The Torgaine of Ysengarth by Belinda Kelly

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To put this bluntly, my mistress enjoys meddling with people's lives. Somehow, no matter which world we visit or which remote corner we dwell in, people will turn up, "petitioners", desperately begging for the sort of solution that they think only magic can provide. And my mistress, when she can be bothered to rouse herself from her teas, desserts and her black, leather-bound tomes (that I suspect contain pornographic writings and pictures) will resolve the petitioner's request in the way they want it the least.

I observed that the Torgaine was seated at the table, engaged in yet another of her tea sessions (I've given up counting how many of them she has each day), cutting up a cake decorated with orange peel and arranging some porcelain cups. When the door banged open, the Torgaine politely gave the petitioner a gruesome, many-chinned smile.

"I apologise if my servant failed at introductions," the Torgaine said, pointing to a spare chair at the table. "I am the Torgaine of Ysengarth, and that moulting bundle of feathers over there is Phlogiston VI."

The woman nodded, possibly wondering in all the worlds what a Torgaine was or where Ysengarth was. I don't know either, and I've never been motivated to ask.

"I'm Lark," the petitioner said, shyly. "Lark, daughter of Pied and Ingholt." She walked over to the table and sat down, staring at the monstrous slice of overly sweet confectionery that the Torgaine had cut for her. Lark picked at it cautiously. "I'm so glad the tales are true," she started to babble nervously, as though she were chatting with a shopkeeper. "I think it was my grandmother who told me about a sorceress who lived in these parts of the woods, who helped those in need..."

"Yes, yes," the Torgaine said abruptly, brushing Lark's comments. (In truth, we had only been here since last week.) "And your problem is...?"

"Oh," Lark said, the look of desperation settling over her face once more. She looked down at the tablecloth and scratched at the embroidery. "I'm engaged to be married," she said. "To Marston Miller, owner of the town mill."

"As one might suspect, judging by his name," the Torgaine said.

"He's a grim and loveless man," Lark went on, ignoring the Torgaine's attempt to be witty. (At least, that's what I think it was.) "He's nearly twice my age. But I'm in love with Pak Hillheart. We've been dear friends since we were children, and he wants nothing more than to marry me too. But the elders - they won't stand for it. They negotiate all the marriages for our town, as if we were fine breeding cows or the like!" Lark crushed up a flower-patterned serviette in her fist.

"And what sort of assets would Pak bring to your household, if you were married?" the Torgaine asked.

Lark looked confused. "He's a shepherd. He looks after the herds for the most important families in the village."

"Does he have a house?" the Torgaine insisted.

"Yes," Lark said. "He's poor but he's got a sweet little house high up in the hills."

The Torgaine drummed her fingers on the table.

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