Coomera is dusty and oppressively hot. Clea expected it, has been breeding seedlings with the ability to survive the temperature extremes for years but she’d not thought to prepare herself. She’s dressed as she would be for a day working in the gardens, still warm work but nothing like the wall of heat that hits her when she steps from the carriage.
She gasps and then regrets it when she has to cough at the dust that assaults her lungs. Fionn hands her a flask this time, cool to the touch and with water so sweet it must be spiked.
“Honeygrass?” she signs.
Fionn nods. “It helps. Soothes the throat.”
They’ve arrived in what’s Clea knows intellectually is Coomera’s capital. But it’s…
“Bleak,” Lydia says suddenly, nodding at Clea like they’re mid-conversation. “I know.”
She seems lucid enough despite the time skip. Now that they’ve stopped moving, she’s obviously managed to gain a handle on her magic. Clea wonders what Coomera’s land is telling her. Past secrets or future challenges?
From the look of the place, Clea would bet on the latter.
The buildings are half rubble, cobbled together with crumbling mortar and desperation. The sand, Clea realises, noting the way the dust under her feet is already turning her tan boots black. It gets everywhere, into everything. Glue stops binding, materials fray, plants blacken and crumble. You don’t survive the black sand, you become it.
Coomera is on the brink of collapse, the soil beneath her feet is practically screaming it. It’s too dark. No wonder her crops have been failing.
Lydia’s talking to Fionn beside her and Clea has to wonder if she sees it too. The short, desolate future ahead of this once thriving borough. Clea can’t bring herself to look up and doesn’t realise Ava’s taken her hand until Ava’s squeezing it, lending unspoken support.
And Clea takes a breath she doesn’t realise she’d been holding.
Then comes the shout. “For Dragon’s sake! Fionn, what have I told you?”
A small party of well-armed men is clanking their way over the sand, armour—light as it is—enough to give Clea heatstroke just looking at it. They’re led by a big man, taller than the rest by a foot at least with fiery hair and a temper to match. Clea should know, she and Ava were at the tail end of it enough times as children.
Advisor Gustus is still in his robes despite the heat, and Clea isn’t surprised. If anyone can out-stubborn the weather, it’s Gus. Fionn rolls their eyes as the guards draw level with them, falling into a protective formation around the princesses with well-practised ease.
“It’s Coomera, not a goblin nest,” Fionn snarks.
“It’s a hostile borough,” Gus snaps. “You’re to wait in the carriage until a protective detail arrives.”
Clea has to wonder what’s so hostile about a borough as sand sick as Coomera obviously is. But then it’s Gus’s job to protect the missions. It’s her job to help her people.
Speaking of. Clea squeezes Ava’s hand and then lets go so she can talk properly. “I need an escort to the greenhouses.”
Gus grunts, but for as long as he’s been away from the Castle, Clea still knows him well enough to feel the bristly welcome in it.
“Welcome to Coomera, Clea Bee,” he says and Clea’s six summers old all over again. “I’ll be escorting you today.”
Ava is assigned to work with her, and Clea’s grateful for it even if she feels a little guilty. Surely there are far more interesting tasks for an interpreter than detailing a watering regimen.
“Don’t be silly,” Ava says when Clea brings it up. “They need to know about plants, I can help you help them with plants.”
It’s logical, of course. The other princesses have their own interpreters, but none of them know signing. Ava is the obvious choice for Clea’s mission.
Which is why, when they come upon the greenhouses and finally meet some people outside their detail, Clea is surprised when one of the women signs a hello.
There are more than a dozen faces of all shapes and colours, the only unifying feature their clothing and the dirt under their nails. Gardeners, all of them. Except the woman who signed – her nails are surprisingly clean. She’s taller than the others as well and wears the gardening garb like something borrowed.
A short, round woman with a face like a weathered peach separates from the crowd and bows slightly. When she speaks, it’s in the lilting tongue shared by Coomera and Willowbank.
Ava translates beside her: “Her name is Alma. She’s apologising because they didn’t know I was coming and double-booked an interpreter.”
She’s smiling as she says it, then says something back to the woman that makes Alma’s old face crease up with a smile.
“I said ‘more the merrier’,” Ava says and Clea can’t help but smile along with her. But it dies on her lips when she looks back to the other interpreter.
She’s a striking woman with Clea’s own colouring and similar features. In the ancient times, this might have indicated a shared region but the encroachment of the sand has long wiped the concept of national borders from the world. Now there are just the walls, keeping the cultural melting pot of Pyre’s people safe within.
