Sunlight spilled warmly over polished wooden floors, making the unfurnished rooms of the little house glow golden. Wilhelmina Benedict walked quickly through each room, making one last check before the servants from SaDiablo Hall started arriving with the furniture.
It had been kind of the High Lord to loan her the help she needed to settle here in Scelt. She thought - hoped - he understood why she hadn't been willing to stay in the house Jaenelle had used in this Territory. Soaked as it was with dark power and traces of psychic scent from Jaenelle and Daemon, just standing outside the building made her feel overwhelmed and very, very small. She'd had enough of that to last her a lifetime.
So she'd traded the luxury of Jaenelle's old home for this small house - a two-story cottage with a single bedroom, one guest room, and a little garret of a library that she'd fallen in love with on the spot. There was a fallow vegetable garden below, comfortably surrounded by a low stone wall, forest near enough to see treetops out of the bedroom window, and the sound of the sea at night, if she was quiet enough to hear it. She didn't know if she could be happy here, but she could be peaceful, and that was more than good enough for her.
She passed through kitchen, sitting room and parlor with a quick glance around each, then stopped with a curious tilt to her head as an unfamiliar scent reached her. Lemon and honey, with a faint, soapy undertone...She followed her nose upstairs to the empty library, and found a young hearthwitch scrubbing the floor on hands and knees. She was eight or ten years younger than Wilhelmina, with brilliant red hair cut into a short, haphazard brush. At Wilhelmina's approach, she sat back comfortably on her heels, the Yellow-Jeweled bracelet on her wrist glittering as she raised one hand to shade her eyes.
"Almost done up here," she said cheerfully. "I'll have it finished by the time they get in here with your books."
"It looked perfectly good when I first looked the house over. Though I do appreciate the effort," she added hastily.
"Oh, that." The girl shrugged, dunked her scrubbrush in the soapy bucket, and turned to survey her work with an air of proprietary satisfaction. "The landlord asked me to spruce it up a bit, you being the Lady's sister and all."
"Thank you," she said neutrally, biting back the sharp words that wanted to escape. Good or bad, here in the Shadow Realm she was always Jaenelle's sister before anything else; she would never even have neared the Dark Court if Lucivar hadn't feared she'd be used against Jaenelle. But that wasn't the hearthwitch's fault, so she kept a tight rein on her temper. "You've done an excellent job - but, well, don't you know spells for this sort of thing?"
"Lots." The girl's engaging grin hadn't the slightest trace of modesty. "But good oak like this takes a little more work; the wood knows whether or not you're paying attention to it."
Looking around, she had to agree; the polished floor glowed like a horse after a good rubdown. The little hearthwitch all but glowed herself, in quiet pride at Craft well done. "I gave the house a last going-over this morning, but no one's touched the gardens since the last witch who lived here. It's pretty much gone to weeds - I can help you pull them up if you need me to - but most witches are touchier about what they grow and how they grow it than they are about where they live, so I didn't want to touch anything until you got here."
Wilhelmina stifled a chuckle. Most of the witches she'd known before coming to Kaeleer were "touchy" to the point of obsession about where they lived - the larger and gaudier the better - and left growing things to the servants. "It's been a while since I gardened, but I'd like to start again. Can you spare an afternoon this week to show me what I should and shouldn't pull up? I'm not very familiar with the plants in this Territory."
"Of course." She frowned, ticked off days and appointments on her fingers, and settled on an afternoon three days later. "It'll be such a relief to have someone in this house again. We could use a sensible witch back here."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing so much. The last Lady who lived here was a strong witch, but she was old and - well, we lost her when the fighting spread to Maghre. We've missed her pretty badly, but it'll be good to have this house lived in again. Just keep an eye out for the storekeeper down the road - he has three sons, so you'll likely want a raincloak just to keep off the drool-" And Wilhelmina was whisked off on a verbal tour of the village, in which she finally learned the name of the young witch - Mairin - her hearthwitch mother Morwen, and her bevy of sisters - "all carrot-tops like me" - and accurate, frequently scathing descriptions of most of the Blood in Maghre. What remained of them; Maghre had been briefly occupied by Terreillean forces during the worst of the fighting, and the village was still recovering. Mairin didn't discuss the occupation in detail, but skittered around the subject like a kitten avoiding a large sleeping dog. She was more than willing to discuss anything else that crossed her mind, however; by the time the servants hauled in the last furnishings, Wilhelmina knew more about Maghre than anyone not native-born could hope to learn. She'd also set up a contract with Mairin for her to help with cleaning and cooking - after several years spent apart from her family in Chaillot, Wilhelmina was competent enough at taking care of herself, but she didn't have the talent for domesticity that a hearthwitch did. And she'd enjoy the company.
