A Spiritwalker Story
by Kate Elliott
The handsome young mansa of Four Moons House was no longer accustomed to sleeping alone nor did he have the least desire to do so. For a man who was the most powerful cold mage in, and thus head of, a prestigious mage House to find himself solitary in a luxurious bed after the unpleasant shock he had just suffered merely added insult to the injury. He tossed and turned through a restless night and woke quite out of sorts with the world.
The day before, Five Mirrors House had turned out its best welcome for Andevai Diarisso Haranwy. He had been installed in a well appointed guest suite with two rooms and a courtyard, quite fitting for his exalted station. His companion and friend Kofi Osafo, the young ambassador from the Republic of Expedition, was installed in a neighboring suite. Supper in the men’s hall was magnificent. The elderly mansa of Five Mirrors House treated him and his guest with respect, as did the other magisters and notables. Over honey wine, they engaged in a long and fruitful conversation about the current upheaval in Europa and the prospects for peace if, as everyone feared, a new emperor was raised in Rome through military means. He was able to speak forcefully of the need to change the antiquated and unjust customs on which the mage Houses had for too long maintained their power. Kofi described the recent revolution in Expedition in which the old hereditary council was replaced by an elected assembly. Hospitality demanded that their hosts listen politely, even if they did not agree.
But after the discussion wound down, the House djeli had sung the stirring and noble tale of how Sumaworo Kante’s sister had voluntarily sacrificed herself to the spirits in exchange for the spirits conferring great sorcerous power upon her brother.
All night he tossed and turned with nightmares of a young woman dying to save those she loved.
At dawn, he gave up on trying to sleep. Instead, he sat on the edge of the bed staring at the wall trying not to think about how angry he was at his absent wife. When he heard servants enter the adjoining parlor, he quickly pulled on his dressing gown. Servants processed in with pitchers of hot and cold water and towels that had been heated on racks in the furnace house. His boots had been polished and his clothing cleaned and pressed.
As a courtesy, the mansa of Five Mirrors House had personally assigned his youngest son, Judoc, to oversee Andevai’s care. Magic-less sons of the mage Houses fulfilled other duties, and this man with his height and soldier’s training and easy sense of importance did not find the young mansa of Four Moons House one bit intimidating. As a mansa’s son, Judoc had every right to consider himself Andevai’s equal, and he obviously took seriously a House’s obligation to offer hospitality.
“Mansa, please let me know at once if your boots have been polished properly and your clothing cleaned and pressed to your liking.”
Nothing was to Andevai’s liking, not this morning, but he bit his tongue instead of speaking. It would be ill-mannered to take out his bad humor on whatever hapless servants had no doubt done their best on a day when he could not help but find fault with everything. A nod sufficed.
“You have no servants in attendance, mansa? Shall I leave a suitable man to assist you in getting ready for the day?”
“I prefer to wash and dress on my own,” said Vai, hoping the man would take the hint.
Maester Judoc waved a hand and the servants gratefully processed out. Yet the cursed man did not depart. Indeed, his precisely polite smile leaked a thin knife whose sharpened edges were mockery and challenge.
“Mansa, I hope the bed was adequate to your needs since, as I most vividly recall, you made it clear it was definitively not acceptable the last time you enjoyed the hospitality of Five Mirrors House. Please be sure I would not wish any magister to find the accommodations of our House lacking.”
“As I recall, the last time we met you mistook me for a servant.”
“Did I? On first setting eyes on you on the portico that day I admit your lack of any retinue or baggage did confound me. But as you are now mansa, I think it unlikely your full magnificence will not be recognized at once.”
A sardonic spark of amusement lit his face, souring Andevai’s mood further. Few things pricked at him more than feeling he was being laughed at by someone who disrespected him. Worse, Judoc had the air of a man who knows he belongs where he is standing. It reminded Andevai all too cruelly of how he had arrived at Four Moons House as a confident but painfully naïve sixteen year old village boy, only to be rejected and brutally tormented by the very youth he had reached out to in the hope they could become comrades and friends.
Yet those days were in the past, surely.
Meanwhile a friendly, trusted face would go a long way to making the day bearable. “Perhaps Ambassador Osafo can be summoned to join me in the breakfast hall.”
“I believe the ambassador arranged last night for a tour of the city because he knew you have other House business this morning. The sightseeing party has already left for the day. Let us hope no one will run away from this expedition, not as happened last time.” He gave a false cough in the most irritating manner. “Now that I think to remark on it I am sorry not to see your wife since the business of family alliances and courtship is usually best handled by women. Her meek demeanor quite struck me when you were last here. Perhaps her constitution is too frail and her nerves too delicate for the journey from Havery to Noviomagus?”
Andevai rose. The other man was taller, and almost certainly far more proficient with sword and bow than he would ever be, but what did he care for mere physical prowess? It was possible there was a stronger cold mage in Europa than he was but he doubted it. “Yes, I remember your solicitous manner toward my wife, Maester Judoc. Very considerate of you, I am sure.”
“It is my measured opinion that women deserve respect and consideration. I humbly ask for permission to say that I hope your wife bides well at home in comfort and at peace.”
So quickly the dagger of words struck. The man was making it plain that he thought Andevai mistreated his wife and meant his disapproval of such behavior to be starkly clear! Annoyance surged and with it a flicker of cold magic. The temperature in the room dropped. A crackle of frost veined the windows. Yet these signs caused Judoc no hesitation although surely he knew a powerful cold mage could smash him to the ground with magic alone.
If anyone had been mistreated, it was he! Abandoned by the woman he loved without a single word of explanation in her hour of greatest need! She hadn’t even asked for his help! But Andevai was not going to pour out his troubles to a man he barely knew and especially not one staring down his nose in wait for a reason to sneer at him.
“She is about her own business,” he snapped. Fists clenched, he breathed himself down to something resembling calm before he made a fool of himself with a quite discourteous blast of magic. “As I am mine. When I decided to introduce Ambassador Osafo around, I thought it best to combine the task with that of interviewing your magisters Kavan and Diarra in case one might be appropriate as a husband for our widowed diviner, Serena.”
Judoc glanced at Andevai’s fashionable dash jacket and trousers laid out for dressing. He himself wore the traditional boubou, and looked splendid in a starched indigo fabric meant to remind all and sundry that he was a mansa’s son and, even without magic, a man not to be trifled with.
“I wish you best of luck with the interviews,” he said in a dry tone. “I sincerely hope you take one of the magisters in question away with you as soon as may be possible. Both, if you can manage it.”
With that parting shot, he at last departed. Andevai dressed in a stew of indignation. The other man’s deliberate provocation chafed, churning his thoughts back to his sleepless night. His wife had herself engineered this trip as a diversion, hoping he and her cousin Beatrice would not question her too closely about the particulars of her peculiar Hallows’ Night disappearance. All over again he was struck by the full force of how unfairly she had treated him.
When he stalked down to the breakfast room, several of the women fawned over him in a way that made him want to say all kinds of cutting things if only to get them to stop simpering and flirting.
“I hope you find our accommodations both adequate and comfortable, Mansa. Do let me know what you might be lacking.”
“If you need any assistance in your stay here, Mansa, please do apply to me, for I have a particular responsibility to make sure guests feel entirely at their ease.”
“Your dash jacket is quite the most striking I have seen. Where do you have your tailoring done? I am sure my brother would be interested in procuring one like it if you are not averse to being measured.”
The servants had evidently let it be known he was sleeping alone.
To avoid their flagrant compliments and inane questions, he busied himself heaping far more food on a platter than he would ever eat. The food was edible, but he could barely bring himself to pick through it. He drank two cups of coffee to wake up, and when he could no longer bear the fulsome attention he asked to tour the Five Mirrors’ schoolrooms.
Listening to young children recite their lessons always pleased him, especially when he was able to gloat silently to himself over the thought of the school rooms being built and furnished at his own Four Moons House. There, every child in the House and increasingly children from the surrounding district could learn, not just the exalted few. Gently but sternly supervising hopeful young mages as they struggled to extinguish candle flames or pull tremulous bulbs of cold fire into existence occupied him agreeably for the rest of the morning.
Nevertheless, he was tremendously relieved when Kofi returned for the midday meal at almost the same time as his friend Viridor. As mansa of White Bow House in the city of Sala, Viridor had also been invited to join the conference.
“I beg you, let us find some humble tavern and get out of this place,” he said to Viridor and Kofi the moment they were able to take their leave from the formal splendor of the dining hall.
“I know a place to drink,” said Kofi.
