Prologue: Valyn
Out With the Bathwater

Her mother lives in a massive relic of a building built from the earth churned out by the excavation of the city below. A few neighbors dot its shared courtyard, squeezing work into the last available hour of light. The oppressive heat coaxes extra pungence from her mother's laundry tubs; bleach and lye bite through a miasma of sizzling garlic, each smell made worse by the association.

Valyn’s mouth waters anyway. She’s used to it. But before she can get two steps toward that garlicky cookshop, she spies her mother waving from their open doorway.

“Not yet. I need to show you something,” her mother says.

“I’m hungry.”

“It’ll be quick.”

Valyn sincerely doubts that. But when her mother comes down to carry her basket inside for her, Valyn follows by reflex.

For some reason, a wash basin has been plopped right in their entryway. Valyn finds this so bizarre she almost forgets to feel relieved when her sweat spontaneously evaporates upon crossing the threshold.

Her mother doesn’t do the wash inside. Like most of their neighbors, she keeps her work out in the courtyard where it belongs. And laundry is the most outdoor work Valyn can imagine; not only does it smell, not only does it take up so much space, but sneaking all that water inside? She doesn’t think they own a bucket with a lid. Her mother must smuggled up the water flask by laborious flask.

Which she did. Only she didn’t think it laborious. She is not irritated by the local quander’s water-laws. Panaian, unlike her child, can remember living in a place that mildewed.

Her mother turns her back on the mysterious basin.

Borali people, they’re never cursed,” she says bluntly. “Or maybe it’s only rich ones who are. I never see it. It’s not like back home where me or you or the farmer could get cursed all the time. So this is maybe the only time I can show you this, okay? You NEED,” she emphasizes with bulged eyes, “to pay attention.”

Despite herself, Valyn leans forward. Curses?

Valyn has never seen one. But her mother talks about them all the time, like they dropped from the trees where she was born. Her mother is so full of bogeymen like that. To hear her tell it, Agya was the most dangerous, disgusting place on the continent: streets that flood, walls that mold, government-sanctioned magic—which no doubt led to those curses everywhere...

If her mother has proof? Of the curses, at least? That's something Valyn can brag about tomorrow!

“It’s me and you,” her mother continues. “None of these Borali mediums know what to do with a curse. How would they? They never see any. Now, don’t you dare look away—they’re gross. Slimy. You will want to turn away. But you NEED to see.”

Yes, Valyn thinks, so hurry up and show me!

And she does. Valyn leans over the edge of the tub like she’s trying to spot coins at the bottom of a turbid fountain. Spotting the curse proves more difficult than that, with this big basin all dedicated to the quarantine of a lone shawl.