Once Kereda was a successful shoemaker, but she lost everything: her career, her marriage, her home. When her new roommate tells her a curse might have been haunting her all these years, she seeks out Serin the dreamworker to have it undone.
But the curse isn't what Kereda expects—and she and Serin end up trapped in a twisted dreamworld, forced to confront their painful pasts together if they hope to uncover the plot against them.
Perhaps there had been reason for Kereda to visit a dreamworker years ago, but she’d never had the courage. Strange how doing one brave thing, like moving three hundred miles from home to a new country, led to doing other brave things. Courage works the opposite way from a jug of water: the more one pours out, the more one has left.
Cupped in a hollow on the mountainside was a white cottage with blue door and shutters. Three goats cropped grass out front beyond a vegetable garden. Further up the mountain, Kereda could see another path like the one she had just taken: narrow and steep, only low juniper between one’s feet and a sheer drop. Sparse spruce and larch struggled up a little further until the treeline; beyond were only tundra grasses and purple wildflowers rippling in the wind.
Gilya the seamstress, one of her new roommates in the small lakeside city of Evei Shar, had told her this was the place.
“Serin’s wonderful at getting rid of curses, and she won’t charge you much,” she’d said around three pins between her lips, “but she doesn’t make herself easy to get to.”
It seemed bad for business, but what did a failed shoemaker know about dreamwork?
Fireflies, entirely wrong for noon, hovered around the dreamworker’s door, which was carved with a blocky abstract pattern of red lines. Kereda hadn’t been sleeping well since she’d moved—she’d had nightmares of a mother beating a small terrified boy, or of two sick children with swollen necks choking to death while their older sister watched in horror. But she hadn’t been sleeping poorly enough to see things that weren’t there.
Timidly, she knocked, and the door swung open on its own.
The woman inside—Serin the dreamworker—was small and fair as the mountain people tended to be, light brown hair loose and floating as if on a lake all around her shoulders and arms. She sat on the far side of a table opposite the door, a white cloth before her covered in an intricate geometric pattern of red, blue, and green sand. With black sand pinched between her fingers, she was drawing a sinuous line winding through the colors, quick and precise. Beneath a simple green tunic and trousers, her bare feet dangled just off the ground.
“Sorry to disturb you,” Kereda said, and backed out the door.
Before she could close it, it banged open with a whoosh. “Good morning—have you come to consult me?” said Serin in a voice that started out echoing and too big and shrank down to soft and ordinary.
Kereda jumped a little. “Um. Yes.” Her voice barely came out at all. She repeated it louder. “Yes.” She almost added, “Holy One,” as she would have back in Melabis, but dreamworkers in the north were not temple acolytes. “You must be Serin. I’m Kereda. I’m here for… for a curse.”
The woman at the table opened her eyes and her hair settled gently; she patted a spot on the table opposite herself, just past the edge of the cloth covered in sand. “It’s good to meet you, Kereda,” she said.
Kereda had run from things too many times before. Might as well get this over with.
“Should I take off my shoes?” she asked, indicating the low buttoned boots she wore; she was still learning northern customs.
Kereda had expected a hermit dreamworker to be old, or at least older than herself, but Serin was startlingly young, probably less than twenty-five. She really should be used to powerful people, wise people she sought for advice, being younger than she was, but she was such a failed excuse for thirty-one that she half suspected the last ten years had been a bad dream. Or perhaps she wished so.
“Something brought you here,” Serin said, gently, “but I am unhurried if you are. Would you like something to eat before we begin?”
Her stomach was in knots, but the offer of food reminded her how hungry she really was; she’d been eating as little as she could manage for so long, watching the money from the sale of her possessions dwindle. She was thirsty, too, after her long climb, and she really ought to eat and drink—at least before trying to make the trip back to Evei Shar. “If it isn’t any trouble. You’re very kind.”
Serin rose, opened cupboards, settled a small meal at the kitchen table near the door. She served good mountain fare: young red potatoes with herbs, goat cheese, tiny sharp blueberries, spring water. Unlike down by the lake in Evei Shar, spring water was safe to drink without wine or liquor mixed in. After days of nothing but porridge and lentils, it was all as wonderful as the first warm day in spring.
“Tell me a little about why you came,” Serin said, as Kereda ate.
“You wouldn’t want to hear it.” Kereda was hoping she could just get the shoes looked at, see if there was anything in the dreamsphere doing her harm. She’d heard of people confessing their troubles or their plans to dreamworkers as part of a consultation, but having never been to one she’d hoped the process didn’t require much of that.
“I am not easily shocked.” One corner of Serin’s mouth quirked upward.
Kereda tried to imagine what Serin thought she was going to say. “Sorry to disappoint, then. No juicy gossip. It’s more… boring. Stupid. Pathetic.”
“I’m very patient. And a woman who doesn’t get out much and lives alone except for goats is hardly one to judge you ‘boring, stupid, and pathetic.'” Serin smiled.
Kereda washed down potato and cheese with water. Her throat was too dry when she tried to speak, so she took another swig. “Everything in my life has gone wrong,” she said. “I moved to Evei Shar a month ago, and I can’t find any work. I’m sharing a little room on Dyer Street with three other women.” She looked down at her plate; the potatoes weighed down her stomach in a lump. “I had a shop in Melabis. I had a husband, too. I was a shoemaker. But really a bad one, and I had to sell everything.” She paused, gathered courage, went on.