“I thought you just arrived here yesterday,” said Viridor. “That was quick work.”
Kofi grinned. “I am a man who like to know exactly where he can quaff an ale. I had pointed out to me this morning a respectable sort of tavern well enough garbed for yee high and mighty magisters.” He paused, giving Vai a long look. “Perchance did yee not sleep well? Another time yee would have laughed at my wit.”
Andevai could think of no clever rejoinder, and he did not want to say the curt retorts that were all that came to mind, so he said nothing.
“I reckon yee is still fretting yee own self about that tale we heard told on the road here.”
“What tale is that?” asked Viridor. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing,” said Andevai.
Kofi added, “A tale his wife told that took many days in the telling. Of how she came to be married to Vai and all that happened afterward, according to her way of seeing it. A few rare surprises, if yee take my meaning.”
Viridor glanced curiously at Andevai, who studiously glowered at the ceiling. “What sort of surprises?”
“I cannot relate it to yee with my tongue so dry from lack of a drink.”
The tavern proved to be the sort of place where important men from important families took their leisure. Because it was heated by hypocaust, it was an establishment in which magisters could mingle with lords, rich merchants, and officers with whom they might have business or wish to socialize outside the mage House. A table in the corner gave the two young mansas and the ambassador privacy but allowed the buzz of conversation in the establishment to wash over them as they talked.
“You said there was another reason you are here, not just to meet me and discuss politics and pedagogy with the assembled mansas and magisters,” said Viridor. “Has that something to do with this mysterious tale told by your wife?”
“No. Nothing to do with it.” Andevai studied his glass of red wine, reflecting that it reminded him far too much of blood. “I’m also here about a marriage contract.”
Viridor set down his glass with a jesting smile. “It hadn’t occurred to me you might be on the lookout for a second wife or I would have suggested my sister.”
“Of course I’m not taking a second wife,” said Andevai peevishly.
“I think the one he have is enough work even for a magister of such unusual potency as he,” said Kofi with a laugh.
Andevai shot him with a glare that had absolutely no effect on the other man’s good cheer and indeed seemed likely to heighten it, so he hastily returned his attention to Viridor.
“My predecessor’s young widow Serena has chosen to stay at Four Moons House rather than return to her own people. However, she seeks a new husband, which means we are looking for a magister willing to take up residence in Four Moons House. The mansa here at Five Mirrors has two possible heirs and he wants to rid himself of one so there is no conflict within the House after he passes.”
“Ah, I see.” Viridor nodded. “You are saying the two men are closely matched in power and more rivals than allies.”
“Yes, that is what I have been given to understand. The only way to settle the succession is to move one out. I am willing to take one on, if he is willing to come to us.”
Kofi smiled. “Had they seen the gal, they would be more willing. She is a fine woman and an excellent cook.”
“And a powerful diviner,” said Andevai in a stern voice. “A good match in all ways for a magister with ambition.” He rubbed at his forehead. “No offense meant to your sister who is in all ways a fine woman, Viridor. My apologies if it seemed I insulted her by speaking so sharply before. I did not sleep well last night.”
“Ah.” Viridor glanced at Kofi, who merely smiled in a way that betrayed he was amused by his friend’s belabored attempts to be polite. “Under the circumstances I thought your wife would be with you.”
“She is not.” Andevai drained half his glass in one slug.
Viridor studied him a moment. “It was obvious by the looks and whispers cast your way in the dining hall that several of the House women would be happy to fill your bed, if it is lack of feminine company that makes it hard for you to sleep. I heard the mansa’s own granddaughter speak of you in a most flattering way.”
Andevai swallowed the rest of the wine, its harsh bouquet hitting right behind his eyes. He set down the glass with a thump. “If any mage House woman tries to fill my bed, you can be sure she will hear exactly what I have to say about such a trespass and furthermore she will be promptly kicked out in whatever state of dress she may be in and right onto her bare ass if it must be. I don’t care if she is the mansa’s own granddaughter. I will not have it.”
Kofi caught Viridor’s eye and shook his head, which annoyed Andevai even more.
“Ah. Well.” Viridor poured more wine to punctuate the change of subject. “Tell me more about this Professora Alhamrai from the university in Expedition. You said she has written a monograph on how shrinkage in the ice shelfs correlates with the advance of vegetation into the Barrens.”
The three men grazed across this safe topic through a second bottle of wine.
“I brought along the monograph,” said Andevai at length, for the wine and the conversation had bolstered his enthusiasm. “I suppose we ought to go back to make ready for supper and whatever evening entertainment . . . Lord of All, I fear we are to be subjected to some tiresome singing or recitations . . . “
“I thought yee was joking about the Grand Tour, Vai,” said Kofi, “but I have rarely seen a more determined assault than those women hopeful to catch yee eye.”
“Never mind.” Andevai rose. “But come along with me first, and I’ll get the book. I mean for you to take it, Viridor. I have another copy at home.”
Servants escorted them back to Five Mirrors House, since it was deemed necessary for cold mages of their rank and importance never to go anywhere alone.
“Blessed Mother,” joked Viridor, “these guards and nursemaids do not follow us into our bedchamber and sleep around the bed at night, do they? For in a small and impoverished mage House like my own, I am not at all accustomed to this manner of formality. I feel I am suddenly become the ghana who rules Sala, in all his state.”
Andevai gave a look back at their attendants. “I have no trouble ridding myself of their presence.”
Viridor laughed. “No, I suppose you do not. But they are only obeying their master’s orders. Far be it for you and me to countermand our elderly host’s traditional way of doing things.”
“Yet I wonder,” said Kofi, “what serving men such as these know of assemblies and voting and a new legal code.”
Viridor glanced at Andevai as for support and then back at Kofi. “Radical views like yours are causing trouble all over Europa.”
“It gladdens me to hear it is so,” said Kofi with one his shark’s smiles, both cheerful and aggressive.
A faint strand of mirth stirred in Andevai’s tense thoughts, for he knew that the discussions he and Kofi were having with the other mage Houses were but the tip of a far larger revolution that would take time, trouble, sweat, and blood to implement. He was also fairly sure that the servants who attended the dining hall and salon where talk raged were listening attentively. However mighty the sword, words cut more deeply in the long run.
When they reached the parlor of his suite he dismissed the entourage and went in alone with Kofi and Viridor to fetch the book.
“Ah, I remember,” he said as he glanced around at the polished surfaces and plush sofas, all quite empty of the promised volume. “I asked them to set my valise of books on the table in the bedchamber.”
He crossed the room, the other two men a few steps behind.
“It’s a provoking piece of scholarship,” he added, pushing down the latch and pushing open the door. “You’ll be quite astonished to see the illustrations especially–”
The door swung open on well oiled hinges to reveal a stark naked woman lying on her stomach atop the plush feather bed.
Her nakedness really startled him, partly because it was day time and partly because he was so astonished to see her there without a stitch of clothing on nor any sort of dressing gown draped strategically nearby just in case she needed to quickly cover herself. Her attractive thighs and shapely ass could not be ignored. She was propped up on her elbows reading a book, the angle of her arms offering a pleasing view of her breasts. As he tugged the opening door to a halt, blinking, she calmly turned a page, not bothering to look over to see who had just walked in.
The other two men were right behind him with a full view of the bed.
“Lord of All,” Andevai said sharply as he slammed shut the door in their faces.
“What?” Viridor halted.
Clearly Viridor had not seen the woman. Nor had Kofi.
“I just remembered something,” said Andevai, sure that the stumbling stupidity of the remark gave everything away. “It’s just that I . . . I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Kofi looked sharply at him. “So we already know.”
“I’d best rest before supper. Can we . . . can I . . . the book . . . later?”
“It don’ seem like yee drank that much but yee surely sound addled, maku.”
Viridor examined him with concern. “Do you need me to ask one of the stewards to send in a servant to assist you?”
He could just imagine Judoc’s reaction!
“No! I just . . . will gladly . . . later.”
Viridor slapped Andevai on the shoulder in a comradely way, but it was Kofi who gave him and then the closed door a thoughtful look before the two men took themselves off. They were already talking of going out to see the famous amphitheater in the interval before the evening’s grand supper.
As soon as they were gone Andevai grabbed a chair from the parlor and carried it into the bedchamber. This time when he closed the door, he remained inside the room. Shoving the chair’s back up under the latch to jam it, he sat on it facing the bed, crossed his arms, and waited.
The naked woman turned a page.
She lifted a foot, let it sway back and forth a little, then with its toes scratched gently at her other ankle. After this comely performance, she lowered the foot and turned another page.
