Chapter 1:


Broken Boundary

Tsubame held an empty burlap sack as she left her house.

“Father is counting on us, Tsubame,” Kotori said from the doorway. Several sleepless nights had given her sister's voice a groggy rasp, but beneath the rasp was a ferocity that left no room for protest, even if Tsubame wanted to.

“Y-Yeah. I’ll get whatever you need.”

“And remember, don’t tell anyone.”

Tsubame nodded. “E-Especially mommy, right?”

“Now you’re getting it.”

Something about her sister’s tone left a pit in her stomach, but she kept her head down rather than pick at the wording.

Kotori slammed the door shut behind her, and the henhouse in their backyard clucked a cacophony.

“Sorry Grenda,” Tsubame called above the birds. “Bertha, Jane…” she forced herself to not speak every chicken’s name. Stupid. Her father was counting on her. Well, Kotori. Tsubame was just an assistant.

Her jogging took her past the other cozy, two story houses that lined the streets.

She raised her head toward a distant hill, where a lone stone castle stood. It loomed over all other homes in its domain. Tsubame shivered at how imposing it seemed without the sun to give it an air of protective warmth.

And then she clapped a hand to her forehead.

Her playdate with Natalia. Without Kotori or her parents to remind her, she’d forgotten all about it. And it wasn’t like she could visit now, with her father counting on her.

She produced a small journal from her pocket and wrote down, “Apologize to Natalia tomorrow. Bring flowers.” Then she tucked it away.

Gentle summer breezes had similarly been overtaken by strong gusts of wind that whipped her blonde locks into a frenzy as she hurried down the street, occasionally exposing pointed ears that betrayed her elven nature.

Many of the townsfolk, the tips of their ears rounded, were in their yards, prepping for a likely evening thunderstorm.

“Tsubame, hope you’re doing okay!” Mrs. Reed said as she was coaxing Jeffrey, her black dog that came up to Tsubame’s waist, inside. But the dog caught wind of Tsubame and ran over to her.

“Jeffrey, get back here!” Mrs. Reed called.

But Jeffrey paid his owner no mind and rubbed up against Tsubame’s legs, expecting pets. Tsubame came to a stop, but squeezed the sack in her hand to remind herself of her mission.

“Sorry Jeffrey, not today. I’m busy.”

Jeffrey seemed to notice the resolve in her tone, but nevertheless whimpered hopefully.

She pouted.

Why couldn’t she be more like Kotori? She didn’t have to kick him, but shooing him away would be nice. But how could anyone expect her to when Jeffrey was looking at her like that?

Mrs. Reed fortunately came over and pulled him away.

“Sorry,” she said. “Guess he can’t get enough of you.”

“Guess so,” Tsubame said. “I have to go, but I’ll come tomorrow, okay Jeffrey?”

Jeffrey barked, and sought some consolation pets from Mrs. Reed.

“He’ll be waiting,” she said. “Where’re you off to in such a hurry, anyway?” Her head tilted up slightly, and her gaze drifted past Tsubame. “Isn’t really a good day for a playdate.”

“Oh, Kotori just wanted me to get some stuff for her.”

“How’s your sister holding up, anyway?”

She tried not to remember her sister feverishly combing through those texts that'd been locked in her mother's trunk in the attic. Or how Tsubame had broken the lock with her hands. When Kotori had asked her to, the look in her sister’s eyes then had been impossible to refuse. Hopefully Mommy wouldn’t mind much when she found out.

“She’s keeping busy.” Tsubame plastered on a paper thin smile. “She really wants to find Daddy.”

“You poor dears. Your mother’s doing what she can, but I can’t imagine how it feels.” Mrs. Reed reached over and ruffled Tsubame’s hair, being mindful of her pointed ears. “Do you want to spend the night? Between Dirk and the boys, it’ll be a tight fit. But I’m sure we can make room.”

“That’s okay,” Tsubame said.

Whatever Kotori had planned, she’d made it clear that it had to happen in their home that night, and nobody could get in the way. If that happened, her sister would get mad. And if Kotori got mad, she’d yell.

It still made her stomach feel icky to turn down Mrs. Reed’s offer though. How did Kotori do it so easily?

“But thank you,” she said, mustering up a smile. “Tell Mr. Reed, Brey, and Lucas I said hi, please?”

“Oh, of course!” she said, smiling broadly. “You need help with that stuff your sister wanted you to get?”

“Oh no, I’m fine. Thank you though!”

“You’re welcome.” Mrs. Reed beamed.

The two parted ways with a wave farewell, and Tsubame continued her way to the market.

While she was scrambling around, talking to people, what was happening to her father right now?

They all knew.

