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The Keeper of the Mist

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The Keeper of the Mist

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Author: Rachel Neumeier
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Keri has been struggling to run her family bakery since her mother passed away. Now the father she barely knew--the Lord of Nimmira--has died, and ancient magic has decreed that she will take his place as the new Lady. The position has never been so dangerous: the mists that hide Nimmira from its vicious, land-hungry neighbors have failed, and Keri's people are visible to strangers for the first time since the mists were put in place generations ago.

At the same time, three half-brothers will their own eyes on the crown make life within the House just as dangerous as the world outside. But Keri has three people to guide her: her mysterious Timekeeper, clever Bookkeeper, and steadfast Doorkeeper. Together they must find a way to repair the boundary before her neighbors realize just how vulnerable Nimmira is.



"They say Lord Dorric is dying," Tassel told Keri, swinging without ceremony into the bakery kitchen. She let the door slam shut behind her. It banged hard because its frame had warped in the wet spring weather, an event predictable as the blooming of crocuses and daffodils. The bell chimed, once and again and a third time, as the door bounced against the frame. The chime was a bright, cheerful sound, meant to turn away ill wishes and evil sorcery while allowing good luck to enter along with any visitor. But this spring, the sound only reminded Keri that she needed to hire someone to fix the warped frame.

Keri's mother could have gotten out a hammer and a handful of twopenny nails and fixed the doorframe herself. If Keri tried to do that, she would probably bend all the nails and crack the doorframe and knock the head off the hammer. But since her mother's death, the bakery never seemed to earn enough in a week to pay a carpenter to repair the door, so from week to week the door continued to bang in its frame. These days all such tasks seemed to go undone, until both house and shop creaked with neglect.

Keri sighed, blinked, and looked back at the immediate task facing her--one she could at least address properly, and one that would earn decent coin. Maybe this cake would even pay for a carpenter at last.

Tassel began to hitch herself up to sit on the edge of the scarred kitchen table, but then, careful of the lace on her gown, sat on a stool instead and only leaned an elbow on the table. The gown was pearl gray and pink and frothy with lace, certainly nothing sensible for a working kitchen. If Keri had tried to wear a dress like that, even if she hadn't been working in the bakery kitchen, she would have stained the fabric and pulled out bits of lace within the hour. Tassel was the sort of girl who never tore or stained anything.

Tassel watched critically as Keri piped frosting around the outer edge of a cake layer and then spread peach jam across its top. "Did you hear what I said?"

Keri produced a wordless murmur, more interested in keeping the peach jam from oozing out of bounds than in Tassel's far-from-surprising news. She placed a second cake layer on top of the first and repeated the piped circle of frosting and filling of peach jam.

"Yes, but my cousin says you can stand in his back pasture and actually watch the mist thinning," Tassel persisted. Her voice dropped portentously. "He says, some days lately, you can see right out through the mist into Tor Carron. He says you'd swear you can glimpse the tips of mountains against the sky."

"Um?" said Keri. She placed the third layer on top of the second and began to spread frosting in large swirls across the sides and top of the towering cake.

Tassel clicked her tongue in exasperation. "Not Gannon, and not any of the girls. It's Cort who says he's seeing mountaintops through the mist."

Her attention momentarily captured, Keri glanced up. She tried to imagine Tassel's most humorless cousin standing in his back pasture, gazing into the border of Nimmira, frightening himself with vague shapes in the mist. Her imagination failed her. They had all been friends, she and Tassel and Cort, but Cort's father had died, and then her own mother, and after that everything was different.

"There, you see?" said Tassel, satisfied that she had finally impressed Keri with the significance of her news. She then spoiled her portentous air by asking in an entirely different tone, "Are you going to use all that frosting? It's the kind you make with soft cheese and whipped cream and white sugar, isn't it?"

"It is," said Keri heartlessly. "But, yes, I'm going to use all of it."

Tassel blinked, woebegone, her dark eyes filling with tears. It was a trick she had used to great effect when she was little. Tassel had been an exquisite child, all huge eyes and curls and porcelain skin. She had been able to weep beautifully, with never a blotch, even before she was steady on her baby feet.

Keri would have envied her friend that skill except it would have been wasted on her; she had never been pretty enough to make tears charming, and besides, Keri's mother, unlike Tassel's parents, had never been in the least susceptible to charm. At least, not since falling, briefly, for the charm of Keri's father.