Clea’s used to seeing people with her own tan skin, high cheekbones, and hooded eyes just as she’s used to seeing Ava’s darker features reflected in the faces of her people. She’s not used to being stared at the way this woman is staring at her. Like she’s a puzzle piece in want of a hole.
Like this woman is determined to make her fit regardless.
The greenhouses are expansive and incredibly well-tended. Alma tells them that the team before them are dedicated gardeners, making it their life’s work to tend the borough’s crops. Clea expected to feel strange outside the Castle, so far beyond so many walls, all designed to keep her and the city’s heart safe. But it’s difficult to feel alien among other gardeners, even if none of them share her magic.
In some ways, she’s even more impressed with what they’ve accomplished without it.
She learns that there are a half dozen fields outside the greenhouse proper that circulate a crop of Jasmine Star, the region’s staple. The greenhouses are home to vertical gardens, mostly hydroponic, running on what water rations they can spare from the Castle’s wells. Their setup is incredibly clever, but the borough relies on the Jasmine Star for the majority of its carbohydrates and proteins. And the last two plantings have failed.
Clea had thought her role here was to be education. Teach the gardeners different techniques, correct potential missteps – Jasmine Star is hardy but fickle about when and how it’s watered. But it’s become more than apparent that the gardeners of Coomera have been doing everything right. Clea can’t educate her way out of this.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to be done.
“How many fields again?” she says, waiting for Ava to translate for her.
“Six,” Ava says, then she obviously catches the look on Clea’s face. “Clea, no.”
Clea almost shushes her before she remembers no one around them can understand Ava. One can understand Clea though. Dynah. The other interpreter. Clea’s not had much cause to converse with her with Ava doing most of the work, thank goodness, but she’s remained very present. Watching. Watching Clea in particular.
“I have to try,” Clea signs, feeling Dynah’s gaze like a rash. “This planting must succeed.”
Ava glares at her but Clea meets her gaze head-on. She, more than most, knows just how precarious the current balance of boroughs is. If she can buy Coomera some time, it’s better than nothing.
Ava huffs and waves at Gus over by the door. For a moment Clea thinks Ava’s going to tell on her and then she says, “Get Gabrielle over here, we’re gonna need her.”
Clea doesn’t mean for it to become a spectacle, but once Gabrielle is called it’s like a ripple passes through the whole capital. By the time their party has made their way to the closest field, they’ve amassed a crowd large enough that Gus’s frown is probably etched in permanently.
A hostile borough, he’d called Coomera. Looking around at the faces following them, Clea can’t think hostile. Desperate perhaps. But then, sometimes the two emotions go hand in hand. Her scar itches and Clea can’t help rubbing her throat. She stops abruptly when Dynah steps up beside her.
Ava’s dropped back, briefing Gabrielle on what Clea’s about to try so for a few moments it’s just the two of them.
“You’re about to do something dangerous,” Dynah signs.
It’s not a question but Clea answers anyway, hesitating a moment before signing, “Maybe.” She glances back at Ava who’s got the same look on her face as the time Clea dropped her slippers down the privy. “I’ve never done it on this scale before.”
“Your magic?” Dynah says and Clea nods.
“I can… help things grow.”
Dynah nods like this doesn’t surprise her. Tales of magic travel far and Clea’s is one of the more renowned roles at the castle. What is surprising is the gravity of Dynah’s expression. She looks almost as worried as Ava.
Dynah hesitates, Clea sees it in her hands before she says. “Don’t overextend yourself. There are other ways Coomera can get the crops they need.”
And then she’s gone, striding ahead to join Alma at such a pace Clea couldn’t keep up even if she wasn’t shocked into almost missing a step. Other ways? She doesn’t get a chance to think on it before Ava is beside her again. Her face is still grim, but it’s aimed, this time, at Dynah’s back.
“I don’t trust that woman,” Ava says. “She’s been staring at you all afternoon.”
Clea tucks herself into Ava’s side, ignoring the heat of the day for how Ava’s warmth makes her hands ache. “I don’t know what to make of her,” she admits.
Ava huffs. “Stew if she makes the wrong move toward you.”
“That’s horrible,” Clea says, carefully cultivating her straight face. “Your stew is atrocious.”
Ava laughs so loud at that it’s entirely worth the dirty look Gus shoots them.
