Surreal stretched slowly, luxuriously, using Craft to squeeze water out of her long black hair. Mother Night, but it felt good to scrub off sweat from the morning combat session - and any that lingered from the night before. Wrapping a towel around herself, she crossed from her personal bathing room to the balcony that overlooked the garden, wanting to feel the breeze on her skin.
It was a rare moment of privacy. Before coming to the Hall in Kaeleer, bathing alone was something she'd considered a right; it irked her to note this, too, as a luxury.
She had spent the night with Falonar. Graysfang, the Kindred wolf who had appointed himself her escort, had attempted to trail along, but where one person's exasperation was ineffective, combined firmness from two had succeeded in dissuading him. That, and the threat that two sets of feet were ready to kick him off the bed.
Now Falonar was on guard duty, and Graysfang had not - yet - realised she lacked male company.
She had been informed that Protocol gave her one easy way to rid herself of Graysfang's company: if she officially recognised another male, such as Falonar, as her mate, she would move Graysfang down the hierarchy of males who served her. Considering the source - Saetan, her newly adopted patriarch - she suspected it was far from the only means within Protocol to get Graysfang to give her more space. Saetan had probably chosen his suggestion because he knew she was unlikely to do any such thing.
Last night had been enjoyable. For the most part. If she and Falonar were to be regular lovers, there were a few kinks they needed to work out. For example, she'd understood his reluctance to lie on his back during sex, because of the way this restricted the musculature of his wings (and how did mated Eyrien pairs come to an agreement about this? Was it standing in the bedroom only? She needed to talk to Marian). That hadn't been a problem. What had been was the distinct impression she'd received that by agreeing to the same position herself, she was demonstrating some kind of inferiority.
She wondered how Falonar would react if he knew how many men she’d killed as they thrust from above her. Poor prissy Eyrien warrior would probably have conniptions.
The image of Falonar sputtering vanished from her mind's eye when she realised that the peaceful garden she'd been gazing at wasn't empty. A small figure sat on a central bench. The figure's dark hair and clothing, under Kaeleer's weak sunlight, had almost blended into the bark of the tree behind him - or her? Yes, her - as Surreal squinted, she recognised Wilhelmina.
Movement would have caught her eye sooner; Wilhelmina must have been sitting silently there long before Surreal had walked out onto the balcony.
Well, it was good to see she was well enough to be out of her rooms, following yesterday's attack.
Surreal was starting to feel cold. She shook her head and went in to dress, leaving Wilhelmina her privacy.
She frowned at the choices available to her. To cross between Realms, she'd packed tunics that would wear well and allow her to pass unremarked. They were neither fine enough for formal occasions, nor rough enough that she was willing to sacrifice them to the inevitable tears and stains of Lucivar's training regime. If she were to stay at the Hall, she'd want clothes suitable for fighting in and clothes suitable for Court audiences. The latter, she suspected, was by far the more dangerous of the two circumstances; luckily, fine attire was a weapon she wielded as comfortably as her favourite knives.
Additional clothing would be necessary and useful, if she were staying.
She had excellent reasons to stay at the Hall. The Hall was the home of Jaenelle, the strangest and most spectacular witch Surreal had ever met; it was curiosity about Jaenelle's fate that had finally drawn her to Kaeleer. Because the Hall was Jaenelle's home, it was now also the home of Daemon, Surreal's oldest friend. It was ruled by Saetan, who had - in some way - adopted her, and who, as ruler of Hell, could arrange contact between Surreal and the mother she'd believed irretrievably lost. And there was the little matter of a contract signed for eighteen months with the Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih, Lucivar, Daemon's half-brother.
Surreal scowled. Screw that contract.
Nothing else. Not the people. Just that contract. She'd had a token of free passage when she'd come through the Gate from Terreille - then Lucivar had strong-armed Surreal into placing herself under his authority.
When she'd realised he'd done it to prevent her from being used against Jaenelle and the Hall by their enemies, she'd felt a grudging acceptance. Tempered by an awareness of all the privileges her contract - and new family - brought her.
But she was good at grudges.
Dressed, she went back to the balcony. Wilhelmina was still sitting on her bench, her hands still folded in her lap, her shoulders slightly hunched. Surreal frowned. The inner garden was a beautiful and peaceful square of living greenery; it had surely been designed for meditation, and especially for Blood who needed to reaffirm their connection to the land. But Wilhelmina looked tense, trapped.
Whatever she was thinking, Surreal suspected they weren't thoughts she wanted to be alone with.
She latched the balcony door with a deliberate rattle. Wilhelmina looked up. Surreal raised a hand in greeting and got a smile in return. There; that would do for an invitation; now she might wander down to the garden without feeling as though she was intruding.
