I was fifteen when we left home, Katya and I. She said we had to go, and because she had the Sight, and I didn't, I listened to her.
Katya had the Sight. We didn't talk about it. We didn't talk about anything unnatural, in our village, like Katya's ma and her ability to talk to animals, or my da and the way that he could end any argument simply by walking into a room, his presence was that calming. We didn't talk about such things as gifts, the way (it was said) the cities to the south did. They weren't the sort of thing you brought up in polite company. Truth be told, they weren't the sort of thing you ever brought up at all.
Most folks considered them blasphemy. The village priest preached every sixth-day about such things and how they were. "No one should have powers beyond understanding," he said, and compared things like being able to See to stealing the offerings that were laid out on the shrines to the gods. "How do we understand such things, except to see them as a prideful reach for what does not belong to us?"
Katya had the Sight, and we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t talk about gifts or blasphemy or things like the witch-hunters, and how they were becoming more active in our corner of the world, or how the priest looked at both of us as we sat in our pew every tenday and listened to his sermons, the way that they increased in fervor over time.
We were best friends, and so we talked about everything else -- what boys in the village we liked, or what we were hoping to do once we were grown. We stayed away from the hard topics -- what had happened to her da (witch hunters, the rumors went, though Katya herself told me that he had died in a wagon accident), just what it was that the priest was up to, whether or not it was true that they were bringing back the old magic tests, the ones they’d used in our grandparents’ days, when they didn’t bother shipping anyone up north to “re-educate” them, but stuck with simple hangings.
We thought about them, but we didn’t talk about them.
When I turned fifteen, the priest called me into the church -- to "speak with me," he said.
It wasn't an official summons, and no one would have blamed me for not going, but Ma nudged me. "Get it over with," she said.
I hadn't shown any gift. I wasn't sure that I had one.
We knew by then that Katya had the Sight. She’d had it for about six months, not that we referred to it as such. I didn’t ask her what she Saw, and she didn’t usually warn me. She did tell me that someday I’d have an ability, one more useful than hers, but I didn’t believe her. She said she’d Seen it, but she wouldn't tell me more, like where she'd seen me or what I might be doing -- things that could have given me clues, what to expect.
Katya did warn me about the priest, about the meeting I was about to have. She let me know not to worry, that it would be fine.
I worried anyway.
The priest called me into church, and Ma forced me to go. I wore my good dress and a clean apron, and I met with him in the little nook that was just to the side of the plinth he stood on when he gave his sermon each sixth-day.
"Sarai," he said. "Thank you for coming."
He wasted no time in asking me about Katya. It was, it seemed, the entire reason I’d been called in. Had I seen her do anything strange? Had she performed any feats that were beyond ordinary mortals? His eyes glittered with impatience as he listened to my soft “no, sir”s, and it struck me how strange it was, to be sitting in the church I'd been attending since childhood, across from the priest who was no older than Da, talking about my best friend and whether or not she had any "talents" of the sort that his religion forbade. I wondered just what it was that he was playing at, what he would do if I said yes, that she could see the future. I'd heard stories from other villages, about people driven out or tortured and forced to repent, but nothing of the sort had happened here in my lifetime. We'd always turned a blind eye to it. Da and Katya's ma didn't go to church, because they couldn't agree with what was said, but they were still well-liked. Neither of them hurt anyone or did anything to bring harm to the village.
Not that it mattered to the priest, or to the witch-hunters.
He thanked me, at the end of the interview, and said that perhaps it was best if he spoke to Katya himself, just to be sure.
I agreed with him, knowing that anything else would have roused suspicion, and fled for home.
The priest fell ill, shortly after our conversation. Not so near that anyone thought that I was linked, but close enough that he didn't get a chance to call on Katya right away.
As soon as he was well, though, he made a point of asking to see her, only be turned away by her ma at their door.
Still, he pressed her, stopping her after church every sixth-day. She stopped coming to church, after the third time.
Ma forced me to go, and all of the sermons changed in tone. They were about sin now, and about giving into temptation. From the way the priest's eyes nearly bored through me, I knew he was talking about Katya.