“I can only assume this display is for my benefit,” he said.
She twitched her rump but said nothing.
The familiar swell of arousal vexed him. “You women seem to have a low opinion of my self-discipline.”
Still, she said nothing, and he could not help but notice she was reading the very book he intended to give to Viridor.
“Whatever would you have done had a servant walked in on you in this . . . this . . . state?”
With a heavenward glance of her eyes, she turned another page.
He exhaled sharply. “Very well, the question answers itself. I withdraw it. Obviously you comprehend that I am outraged at your callous treatment of me. You seem to think you need only flaunt yourself for me to be . . . distracted into forgetting my grievance.”
“Grievance? What grievance can you possibly mean?”
“You deliberately concealed from me your desperate expedition on Hallows’ Night. You crept away without telling me, or Beatrice, where you were going. And you left knowing full well you might die in the spirit world.”
She stopped pretending to read the book and looked at him. “I thought that might be what was making you so unreasonable when you dropped Bee and I off at the dragon academy.”
“Unreasonable! Did you think of me at all when you rushed off on that wild suicide mission into the spirit world?”
She rolled just enough onto her side that he was forced to watch her fingers trace an exploratory path along the folds of her cleft. Voice a little hoarse, she said, “I’ve been thinking of you all night and all day today. I’ve been missing your touch. Haven’t you been missing mine?”
She let out a few short sighing breaths. What had been an interested arousal stiffened to a full-fledged erection, pressing hard against his trousers. He jumped up so fast he jostled the chair sideways.
“Catherine! Stop that! I am not coming over there!” Halfway to the bed, he halted and beat himself several times on the forehead with a hand in the vain hope he could blind himself and not have to watch any more. “Do you think you can simply show up naked in my bed and I will succumb to your allurements and without any scrap of explanation forgive you?”
“If you’re not interested, then I’ll just please myself.”
Lord of All. The spark of arousal, the smell of her, the way her eyelids fluttered slightly as she caught a nub of pleasure. The next thing he knew, he was on the bed with her on her back beneath him, his mouth on her mouth, kissing her hard as her hands splayed over his buttocks and worked his flesh. She got one leg out from under him and with her heel rubbed the back of his leg.
He broke off the kiss, panting. He was so cursedly angry that it made his arousal all the more aggravating.
Her hands gathered the fabric of his dash jacket tight. “What I don’t understand is why you still have clothes on,” she murmured, her voice like honey.
He drew in a harsh breath to master himself. “Because it is day time. People wear clothes in the day time. At night they may properly go into their beds without clothing, but in the day time they remain dressed like proper people who tell the people who love them exactly what manner of insane dangerous impossible plans they have in mind rather than leaving them behind in utter and oblivious ignorance.”
“Goodness, Andevai, you are ranting.” She slipped a hand along the band of his trousers and probed until her fingers brushed the tip of his very hard penis. “I should just rip these clothes off you.”
He could control his lust. It was his wounded pride, and the angry fear he did not want to admit to, that made him act rashly.
He pushed himself up and sat on the edge of the bed just where he had at dawn. “We are not going to have this conversation while distracted by arousal.”
She seemed about to touch his arm, but when he gave her a sidelong glare, she thought better of the gesture and withdrew the hand. “How are we going to have this conversation?” she asked, not at all intimidated by his tone.
Alone with him, she had not the least self-consciousness about displaying her body. He had been over every kissable place on her skin regardless. His gaze roamed along her beautiful body, and he realized she was distracting him again by lying there for him to ogle.
With a grimace, he rose, grabbed his dressing gown, and threw it into her lap before sitting back down on the edge of the bed. “Best if we have the rest of this conversation while you are covered.”
She relaxed into a far too comely smile as she drew the silk over her shoulder and shook out the gown behind her back. The way she arched her back to slip her arms into the sleeves coaxed his gaze from her mouth to her neck to her breasts to the slope of her belly and the dark hair at her cleft.
He forced himself to look away.
“Had you died, not only would I never have seen you again . . . but I would never have known how and why you disappeared. Nor what had happened to you.” He had always had trouble untangling the surge of his emotions from the pulse of magic that throbbed everywhere around him. The chamber got distinctly colder before he choked off the threads of magic that wove power between the spirit world and this one. “Is that what you intended for me? To grieve all my days never knowing?”
“I wrote you a letter and gave it to Rory to deliver. You never saw it because I came back.”
The thought of discovering she was dead at the point of a pen made him crush his hands together lest he otherwise flatten the entire mage House. He took in and released several slow breaths as he was learning to do to control his pride and temper and frustration. “The point is that you chose for me.”
“You couldn’t come with me into the spirit world–”
“I could have been allowed to make such a decision for myself.”
Anger darkened her expression. “It wasn’t your decision to make,” she said in a wintry tone quite unlike her usual warmly teasing voice.
She was beautiful and funny and sweet and naïve and stubborn and strong, but moments like this reminded him that she had also the heart of a killer, which was not that of a wicked person who revels in pain and cruelty but that of a predator for whom hunting and killing is a necessary part of its nature. Most people never saw it. They might overlook her because she preferred to bide half in the shadows, almost invisible behind the glamorous sun of her vivacious cousin. They might think her frivolous and light-minded because of the way she talked on and on spinning stories as if they were entertainment when in fact they might be perfectly true and the more horrifying for being so. They might be fooled by the way she laughed so easily, quick to see the delight and the absurdity in things. She was all those things, but give her cold steel and enough reason and she would reveal a side so ruthless he was sure she wasn’t able to admit its full power to her own self.
Or so he had gathered from the story she had told him, Beatrice, and Kofi over the days they had spent traveling from Havery to Noviomagus within the confines of the coach: the story of how she had left behind all the people she loved and allowed the Master of the Wild Hunt to carry her off into the spirit world to be sacrificed by the spirit courts.
Pushing his anger against hers, as in a duel, was not the best argument he had to make. But the anger slipped out anyway. “A woman should let her beloved know beforehand that she intends to sacrifice herself and thus blight his happiness forever!”
Her upper lip curled back almost scornfully, as if she was about to transform into a snarling beast in truth.
“If I had told you, what then, Andevai? You would have insisted on coming with me for I cannot imagine your pride would have allowed you to let me make the journey alone. Had you climbed into the coach with me, you would have ruined everything. The courts would have taken your blood and there would have been nothing I could have done to stop them.” There was nothing provocative about her now; all he could see was the shadow in her eyes. “I was protecting you and Bee. But I was also protecting myself.”
Another man might have shrunk back from the edge on her. Seeing her like this, no one could ever doubt that she could slit a man’s throat. But he did not fear that side of her. Instead he spun a glimmer of cold magic through the room to remind her that he was powerful enough in his own right to match her.
Since backing down was not her way, or his, he waited.
After a long pause, she went on.
“The truth is, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it if you and Bee had known. I wasn’t sure I could have done it if you two had been as miserable and frightened as I was. Not telling you two was the only way I had to hang on to my courage.”
She challenged him with honesty, a glimpse of the abyss inside her where she hid her deepest fears.
Almost he embraced her, kissed her, caressed her. But he held back. “I understand it was an exceptional situation. But your habit of keeping secrets must end if we are to have peace and harmony between us.”
“You have just as many secrets as I do! I recollect a certain conversation held between you and a village blacksmith in the temple dedicated to Three-Headed Lugus, the one you call Shining Komo. I know nothing about that meeting.”
“That is not what I mean. Obviously I would never demand you reveal to me whatever mysteries of Barahal magic you learned as a child. Just as I cannot reveal certain sacred mysteries to you or to anyone. Nor have I any intention of trying to stop you from doing what you will. I am well aware I could not even if I wanted to. I just ask you to trust me by trusting that I can be sensible about your . . . intentions. Do not make decisions for me!”
Just like that, she slid across the bed and deposited herself in his lap. Wrapping her arms around him, she whispered into his ear, her breath like heat poured into his body. “I am going to the city of Colonia to rescue a condemned printer from the prince’s jail.”
“Lord of All,” he muttered. “When will you be undertaking this adventurous task?”
“Maybe right now, if you reject me as you seem inclined to do.” She wriggled her buttocks against his thighs.
He pulled her closer, always quick to relish the feeling of her breasts pressed against his chest. “I do not like to feel I am being seduced into forgiving you, as if you think I cannot be trusted to resolve this any other way. I hope I have proven my feelings often enough!”
“Never often enough,” she murmured.
