Prologue: Valyn
Out With the Bathwater

The most direct path to her mother’s house runs above ground, offering no shelter from the elements. The extreme angle of the setting sun does paint the road in shadow, but shade can do nothing to alleviate such wet heat. Sweat chafes her palms. The city of Rivermouth glitters against the oncoming night, its windows and spangled rooftops and sweating tiles all feverishly bright with as much sunset as they can capture; her eyes don’t know whether to adjust to the assault of these tiny lights or to the ever-darkening shadows, so they split the difference and just hurt.

Yes, Valyn is formulating quite the list of grievances. But her mother won’t listen this time either.

<Anyone lost today, little thing?>

The psychopomp’s abrupt appearance startles her. Not because of what it is—a ribbon of sentient darkness cascading from an eave—but because she hasn’t been paying attention to anything but her own discomfort. She's at the psychopomp corner? Already? She’s nearly home, then!

The spirit ripples toward her like a fine scarf caught by a breeze. Draping itself over the top of her face, it blots out the painful pinpricks of reflected light; Valyn smiles into its body.

She comes to a halt and fails to notice how this action clogs the road. Many of Rivermouth’s surface roads are, impressively, both narrower and more mazelike than those beneath the ground; one immobile ten-year-old is enough to hobble foot traffic in both directions.

She can’t hear their impatience. She should be able to feel it in the attention-getting stomp of the man behind her—thump thump, thump thump, excuse me, hello!—but her attention has already been given elsewhere.

Which is only fair, if I have the measure of mortal fairness correct. Valyn is the only medium present. If she doesn’t notice the ire of those behind her, they don’t notice the spirit cloaking her face. It’s mutual ignorance.

<No, sorry. Everyone I know is nice and healthy. I’ll let you know if someone dies tomorrow!>

<Someone is always dying. But you’re sweet to report it for me,> the spirit says.

An unseen hand thwaps two fingers against her shoulder with unnecessary force. Valyn swivels, but her vision is cloaked by the shadow-spirit; her basket knocks against something unseen and disgorges its contents at her feet.

One scramble for scattered clothes and a few hasty apologies later—Valyn sincerely wishes more people could see spirits, if only to avoid moments like these—she hurries on.