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Law of the Broken Earth

By´╝ÜRachel Neumeier


Mienthe did not remember her mother, and she was afraid of her father—a cold, harsh-voiced man with a scathing turn of phrase when his children displeased him. He favored his son, already almost a young man when Mienthe was born, and left Mienthe largely to the care of a succession of nurses—a succession because servants rarely stayed long in that house. If Mienthe had had no one but the nurses, her childhood might have been bleak indeed. But she had Tef.

Tef was the gardener and a man of general work. He had been a soldier for many years and lost a foot in a long-ago dispute with Casmantium. Tef was no longer young and he walked with a crutch, but he was not afraid of Mienthe’s father. It never crossed Mienthe’s mind that he might give notice.

Despite the lack of a foot, Tef carried Mienthe through the gardens on his shoulders. He also let her eat her lunches with him in the kitchen, showed her how to cut flowers so they would stay fresh longer, and gave her a kitten that grew into an enormous slit-eyed gray cat. Tef could speak to cats and so there were always cats about the garden and his cottage, but none of them were as huge or as dignified as the gray cat he gave Mienthe.

When Mienthe was seven, one of her nurses started teaching her her letters. But that nurse had only barely shown her how to form each letter and spell her own name before Mienthe’s father raged at her about Good paper left out in the weather and When are you going to teach that child to keep in mind what she is about? A sight more valuable than teaching a mere girl how to spell, and the nurse gave him notice and Mienthe a tearful farewell. After that, Tef got out a tattered old gardener’s compendium and taught Mienthe her letters himself. Mienthe could spell Tef’s name before her own, and she could spell bittersweet and catbrier and even quaking grass long before she could spell her father’s name. As her father did not notice she had learned to write at all, this did not offend him.

Tef could not teach Mienthe embroidery or deportment, but he taught Mienthe to ride by putting her up on her brother’s outgrown pony and letting her fall off until she learned to stay on, which, fortunately, her brother never discovered, and he taught her to imitate the purring call of a contented gray jay and the rippling coo of a dove and the friendly little chirp of a sparrow so well she could often coax one bird or another to take seeds or crumbs out of her hand.

“It’s good you can keep the cats from eating the birds,” Mienthe told Tef earnestly. “But do you mind?” People who could speak to an animal, she knew, never liked constraining the natural desires of that animal.

“I don’t mind,” said Tef, smiling down at her. He was sitting perfectly still so he wouldn’t frighten the purple-shouldered finch perched on Mienthe’s finger. “The cats can catch voles and rabbits. That’s much more useful than birds. I wonder if you’ll find yourself speaking to some of the little birds one day? That would be pretty and charming.”

Mienthe gazed down at the finch on her finger and smiled. But she said, “It wouldn’t be very useful. Not like speaking to cats is to you.”

Tef shrugged, smiling. “You’re Lord Beraod’s daughter. You don’t need to worry about being useful. Anyway, your father would probably be better pleased with an animal that was pretty and charming than one that’s only useful.”

This was true. Mienthe wished she was pretty and charming herself, like a finch. Maybe her father… But she moved her hand too suddenly then, and the bird flew away with a flash of buff and purple, and she forgot her half-recognized thought.

When Mienthe was nine, a terrible storm came pounding out of the sea into the Delta. The storm uprooted trees, tore the roofs off houses, flooded fields, and drowned dozens of people who happened to be in the path of its greatest fury. Among those who died were Mienthe’s brother and, trying to rescue him from the racing flood, her father.

Mienthe was her father’s sole heir. Tef explained this to her. He explained why three uncles and five cousins—none of whom Mienthe knew, but all with young sons—suddenly appeared and began to quarrel over which of them might best give her a home. Mienthe tried to understand what Tef told her, but everything was suddenly so confusing. The quarrel had something to do with the sons, and with her. “I’m… to go live with one of them? Somewhere else?” she asked anxiously. “Can’t you come, too?”

“No, Mie,” Tef said, stroking her hair with his big hand. “No, I can’t. Not one of your uncles or cousins would permit that. But you’ll do well, do you see? I’m sure you’ll like living with your uncle Talenes.” Tef thought Uncle Talenes was going to win the quarrel. “You’ll have his sons to play with and a nurse who will stay longer than a season and an aunt to be fond of you.”