Tassel was still exquisite, although no longer a child. They had all grown up rather suddenly a year or two before, but where Keri had gone awkward and self-conscious for a season, and Cort had spent a gawky year tripping over things while his voice broke, Tassel had stepped straight from pretty childhood to adult grace. She was tall for a girl, taller than Keri, nearly as tall as Cort, but somehow this did not interfere with her ability to wear frothy pink.

Even so, Keri only raised an unimpressed eyebrow. "If you want some frosting, next time offer to whip the cream."

"But that's hard!"

Keri snorted, but she also relented so far as to dip a spoon into the bowl of frosting and hand it to her friend.

Tassel accepted the spoon cheerfully. "Mmm."

"So what else does Cort say?"

"Only what I told you. But if it's true, doesn't it mean the Lord must really be dying this time?"

Keri shrugged. Dorric Ailenn had been a fixture of Nimmira for forty years at least, more than twice Keri's whole life. She supposed he'd been a good Lord at first--people were. Nimmira didn't choose anybody to be Lord--or Lady--unless they'd be good at it. So Lord Dorric must have been a good Lord at the beginning.

Only then he'd become a little bit self-indulgent, and then a little bit selfish... and once you started giving yourself license to be selfish and thinking you had a right to be self-indulgent, there was no end to it. Or so Keri's mother had said, on the rare occasions she said anything at all. Keri thought that must be true. Look how Lord Dorric had turned out.

Keri had imagined Nimmira with a different Lord; of course she had. She probably spent a good deal more time on such daydreams than most people. But Lords of Nimmira were generally long-lived. Keri thought Dorric would probably rule for another twenty years. No matter who imagined he could see through the boundary mist.

Finished frosting the cake, Keri eased away the parchment that had protected its glazed platter from unsightly crumbs and dabs of frosting. Then she replaced the parchment with a ring of sugar flowers, carefully nudging each one into place around the base of the cake--violets for happiness and bluebells for honesty, and a single hibiscus for the top, tinted pale blue to match the other sugar flowers. Hibiscus for endurance, but Keri liked them because they were large and showy and impressive.

"No roses," observed Tassel.

Keri looked at her, eyebrows raised.

"Oh, well," Tassel said philosophically. "I know. Borage for a brave young man, bluebells for an honest wife, hawthorn for abundant land, violets for a long, sweet life. But I like roses."

"They'd probably throw the cake away. And refuse to pay for it."

"Well, I don't care. That's just children's nonsense, that thing about roses. You can put roses on a cake for me one day."

Keri slanted another raised-eyebrow look at her friend. "Oh, can I? Something you haven't told me?"

It was Tassel's turn to snort. "Hardly. All the boys in Glassforge are boring. Predictable little puppies who trail after you with their tongues hanging out..."

"That's just you, Tassel. Anyway, if and when you need a cake, I will not either put roses on it. I'll make you a nice hibiscus flower in pink, if you like." Keri placed the hibiscus flower carefully, handling it with the lightest possible touch, lest she break a petal and have to make another.

"So," said Tassel, changing the subject with what she no doubt imagined was studied casualness, "who do you think Nimmira will go to, if Lord Dorric really does die?"

Keri shrugged.

"Oh, now, Keri--you must have thought about it! You, of all people! Would Brann get it, do you think? Or Domeric? Domeric's strong. He might be able to deal with the Bear Lord of Tor Carron, if it took a bit for the mist to thicken back up. But what if the mist is thinning all the way around, even up north between us and Eschalion? If the Wyvern King realized we were here"--she shivered theatrically--"he wouldn't likely be so easy to put off for a day or two, and, well, Brann's the clever one."

Keri shrugged again, more elaborately, refusing to comment. Nearly everybody did expect the succession to go to one or the other of Dorric's elder sons, and argued about which would be better. Probably everybody was right, but Keri was not about to join in that particular argument.

"I'd rather have Lucas," Tassel said wistfully. "Those lips! Those cheekbones! Those eyelashes!" She batted her own, which were exquisite.

Keri lifted her eyebrows in one of her mother's best looks, the skeptical one that could stop a boy from carelessly tracking in mud or a child from threatening a tantrum. "That would certainly be entertaining," she said, drawn in despite herself. "The players would throw him a huge party. Half of Nimmira would get drunk and kill themselves falling down stairs and into fountains, and the other half would die of apoplexy."