Before Wilhelmina's family had attempted to kidnap her yesterday, the longest Surreal had spent with the woman was the Coach ride to the Hall. Surreal had been worried about Daemon, and fuming about Lucivar. Wilhelmina had been wary and quiet. She didn’t recall they'd exchanged any words.
And what would they have had to say to each other? After Cassandra's Altar, Surreal had rarely returned to Chaillot. The spilling of Jaenelle's blood had unleashed a terrible spell on Briarwood's uncles; though Surreal had been tempted to return to finish them all, she'd been warned off.
This morning at practice, briefing those unaware of the kidnapping attempt, Lucivar had mentioned the Angelline family's earlier reunion with Wilhelmina. It seemed she'd been living apart from them from some while. Good for her. "I almost believed they cared about her," Lucivar had remarked. Not so good for them, Surreal thought, her mouth twisting at the thought of Alexandra's hypocrisy.
And where did that leave Wilhelmina? At least her new family had proven they were serious about her protection.
But maybe that was a problem of its own. Surreal knew she had skills Lucivar valued - though the delicate matter of what an honourable Eyrien warrior thought of assassins had not yet been discussed - but where she could demand respect as a fighter, Wilhelmina had clearly never handled a weapon before. She wasn't a Queen or a Healer or a Black Widow, to train with Jaenelle and her Circle. She was simply a Sister.
"Lady Benedict," Surreal greeted her, having finally found the correct door that led out from the lower corridor into the gardens.
"Lady SaDiablo," Wilhelmina replied. She unclenched her hands long enough to gesture courteously at the seat beside her, then clasped them again.
"Just Surreal will do," Surreal said, wincing. She was never going to live down the consequences of taking Dorothea's name.
"So will Wilhelmina," said Wilhelmina, then ducked her head. "Though I know it's a mouthful!"
There was a pause. Wilhelmina was smiling, but seemed unsure of what to say next. Tact wasn't Surreal's strong point. Never mind. "I suppose you're glad enough of it right now," Surreal said, "but why 'Benedict', and not 'Angelline'? Did you change your name when you left Chaillot?"
"No," Wilhelmina said. "I'm not related to the Angellines by blood. I was two years old when Robert married Leland. I suppose most males marrying into the family of the Territory Queen would have given their... daughter... their new family's name, rather than their own." Gazing into the distance, she pursed her lips in a sour expression Surreal had seen mirrored on Jaenelle's face. "Robert probably thought he was more important than Alexandra." She gave Surreal an almost apologetic look. "I'm not fond of my father's memory."
"Why do you keep his name, then?" Surreal asked.
Now Wilhelmina's cold smile was an expression Surreal recognised from her own mirror. "I'm sure he thought of it as something he stamped on me," she said. "I prefer to think of it as the last thing I took from him."
That was a sentiment Surreal could understand completely. "I'll drink to that," she said.
Wilhelmina's smile gained a little warmth, then she ducked her head again, staring into her lap. "Mm," she said, just audibly.
Surreal wasn't sure what she'd said. She tried again. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh! I think I'm quite fine," Wilhelmina said quickly. "I don't think anyone Lady Karla healed would dare be anything but fine," she added.
"Does she snap at the people she's healing, too?" Surreal asked.
"Oh, no," Wilhelmina said. "She's just intense." She paused. "I think she likes me."
"I think she snaps at the people she likes," Surreal said.
"Are you resting today on Healer's orders, then?"
Wilhelmina hesitated. "Yes," she said. "This garden is peaceful."
Surreal knew a lie when she heard one. But it was a strange thing to lie about.
Surreal looked around them. It occurred to her that Wilhelmina had chosen the spot in the garden that would be visible from the most angles. Despite the nearby tree, she could see almost every window that looked out onto this garden - which meant that Wilhelmina had placed herself in such a way as to be visible from all of them.
"Hell of a way to get solitude," she commented.
Wilhelmina's fingers were white with strain where they twined around each other. "It seemed like a good compromise," she said uncertainly. "I don't belong with the Queens - and some of them are so loud! - and fierce - even if they wanted me around. But I know I should stay... somewhere they can keep an eye on me."
Surreal opened her mouth and closed it again. She didn't think Wilhelmina's family was going to try anything after the wave of dark power that Jaenelle had unleashed yesterday. She didn't think Osvald, Wilhelmina's would-be kidnapper, existed any longer, in any realm. And if by some dark chance the Angelline family wasn't the only set of enemies at hand, she thought Jaenelle's power would have made others cautious, too.
But she wasn't sure just saying that would change how Wilhelmina felt after an associate of her grandmother's - with Alexandra's full endorsement - had set a compulsion spell on her, drugged her, killed her guard in front of her, and when cornered, attempted to stab her with a poisoned knife.
Maybe it was time for Surreal to earn her keep. "If you want a bodyguard," she said, a little reluctantly, "I don't have anything to do right now."