In small doses, at least. Adolescence under siege from Robert Benedict had left its mark on her, and she was quick to protect any privacy she had. No Queen with a devoted court could have been happier when Mairin left with a cheerful goodbye, and Wilhelmina spent a luxurious hour going through the house alone. She locked the doors and shuttered the windows, holding firelight and witchlight in against the outside, and climbed the stairs to the tiny library. She indulged in one gleeful little-girl pirouette between the empty shelves, then laughed at her own foolishness and settled down to sorting and shelving books. There weren't many - most of them she'd bought since coming to Kaeleer - but they were hers, and more forgiving teachers than Graff had ever been.
She worked until the twilight outside had deepened well into night, then stretched, ran a proprietary hand over the shelves of books, and retired to the bedroom just down the hall. As she got ready for bed, she stretched a fragile network of psychic tendrils out through the house and the land around it - an old habit that she'd picked up when Bobby first became a threat. The tendrils were too delicate for anyone to notices, but they gave her advance warning if there was danger nearby. But there was nothing tonight. Distant minds in the village, the background hum of animal thought, occasional bright sparks of Kindred in the house and the woods...and none of the female distress and masculine rage that had filled the Dark Court in the months before Jaenelle's purge. Nothing but summer-night calm, as far as her psychic senses could reach.
Wilhelmina fell asleep smiling.
Over the next few days, she began to settle tentatively into Maghre's rhythms. The village still bore scars from the fighting a few months ago - trampled crops, burned houses, an elusive but all too familiar uneasiness in some of the psychic scents around her - but it was rebuilding. Enough of the crops had recovered to feed the village, with a little left over - something Wilhelmina was very glad for, having discovered an embarrassing fondness for fresh blackberries. She bought them daily from the storekeeper nearest her house, never really noticing the three young men who went from quietly working to boisterous mock-tussles or ostentatious heavy lifting whenever she entered the shop. When she finally realized they were trying to catch her attention, she laughed quietly to herself all the way home. She couldn't have been less interested in any of them, but the realization gave her an odd little glow of self-satisfaction.
It gave Mairin a fit of the giggles, when she came to assist in the garden and heard the story. "The poor lads are so glad to have someone new to show off for, they'll likely float up off the ground without benefit of Craft," she said with a wicked sparkle in her eyes. "If you really want to make them dizzy, ask one of them to carry home one of those heavy flour sacks for you."
Wilhelmina frowned blankly. "I might need help getting it down, but I could get it home easily enough on my own. Why would I want some male following me to my doorstep?"
Mairin gave her a puzzled glance. "You don't know how to flirt at all."
"I can't say I've ever tried," she said with a hint of coolness.
"Cam's boys are harmless, and they're fun to practice on." Her eyes softened. "Besides, it does the males good to have a dark-Jeweled witch nearby, even if she doesn't have much to do with them."
"I can't be the only Sapphire in the area." Maybe that could happen in Terreille, where centuries of Dorothea's machinations had left dark-Jeweled Blood a vulnerable rarity, but not here in Kaeleer.
"Close to it," Mairin said soberly. "The only Sapphire here was male, and he dropped out of sight before the fighting started. There's a few little girls with powerful Birthrights, and one or two old women who were canny enough to stay alive, but that army..." She shook her head. "I learned more than I like knowing when the soldiers were here, before the Lady's storm swept them away - when they couldn't find Lady Morghann, they targeted every strong witch they could find, trying to break the Territory. So many of them died, and Lord Khardeen never sent us the help we asked for-" She cut herself off with a visible effort. "I'm sorry. I forgot that he was a friend of yours."
"We served in the same Court, while it existed. That doesn't mean I think everything he does is right." In truth, she didn't know Khary all that well, and his easily flirtatious manner scared the spine right out of her. But she'd seen him chafing to get to his people when Jaenelle had ordered them all to stay in the Keep. "For what it's worth, he was under orders from his Queen. From both of them."
"But he could have told us...Did you know?"
"No," Wilhelmina said, more sharply than she'd intended. Whatever information or theories the First Circle might have had in the tense weeks before Jaenelle's purge, they hadn't shared anything with her, and it rankled. She hadn't survived years of Robert Benedict's stalking without learning how to keep a secret and how to wait.
But oddly enough, her curt answer seemed to mollify Mairin. "Well, if the Lady didn't tell her own sister, I suppose we couldn't have known either. I just wish we could have had a little warning..."
The web of trust that bound the Blood was fragile, and never more so than recently. But the greatest strain seemed to fall on the outer strands of the web - it was easier for the First Circle to trust Jaenelle than for the people of a Territory to trust the Queens and powerful males that had apparently abandoned them. The web was fraying just a little here in Maghre, but time and peace should set the strands right again. Still, a quiet word with Lord Khardeen might be in order. She was an outsider, and therefore less likely than a long-time villager to have an agenda of her own; if she passed on her observations to Khary, he was likely to listen.