Tassel laughed. "Keri! Which half would you be in?"

"Oh... both. Anybody could see Lucas would be an awful Lord. A player never sticks to one thing or stays in one place, and the Lord has to be rooted down. Solid, you know. How could an unreliable man ensure Nimmira's prosperity and safety? But I have to admit I wouldn't mind seeing Brann and Domeric passed over."

Tassel laughed again. "You see? You like Lucas best, too."

"But how much does that say? Anyway, there's no use setting your cap for him, Tassel, even if you do admire his lips and cheekbones and... whatever. He's probably got a girl in every village this side of Woodridge." Even Keri, who avoided gossip about Lord Dorric's sons when she could, knew that Lucas vanished several times a year, traveling with one troupe of players or another. And everyone knew players took life and love lightly. People said he was a scandal to his father. Keri thought Lord Dorric of all men had no call to object to anything his scapegrace son got up to, no matter how lightly Lucas took life or how many girls he visited.

"Oh, I'm not setting my cap for Lucas!" protested Tassel. "Keri, really! Lucas? But I'm not blind."

"If you say so. Anyway, probably Dorric won't die at all," Keri said, going back to carefully setting sugar flowers around the edge of the cake. "Probably he'll recover again and the mist will thicken right back up and no one Outside will ever realize they almost glimpsed something they hadn't known was here. Yes," she added bitterly, "I expect he'll be back on his feet in a week, throwing tempers and laughing at anyone foolish enough to worry about him or the boundary mist, and writing poetry to girls half his age--" She stopped because her voice had gone a little too sharp on that last.

"He probably will," Tassel agreed, eyeing Keri with sympathy but without comment. "The border mist will thicken right back up and we'll all be fine. Who's that cake for? Anybody I know?"

Keri, accepting the change of topic, nodded. "Merin and Nasric are to be wed at noon tomorrow."

"Nasric! Marrying Merin? You do mean Merin Strannan? Isn't that a bit... spring-fall?"

Keri had to laugh. "Merin Strannan, yes, but not that Nasric! I mean Nasric the jointer."

"Oh." Tassel laid a hand across her heart in theatrical relief. "That's much better, yes." She considered for a moment and then nodded judiciously. "That may do. Nasric the jointer is terribly boring, I've always thought so, but Merin is so flighty she needs a steady sort of husband. Yes, I think they may suit very well."

"Anyone would think they were waiting for your personal approval," Keri said, amused. "Nasric isn't boring. He's nice. Merin really isn't good enough for him, not that anybody asked me."

Tassel paused on her way to drop the spoon in the sink. "Keri! You never told me you thought Nasric is nice."

Keri rolled her eyes. "Not that nice. I think Merin's lucky to get him, that's all." Though Merin was lucky to get him, Keri didn't exactly envy her. She did like Nasric, who had always been kind to her and polite to her mother, but she didn't want to get married to him. She didn't want to marry at all, certainly not soon. Which was just as well, as she knew she would never get so good an offer, not from a steady, generous young man with good prospects, like Nasric. Not from any young man from a decent family. No, the sort of young man who might offer marriage to the unacknowledged bastard child of a mere serving woman was not the sort Keri would accept.

She knew too well what most of the townsfolk of Glassforge had thought of her mother, right to the end. A serving girl careless enough to let herself catch a child--a woman could never live down that kind of reputation, no matter how hard she worked to put her past behind her and run a business on her own. No matter how much fierce determination it took to build up a bakery from nothing while raising a small child. No matter how successful a woman became after a bad start, the bad start was all people remembered. Keri's mother had never told her that, but then, she had never had to.

But the bakery had become modestly successful anyway. "Remember," Keri's mother had told her more than once, "people find excuses why it's all right to do what they want. Offer them the lightest, airiest, most wonderful cakes and they'll find reasons to buy from you even if they don't like you a bit and their best friend's cousin owns a bakery right in the middle of town." And she'd taught Keri to make the cakes so light they nearly floated off the platter. She'd taught her to beat the butter and sugar for twelve full minutes before adding the eggs, and to beat in the eggs one at a time, and to make sure she bought just the right flour, ground fine and soft from the earliest winter wheat.

Copyright © 2016 by Rachel Neumeier


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