenly. He laughed, startled. "Come on, you can do something..."
"Sure." He created a sparkling rainbow for her.
"Wow." She edged a little bit closer. "Can you use magic to tell if somebody was enchanted?" Her tone was very different, all the sudden.
"You can," he replied cautiously. "I don't know enough to do that yet. Why?"
"Nothing. I was just wondering what you could do."
"No, really," he pressed. "Why?"
"Well... I have a friend, whose brother's been acting very strange lately, and we were just talking... cause sometimes you can't tell. Some wizards don't wear the right clothes."
He nodded; Karameikan regulations stated that a wizard should be easily identifiable at fifty feet.
"My family is rich, somebody might be doing it to get the money."
"How is he acting odd?" He overlooked the sudden switch from third to first person.
"I have to go talk to my mother." She stood abruptly and left him alone, avoided him for the rest of the night. Misa was not pleased.
"What did you say to her?" she demanded.
"Nothing, we were just talking...."
"You must have said something!"
She huffed irritably; he sighed a bit and decided not to argue about it.
It was two weeks after the Day of the Straw Men, and the late summer evening fell gently over Dog Alley, in the Old Island part of Threshold. The name was something of a misnomer; a dog that wandered in there would never come out except possibly as a pair of gloves, and the residents preyed on one another with a swift ferocity more akin to sharks. The poorest of Threshold's residents called its ramshackle one-story houses, little better than huts, their home. In winter they froze, in summer the place stank to high heaven, and overall the place was a byword for misery.
Melantha returned from a day of desultory prowling, heard the raised voices within the house, and decided to stay out for a while. A quick jump and flip over the edge of the roof and she was in the closest to a sanctuary she had. She tucked herself into a shadow and watched the sky darken to purple, listened to the cacophony of drunken singing, drunken shouting, drunken fighting, and drunken puking. Four doors down, Pitr's Tavern was evidently doing the usual brisk business. Dog Alley people had a lot of reasons to drink. Widow Zovma was out, too, screeching about the spirits infesting her house and the husband she may, according to street legend, have killed.
Melantha was thinking, as she had thought at least once a day for about ten years now, about getting out. It was going to have to be this summer, there was no way she could stand it for another year. The thing to do, she figured, was to get her hands on a lot of money at once and then split; Threshold was too small to hide in if anyone twigged to her, and there was no one in town she felt like trusting to cover for her.
More shouting, closer at handright below her, in fact. She recognized the baker's voice, and her parents'. Something about overextended credit; her father begged for more time while her mother lambasted him. A knife was drawn; the baker threatened in no uncertain terms to remove his balls if the bill wasn't paid by Soldane, then stalked out and slammed the door.
You'll need to get them back from Mom first, Melantha thought with a silent sigh in the darkness. She had a few kopecks secreted away; not enough to help even if she was inclined to do so. For one thing, she'd have to explain where she'd gotten it. Though it was hard to tell how much they might have guessed already; in the main they ignored their children as much as possible, but you couldn't be sure.
Later that night, when she'd slipped back inside to find a spot on the floor that wasn't occupied by her four younger siblings, she was wakened by a hand on her shoulder and the whispered sound of her name. She extricated herself and followed her father out into the main room of the three-room house.
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