With that in mind, she steered the conversation to talk of rebuilding instead, listening for things the village couldn't easily provide for itself. She'd been raised in the expectation that she'd control a noble household one day, and this wasn't much different from the figuring and budgeting she'd learned as a young girl. She wasn't completely confident about approaching one of Jaenelle's First Circle, but the people here needed a little help to get them through the hard times, and an outsider's perspective might ease a bit of the tension between Khary and his people.
By the time they were done with the weeding, she had a rough idea of things that might be needed. She also had an invitation to spend an afternoon on Mairin's farm, where two of her irrepressible little sisters had taken it into their heads to pick blackberries and had stripped every patch for miles around.
"Buckets and buckets," Mairin said glumly. "Which means jam and pie and syrup and wine and anything else Mam can think of - not enough hands to do the work, and too much food to eat when it's done. You're welcome to help with both parts of the process, if you care to come?"
"I'd be delighted," Wilhelmina said immediately, surprised both at the invitation and at her willingness to accept it. It produced an unfamiliar warmth inside her, and she took a moment to savor it. It was an odd feeling, to be wanted for her company and not for her social rank or the political uses she might be put to.
Like homecoming, almost.
Wilhelmina sat with Mairin at the log fence surrounding the heartwitch's low-slung farmhouse, sorting through buckets of blackberries. Mairin's two youngest sisters had started out earnestly trying to help, but their assistance had quickly devolved into pelting each other with berries, and running away laughing when Mairin put a firm stop to the battle. Currently they were playing tag with a trio of puppies on their heels; well, Wilhelmina counted three. There had to be more, from the racket they were making - half a dozen, perhaps. Or twelve, or twenty.
She sniffed appreciatively at the aroma drifting out from the farmhouse kitchen: simmering berries and apples, with a handful of spices she couldn't quite identify. She'd offered to stay in the kitchen and help with the jam, but Morwen had chased her out with a mock-threatening ladle waved over her head; Queens came in a poor second to hearthwitches when it came to territoriality. So instead she was out in the yard, getting her fingers stained purple and dust all over her skirts, and enjoying herself immensely.
Mairin was dividing her attention between berries and her shrieking younger sisters, while Dirdre, yet another sister, was sorting berries with quiet concentration. A Rose-Jeweled witch in her late teens, Dirdre was strikingly lovely, with hazel eyes and long, dark red hair, but she was considerably less boisterous than any of her sisters. She'd offered to stay inside as well, but Morwen had chased her out with even less ceremony than she'd expelled Wilhelmina.
Wilhelmina yelped, snatched her bucket out of danger with one hand and braced with the other as one little girl and two puppies tripped and fell into her lap. After a confused moment of sorting out whose legs (and paws) belonged to whom, she set the little girl on her feet, shoved a puppy nose out of her blackberries, and watched as the child sprinted off to join her sister. Mairin flicked a glance at her that blended surprise and approval.
"I wouldn't expect you to be at ease with children like that. I always thought the aristocracy had nannies from the time they could walk."
"One governess, and she was horrible," Wilhelmina said. "But I always liked to play with Jaenelle when we were little, whenever she - well, whenever I could."
"Suppose your family kept her busy with studies, if they knew she was going to be Witch."
Wilhelmina bit her lip. "Not exactly. I wish they had known, or that Jaenelle had done a better job keeping her secret. As it was, my grandmother thought she was mad, and..." And everything had gone wrong from there. Alexandra had discouraged Leland - subtly and otherwise - from bearing any more children by Robert Benedict, while watching Wilhelmina to make sure none of Jaenelle's "eccentricity" surfaced in her. If it had, Wilhelmina had no doubt she would have been packed off to Briarwood within the day. Alexandra couldn't afford another unruly child reflecting on her control of her family. "And things got complicated after that," she finished lamely. "I didn't get to see Jaenelle much after she turned five."
"I couldn't stand that," Mairin said on a rush of sympathy. "I mean, my sisters can be annoying sometimes, but they take care of me, and I take care of them. And Mam takes care of everybody, whether they want it or not," she added with a grin.
Wilhelmina smiled back. "I take it that's a warning?"
"Oh, yes," Mairin said with feeling. "She meddles. She matchmakes. She cooks. Don't let her give you any food, not living alone like you do, or you'll wind up with it piling up to your ceiling before you can eat it all."
She had to agree with Mairin by the time they finished the berries - and pouring the jam, and supper, and cleanup - and she got ready to go home. In repayment for her help that afternoon, Morwen promptly loaded her down with ten jars of last year's jam.
"Three?" Wilhelmina said a little desperately.
Morwen gave her a considering look. "You're too thin. Eight."
Mairin stifled a snicker. Wilhelmina sighed.