He chuckled, then recalled himself to his purpose. “You knew I would be angry that you did not tell me you meant to offer yourself as the Hallows’ Night sacrifice to spare me and your cousin and every other soul in the world. I suppose you convinced yourself that if you did not return, you would never have to face our rebuke. But here you are. So let me be plain.”
It was the first time he really considered how much courage it must have taken her that night to walk straight into the arms of what she had known could be her death.
All the words he meant to scold her with seemed suddenly pointless.
She had broken the hold of her sire and the courts over herself, and over any children she and he would have, and had naturally managed to include untold other personages and creatures in the bargain when she unchained herself.
So he sighed and let it go.
“Well, it’s done, and over with. You and I have agreed you will henceforth inform me what you mean to do and we can argue over whether I am to be involved. I am a busy man, Catherine. As mansa of Four Moons House I cannot just be running off all over, so you need not worry that I will be dogging your steps at every least provocation.”
She was quiet for so long that at first he thought she did not mean to reply.
When she did, it was in a whisper. “I was a little afraid you could not forgive me for it. Not that I think there is anything to forgive, mind you, for I did what I had to do. But I knew that you and Bee would take my silence very ill.”
“Did Beatrice take it ill?”
“Yes. Gracious Melqart! She must have said ‘Cat, how could you not have told me?’ at least one hundred times, and in quite the most accusing voice.”
He choked down a laugh and fortunately she did not notice his caught breath and trembling shoulders as she was already going on.
“Kemal was shamefully eager to commiserate with her over my perfidy.”
“I trust you left her in good hands.”
She rolled her eyes quite magnificently. “I believe so. Last night over supper the two of them were so formal and anxious that I would have laughed if I hadn’t been fretting over you being angry with me when we parted. Then Bee tossed and turned all night in the bed she and I shared, so I couldn’t sleep anyway. But the two of them went walking along the river after breakfast and after that I was no longer needed to keep Bee company. That is why I left and came here. I am happy for her but I was lonely there.”
“I am relieved all went according to plan with Bee’s assignation. Not that I doubted it would since Maester Kemal is so obviously smitten with her. Still, it is quite astounding that all along dragons have been living among us in human garb. Had I not seen it with my own eyes I am sure I would not have believed it.”
She settled comfortably against him, resting her head against his shoulder. “I can’t believe all this time you didn’t believe every word I told you, Vai. That you thought I was telling outrageous tales to amuse you.”
“My apologies. Of course there is nothing I think you cannot do, my love, but you always told your stories as if you were mostly bent on entertaining us and making us laugh. I thought you had perhaps . . . embroidered on the truth sometimes to make it a little more decorative.”
“I never do! Well.” Her lips brushed his skin in a way that made him shiver. “There was one thing I told as part of the story that didn’t really happen that way. I added it in because it made for a better story. But everything else happened exactly as I told it. Well. There was one thing I did that I didn’t mention.”
“I am not sure which I more fear to know, what was false that you told as true or what you left out for not wanting us–even Beatrice!–to know.”
“It’s why you love me, Vai.”
It seemed simplest to agree by kissing her, slow and sweet. Afterward she again rested her head on his shoulder, making no move to do more.
For the longest time they just sat like that. Eyes closed, he drifted, so at ease that he almost dozed off and then realized she had fallen asleep. He carefully lay down so as not to wake her, unbuttoned his dash jacket with one hand, made sure the dressing gown covered her, and, with her in his arms, surrendered to the sleep he had lost the night before.
A soft click woke him. Catherine still slept in his arms, just as she ought. As his eyes opened, he registered that the door was opening very slowly, for the chair had shifted off enough that it no longer blocked the latch. A lovely woman dressed in a flattering gown took a step into the chamber, peering about as her eyes adjusted, for the curtains were drawn. She took a step toward the bed. Her gasp betrayed the instant she realized he already had a woman in bed with him. Her startled gaze met his. He said nothing, letting the situation speak for itself. The worst of it was that he recognized her as the mansa’s granddaughter, a lively and intelligent woman who in some other life that he was never destined to lead he would certainly have encouraged closer with a smile.
Catherine did not move nor did she open her eyes, but by a slight change in her breathing and a shift in the tension in her body, he could tell she had woken up.
“My pardon, Mansa,” whispered the young woman, and she fled, shutting the door a little loudly in her haste.
“Gracious Melqart,” said Catherine, popping up to look toward the closed door. “You poor man. Do they never let you alone?”
“Your presence in this bed is certainly proof that they do not.” He rolled off the bed, walked over to the door, and fixed the chair firmly under the latch.
“Goodness, Andevai, have you some plans that oblige you to block the door?”
He turned to see her stretched out, the dressing robe concealing her from neck to feet and thus all the more inviting.
“Since the news will be all over this House in an hour, I may as well enjoy the repast they will all be sure I am feasting on, do you not think?”
She smiled. “It would be a shame to waste all that rumor for nothing.”
He walked back to the bed, shedding his clothes. She watched appreciatively, for she did enjoy watching him undress. He loved her naked, of course, but he particularly loved undressing her, so he knelt on the bed beside her and ran his hand along the length of the silk. The feel of her body beneath the slippery cloth, hidden from him yet right there, was a thing he liked to savor for as long as possible, the anticipation of uncovering her, the way she wriggled as he traced his way up her body along her most sensitive spots: the crease of her thigh, the nub just above her cleft, her ribs, the hollow of her throat, her earlobes. Last of all he parted the cloth so he could kiss her dark areolas, lingering on each one before sitting back up.
“Lie down beside me,” she said, looking decidedly intent.
When he did, she rolled him onto his side and stretched out against him, so their bodies touched all the way down. She slipped a leg between his, pressing her sex against his erection. She was in a quiet, affectionate mood, and he was content to nuzzle and caress for the longest time, whatever suited her. She was alive. She was here. Having her in his arms gave his heart so much ease that all the raw and ragged thoughts that had for so many years chased him fell quiet. In the last few months some had even begun to fade.
Eventually the slow burn ignited. And, sadly, in the back of his mind he was all too aware that he was mansa now: To not appear in the salon before the evening’s supper would be a tremendous act of disrespect toward his hosts. He rolled her up on top of him, and his gently cuddling Catherine smiled in a fierce way that promised a vigorous finish.
Which indeed it was.
Made rather sweaty, they availed themselves of the water pitchers and brass washtub to wash off. Then he sat her at the dressing table and combed out her hair.
“I would prefer it if you came with me to the family salon and supper and reception afterward, love. You can see what you think of the two magisters, and if you think either of them may be suitable to marry Serena.”
“I suppose it is too late in the day for me to really think of setting out for Colonia.”
“Do you think the matter is so urgent?”
“I should hate to arrive there only to discover the printer has been put to death all while I was carousing here.” She watched him in the mirror. “It’s not that I don’t wish to meet all these fine people, Vai, but are they as unpleasant as the people at Two Gourds House were? For it is very tiring to be treated with such thinly-veiled discourtesy.”
He thought of Judoc but the man’s attempt to scold him for being a bad husband now made him smile in retrospect. “They will not be unpleasant or disrespectful to a mansa’s wife, I promise.”
“I can scarcely approve of people who would be pleasant to the mansa’s wife but unpleasant if they thought me to be merely the unwanted wife of an ordinary cold mage.” She glanced up as his hand paused in its combing. “Not that I mean to imply you have ever been ordinary, my love.”
He resumed combing. “They all remember our last visit here.”
“You were certainly memorably awful.”
Really, he was in quite the best mood. “Their sympathies were firmly on your side at the time, that is sure. I expect they will be wildly curious to discover you still with me and what sort of tyrant I truly am.”
Her smile dimpled. A look like that could portend any sort of unexpected mischief. “They will be sadly disappointed on that score unless I make up a story, which could be very entertaining.”
“Please do not. The truth is, I really should value your observations on the two magisters. They may show a different side to you than the deference they show to me.”
He handed her the comb and she parted her hair into three and began braiding it with the brisk confidence of long practice. “Is marriage to Serena what either man wishes for? No woman wants a husband who resents her because she reminds him of the thing he could not have.”
“It is certain that one must leave Five Mirrors House. That is not an uncommon outcome at mage Houses, when two mages are equally powerful so one cannot be unequivocally named as mansa. Therefore, they are looking out for the best situation possible should they not be named as mansa.”
“They will not think to challenge you once they are at Four Moons House?”
He looked at her blankly. “Why would they attempt to challenge me?”