They had to know. But nobody was telling her. Kotori was vague, Mommy was too busy going to work or combing the forest at night for him with her work friends.

But Kotori had mentioned one word. Hags.

Their periwinkle skin from bedtime stories came to mind, as did their mouths full of snaggleteeth from which lies and curses flowed like water from a tap. They’d always been dealt with by a powerful hero in those, but who would be the hero this time?

“Tsubame? You doing okay?”

She raised her head, the sack clenched tight in her hot and sweaty grip. One of the couriers in town, Zidan, had approached her. His bony and veiny hand offered a warm roll of bread from his bag.

“Lady Corenlia won’t mind if I let you have one.”

A broad grin stretched his wrinkled face as though it were a mask of flesh, but Tsubame smiled back.

“Thank you Zidan,” Tsubame said, and chewed on the offered food.

Normally the hint of cinnamon and sugar would set her ears twitching happily, but today they remained still. Her eyes fell back to his stomach that came up to her head. “And I’m okay, I guess. Mom spends a lot of time away from home now. Says we shouldn’t leave the house, but it’s tough just staying at home with nothing to do.”

“Just stay in town, and keep yourselves in your rooms after dark, and I’m sure she’ll let a few walks through town go,” Zidan reassured. “And your mother does this town proud, what with how hard she’s been working. She stopped by the bakery for lunch, and I heard that she’s been trying to earn enough to pay for a couple spellswords from the capital.”

“Wait, she didn’t tell me anything about that.”

Tsubame frowned. Why did nobody want to share their plans with her? She wasn’t as smart as Kotori or the other kids, sure, but there had to be something she could do.

“Maybe she didn’t want to get your hopes up?” He realized his misspeech when Tsubame’s face fell, and pressed another roll into her hands with a light curse. “Here.”

Tsubame pocketed the second roll for later, and munched away at the first at a subdued pace.

“Oh, right!” Relief colored Zidan’s tone as he gestured toward the north, where the Corenlia castle stood on a cliff overlooking the town. “I made a delivery over there yesterday, and Natalia kept talking about this new doll she got from Dainai. You’d like it, I think. Has these jewel-like buttons for eyes.”

“Sounds fun,” Tsubame said, not sounding particularly enthused.

“Maybe you can bring the whole family over,” Zidan suggested. “Lady Corenlia hasn’t been feeling all too well lately, to be honest with you, and a nice get together might be what she needs to get over the head cold she’s got.”

“Oh no! Is she running a fever? It’s not cold yet to get really bad stuff.”

“Not winter yet,” he conceded. “But the lady is old.”

Tsubame squirmed at the mention of age. That was the hardest thing to wrap her head around since coming here, the idea that she was technically just as long lived as the elderly, even if it didn’t feel like it.

“But she’s got quite a few good years left in her, I’m sure,” Zidan said, seeming to notice Tsubame’s discomfort. “Anyway, where’re you headed? You seemed in a hurry.”

“Oh, nothing really. Just running some errands for Kotori.”

Her list burned hot in her pocket as she prayed he wouldn’t pry.

Fortunately, that seemed to be enough for him, as he nodded.

“Haven’t spoken to your sister in a while,” he said. “How’s she holding up?”

Tsubame tried not to think about the nights of Kotori scribbling notes by candlelight, her sister’s expression growing more and more gaunt, her platinum blonde hair growing messier with every passing day.

“She’s doing her best,” Tsubame said, and then shifted her posture to get a better grip on her sack. “I ought to get going. But tell Natalia and Lady Corenlia I said hi, okay?”

“I sure will,” he said. “Be seeing you, Tsubame. Tell your sister and mother the same.”

“Mhm. Bye bye.” She waved farewell and continued on her way, and then reexamined the list her sister had given her.

Kotori had broken up where it’d be likely to find each of the items she’d wanted, so Tsubame headed off to the marketplace in the center of town. Why did her sister need so many vegetables and fruits? Kotori disliked fruits, especially strawberries. And yet she was asking for two pounds of those, and many others.

She asked for a burlap sack from one of the farmers, and began filling it with fruit. The sack grew heavier in her grip as her coinpurse grew lighter, but she lifted it and carried it about without too much difficulty.

“Tsubame, do you need help with that?” said Mrs. Rowena, as Tsubame put the squash she’d purchased from the wizened farmer’s wife into the sack. “I know you’re strong for your age, dear, but do you want Bert and Ernie to help you? I can send for them.”

“I’ll be fine, but thank you.”

Unfortunately, Rowena’s look of concern turned to curiosity after another look at the bulbous bag.

“So why are you getting all these?”

“Uhh, just some scheme my sister’s thought up,” Tsubame said quickly. “Nothing to worry about.”