Eventually, they settled on six jars of jam and some fresh bread to eat it with. As sure of obedience as any Master of the Guard, Morwen assigned Dirdre to help carry the food home. Wilhelmina was perfectly capable of vanishing it all until she got home, and would have said so - except that she caught the slight widening of Dirdre's eyes and the quelling look Morwen shot Mairin when her oldest daughter opened her mouth to volunteer. Whatever subtle communication passed between the three of them, she didn't want to interfere.
So she simply waited for Dirdre to ready herself and set off on the path for home, shrugging into the shawl she'd brought against the cool night air. The younger witch bundled herself up in a coat that was too bulky for the season, wrapping it around herself until it completely obscured her from neck to knees, and faced the short walk to Wilhelmina's house like a child determined to gulp down its medicine as quickly as possible.
She tried to make conversation on the way home, but Dirdre's responses were stilted and nervous. She took no offense, though; she'd been at least that shy at Dirdre's age, and had hated people trying to force her into conversation. She still did. So they walked in silence to the garden gate, where Dirdre handed over her share of the jam with a murmured word of thanks, and promptly bolted for home.
Wilhelmina looked after her worriedly. She'd felt the affection and goodwill in Mairin's family, but that muted, wary tang in Dirdre's psychic scent was too familiar for her to ever ignore. The threat might not come from within her own family, but something had scared the girl badly. Badly enough that Wilhelmina's nerves were thrumming with sympathetic fear.
She frowned after Dirdre's disappearing figure, then sighed and turned to go inside. Whatever thinking she had to do would best be done in a warm kitchen, and not in the garden. On the doorstep, she froze, alerted by the faint trace of a masculine psychic scent that clung around her door.
Masculine, but not human. She relaxed just a fraction.
Still, she was tightly wrapped in both Purple Dusk and Sapphire shields before she opened the door, and her mouth set itself in an unfamiliar, determined line. This was her home, and she didn't care for anyone, male or female, intruding.
But the dangerous glitter in her Sapphire ring died away when she saw what was waiting for her inside the door. A Kindred tiger just at the end of adolescence, Opal Jewel gleaming against his fur and tail wrapped neatly around his paws. Only the tip was twitching with some suppressed emotion.
*Lady.* The tiger dipped his head in a courteous greeting, but his green eyes never left hers. *I am Jhaliir. Tell me about my brother.*
"What?" Wilhelmina took a step backward, one hand braced against the wall for support. She was ashamed of the surge of fear that had to be radiating into her psychic scent, but the sudden confrontation had left her feeling concerned, far more ready to flee than fight.
*Dejaal,* the tiger said, on a communication thread tinged with regret and - strangely - hope. *We were littermates. We hunted together until he chose to serve in the Dark Court. I would like to know how he died. And how he lived."
Quietly, she closed the door behind her and escorted the tiger a little further into the house. Her hands were shaking just a little when she sat down to talk to him, afraid that he would blame her for his brother's death, but she told him what he'd asked for. Everything she could, at least: how the young tiger had appointed himself her protector when she felt utterly alone; how he'd given her a candid cat's-eye view of the Dark Court, helping her to understand all the things that were strange to a Terreille-raised aristocrat. Little things: Dejaal's fondness for being brushed, his curiosity about human ways, and his deeply abashed expression when she'd caught him pouncing on wind-tossed leaves in the Keep gardens. By the time she got around to telling him about the regrettable mix-up with Dejaal and Lucivar and the brush, they were both comfortably settled in the sitting room - Jhaliir basking next to the fire and Wilhelmina perched on a footstool that kept her on the cat's eye-level.
But she couldn't tell him how Dejaal had died. She could pass on the facts as Jaenelle and Karla had given them to her, but she'd been so heavily drugged that all she remembered was fear and confusion. She knew the shame she felt that she hadn't even been aware of it when her protector died, and the rage and betrayal when she'd learned that Alexandra had tried to have her abducted. She kept the anger locked away - ladies had to, especially when they had no talents but social graces to recommend them - but enough leaked through that Jhaliir bumped his head worriedly against her, an anxious rumble vibrating through his body.
*Females should choose their own dens,* he said. *It's a bad Queen who tries to force other witches into her territory.*
"Not bad, just blind," she said wearily. She'd had this argument before. "And too easily led."
*Stupid Queen,* Jhaliir said, with the air of one making a great concession.
She wanted to change the subject - after all, Jhaliir was here to learn about his brother, not her own complaints. But it was hard, keeping it all back, and her voice shook. "She was my grandmother, and she was a Queen, and nothing else mattered to her. She never believed me about Bobby, because that sort of thing isn't supposed to happen in a Queen's family-"
*Males can be dangerous, whether they're mated to a Queen's daughter or not,* he said thoughtfully. *They still try to kill their kittens sometimes; she should have kept him away from you until he was himself again.*
She made a sound that didn't come close to a laugh. "He didn't want to kill me, he wanted to-" She couldn't say it.