She covered her face with a hand, gave a snort of amusement, and went back to braiding her hair. “My pardon. I can’t imagine what led me even to think there might be the slightest possibility any magister could believe himself equal to such an undertaking. Is there one of the men you like better? One you think would carry on better within Four Moons House? More importantly, is there one who seems likely to carry on well with Serena herself?”
“I would be very surprised if either man did not approve of Serena. But you may be better suited to determine which you think Serena might prefer.”
Her gaze flashed up to touch his. She even blushed a little. “I consoled myself by thinking that when I was gone, you would eventually find solace in marrying Serena.”
“Did you, Catherine? How kind and generous of you!” It was odd to think that not an hour before he had been boiling with frustrated anger. All that had vanished as mist dissolves under the bright sun. He raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps we need make no marriage alliance here. As mansa, I can certainly take a second wife.”
Her sidelong look flew like a poisoned dart, and he laughed.
She recovered herself. “Alas, our marriage contract forbids such a pleasing arrangement. And so do I.”
“As do I. It would not be appropriate for me to marry the widow of the man who adopted me as a son. Furthermore I learned from my father’s bad example that if a man cannot give equally of his time and attention to each of his wives then he ought not have more than one. I have an ambitious plan of action in mind, many things to accomplish as mansa of Four Moons House, and you are enough work as it is.”
“Am I?” She met his gaze in the mirror.
He was flooded with an urge to make love with her all over again, but he was mansa and had responsibilities that took precedence. “Not that I mean to suggest I would have you change, for I would not for all the worlds.”
Her smile gratified him for he loved it when she preened because of his compliments.
“Well, then, I shall go along with you this evening to all these drearily formal festivities. What is your opinion of the two magisters?”
“That they are very different, and would each bring advantages and difficulties with them. I wish Rory were here. He could take one sniff and tell me everything I need to know.”
“Yes, no doubt he could. And all sorts of other things you didn’t want to know besides! I find it a bit strange to be interviewing possible husbands for Serena when meanwhile back in Havery Rory is trying to seduce her. The more I think about it, the more surprised I am you did not command him to come along so he could get up to no mischief at home.”
“I am not in the habit of ordering people to obey my commands when they do not wish to.”
She regarded him as she tied off the end of her braid with a ribbon. “No, for all your vanity and pride, you are not a tyrant.”
“I am relieved to hear you say so,” he replied with mock seriousness as he began to dress.
The servants had brushed and pressed his best dash jacket and laid his clothing over a rack. His linen had been warmed by an actual fire, somewhere else in the compound, and a ghost of warmth lingered in the fabric.
“Rory will not succeed. Serena has very strict ideas about conduct. She asked me to undertake this commission for her, to look over the men. I can assure you she would not ask one man into her bed while she is in the process of arranging for a husband.”
“You may be correct. Although Rory can be very persuasive.” Catherine had carefully folded her clothes and laid them atop the dressing table next to her sword. She picked through the garments she had worn when she had walked across the city to him. “My apologies. I left my baggage at the academy for I could not haul it myself. Perhaps it could be fetched in the morning. I am sure these garments however well tailored are too sober and creased to be appropriate for a magisterial hall. I should not want to embarrass you.” She paused, drawers and bodice in hand, as she realized he was not looking at the garments but rather admiring her. “Perhaps you think I would be more suitable if I went naked!”
The longer he looked at her, the more she melted; he loved watching her struggle to hide the passion she felt for him when he knew perfectly well how much she both loved and desired him. The world was a fine place, was it not, with Catherine in it? And made all the better because she was exceedingly likely to be back in the bed with him later tonight.
“I have something for you,” he said, trying hard not to crow. The guest chamber had a dressing closet attached but he had an aversion to closed spaces. He unlatched its lock and went in. When he brought out the gown draped over his arm, the way her mouth dropped open in surprise was all the thanks he needed.
“Vai! Is that silk?” She had by now put on her underclothes.
He held out the gown and she actually petted the cloth before she allowed him to help her into the dress. She admired herself in the mirror. The gown had an ample skirt–he could not imagine her in anything that did not allow her to stride–and a fitted bodice, all in a creamy off white that set off her complexion and her black hair. A second layer of green stripes was fitted in a cutaway with sleeves and a half skirt open in the front and cut to brush all the way to the floor in the back. The gown fit well, of course, for he had chosen the style and ordered it himself and probably visited the dressmaker more times than he ought to have done and certainly more than the women at the shop had wanted him to.
“Where does it come from?”
“The bag of coin you brought back from the spirit world.”
“That was for the kitchen and the carpentry yard!”
“Most of it did go there. I thought it acceptable to set aside a little. I believe it is you who reminded me that as mansa I must dress properly when I visit other dignitaries. It occurred to me that as the mansa’s wife you must of necessity be attired in a manner fitting to my consequence.”
He waited for her to tease him–he had deliberately given her an opening–but she was too stupefied by the elegance of the gown to manage a retort. It abruptly occurred to him that the gown was probably the finest garment she had ever worn, for she was not accustomed to luxury. With her braid pinned up on her head in a practical but elegant spiral, she looked exactly like herself: delectable, strong, and so shamelessly delighted by the gown that he had to kiss her.
“You’ll rumple me!” She pushed him away so she could button him into a darkly gold damask dash jacket dyed with a spider’s web of brown filigree. The way she concentrated on each button, her fingers precise and efficient, made him gently bite her earlobe.
“So I intend to, later tonight,” he murmured.
She laughed, almost delirious with excitement. With a half turn, she shifted him around so they stood side by side reflected in the mirror.
“Gracious Melqart, Vai. We look very well together!”
So they did, for he observed it on every face when he and Catherine entered the salon. Women saw him and began to smile, then saw her and bent their heads to whisper together. Maester Judoc’s eyes opened very wide indeed as he took in Catherine and, in particular, her radiant smile and beauteous aspect. Andevai offered him a condescending nod, just to drive the spike deeper.
“Love, I must present you to the mansa and the other notables.”
“Which is the woman who came into the bedchamber? I shall have to make her like me so she is not too disappointed.”
“The mansa’s granddaughter, in the red and orange,” he replied with a tip of his chin.
She did not look that way, but she did smile across the salon at Maester Judoc as at an old friend. Judoc’s answering smile had the surprised brightness of a man smote by a hammer. Another man might have felt a tremor of jealousy but Andevai saw no point. If it ever came to pass in some day yet to come that she chose to walk away from him, there would be nothing he could do to stop her and any attempt to stop her would mark the end regardless. As long as he kept her happy all would be well, and what man better to keep her happy than he was? All the world seemed made of sun.
Kofi strolled up to take her hand and kiss her on the cheek with a kinsman’s privilege. “So, here yee are, Cat. Have Bee and her intended victim driven yee out of the academy?”
“More like their cooing and warbling caused me to flee.”
Kofi’s glance at Vai contained a wealth of unvoiced laughter. “Yee husband is glad of it, I can see, for he had a vexed look upon him this morning. Yet here he stand, all smiles now.”
Catherine’s blush had an unexpected sweetness because it was so rare to see her at a loss for words.
“Let us see for how long she can go without speaking now I have silenced her with me rare wit,” said Kofi to Andevai.
She lifted her chin belligerently. “Andevai, I believe you were just saying you must formally present me to the notables of the House,” she said as she stepped on Kofi’s foot, which punishment he took with not a sound although he limped a few steps before he trod out the pain.
Andevai took her around the salon to present her to the mansa, the mansa’s wives, and the older woman who although not mansa was the most powerful magister in Five Mirrors House and who therefore was due a similar respect to that shown to the mansa. Cat greeted them with the witty chatter that could usually thaw the stoniest demeanor.
He retreated with Kofi to give her space to fight her own campaign. Viridor arrived and greeted them both, then did a double take. “Is that Catherine? I thought she was not with you. She’s going to have a hard road with the mansa. He does not soften easily.”
“Give her time,” said Andevai.
“Next she shall be serving them drinks,” said Kofi as she deftly roped in Judoc and also the two magisters being considered for Serena. “Yee have suffered a prodigiously altered change of mood, Vai. I thought it might be Cat’s story that she told us on the journey that was fretting yee. That part about her running off on that wild and dangerous journey all on her own without ever a word to yee that she meant to put she own self in so much danger. Shall I reckon yee and she have sorted out whatever was troubling yee before?”
“I’m not troubled,” said Andevai and was simply unable to stop himself from smiling. “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”
“Still that way with you, is it, Vai?” Viridor asked.