"You should talk with him," I pleaded with her. "Get it over with before he gets any more ideas. He's already talking about sending for an ‘expert’ from the next village over to speak with you."
She froze, when I said that. "How did you hear that?"
"He spoke with Ma after church last sixth-day. He seems to think that Ma can talk you into going, and if you go, your ma will go with you to protect you."
Katya shook her head. "She can't -- whatever lie she told, he'd see through it."
"Well, he hasn't asked yet, has he?"
"Not yet, but..."
"You're safe, Katya. None of us will let anything happen to you."
The night after my talk with Katya, when I'd told her what the priest was planning, there was a rap at my window.
I had just taken off my apron and boots and was preparing to change into my nightdress. Half the buttons on my everyday gown were undone and I was slipping it off my shoulders, when I heard the noise. I slid the dress back up and threw the shutters open, and outside was Katya.
She looked -- worried. No, beyond worried -- terrified.
"Sarai," she said. "I..."
She froze, as if unsure of what to say.
I met her eyes, my gaze steady. "Katya," I said. "What did you See?"
"We have to leave," she said quickly. "If we don't -- if we stay -- there's witch-hunters coming to town. The church -- people are losing the faith, and they're blaming it on people like your da and my ma. They don't dare go after Ma -- they don't have proof she can do anything, she's never told anyone except you and I, and we've never said anything -- but they'll come for me, and they'll find a way to pin it on you, too. They'll make an example of us, and..."
I knew well enough what that would mean. Punishment -- being sent to one of the temples to the north, where, it was well-known, they beat their acolytes until they stopped claiming to have "unnatural" abilities. No one from our village had ever been sent, but there were stories about others. A boy from the neighboring village had been sent two years before. We'd gotten word, a year after his departure, that he had died. The official story was that it had been from a fever, but we had our doubts.
"Hells," I said, buttoning my gown rapidly. "Give me two minutes and I'll meet you outside, by the well. Where are we going?"
"South," she said, simply. "I'll know when I see it."
I threw my possessions into a bag, scrawled a quick note to Ma and Da, grabbed what food I could from the pantry, and met her outside.
"Ready," I said. I touched her hand, and she looked at me, stricken.
"If it weren't for me..." she started.
"I Saw that you died," she said, simply. "Your gift came, and they couldn't stop you from using it, and they couldn't break you to believe that you were unworthy, so they had you killed."
"So we're going south," I said. "Sounds better than dying. It's warmer there, isn't it?"
We walked, occasionally hitching rides with trader's wagons, until we reached one of the great cities to the south. A trader had told us to look for a certain traveler's rest - - "they're always in need of dishwashers" - - and, having no better plan, we sought it.
The Red Bridge House and Tavern wasn't fancy, but it was clean, and the kitchen was well-run. We told the proprietor, a man named Tesh, that a trader had sent us, and he laughed and welcomed us in.
"We are, in fact, perpetually in need of a dishwasher. You may stay here as long as you like."
He showed us into the kitchen. It was between meals, and everything was spotless and smelled faintly of lemon. A calico cat wandered out to greet us, followed by a tall and lanky man Tesh introduced as his husband, Jack.
"Jack does the cooking here, and I take care of the rest." He beamed as he said it. "The room off the kitchen is yours, if you would like it -- there are two beds, though they are bunks, I'm afraid, and built into the wall. Where are you coming from?"
I found my voice before Katya did. "Rockford, to the north."
"The far north," said Tesh, surprised. "You're quite a ways from home."
"I have the Sight," Katya blurted. "They don't -- they don't welcome that there."
Jack shook his head. "No, they don't, do they?"
She shot him a grateful look. "No. So when I Saw that things were about to go very badly..."
"You left and came here." He nodded sharply, once. "Aye. That's how it goes. That's similar to how I came here, myself."
"You are welcome here as long as you'd like," Tesh said. "If you're no good in the kitchen, we'll find you something else to do. If nothing else, there's always mucking the stables."
"Thank you," Katya said, and I echoed her sentiment.