She didn't have to. Jhaliir caught her meaning after an instant's puzzlement; his ears tipped back and his muzzle wrinkled in a snarl as disbelieving outrage flooded his psychic scent. *Your sire?*
"Yes." She braced herself for the distrust she'd come to expect from her family.
*Is he dead?* The cat began to pace - three steps to either end of the small room, before whipping around to start again.
"For some time now."
*But you are still afraid. Are there more males like this?*
"Not really, not since Jaenelle...did what she did." She hunched in on herself, elbows resting on knees. "Mostly I'm glad he's dead, because it means I'm safe. But sometimes I wish he were still here, so I could-" So she could show him exactly how badly he'd hurt her. Take out a price in blood for all the years of fear and shame. Bare hands and Craft were all she would need...She shuddered with the sudden, unfamiliar ferocity of the urge, and Jhaliir darted to her side with a reassuring nudge that nearly knocked her off the footstool.
*He's dead. You're alive. Hunt, find a good den, have kittens. That's revenge enough.*
She raised a skeptical eyebrow at him. "No kittens. As for the rest-" She reached out a tentative hand to scratch his ruff above the Opal Jewel. "-you may be wiser than I am."
They talked further into the night, with Jhaliir curled comfortably in front of the fire and Wilhelmina - having given up on dignity entirely - sitting on the floor with her back propped against the footstool. When Jhaliir fell asleep mid-sentence, she hid her smile behind a hand, used Craft to bank the embers to a comfortable heat, and made her groggy way upstairs to bed.
Deep in the night, she bolted upright in her bed, wide-eyed at the creak of a heavy weight on the floor outside her bedroom. But then memory filtered back to her, as well as the distinctive psychic scent of a Kindred male, and she relaxed back into her blankets with a sigh, too tired to think about the odd sense of security she felt.
Wilhelmina woke well after sunrise, a bit groggy after her late night. Jhaliir was already gone - with first light, she assumed; the rising and setting of the sun were the only divisions of time most Kindred understood. She didn't know if the tiger had other business in Maghre or not, but when she cast out a network of psychic tendrils, she felt the faint spark of his mind at the edge of her range - thoroughly focused on breakfast and without the first thought of travel or Gates. He was apparently planning to stay for at least the next few days - which meant she had to talk with Khary, whether she wanted to or not.
So she dressed, nibbled her way through breakfast, and wrote a short, exquisitely polite message requesting a formal audience to Khary. As the warlord of Maghre, he was entitled to know about the strange Prince in his territory, and since Jhaliir had come to her first, it was her responsibility to let him know. No matter how reluctant she was to call herself to any sort of official notice.
She folded the note, closed it with a drop of sealing wax, and used Craft to send it to the manor where Khary lived when he and Morghann were in residence. That done, she took a brisk walk to drop in on Cam the storekeeper; she had to do something about feeding Jhaliir, since a hungry tiger could eat far more game than the woods around Maghre supported. Cam - and the two sons currently in evidence - looked at her oddly when she explained the amount of fresh meat she needed, but agreed to deliver it that afternoon. She left the store feeling oddly satisfied with herself; all her formal education had been designed for a noblewoman, with a heavy emphasis on hospitality, and dealing with unexpected guests was a large part of that.
Though she didn't think any of her tutors had ever had to deal with a five-hundred-pound, thoroughly carnivorous guest.
Her satisfaction changed to wariness when Shan, Cam's middle son, trailed her out the door of the store. "Lady Benedict-"
Her shoulders stiffened. She didn't mind the boys showing off a bit, but one of them trying to get closer than that made her uneasy at best. "Yes?"
The young man shrank in on himself a little at the hostile note in her tone, but took a breath and met her eyes evenly. "Lady. I need your help." His voice took on a deeper note, something that tugged at her attention; after a moment, she recognized it. Protocol. The correct courtesies for a low-ranking Blood male to offer a darker witch. And a question governed by Protocol wouldn't be personal - at least, not the kind of personal that scared her.
The realization relaxed her enough to stand and listen, without her own wariness radiating into her psychic scent and upsetting them both. "I'm listening. What do you need?"
"Not me, my cousin. Andra. I don't know if you've met her?" He gave her a questioning look but rushed on, apparently too nervous to do anything but get the whole problem out in a rush. "She was studying to be a Healer with Lady Maeve, but we lost Maeve when the soldiers - well, we lost her. Andra's trying, but-" He shook his head. "Maeve didn't have time to teach her everything, and there's no one else here who knows Healing at all. I see her crying sometimes-" He cut himself off, psychic scent filled with distress.
"I'm sorry," Wilhelmina said sincerely. "But I don't know any more Healing than the basics myself."
"I know, Lady. But you order all those books, and I've heard tell you've got a house full of them already. I was hoping you knew some books that might help Andra learn - I'll buy them myself if you'll tell me what to look for."