“What way?” He pulled his gaze away from how the line of her back curved into the swell of her overskirt to remind him of all that waited beneath, only to find Kofi and Viridor sharing amused looks that he was pretty sure came at his expense. “What do you mean?”
Kofi tapped him on the arm. “Yee’s staring, Vai. Tisn’t dignified. Every person in this fine chamber know what the two of yee have been up to by the expression yee have on yee face. At least Cat have the manners to pretend not to–”
At that moment, Catherine glanced over her shoulder to see where he was, and the look she gave him was as good as a lingering kiss.
Kofi sighed. “Never mind. I’s proven wrong.
Viridor chuckled, taking Andevai’s arm. “Let us go circulate, for while you may not be in the market for a second wife, I am. I should like to test the waters to see if any of these fine young women from this proud old House may be interested in joining a humble mansa who lives in the wilderness.”
“Usually such things go through an intermediary first,” said Andevai reprovingly. “Which is why I came on Serena’s behalf. Not that she won’t have the final choice, of course, but it is proper for others from the House to look into the matter first. Although we ought to have brought one of the aunts.”
Kofi shook his head as they crossed the salon toward a promising cluster of women, some quite young and some rather older. “Now and again, maku, I’s reminded that for all yee radical sentiments, yee have a very old fashioned heart about yee.”
“I just think things ought to be done in the proper way, the one least disruptive to the harmonious peace of the community. You properly came to me to ask my permission to court my sister.”
“That’s what I love about yee, maku. That yee can say so in that way yee have as if the tides come and go at the command yee give them. I asked out of respect for yee, and because Kayleigh told me it was the way it ought to be done to make sure yee gave us no trouble over it. But don’ think if yee had said no that I would have allowed yee refusal to end matters there.”
Viridor tensed, glancing around to see if anyone was listening, and looked from the one man to the other, gaze flickering a little anxiously.
But Andevai merely gave Kofi a measured look. “I expect we underestimate how well Kayleigh knew how to manage both of us.”
“’Tis certain she have a cannier way with people than do yee, me brother.”
Andevai’s gaze strayed back to his wife although he knew he ought not to look at her so much. Just this one last time, and then he would stop. Several strands of hair had worked loose from the elaborate spiral knot she had made of her braid. The wisps brushed along her neck. He wanted to curl them around his finger. Kofi nudged him.
“Yes, yes,” Andevai said hastily, not sure if he had missed some further portion of the conversation. “Kayleigh and Catherine did not make such a good going of it at first, but I think they are settling in.”
“Vai, yee know Kayleigh was jealous of the attention yee paid Cat. But me gal have the one baby now and another on the way, which no doubt accounts for her softening toward Cat. Yee might consider the matter of children yee own self. ’Twould perchance somewhat leash that wild streak she have.”
“I am certain it would not. But if you wish to suggest it to her before she is ready to venture into those waters of her own choice, just allow me to watch from a distance.”
“Yee have a great deal more patience than many folk give yee credit for, Vai.”
“I am an exceedingly patient man, as long as I am not tried by incompetence, inanity, and inconsequential men who think they are better than me.”
“Spoken in all modesty,” replied Kofi with a grin.
The women parted to allow them in and closed around them like so many curious wolves. Everyone had already been introduced. The mansa’s granddaughter sailed right up to him and tapped him on the arm with her folded fan.
“That is your wife. I remember her now, from when you were here so briefly last Martius. She ate an astounding deal of food straight off the breakfast board. I do not recall her arriving with you yesterday, Mansa.”
Andevai had discovered that one of the best things about being mansa was that you never had to explain yourself. A nod was all the answer he had to give.
But he had forgotten to accommodate her pride, for no woman likes to bring herself to the point of sneaking into a potential lover’s bedchamber only to find that person already in bed with someone else.
Her eyelids fluttered and her lips crimped down, then up into a falsely sweet smile. “Have you fed her today, Mansa? As I recall that last time you were here, you felt you could not allow her to partake of inferior comestibles–a striking phrase!–and begrudged her a scrap of beef. She had to steal food off the table while you were informing us of your discontents. It did not surprise me at the time when she ran away. It seems she has been fetched back.”
Kofi whistled softly.
Had the mansa’s granddaughter been an older woman, Andevai would have suffered the scolding meekly. But she was not. And he did not like to be spoken to in that way.
“By all means, please accompany me, for I believe you have not formally met my wife. You can ask her if she bides with me by choice or through some manner of coercion.”
With a crooked smile she accepted his retort. “Mansa, please believe me that no one who saw the two of you come in together just now need ask that question. If she is not content, then she is a better actress than any I have seen on the stage. Understand that I am not interested in playing second kora to another woman. Nor do I begrudge you whatever satisfaction you have achieved.”
Andevai liked the gracious but barbed way she accepted that she had misjudged his situation. With better humor than he had expected she crossed the room with him. Catherine had by now begun gesticulating with enthusiastic gestures no trained actor would ever have considered appropriate.
Lord of All. What tale was she telling them? The women were looking entertained, the mansa thoughtful, and the two magisters disconcerted. Meanwhile Judoc was melting in the way men had used to do when she waited tables at the boardinghouse and teased the customers with her jesting tales and quick comebacks.
“A thread slithered down from the sky to slap the water. It was a rope ladder, lowered as by Ba’al’s heavenly messengers! Its sway and bounce hypnotized me like a serpent waiting to strike. And then . . . then I saw two figures scrambling down as from the heavens. The first gripped a lamp’s hook in strong white teeth. When he spotted me below, he drew a very long and very impressive knife from a harness crossed on his chest. I brandished my sword to show I would not go down without a fight! I could take out most men wielding a knife but I wasn’t so sure about taking him. He had the posture of a man who not only knew how to kill but had done so many times without regret or hesitation. Although I grant you, his willingness to raid a plague island invested with salters did not inspire confidence in his intelligence.”
The women chuckled, obviously enjoying the tale. The mansa sat with hands folded in his lap, watching the others.
Magister Kavan caught Andevai’s eye and offered an inclination of his head, as in acknowledgment of a shared opinion. “These are the sort of tales that impressionable minds may read in uncultured pamphlets available on the streets. I am not at all sure they are fit for the ears of young people.”
Magister Diarra glanced around to see who was listening. “When I was a boy I sailed to North Amerike. To the port of Stapaha in the nation of Escampaha. A very clean and lively place, as I recall. In fact I wrote an account of my travels some years later, if you should like to read a serious examination of the difficulties inherent in sea travel and the unusual customs of a far realm.”
Judoc said, “And did the man with the knife and the lamp prove to be wise or foolish?”
“As well you should ask!” replied Catherine with a flourish of the arms that allowed her to mimic climbing a ladder. “Desperate to escape the salters, I scrambled up the ladder only to find myself in the smallest airship imaginable! In the clutch of notorious pirates! This crew was known throughout the Antilles for any number of criminal ventures, daring escapades, and certain infamous dealings in which they robbed wealthy merchants and distributed the treasure among the impoverished. They were called Nick Blade and the Hyena Queen. Quite the most fearsome people I have ever encountered. So perhaps the question would be better asked, was I wise or foolish to believe I had come to a place of safety?”
“Salters cannot enter water,” said Magister Diarra. “Once you had waded into the ocean, you were safe from them. I have studied the history of the salt plague and the peculiar behavior of the disease at some length.”
“It is better to seek tranquility of mind than to excite the imagination,” said Magister Kavan. “When the djeliw sing the stories of the past they endeavor to teach us about where we came from, the worthiest manner of speech. Sensationalism is a trap for unwary minds.”
Judoc smiled so slightly it was easy to miss. With a shuttering of one eye that was almost but not quite a wink, he turned back to Catherine. “Surely what we consider to be safe may change according to the circumstance. What would be foolish in one instance might be wise in another. Life and understanding is so changeable, is it not? What a person thought he saw–for instance, when you were last at this House, Maestra–may be interpreted quite differently when new light shines upon it.”
Catherine offered him a conspirator’s smile. “Please accept my belated praise and compliments to those who work in your kitchen. I recall those delicious jellied berries. I couldn’t eat enough of them! The women of Five Mirrors House are to be honored for their excellent cooking and generous hospitality. Perhaps your own wife is one of those whose cooking feeds us.”
“She was a fine cook, indeed, as well as many other things, but alas she has passed from this world together with our only child two years ago in the cholera epidemic.”
Catherine pressed a hand to her chest. She had no need of insincere platitudes; her compassion was written on her face. “May her memory be a blessing.”