Mrs. Rowena’s eyes softened.

“It can’t be easy, having your father missing. I guess this is how she copes. But he’ll turn up soon! He knows that forest like the back of his hand. Won’t be lost for long. He’s made of tougher stuff.”

“Yeah,” Tsubame said, trying to make it sound like she believed it. It didn’t work if Mrs. Rowena’s faltered expression was anything to go by, and she quickly added, “So how’re Bert and Ernie doing? Is Mr. Rowena still not back yet?”

“Not yet. No letters either,” she said, brow furrowing. “Here’s hoping the emperor doesn’t send out another missive for soldiers.”

“Err...if Bert or Ernie have to go, then I could help on the farm?” Tsubame suggested, beaming up at Rowena.

Rowena let out a surprised snort at that, but smiled warmly and ruffled Tsubame’s hair.

“Oh, you precious little dear,” she said. “Whatever god that granted you that strength of yours didn’t give it so you could be a simple farmhand, I’m sure.”

Her lips pursed, and she recalled how their father would claim that they were destined for better things, especially Kotori’s sharp mind and knack for magical theory had become apparent. She really was their father’s daughter.

“What if I don’t want any of that?” she said.

“Well, it’s your choice at the end of the day, dear,” Rowena said with a quizzical expression. “But you wouldn’t want to waste your gift, would you?”

“I guess not,” Tsubame said, shrugging. “But see you later, Rowena. Tell Bert and Ernie that I said hi.” She waved farewell.

“Of course! Come over again for dinner sometime,” Rowena called with a wave of her hand. “I’ll make my apple pie just the way you like it.”

“I’d like that, thank you,” she called back.

The sack of fruit and vegetables had grown heavier towards the bottom so lifting it by the top of the sack prove risky. To keep it from ripping open, she wound up carrying it in her arms, and struggled to see over the lumpy brown mass on account of her short stature. So her steps were slow and cautious on her way back to her home.

“Kotori,” she called upon reaching it, only to be met with a distant word from the backyard.

“Took you long enough! I’m in the henhouse,” Kotori called back, only for squawking to erupt. “Stupid birds, calm down!”

Tsubame carried the sack to the backyard, her shoes crunching the grass, and stepped into the cramped white structure. It smelled of perfume and flowers, a pleasant surprise from its usual stench of poultry and droppings. No doubt Kotori had cast a spell when she’d first shown up that made the smell pleasant.

And based on what she’d done in the coop, that wasn’t the only spell she was planning to cast. The cages that held the hens and rooster had been rearranged in a circle around the middle of the henhouse. In the middle of this circle was an ornate white chalk diagram Kotori was etching into the floor. Her back faced Tsubame, and was arched in a way that would ache later.

Tsubame gently stroked some of the more unruly birds through the cages with her fingers, and they quieted down.

“Hey Bertha, Shari, it’s okay.”

Once they’d calmed down and affectionately rubbed against her hand, she smiled, and left them to approach Kotori.

But before Tsubame could speak, Kotori retrieved a magnifying glass from the row of items beside her and inspected the details of the diagram very carefully. Then she glanced at the notes she’d brought with her.

While the text seemed proper enough to Tsubame, Kotori clicked her tongue and magically wiped away a line of text she’d scribbled down, and replaced it with something that only differed by the lagging tail of one symbol.

“Tori, don’t you think you’re going a bit too far?” Tsubame probed once Kotori had nodded at her handiwork.

“We’re going to perform magic of legendary caliber,” Kotori said. “I refuse to have shoddy preparation taint the results. And speaking of preparations, did you bring everything?”

“Just the fruit and veggies for now,” Tsubame said. “I’m gonna get the rest now though. But we should have Mommy here, right? Making sure we don’t make any mistakes.” She was about to bring up the spellswords Zidan had mentioned, but Kotori spoke faster.

“What did I tell you about Mother this morning? And here I thought your memory was getting better.”

Tsubame winced.

“It is! I just...I just want to be careful, okay?”

“I'll be the one casting the spell,” Kotori said. “Leave them here then, and fetch the rest of the list.”

The firmness in Kotori's tone struck Tsubame dumb for a moment, and she didn’t have to see her sister’s face to feel those eyes boring into her again. Even the chickens stopped clucking.

“I-I’ll keep going through the list,” Tsubame said, setting the sack down.

“Good. And get back here before it storms,” Kotori said. “I don’t have nearly enough magic for the summoning, so I’ll make up the difference with lightning.”

“Th-That sounds dangerous. You sure you'll be okay?”

“Just do your job.”

“O-Okay,” Tsubame said, and stepped out of the coop. After another glance at the list, she headed to the river in search of fresh fish.