The fields are…quite large. As Clea stands before the newly tilled earth she’s suddenly very glad for Ava calling upon Gabrielle. Fionn and Lydia have joined them too, called back by Gus no doubt – keeping the princesses all in one place means the guards are too. They’re fanned out at Clea’s back, keeping the crowd of townspeople at a respectable distance.
And there is a crowd by now. Clea can feel them – a wall of jostling warmth at her back, different but just as oppressive as the heat in the air. It’s mortifying, having so many people witness perhaps her grandest magic attempt. But then it’s also a very real reminder of what’s at stake should she fail. These people—these lives—behind her are on the line. It’s a line Clea intends to move.
The good news is, just as she can feel the crowd, she can feel the seedlings in the earth before her. A new planting, already struggling but still there – still flickering. Clea puts her hands out and feels the potential in it.
Just like the Hazavana, she says to herself and she gets to her knees in the dirt.
She’s heard other princesses say they call on their magic. Clea doesn’t. Never has to. It’s always there, warming her heart just as the earth under her hands warms her palms. It’s just a question of channelling it, directing it to where it needs to go.
Today it needs to go further than it ever has.
She expects Gabrielle to join her, both kneeling in the dust like they’re at Dragon Benediction. Ava’s sudden presence at her other side is a surprise, but a welcome one.
When she turns to look, Ava nods at her. “You got this.”
It’s exactly what she needs to hear as she sucks in a lungful of dusty air. She turns, nodding at Gabrielle, an unspoken thanks. Gabrielle smiles at her, looking young and tired but still here, kneeling in the black sand for their people just like Clea is.
Her people. Clea steels herself, closes her eyes, and digs her fingers—and her magic—into the earth.
The first few yards are easy as breathing – tiny flickers turning to steady flames and finally roaring fires as Clea pushes her magic through them and beyond. The crowd at her back stirs, she can feel it, warmth bristling in their excitement and Clea has to block them out as she focuses forward.
The first field is flowering by the time her magic works through the second. But the faster the seedlings reach for the sky, the further Clea slumps to the ground. Her arms feel like lead melting out from under her. But there are four more fields to go.
Ava beside her. She wants her to stop. Clea shakes her head. Four more fields. Then there’s a pressure on her neck and it’s like cool electricity down her spine, soaking into her bones and shoring her against the inferno. She opens her eyes to find Ava hunched over her, praying in every language she knows.
And just like that Clea can feel them again, the crowd at her back. Her people. They’re loud—cheering, crying, burning with their joy. And Clea lets it wash over her, down her neck and into her hands. She doesn’t realise the final field is in full flower until Ava wrenches her hands from the dirt and catches her as she falls.
The sky is cloudless and so very blue. She can hear shouting and then Gabrielle is hovering over her and everything goes black.
She wakes up to the sensation of the rail carriage gently swaying beneath her and it takes her a moment to realise she’s on the floor, head pillowed in Ava’s lap.
“Thank the Dragon,” Ava says fervently. She’s been crying; Clea can see the tear tracks through the dust on her cheeks.
It takes a few moments to get her heavy hands to work. “Did it work?” Clea says.
“Did it- I could kill you myself!” Ava says, gentle hands belying her words. Clea turns into her touch and notices Gabrielle asleep tucked into Fionn’s side.
“Is she okay?” Clea asks, suddenly worried she’s dragged Gabrielle through the fire along with her.
Fionn smiles one of her rare smiles, which is perhaps more reassuring than her words. “She’s okay. Just tired. You gave her a challenge.”
Lydia is on the seat opposite Fionn, closed eyes moving rapidly with visions. They’re all here. They’re safe.
“But it worked?” Clea asks again and Ava tsks.
“It worked, you nightmare,” Ava says. “You’re amazing, are you happy?”
It worked. A season’s crop, stable and flowering. She just bought Coomera another season. She doesn’t realise she’s grinning until Ava rolls her eyes, spoiling the move somewhat by fighting her own smile.
Clea’s magic flickers within her, feeling as it always has even if it’s housed in a body weak as a newborn. But she did it.
She did it.
She wants to do it all over again.
“What happened after?” she says, suddenly remembering the calamity. “I heard shouting?”
“Ah.” Fionn’s expression goes grim and Clea’s smile fades in the face of it. “The town rioted.”
The town what?
“They didn’t want to let you go,” Fionn says. “Gus had to get us out fast.”
They don’t finish and Clea feels suddenly sick. She looks up to Ava but Ava’s face is turned away.
A hostile borough. The carriage feels suddenly too small and brittle for the world outside the Castle walls. She and it have that in common.
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