"Don't thank me till you've had to do the dishes after one of the festival nights!" said Tesh, laughing. "Well -- you must be tired. You can start in the morning, and we'll go from there."
He bid us goodbye, and withdrew from the kitchen. Jack showed us to our room -- it had been his once, he told us, before he married Tesh -- and he withdrew, too.
"This is a good place," I told Katya, once we were both settled.
She looked down at me from the top bunk. "It's the right place," she said. "I recognized the kitchen from what I Saw. We stay here a long time, I think."
"Good," I said. "Good."
We settled almost seamlessly into the rest. Jack and Tesh were both kind to us. Once Jack found out that I liked to bake, he gratefully turned over the making of bread -- sweet breads for breakfast, hard rolls for lunch and between meals, and good black bread for dinner -- to me. He gave me leave to make cakes and cookies, too, whatever I thought might entice guests to stay with us. He didn’t scold when I made something inedible, merely took it to give to Tesh’s sister, who raised pigs outside the city walls.
Katya did not stay as a dishwasher long, either -- she set off and very quickly found herself a role as an apprentice under a woman who studied the art of augury.
“Augury,” I said, skeptical. “And what might that be?”
“Reading the future. It’s what they do with those that have the Sight, here.”
She stayed at the rest with me, trying to pay Jack and Tesh part of the small stipend she received in exchange for being a prentice, even as Tesh insisted that she didn’t have to.
“Just tell me if something bad is going to happen to my rest!” he said, smiling and refusing her coins. “That’s all I want.”
I loved the traveler’s rest, and I know that Katya did too, but loving it didn’t mean that we didn’t miss home. I’d written to Ma and Da, and had gotten a frightening note back -- the witch-hunters had come, and there had been a new wave of crackdowns on gifts of the sort that Katya had.
“It is perhaps best if you stay in the city,” Ma’s note said. “You are safe there. Your da sends his love, and I love you too. I wish it did not have to be this way, but this is the way of the world. When the priest asks, I will tell him that you are in the blasphemous south, and no threat to his church.”
The note came around the time of Katya’s birthday, and nothing I said could cheer her up. Not even the cake I made, chocolate with preserved cherries, was enough to raise her spirits.
“We can’t go back,” she said, her voice thin. “We’ll never -- we’re here now. We can’t go back.”
“I know,” I said, blinking back tears. I missed home just as much as she did. “I know -- but we can go forward, aye?”
My gift didn’t show itself until I was nineteen, almost twenty. I was still living at the rest then, with Tesh and Jack. I had my own room, no longer sharing with Katya, who had a space above the augury’s shop she’d acquired after she transitioned from apprentice to journeyman.
I could heal people, or my cooking could. Jack was the one to figure it out. He'd been teaching me how to cook, the fancy stuff that he did, so that he could have two nights off a week, instead of working all tenday and worrying even the unflappable Tesh. He was coming down with a cold, and so I made him the carrot soup Ma had always fixed for me. By the time he'd eaten half the bowl, he was back to full health. He had Tesh try it, too, and that's when we knew.
It wasn't just the physical. Eating my bread with my jam was enough to lift anyone's spirits. The traveler's rest earned a reputation for being a place that would make you feel better, if nothing else would. I began getting orders for dinners, soups and rice dishes, stewed vegetables or roasted meats. Jack helped me find a kitchen of my own, and I started a little business on the side, doing my best to help those that were open to it.
Not everything could be cured. Some things ran too deep for my gift to address. Long-standing hurts, old grudges, lost loves, long-held grief - - I couldn't ease the pain from those. All I could hope to do was distract for a while. Broken bones, too, and serious ailments, I couldn't cure. It was small things, minor aches and pains, cold and flu, scraped knees and the equivalent emotions, that I could fix.
The homesickness that filled both Katya and I as wine fills a bottle - - that it couldn't fix. Nothing could.
We talked often about going back. The priest had left, Ma said, bound for one of the temples in the far north. He'd crossed the wrong person, it seemed, and so he'd been given a calling far away. The new priest didn't care about gifts, as long as his congregation kept them secret.
