If Miran had princesses, Ellisandra Takumar would be one. Smart, pretty, engaged to a high-profile man, everything a high-class Mirani woman should be. But things are not well in Miran. Many years of boycotts have taken their toll on society, and the regime becomes more desperate to keep its citizens under control. Revolt is brewing. As director of the state theatre, Ellisandra has been asked to stage a violent traditional play which stands stiff with threatening political messages for the populace. She hates it, but speaking out would risk that she’d be cast out from the only world she’s ever known.
Next to her house is the burnt ruin of the house of another high-class family, the Andrahar family. They fled Miran for political reasons when Ellisandra was a little girl and the house has lain untouched ever since. One night, she spots a mysterious young man walking around the yard, putting out pegs and pieces of string. He’s re-building the house. That makes no sense, because the family is no longer welcome in Miran, and who is he anyway?
She is curious and investigates. He seems too good-natured and naïve for his own good, so rather than telling her brothers, she tries to shield him from her own society. And so starts the slide that leads to her being cast out from the only life she’s ever known.
There was a light in the yard nextdoor.
Ellisandra stopped halfway through pulling the curtains shut and peered into the snowy dusk where the grey buildings of the city faded into the murk of mist and falling snowflakes. The yard of her house was already covered in a good layer of snow, gilded by the glow from the windows downstairs. The wall that surrounded the yard had acquired a white cap, as yet undisturbed by the wind or the creatures of the night. On the other side of the wall, a snowy expanse stretched to the ruin of the house nextdoor. In amongst the broken and fire-blackened walls stood a storm light, its flapping flame casting long shadows in the snow and on whatever remained of the walls.
That was odd. There hadn’t been any activity at the Andrahar house for years. Why would someone come out to the ruin in the middle of this weather?
Behind Ellisandra’s back in the comfort of her upstairs room, the ladies of the theatre committee still chatted, accompanied by the chink of spoons on porcelain. The smell of sweet cakes hung in the air.
“Oh, no I don’t think we should do that,” Aleyo Hirumar was saying. “I think everyone will be quite upset if we change the ending of the play. I know I would be.”
“How would you stage it then?” asked Tolaki Telimar.
“As it is supposed to be. As it was written.” The indignation dripped from Aleyo’s voice.
Ellisandra should go back to the group and help Tolaki convince Aleyo to be a bit more adventurous, but now she spotted a man in the Andrahar yard, a tall figure shrouded in a thick longhair cloak. The light glinted in his curtain of hair. It was typical Endri hair, silver-white, sleek, straight and loose. He wore knee-high boots with a strip of fur around the top, all very traditional, and very upper class.
According to the stories, the Andrahar family had been very traditional right until the moment that they decided to betray their home nation and leave. They had lived in Barresh since she was a little girl. Ellisandra was too young to have remembered the fire that destroyed the house or any of the riots and that treacherous trial that went before it, in which the family smeared Miran’s reputation and tried to ruin the nation’s reputation by trying to imply it in criminal activities.
With his gangly appearance and fluid motions, this man nextdoor was too young to be one of the four Andrahar brothers. Who in Miran still wanted to work for that family? No one she knew at any rate. No one local.
But the hair… she had heard jokes that the first thing Endri did when coming to live in Barresh was cut their hair. It was too hot for the baths that kept hair looking healthy, and hair stuck to one’s face with sweat just looked awful.
Behind her, the ladies of the theatre committee had gone quiet.
“Anything wrong, Ellisandra?” Tolaki asked.
“There’s someone in the yard nextdoor.”
“Oh, let me have a look.” Aleyo pushed herself up and hurried to the window. She pushed face to the glass, shielded from the reflection inside the room by her hands.
“There is, too.” The window fogged up where her mouth was.
Now Tolaki also came to the window, and peered into the darkness over Aleyo’s shoulder. “I see him. Probably just a groundsman.”
“In this weather?” Ellisandra said.
“Doesn’t look like a groundsman to me,” Aleyo said. “Look at his hair. That’s pure Endri. It’s gorgeous, too. And who would employ a groundsman for a ruin like that anyway?”
Good points, both of them.
Even Sariandra had come to watch. But Tolaki and Aleyo were blocking the window, so she stood further back, looking forlorn and lonely in that dour dress of hers.
“Who do you think he is, then?” Tolaki asked, frowning at Ellisandra.
“No idea. Never seen him before.”
“Do people still come to look at that ruin?”
“Very, very rarely. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone there for years.” The last time it had been a local surveyancer. She tried to remember when that had been, but couldn’t. Long ago. Possibly longer ago than she thought, because she remembered Father standing behind her looking out of the window and Father hadn’t been able to do anything that remotely looked like “standing” unassisted for a long time.
Aleyo put on her conspirational voice. “What if we discovered something? I mean, no <i.normal person would be out there in the dark in the middle of this weather. What if they’re finally selling up but don’t want anyone to know?”
That’s what everyone had thought last time, too.
“No,” Tolaki said. “Last I heard, Isandra Andrahar said that they’d sell the house and office ‘over my dead body’.”
“Maybe she died,” Aleyo said. “She has to be pretty old–”
Ellisandra protested. “Not that old, I don’t think.”
“Well, if she died, then those sons of hers wouldn’t care a bit about the house.” Aleyo stuck her chin in the air. “I mean, it’s not like any of us would want them back. I don’t understand why they kept the house like this for all those years. The office, too, right in the prime locality downtown. Has to be worth a fortune.”
Ellisandra thought she had an explanation. “Maybe they never sold because they didn’t want any dirty Mirani credits for it.” There was not much they could do with those outside Miran. Not legally anyway, not that it had ever before stopped any rich family from selling their house and leaving Miran for good.
Aleyo added, “Or maybe they were waiting for land prices to improve.”
Tolaki laughed aloud. “Only to have seen the prices drop to a tenth of what they were when they left? Serves them right. We don’t do selling for a lot of money here. We don’t want foreigners to buy our houses.”
Aleyo snorted. “Yeah, the Andrahars were arrogant, greedy pricks, even when they still lived in Miran.”
This statement met with sage nods, even from Sariandra who had said barely a thing.
Oh well, no time to dwell on it. Surely the guards would keep an eye on this stranger. And no doubt he’d be gone soon and she’d never see him again.