Wilhelmina gave Surreal a nervous smile. "Thank you," she said. "I... I'm not sure that would count, though."
Surreal bristled. "If you don't think I can look after you..."
"Oh! Oh, I do," Wilhelmina said anxiously. "It's just... you're a stranger too."
Surreal processed this. "You think the people here want to watch you because they don't trust you," she said slowly.
Wilhelmina gave a jerky shrug. "I'm Jaenelle's family," she said, "but... I'm her family from Chaillot. Saetan even said it... that Jaenelle should have left Chaillot and come here long ago. But she stayed for me."
Surreal needed to have a word with Saetan. Well. Maybe. She'd thought better of him... but she wasn't sure she had the guts to ream him out for this. Not when it concerned Jaenelle.
"You were fourteen," she said. She remembered the uncles' party, the barely adolescent girls circled by the men.
"Jaenelle was twelve," Wilhelmina said, as if that contradicted Surreal.
"You should both have left Chaillot," Surreal muttered.
"If Jaenelle had asked me, I'm not sure I would have gone," Wilhelmina said quietly. "I knew Briarwood was terrible, but she never really told me why. She wanted to protect me so much. So I didn't even realise what it was she was protecting me from.
"I mean... it's not my fault she stayed," she asserted. "I know that. Jaenelle doesn't blame me for it. But I don't blame them," waving her hand up at the apartment windows, "for not trusting me. I'm not... with... Philip and Leland and Alexandra. But once I loved them. Trusted them. Obeyed them."
Tears glistened in her eyes. "So they gave me Dejaal to... keep an eye on me, and it was nice of them to not give me a strange human male or one of the Queens, who... probably have better things to do anyway, don't they? I liked Dejaal. He wasn't sure about me but he didn't feel... suspicious.
"But I don't want them to assign me another Kindred escort," she said, beginning to sniffle in earnest. "I know I'm probably safe from Alexandra now. But... I don't want someone else like Dejaal to be killed because he's protecting me." She gave a great gulp and wrapped her arms around herself, rocking back and forth on the bench with the effort to keep from sobbing outright.
Surreal patted her awkwardly on the back: once, twice. "I think you're safe now," she said.
There was a howl from an apartment above: Graysfang returning to Surreal's apartment to find her gone. *Down here,* Surreal sent to him.
There was an answering bark, then he sailed through the balcony door and glided all the way down to the garden in one smooth motion.
*Show-off,* she said.
His lips curled a little away from his teeth in protest.
*Never mind that,* Surreal said hastily; Wilhelmina was looking at Graysfang in alarm. *You could make yourself useful - get her to pet you. I think it'll cheer her up.*
Covering his teeth again, ears perked at the idea of being useful, Graysfang nudged Wilhelmina's knee with the side of his head. She unwrapped one arm and rubbed tentatively behind his ear. After a moment, she sighed deeply, and rubbed at her face with her other hand. The sobs seemed to be under control.
*Good work,* Surreal said.
Graysfang wagged his tail.
About to promise to loan Graysfang to Wilhelmina indefinitely, Surreal remembered the part about not wanting another Kindred ally to be killed as Dejaal had been. No, this required another solution.
Luckily, Wilhelmina seemed to have found her voice again.
"I don't really think anything like yesterday will happen again," she said, to Surreal's relief. "Not soon, anyway. The people in the Hall are a lot scarier than the people outside the Hall."
*That's true,* Graysfang sent to Surreal, with a clear implication that Surreal was one of the scary ones. Surreal glared at him.
"Things are so different here," Wilhelmina said, a hint of a whine creeping into her voice. "They don't trust me and they don't like me - they just tolerate me. And I don't know what I'm meant to do! And the rules are so confusing. And have you noticed," she said, very fiercely now, "all the males will explain to you how you're supposed to treat the males - even if that's allowing them to threaten you, as long as they don't mean it, as if you can tell - but no one tells you the Protocol for dealing with witches!"
“Sister,” Surreal said dryly, “you’re a lot more optimistic than I am if you think the males here have any manners when dealing with witches.”
Wilhelmina looked ready to cry again. “Then how am I supposed to know?”
“You set your boundaries,” Surreal said. “Apparently.”
“But,” Wilhelmina said, and trailed off.
“Go on,” Surreal said, almost against her will.
Surreal held her tongue.
“The people here have Black Jewels,” Wilhelmina said. “And there are eight Queens, I think, using the same workrooms! Territory Queens! And Saetan’s the High Lord of Hell and there are demon-dead everywhere!”
“Don’t think you can hack it, do you?” Surreal said, beginning to lose her patience.