Katya's Sight could be hidden, but at twenty, in love with cooking and food, my gift could not be. It colored everything I did. There were times when my mood was good, that the act of simply passing someone the bread at dinner would be enough to heal them. I'd never be able to hide. I would never be able to go back, not without running the risk of being discovered.
I wrote to Ma and Da constantly, and Katya wrote to her Ma, but it wasn't the same. I couldn't go back, and they couldn't come. They were tied to the land, to their farm and their village, and even if the priest was tolerant, meeting their gifted daughter, acknowledging her gifts, was enough to get shipped to a temple - - their lands stripped away and property sold off.
"It's not fair," I told Katya, whenever the subject arose.
"No, but that's the way of the world." She sighed. "At least we've landed in a nice place."
We had. I loved the city - - had loved it almost from when I'd walked through its gates - - but it wasn't home, not yet, and we both knew it. I wasn't sure if it would ever be.
My 21st birthday approached. Tesh and Jack asked what I wanted, and Katya said she had a surprise planned for me.
"Unfair," I teased. "The Sight means I can't ever surprise you!"
She laughed. "I don't use it to determine birthday presents - - just what kind of cake to expect. You're making your own, aren't you?"
I made a face. "Jack is - - he says I'm not allowed to make my own, not for such an important occasion."
"Well, he asked you what kind you wanted, yes?"
"Yes," I admitted. "But I've no idea what the rest of you are doing!"
Katya grinned. "You'll find out soon enough."
Jack and Tesh gave me a new coverlet for my bed, something warm and feather-filled, and a bundle of fine spices, “to help with your business.” I knew how tight money was for them -- Tesh did not run the traveler’s rest to make a profit -- and I thanked them both for their thoughtfulness.
Katya had told me that she’d give me her gift at dinner. Jack was planning something special -- I didn’t ask what, as I knew that he wouldn’t tell me. Tesh took the day off, instead, and went with me around the city, visiting some of my favorite places -- the waterfront park, the bakery that made sweets that looked like fruit, the fancy dress store with its clothes that I had long admired but never been able to afford. He kept me talking and laughing, and before I knew it, the city bells that signified end of day were tolling, and it was time to go home.
We walked back to the traveler’s rest, and Tesh asked if I was ready. “Katya’s surprise...it surprised me.”
“What, did she bring me a pony?” I laughed. “I bet she bought that skirt I’ve been eying at the Threaded Needle...the green one I’ve been coveting for ages.”
Tesh smiled and pushed open the door to the rest. “She’s in the dining room.”
I walked through the kitchen, pushed open the swinging door that led to the dining area. Normally it would be full of patrons of the rest, but tonight, Tesh had arranged for me to have it for myself -- Katya, Jack, him and I would all eat together.
“Sarai!” said Katya. “Look.”
I placed the basket of bread on the table. Sitting on either side of her were Ma and Da.
“Sarai,” said Ma, standing and crossing the room to hug me. “Your Da sold the farm. We’re here for good. If you can’t come home…”
“Home can come to you,” Da supplied. “My girl, how I’ve missed you! We were afraid to come before -- it wasn’t safe, and Katya said…”
“The time wasn’t right,” Katya supplied. “Not until -- now. My ma is coming with the next group of wagons -- she’ll be here in two days. I sent everyone word at once and told them what to do.”
I started crying -- I couldn’t help myself.
“Oh, no, don’t cry!” said Ma, and I laughed, hiccuping.
“I’m crying because I’m happy, Ma. Are you sure?”
“Sure as sure,” said Da. “We’re here til the end, my girl. Your friend Tesh has graciously offered us a place to stay, until we find work...he says there’s a free room we’re welcome to stay in.”
“It’s been too long,” said Ma. “Now -- we’re here.”
“Now we’re home,” said Katya softly. I walked around the table to hug her.
“Home,” I said.
“Home,” agreed Jack and Tesh, watching from the doorway.
“Welcome home,” said Ma, and I knew, finally, that I was.
If Jack and Tesh are familiar, it is because they previously appeared in a story set in this universe. No familiarity with that story is needed for this one; it's just a little nod to one of the favorite things I've done this season.
Thank you for reading.