She thought for a minute. She'd seen Andra around the village a few times - a gangly, intelligent girl some years younger than Wilhelmina, with a shyness that spoke less of timidity than of a desire for privacy. She wasn't surprised that the girl hadn't asked for help. Little of what she had would be useful for a half-trained Healer, but there were some authors whose other books might be helpful. "I'll see what I can find for you." She hardly even needed to test his psychic scent to sense his relief.
"That's all I can ask for." He made a surprisingly graceful half-bow and smiled. "Thank you for your help - and for listening."
She nodded back. "You're welcome. I'll see what I can do." Already she was thinking of where she'd need to go to find the books the young Healer needed. She hated the helpless feeling that came with not having the knowledge you needed, and wouldn't wish it on anybody else if she had the resources to help. Even if it meant calling more attention to herself than she liked. She'd wanted nothing more when she came to Maghre than to stay safely at the fringes of society, but strand by strand, the web of Blood life was drawing her into itself. She couldn't pull away, and wasn't entirely sure she wanted to.
When she reached home, there was a message waiting at the gate of her garden, stamped with Khary's seal and wrapped in a Sapphire shield. Jhaliir was regarding it with deep suspicion, only the tip of his tail twitching while he watched the note as if it were a deer that might bolt at any minute.
*Strange male,* he informed her. *Came, left the paper thing, left again.*
"Wh-" She stopped herself. "When" was not a question that Kindred really comprehended. "What did he look like?"
He flicked her a mental image - a tall, slightly corpulent man wearing Khary's official (and seldom used) livery. *Must be a good hunter, to be so round,* Jhaliir said with a touch of grudging respect. *Does he want to mate with you?*
"Mother Night, I hope not!"
He ducked his head in apology. *I do not know human ways. Kindred males bring a female meat when they want her notice, and you like paper better than meat.*
She stifled a laugh at the cat's logic. Although he was right; she had more books in the library than food in the kitchen. "This is a message, not a gift. And not," she added sternly, "anything to do with courting." She broke the seal with a thumb, unfolded the letter, and bit her lip against the sudden surge of anxiety from reading its contents. Tomorrow-!
Jhaliir circled around her to sniff at the paper. *Danger?*
She shook her head. "No, just surprised. I requested an interview with the Warlord of this village, and he wants to see me tomorrow morning."
*Then tonight you will eat and sleep wall, so you will be clever in the morning.* The tiger bumped his head against the back of her legs, in an unsubtle hint that she should go inside.
She let him herd her indoors, and tried to turn the butterflies in her stomach into something a little calmer. She reminded herself that even if he scared her a little - anyone in authority scared her - Khary was worlds away from the petty nobles she'd known in Terreille. He wouldn't order her into his bed or out of his territory on a whim, and anything else she could tolerate. It was just the thought of...speaking up...that left her uneasy and inclined to chew on her thumbnail when Jhaliir wasn't looking.
But...she'd started stepping into the role of a dark-Jeweled witch, one relationship at a time. If she enjoyed the pleasures without taking the responsibilities, she'd become another Alexandra. And she wasn't willing to risk that, no matter how scared she was.
So she ate a good meal and curled up with a book for the rest of the evening, in a comfortable silence broken only by an occasional contented rumble from Jhaliir as he basked in an undignified sprawl in front of the fire. The next day could take care of itself.
She wasn't quite as sanguine the next morning, as she rose, washed, and dressed more formally than she was accustomed - but this was only nervousness, not the cold, sick feeling she remembered from lessons with Graff or confrontations with Bobby. Jhaliir escorted her to the mansion Khary used when he was in Maghre, and left her with an affectionate head-bump that was meant to be reassuring but which nearly knocked her off her feet. She squared her chin, took a deep breath, and tapped on the front door.
The butler who let her in was a Rose-Jeweled Warlord, and clearly more than confident enough in his position to make up for any lack of psychic strength. But his eyebrows rose when he saw her, and she caught a whiff of surprise in his psychic scent. What had he been expecting, to make her unassuming presence a relief?
Whatever it was, it was enough to make him wave off the footman who'd been coming to meet them, and escort her himself to Khary's study. She didn't think he'd been back in Maghre for more than a day or so, but already the room was piled with haphazard stacks of papers; organization was apparently not one of his talents.
"Lady Benedict," Khary said cheerfully, shoving aside a stack of contracts and rising with his hands outstretched in formal greeting. "I'd been wondering when you were going to make your presence felt around here."
She returned the greeting with the briefest touch of her hands to his. "Calling myself to the attention of the ruling Warlord isn't something I'm in the habit of doing," she said dryly.