Wilhelmina’s head snapped up. “It’s not that,” she said, with magnificent indignation. “But do you think there’s anywhere else in Kaeleer that’s like it? I should feel lucky to have signed a service contract with my family. But I wish I’d lived somewhere else in Kaeleer first before I came here. I talked to Karla about Terreille and she says Kaeleer follows so much more of Protocol. But - I don’t think Protocol in the Hall is the same, do you? And - and - what if I finish my contract, and they don’t have any use for me, and I don’t know really how the people in Kaeleer do things...”
She looked beseechingly up at Surreal, as though expecting a serious answer. “I came in on the same service fair as you, remember,” Surreal said.
“Oh,” said Wilhelmina, deflating.
Graysfang gave Wilhelmina’s hand a lick. *She means well,* he told Surreal.
*I know that. You’re a soft touch,* she replied.
Graysfang licked her too.
Wilhelmina sniffed, took a very deep breath, rolled her shoulders back, and assumed the same position she’d been sitting in when Surreal had walked into the garden: closed off again. “I’m sorry,” she said, with stiff dignity. “It’s just yesterday was… well. And I know the people here can protect me, but that’s not the same as knowing they want to.”
Well, shit, Surreal thought.
*Are you going to cheer her up too?* Graysfang said. *I tried. Your turn now.*
She was all out of comforting words. Not that her stock of them was ever very high.
Actions were better.
“You said the people in the Hall were a lot scarier than the people outside it, right?” she asked. “Why don’t you put that to the test?”
Wilhelmina stared at her. “Go outside the Hall? Would they let me?” she asked.
Surreal pretended to herself she hadn’t been wondering the same thing. “You’re the one who’s locked yourself up in this garden, sugar,” she pointed out. “Not Saetan or Andulvar or Lucivar or anyone else. You signed a service contract, not a commitment to house arrest.”
“Where do you think I should go?” Wilhelmina asked.
"I haven't the faintest idea," Surreal said. "But I know who you can ask."
They found Saetan sitting behind his blackwood desk in a pose of alertness that suggested he'd been waiting for different visitors. His glance at Wilhelmina was wary. Later, thought Surreal.
"Bit dramatic around here lately," Surreal said.
Saetan gave her a non-committal hum.
"Wilhelmina here," Surreal continued sweetly, "was considering a holiday. Somewhere in Kaeleer, naturally, since she's only just arrived in this realm. Do you have a recommendation?"
There was a pause.
Saetan pushed his glasses up his nose with one dark nail. "Amdarh is Dhemlan’s capital city," he said mildly. "Many members of the household go there regularly for shopping and entertainment. My son Mephis is particularly fond of the theatre scene. Lady Surreal, you've lived in cities in Terreille for much of your life, haven't you? I'm sure you would enjoy the comparison."
Surreal frowned, began to shake her head.
Saetan raised his eyebrows. "You're not planning to go too? It will be difficult to arrange an escort for you," he continued to Wilhelmina. "Jaenelle is planning a journey to the border of Little Terreille in the following days; many of the household guard will accompany her."
At the word escort, Wilhelmina flinched, and looked down at the floor. Saetan looked at Surreal over her head.
Not my problem, she thought.
"However..." Saetan said. "If you like the idea, perhaps Surreal and I can discuss alternative security arrangements."
Wilhelmina nodded nervously; the idea that Saetan approved of her venturing further into the Twilight Realm seemed not to have yet sunk in. "Thank you," she said, and fled the study. Graysfang padded after her.
From the middle of one pile of paper, Saetan unearthed a playhouse brochure, and from the end of a bookshelf, a map. “A good idea,” he said. “Why are you reluctant to follow through with it?”
“I’m not a babysitter,” Surreal muttered.
“Wilhelmina is twenty-seven,” Saetan pointed out. “I think she’d prefer the company of another witch, and I do intend to ensure her security. I don’t intend to hold you responsible for her enjoyment of the trip, only her safety… but I think you know she’d be happier with you along than with one of the household males.
“Take Graysfang too,” he continued innocently. “I’m sure he could use some walkies.”
“There is also the matter of travel expenses,” Saetan said. Pulling out a drawer, he made some arrangement of the contents and at last handed her a small embossed key. He wrote a brief note on letterhead, finishing it off with an elaborate signature. “Alavan on Windturn Street manages my financial interests in Amdarh. This letter and key will give you access to one of my supplementary accounts. Don’t overdraw it, but…” A shrug suggested that she might otherwise do her worst.
“This is a bribe,” Surreal said, almost hopefully.
“Would you rather consider it advance payment for contracted services?”
“All right, a bribe,” Saetan agreed, with deceptive mildness.
Surreal took the key and letter.
“There’s nothing dirty about taking payment for services,” she said pointedly, “but you might want to have a little discussion with your son about what services he plans to pay me for.” She stepped away, planning to make that her parting line, and was almost surprised to hear herself say, “And that goes for Wilhelmina too.”