Sunlight streams through the church's lattice work windows, pale and dull. Alys sells the last of the blackberry jam and slips the six spinel fires it was bought with into the nearly full bag at her hip, its pink surfaces half-burning to the touch. Newly crystallized then.
She glances at the back of the woman who'd given it to her. A girl really, wrapped in bright purple linen and walking alone with hunched shoulders. Alys breathes harshly through her nose as she turns away.
"Do you have to go back?" Reben asks as he hugs her, pressing his face into her side.
"You already know the answer, my love. Don't make it harder than it already is." Though her voice is soft, her great grandson's eyes begin watering when he peers up. Alys has no real comfort to give him.
He pulls away after she’s silent, pout threatening to turn into a scowl, eyes suddenly dry. "But I want you to stay,” he whines. Alys gently pushes him away, putting the empty wooden crate beneath their booth’s counter. They only have six jars of persimmon jam left, then she’d have to return home and get the strawberry jams — which always sold the worst. No one likes strawberries these days.
"That's enough, Reben. I do what I do for the family."
"Fires aren't that important." When Alys scoffs, he grows louder. "Minisan says so. We can live in the woods like his family. Then you wouldn't have to fight those things beyond the Wall."
Alys gives him a sharp look and he falls silent. A man in white furs and with bright blue hair approaches, buying all six of the persimmons along with the crate they came in. She gets a single diamond in return, the pale fire within it still and cold, almost freezing. When the man is well and gone, Alys roughly pulls the stand’s curtain down, blocking anyone from seeing inside.
Facing Reben and gripping his shoulders, she makes sure their gazes meet as she says in a hard voice, "The hermits live in parks still protected by the city walls. And still living off the ranger's fires. If I quit, do you have any idea what would happen to us?"
"I asked you a question."
"We wouldn't have any fires."
Alys pressed her lips together hard. "And?" she urged him.
"We'd be poor."
"You're ten now, Reben,” Alys sighed, “so you must know what that means. No big house, so the family can't live together anymore. All that food you eat, the beef and the chicken, the sweets — there'd be no more of that. No school, no church, and no friends,” she counted the luxuries off with her fingers. Her great grandson shifts uncomfortably. “You would have to work day in and day out for a week's pay of a single fireless pebble, and even then it wouldn’t be enough." Alys lets go of him and steps back. "Does that sound like an easy life to you?"
"No,” Reben says petulantly. He doesn’t meet her eyes.
"I know you think I’m being harsh, but my love, you can't possibly grasp what it is to be without fires."
He stands straight suddenly and crosses his arms, defensive. "But I do. Minisan told me."
Alys takes a breath, mentally urging herself to stay calm. He was just a child, he couldn’t understand. "He told you. I experienced it.” Her frustration only grows when Reben appears unphased, glaring as if she were the one who didn’t understand. Alys’s temples begin to throb and burn. She hadn’t given up her mortality so her descendants could dream of being destitute. “Thanks to my job you nor any other child in Deepditch will never know what it's like to be so hungry your stomach caves in.” She grabs him roughly by the arms, forcing him closer as she lowers her voice. “To have all your friends freeze to death come morning or to be made to eat your own twin sister."
"What!" Reben's voice was a weak wheeze. He tenses beneath her hands.
"My own parents offered her up, cooked her themselves and the priests beat bloody anyone who refused. They called it a blessing, wisdom from the saints themselves."
"But that was the past. No one thinks like that now, no one would do that," he protests weakly, eyes flickering between Alys and the black marble flooring. “Right?”
Alys shook her head. "They were desperate. I’ve been to thousands of poor settlements, all of them as desperate as your great great grandparents had been. As we speak, those very same crimes are being committed, innocents being killed and eaten. Reben, there is a famine, people are rioting, but no one in power cares.” She softens her voice at his wide-eyed expression. "Your hermit friends may preach the old ways, but they live the new. Don't you dare take this for granted like them. You understand me?"
"Yes, great grandma,” Reben answers quietly, tone little more than a whisper. Outside Alys can hear a growing murmur. She glances up at the sky, seeing the moon had risen during their conversation and almost cursed. The night crowd was coming in.
"Good,” she says as she backs away fully and grabs hold of the curtain's edge, making ready to pull it back. “And I don't want you hanging around that boy again and that's the last I'll say of it. Now go get the rest of the jam from your mother."
Reben left wordlessly, a frown on his face as he dips out of the back of the booth. For a moment, Alys felt guilt swirling in her gut but beat it down. He was old enough, older than she’d been when her sister had been taken and when her parents had sold her to a passing ranger — heedless of whether he were real or just a slaver looking to sell children. That had been a hundred and fifty years ago.
The seven hells would swallow her whole before she let her lineage fall that far again. She pulled back the curtain and faced the crowd. In it, standing at the very back, was her commander. Alys would be leaving in the morning.