He snorted. "You've lived in Terreille too long. You're a dark-Jeweled witch living in a territory with a distinct lack of them; odds are I'll need your counsel near as much as you will mine. Now-" He moved another stack of papers off a chair and held it out for her before taking a seat himself. "What can I do for you?"
First things first. "I needed to let you know there's a kindred Prince in Maghre, an Opal-Jeweled tiger. He's been staying with - well, not staying with me, just coming around and-"
"Poking his nose into your life and tangling up your skirts?" Khary asked, not without sympathy.
She couldn't help smiling. "Exactly."
"Kindred do that. You should try dealing with a houseful of Scelties, all of whom have known humans since birth and have a much better idea of how we should live our lives than we do. The puppies Ladvarian sired are the worst - they keep giving me advice, in between bouts of gnawing the furniture. At least this tiger is only one creature."
"But much bigger," she said firmly.
Khary acknowledged her point with a nod and a wry grin. "True. Now, this Prince of yours - does he plan on staying? Is he entering formal service?"
"Oh, no. I can't imagine him wanting that. He - I think he just came to ask me about his kin."
Khary made a noncommital noise, his eyes sharpening from their usual friendly good cheer. "Well, tell him to look in on me within the next few days. I'll be leaving for a meeting in Glacia on fifth-day-"
"That soon?" she asked, more sharply than she'd intended.
"Something not to your liking, Lady Benedict?" There was just a touch of frost in his voice, and something inside her cringed. Something else wanted to snarl and bare its teeth.
"It's not my liking you have to worry about. It's Maghre's."
He gave her a long, speculative look. Assessing, almost. "Explain, please."
She made her hands stay folded calmly in her lap, instead of fluttering into nervous gestures as she talked. "People...feel that they haven't seen enough of you. Or heard enough from you. There's a good deal of work that needs to be done, after the occupation by Terreille, and not having you helping-" She shook her head. "I think it saps their will to rebuild."
He scowled. "What do they think I've been doing?"
"They think you haven't been here. I doubt that anything else matters."
Khary made a frustrated sound somewhere between a sigh and a snarl. "I've been traveling with my Lady, trying to put things back together all over the Territory. Maghre's not the only place that was overrun, you know."
"I know. But-" She bit back a frustrated sigh, not knowing how to put into words what she could feel but not identify. "Lady Morghann's the Queen, and she belongs to the whole Territory. But Maghre chose you to lead them, and you belong to the village before you belong to Scelt. They need you."
"Everybody needs me," he growled, but the chill was fading out of his voice. "And I won't leave Morghann to deal with it all."
"No one's asking it of you. Just - maybe stay a few days longer? And maybe bring in some of what they need for rebuilding - and let them see you do it."
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "What would you suggest?"
She reeled off a list of the materials she'd seen shortages of - the village had enough food, but everything else was in short supply. "And if there's any other Districts that could spare a few laborers - I don't think they're likely to trust anyone from outside Scelt just now - that might help. And-" She stopped, thinking. "I've been told that the apprentice Healer never got to finish her training. Is there someplace that could send a full Healer to teach her? Just a few times a month would help."
"Most of the Healers in Scelt are rather hard pressed, but maybe-" Khary cut off abruptly, and a wicked grin spread over his face. "No, I think I've got a solution for that. Gabrielle's been after Karla to stop spending every day on political business. I'll ask her to come train our little Healer."
"Karla?" she squeaked. "Karla will eat that girl alive!" Not that she would mean to; it was just that the Glacian Queen could be...forceful.
"No, she won't." The wicked grin hadn't gone anywhere; had, in fact, gotten a bit smug. "Because you're going to sit in on the lessons to be a buffer for them."
She couldn't help it; she winced. And started wondering if the village Healer knew how to make soothing tonics yet. "I don't suppose I have a choice in this?" she said faintly.
"Everything has a price." He tried to suppress the grin - satisfaction in a problem solved, and just a touch of brotherly amusement at her discomfort - but it didn't work. "Besides, you might learn something."
"I don't doubt it." Though what she might learn was anybody's guess. But she found that she wasn't as frightened of the idea as she might have been, and it was with more resigned amusement than trepidation that she wondered, Mother Night, what have I gotten myself into?
Four days later, she wasn't wondering what she'd gotten herself into so much as what she'd gotten herself between. Namely, between two strong-willed witches, neither of whom wanted to be particularly near the other. Andra apparently thought that Karla's lessons were a sign that the village thought she couldn't do her job, and the muted resentment in her psychic scent was so strong that Wilhelmina was surprised Karla hadn't felt it. And Karla was worried and preoccupied, even when she tried to concentrate on teaching, and embarassed about the cane she still had to use to walk. With the flowing skirts she'd adopted to disguise her withered legs, few would even guess about the the assassination attempt she'd survived. It was hard to tell that anything was wrong with her, but Wilhelmina could see the careful way she moved and the frown of concentration every time she repositioned herself. But the major problem was that the Glacian Queen's talent and training were well beyond Andra's and completely beyond Wilhelmina's, and she tended to leave them both thoroughly confused when she delved into the finer points of Healing theory. So Wilhelmina resigned herself to asking frequent, simple questions to bring Karla back to practicality, and tried not to care if she sounded stupid. She wasn't the one who had responsibility for the village's health, after all.