“My thanks for your kind words, Maestra,” he replied gravely, then looked past her to meet Andevai’s gaze as if to remind him how easily a man could lose the one he loved.
So had he almost lost Catherine.
The mansa’s granddaughter looked from Judoc to Andevai and then to Catherine, sorting through these shifts of expression and unexpected silences. Clearly she was not a woman to hold a grudge as she glided forward to Catherine with a friendly smile as her offering.
“We have not formally met, Maestra. I am Aminata.”
The old mansa leaned forward with the keenest interest. The women quieted, and even the two magisters waited.
Catherine clasped the woman’s hands. “As you will have heard, I am Catherine. I hope you will not consider me impolite if I tell you that is a most stunning gown. The cut and color look simply lovely on you. May I ask where you have your clothing made? Or perhaps you are yourself a seamstress?”
Was it all an act? Not on Catherine’s part, for what she felt flowed right off her. She had the gift of throwing herself wholeheartedly into meeting people, no closed gate between her smile and their presence. He lacked utterly that ease and openness and thus he always marveled at it. She and the mansa’s grand-daughter fell into conversation about fabric and thence slid sideways into a discussion of how it was possible to grow flax in more northerly regions than ever before. She must actually have been reading the professora’s monograph and not just turning pages naked in order to confound and irritate him. That was the beauty of Catherine: She took pleasure in so many varied activities.
Five Mirrors House was still old-fashioned enough that the men and women ate in different halls. As the company separated he found himself beside Judoc. The man was looking cursedly diverted and not a little like a wasp waiting to sting.
“If I may ask, Mansa, how did she get into the house? For I know she was not here yesterday, or this morning. You must imagine that as I am tasked both as a steward and as a guardian of the House, I would take an interest in such a matter.”
“The secret is not mine to share.”
“I do recall being warned of her peculiar abilities.” He clasped his hands behind his back, an action which made his back straighter and thus his height advantage a trifle more obvious. “But I also heard a tale of a supper party in Lutetia at Two Gourds House at which she vanished from sight in the blink of an eye. Which would explain a great many things I have been troubling myself over since your last visit, such as how she escaped our vigilance. Which I assume was your purpose all along in distracting our attention through your memorable behavior at that time.”
Was the man’s smile one of condescension or amity?
Andevai decided to take a risk.
“Desperate circumstances called for desperate measures,” he replied stiffly. “My apologies for any offense I caused.”
The man’s smile peeped, then vanished, and Andevai could see why a woman would respond to its blend of intelligence and sardonic charm. “Mansa, the truth is, we laughed over it for months afterward. I’m sorry to say that a few of your more precise phrases are now commonly used among the young people of the House but, alas, not in an entirely flattering way.”
“Not so sorry that you won’t say it.” But when he thought about how Catherine would laugh upon hearing this, he had to go on. “Which ones?”
“A particular favorite has been ‘inferior comestibles,’ which you must admit has a great deal to recommend it. Also ‘one scrap of beef out of pity’ has become popular because as it turns out it can be used to punctuate many more situations and conversations than one might at first realize. . . . Is that a smile, Mansa?”
“I beg you, please do not tell my wife or I will never hear the end of it.”
When Judoc laughed Andevai felt as smugly pleased as if he had won a small victory. “Yes, I am come to suspect she is not the delicate creature we were meant to believe she was.”
“Let me assure you that quiet, placid, cautious, frail, and meek are also words that do not describe her at all. But I hope we can set the episode in the past, Maester Judoc.”
The man’s challenging gaze was not an easy one to endure. A year ago Andevai would have hit back with sarcasm or biting criticism rather than feel he was being judged. But he was learning to let the jagged places smooth out so the anger would pour away rather than fill up until it flooded. Carefully he chose prudent and neutral words.
“Very well,” said Judoc with that flicker of the eye that looked remarkably like a wink. “I’ll give you this one scrap, out of pity.”
Andevai laughed, because it actually was humorous. Then Judoc laughed too, and while the sharp lines drawn between them did not vanish, perhaps their edges softened a little.
He had a much more pleasant evening than he could possibly have anticipated when he had woken up that morning. So he informed Catherine when he undressed her that night by the light of four globes of cold fire.
“Yes, you were in quite your surliest mood,” she agreed as she smoothed out her dress upon the bed and began folding it. “I am sorry to say that few things entertain me as much as you all caught up in your manly pride.”
He glanced up from the side-table where he was making his evening ablutions. “Then I shall endeavor to entertain you with my manly pride a bit more before we sleep.”
Her gaze flashed up to flirt with his. “A scrap of beef out of pity?”
“Catherine! How did you hear that?”
“Oh, Aminata and I are quite the best of friends now.”
“Are you?” he asked suspiciously, for he was suddenly quite certain it involved shared amusement over his memorable behavior from their last visit. “How did you manage that?”
“That is a secret we women have.”
Probably it was best not to inquire too closely. “Then I am pleased for you and her both.”
Attention back on her task, she smiled in the mischievous way that made people wish to stand close to the radiance that was her delight in the world. “I have been thinking, Andevai.”
“Have you?” He pretended astonishment.
“I have!” She packed the neatly folded dress into paper. “I am sorry if this disappoints you, but I cannot like either of the magisters. Since you wish for my opinion, I think you should invite Maester Judoc to come to Four Moons House.”
“He isn’t even a cold mage.”
“No, but he is a much more interesting man than the other two.”
“You say that because he admires you!”
“Goodness, Andevai, is that a flash of jealousy?”
He had to stop and think about it. She crossed to the dressing closet and stowed the dress within as he finished drying his face and hands. When she came back out, he altered course.
“What will Five Mirrors House do with the extra mage?”
“Let them sort that out. If you mean to make Four Moons House survive without clientage to support it you need someone who can run the household business in a skilled, efficient, and forward-looking manner.”
“He may not wish to involve himself in such a radical experiment.”
“It is worth asking.” She hitched a hip up on the table, one foot dangling to swing back and forth. “He’s an intelligent man who may relish a challenge. Anyway, an administrator with experience running a household is what you need more than anything. You wake at dawn and go to bed very late, and you work all day. I can’t help but think another few years over-working yourself and you will wear yourself out. I would hate you to lose your looks.”
He leaned against the table’s edge beside her, crossing his arms and tapping his fingers thoughtfully on his elbow. “Yes, I suppose you might be swayed by such trivial considerations. Although perhaps not so trivial since I am convinced that if it weren’t for my good looks you would have gotten rid of me long before you could properly get to know me.”
“You might want to carefully consider that possibility when you make your decision.”
“Be sure that I will. But you haven’t yet convinced me, Catherine.”
She ran a finger down his sleeve. She simply could never resist touching the silk of his dressing gown, which was one of the three reasons he liked to wear it. “He laughs at my jokes. That ought to tell you what a sensible man he is! From everything the women said, he is a competent, responsible person who is respected by all and who respects women. He was devoted to his wife and baby and devastated by their passing. Apparently he is not envious of those who have cold magic when he might have wished to have magic of his own. He has military training and acquitted himself creditably in the recent war. The kind of man you want to bring in to Four Moons House is a man who isn’t over-awed by you and won’t flatter you. A good administrator with military experience who does not fear to disagree with you to your face would be a far better addition than yet another swollen-headed magister.”
“Swollen-headed? Who is swell-headed at Four Moons House? I think all the difficult mages left with the mansa’s nephew.”
“Of course they did, my love.”
He laughed, then kissed her for rather longer than he intended as he got caught up in the rich feast of caressing her while she slipped her hands underneath his dressing gown. When they broke off he extinguished three of the shining globes. One bulb of cold fire gave just enough light to see her in her shift and with her hair down but in a gauzy haze that veiled the proceedings with a pleasing glamor.
“I see you have something in mind, Vai,” she remarked with a coaxing look that encouraged him to keep on as he had been. “As I recall, last time we were here we used this table, did we not?”
When he picked her up she squirmed in his arms just enough to make it even more arousing as he carried her to the bed. “I fear we did not give the bed enough of a chance to prove whether it is adequate to your needs.”
Much later she declared herself entirely satisfied with the bed but by then he was too drowsy and contented to bother thinking up a clever retort. He slept through the night deeply and restfully.
She woke him at dawn by opening the curtains to let in light and then sprawling across the bed to kiss him. She was already dressed in the traveling clothes she had arrived in. “I’ll take the coach. You won’t need it with all your meetings and discussions here. I’m sure Judoc can arrange for transportation if you wish to tour anywhere near by.”
“You are sure you don’t want me to come?”
“If you truly wish to or think you can’t rest easy if I go without you, then you may, Vai. But obviously I will have the coachman and the footman with me to guard my back should there be trouble. In truth it will go more quickly if I just slip in and out without anyone knowing I was ever there, as I can do. I have the names of people into whose care I can convey the printer once I’ve freed him. Then I need have nothing further to do with the matter. I’ll return here, and we’ll go home together.” She hesitated, searching his expression for any sign of disappointment or frustration.
But he knew what she was. He loved her for it. “I shall remain here and continue my work at re-making the mage Houses from within.”
Her shoulders relaxed as she flicked a finger along his cheek. “Don’t neglect the courtship!”
“The courtship? Ah, for me to persuade Judoc to visit Four Moons House.” He brushed a wisp of hair off her forehead, studying her closely as he did so. She arched an eyebrow as she waited for him to continue. “You’re right about the other two magisters. Now that I think about it, even Judoc warned me off them in his own sarcastic way.”
“He will make Four Moons House stronger, Vai. I’m sure of it.”
She kissed him again before grabbing her sword and her winter cloak. So eager was she to get on the road that when she paused at the bedchamber door to give him a parting smile she did not even return to the bed for one final kiss.
He moped for a bit, feeling a little sorry for himself, and yet he also smiled to think of the story she would have to tell when she returned. When he heard servants enter the outer chamber he quickly rose and pulled on his dressing gown.
To his surprise, upon knocking, only Maester Judoc entered the bedchamber. He set a full pitcher of water and fresh towels by the brass wash basin. After the usual greetings, drawn out rather long as each man waited for the other to broach the day’s business, Judoc went to the window. He frowned at the clouds as if wishing to scold them for having the bad manners to spoil his hope of sun, then fixed his hands behind his back in a soldier’s stance.
“It seems your wife has made an unexpected and abrupt departure.”
“Yes. She will be returning in ten days or thereabouts. By that time our deliberations should be complete so my party will then make our way home.”
Andevai walked over to the side table but paused before he poured water into the basin. The chamber was so quiet that he could hear a crow cawing outside. He rubbed a hand over his hair as he did when he was nervous, sorting through possible phrases. Lord of All! He was mansa of Four Moons House. No need to feel this awkward! Truth be told, he was coming to respect the man and feared Judoc did not respect him in the same manner.
“Perhaps . . . ” He sighed, turning over words until they got so twisted he could made no sense of them. He tried again. “Perhaps you have some suggestions for sight-seeing when we have an afternoon free and the weather is not too cold or wet to venture out.”
Judoc did not stir, although he glanced out the window again as if seeking that noisy crow. “I do not get the impression you entertain yourself much, mansa. You seem like a man who is very fixed on his responsibilities.”
“I have a great deal of work to do. Also, as mansa, I feel it my duty to set a good example.”
He considered the pitcher, which Judoc had himself conveyed into the chamber when he might have left the task to a servant. As Andevai had learned from his extensive and intimate study of Catherine, there are ways to communicate that do not necessarily include speech.
“Maester Judoc, I have a proposition for you.”
There! It was said. He swallowed, surprised at how anxiously he suppressed any sign of nerves by speaking in a cold, proud voice and with a posture that made him look unapproachable and arrogant.
“Do you?” replied Judoc with a derisive twitch of his lips.
He knew he could not emulate Catherine’s effortless manners so he accepted that this once he would just have to plod gracelessly into the fray.
“You know that my main purpose is to advance new pedagogical reforms in the schoolroom. I’ve also been speaking of the need for the mage Houses to re-structure our very legal and economic foundations.”
“Revolutionary notions, indeed,” agreed Judoc without giving by tone or expression any hint of what he thought of such matters.
“But I also came here because Four Moons House is seeking a candidate for a marriage.”
The other man nodded curtly.
Annoyance bled a sharp taste onto Andevai’s tongue. Was the man uninterested? Bored? “You warned me about Kavan and Diarra. I find I agree with your assessment.”
“Had you not, I confess I would have thought less of you,” remarked Judoc.
“Less of me than you already do?” Andevai snapped.
“I think you do not really know my mind, mansa. So I would appreciate it if you did not pretend that you do.”
To keep his hands busy and his magic in check, Andevai poured water into the basin. Then he left it alone, ripples stilling until it was a calm surface. One of the things his tormenters in the House had stolen from him was his ability to have faith or confidence in other people, men especially. He did not want to live that way. So he had to just get it out and let the consequences fall where they may.
“Perhaps you might consider returning with us to Four Moons House to meet Magister Serena. She is a powerful diviner. She is an intelligent person and hard worker who has a great deal of common sense and an exquisite sense of proper manners. To be honest, she is also a woman of exceptional beauty and dignity. She was my predecessor’s wife, as you know, his third wife and thus a woman he married purely because he respected and admired her, not for any political reason. She has one young daughter by him and, I have reason to believe, a hope for more children.”
“As mansa you could surely take such a paragon as your second wife.”
Andevai frowned. “My predecessor was not my father but legally when he adopted me as his heir he became to me in the nature of a father. Therefore it would be completely inappropriate for me to marry his widow.”
“Very traditional of you, mansa. But both you and I know that you could if you wanted.”
“I think the one wife I have is enough work as it is.”
Judoc’s chuckle made Andevai tense. “I would find it tremendously disconcerting to have a wife who came and went in such an abrupt fashion. On her way out she dashed through the kitchen and flattered the cook into packing quite the largest basket of comestibles I have ever seen laid in. Is she meeting someone?”
“No, I expect she can eat it all herself.”
“So that at least was no theatrical act. Does she always carry a sword?”
“Always. She is a more dangerous person than you may assume upon first acquaintance. Imagine what havoc a person might wreak who can walk about unseen in the world.” Andevai almost laughed to see Judoc’s startled expression, as if suddenly the man had run up against an aspect of Catherine that troubled him. “Which brings me to my point, Maester. Given all that you know of us and our situation, are you interested?”
Instead of answering Judoc paced a circuit of the room, tracing a pattern only he saw. He cut around Andevai at the table and halted by the window that overlooked an interior garden with its evergreen hedges and leafless shrubs awaiting spring’s promise.
“This was once the apartment I lived in with my wife. I left it after her passing because the memories were too hard.”
Andevai touched a hand to his chest, where his heart beat. He could not help but think of how Catherine had written him a letter which would have been all he’d have had left of her. “Grief is a fearsome companion. One who never truly leaves your side once you step onto that road.”
Judoc inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I thought she and I were just beginning our journey together but instead we had far too little time. Yet her generous heart would not have wanted me to remain as I am now, caught in winter’s grip. So I will travel with you, mansa. But I make no promises.”
“I need no promises. If you and Serena choose to make a match of it, that is entirely your decision. By inviting you I am merely letting you know that I believe Four Moons House would benefit by your presence. I would hope to have your assurance that you would always speak honestly and bluntly, even to me.”
“Even to you, mansa! A challenge, indeed, but in the event one I would courageously attempt.”
Was he willing to live with this acerbic manner for years, even decades, perhaps the rest of his life? Yet how dull a meek or obsequious man would be. He and Kofi had not become fast friends because Kofi was minded to guard his wit. Could this man become a trusted companion, even perhaps in time a friend and brother?
Judoc met his gaze proudly. They were not either of them men likely to back down when it came to what they believed right and proper. Yet like most people Judoc had his own secret shadows that chased at him. However caustically he spoke, he had opened the door just enough to let Andevai catch a glimpse of the complicated architecture of his thoughts.
Andevai ventured a trifle farther out on the limb of vulnerability. “If you will give me time to wash and dress, we might go down to the breakfast room together.”
Judoc’s brows lifted. Andevai could see him consider a mocking retort and then decide to let it lie. Instead he fished around the chamber with his gaze and fetched up on the monograph set on top of the closed chest where Catherine had placed it earlier.
“If I may,” he said, indicating the book. When Andevai gestured for him to go ahead, he picked it up and went to the door. “I comprehend you are not a man who readies himself quickly in the mornings. I shall await you in the outer chamber. I hope the book will hold my interest.”
As the door shut behind him, Andevai smiled. He went to the window and looked out onto the winter garden. Just then a rent parted the clouds, and the sun glowed through. Light poured over the walls and hedges, turning shadows into gold. An unforeseen emotion stirred in his heart. It took him a moment to absorb it.
Maybe this was what serenity felt like.
With such a promising start to the day, he really expected he could accomplish anything.
copyright 2014 Katrina Elliott