It seemed to work; Andra's resentment faded to a mere occasional whiff in her psychic scent, and Karla got too absorbed in explanations to worry about whatever had been taking up her attention earlier. But even Andra's half-trained Craft was well beyond Wilhelmina's knowledge, and between trying to keep up and trying to keep the two witches from each other's throats, she was exhausted by the end of the day. She wasn't thinking of much more than a hot bath and an early bedtime by the time Karla called the lessons off for the day.
Karla vanished the herbs she'd been using for a demonstration, picked up her cane with a fleeting grimace of disgust, and turned to Wilhelmina. "Care for some company? I've got to walk as far as the landing web."
"Of course." She'd be glad of spending some time with the Glacian Queen, who'd been easier company than anyone except Dejaal when she'd served in the Dark Court. And Purge or no Purge, she wasn't about to let a half-crippled Queen go walking in the dark alone. She kept her questions to herself for a few minutes, and waited until they were well along the road that led to Maghre's main square before asking, "Landing web? Khary's going to be upset with both of us if you don't stay in the village at least overnight."
Karla snorted. "Khary's more overprotective than Saetan at his worst. It's a good thing for me all the boyos are serving in different courts now, or they'd all pile on me with blankets and potions."
"Yes, but he served with you for a long time. It's only natural that he'd be more protective of a Sister."
"I don't care if it's natural, it's annoying." Karla was clearly in no mood to be placated, but the sidelong, thoughtful look she gave Wilhelmina suggested she had something more on her mind. "Speaking of overprotective males, Lucivar asked me to have a word with you."
"Mother Night." Her eyes widened.
"He's not that scary," Karla scolded.
"Oh, yes he is."
Karla took a deep breath to launch into defense of her former Brother, but broke into laughter at the look on Wilhelmina's face. "You're right, he is. The problem with Lucivar is that once he's decided he's responsible for your safety, a little thing like moving to a new Territory doesn't change his mind." She called in an Eyrien fighting stick - cut down to Wilhelmina's weight and size, just like the ones she'd used for her inept practices at the Dark Court - and handed it to her. "Which is why he's after both of us to get back into fighting trim."
Wilhelmina took the weapon warily. "He does remember how bad I am with these, doesn't he?"
"I think that's the point," Karla said dryly. "Though in truth, I think he's more worried about finding someone who's willing to spar with me - most of the males I trust go too easy on me because of-" A quick gesture of one hand indicated the withered legs hidden beneath her long skirts. "And an assassin isn't likely to go easy at all."
"I'm not likely to be any harder for you to fight than someone who's holding back on purpose." She was a more than passable dancer, and better than she'd expected at the physical chores that made up daily life, but with a weapon in her hands she turned stiff and clumsy. "And I'm never going to be good enough at this to meet Lucivar's standards."
Karla shrugged. "Neither am I. Maybe once, but not since I was poisoned. I need to practice with someone who's not a professional, while I learn what I can still do." She tried to keep her expression bland, but her wicked smile was starting to gleam through. "Besides, Lucivar said that if you wouldn't spar with me, he'd come practice with you until you got back in shape."
"Oh dear," Wilhelmina said faintly.
The wicked smile came out, full force. "I take it that means you'd rather spar with me than with him. Let's say, early morning before Andra's next set of lessons?"
"Will it put you in a better mood?" she asked tartly.
Karla chuckled, with no trace of repentance. "Probably so."
"Then you could have told me that to start with, instead of scaring me with Lucivar."
"I'll keep that in mind. See you on fifth-day, then?"
"I'll be - well, as ready as I can be."
"Good enough to start with." Karla clasped her hand to seal the bargain, then caught the Sapphire Wind and vanished, leaving Wilhelmina alone in the gathering dusk.
"Sticks," she muttered with considerable annoyance, vanished hers, and marched home. When she came to the kitchen door, there was a freshly killed boar pig lying on the table - one that she recognized, with a sinking feeling, as an animal she'd last seen neatly penned on Mairin's farm. Jhaliir was eyeing the carcass thoughtfully, not quite certain what to do with it or with the tongue of witchfire hovering above it.
His ears perked up when he saw her. *Humans like their meat burned? What do you want-"
"What in the Realms possessed you?" she yelped. "Morwen needs that pig." Mairin's family weren't starving, but they didn't have much to spare either. And poor as she was, the older witch was something of a force in Maghre; if she got angry at Wilhelmina, life here could easily lose most of its pleasure.
The ears went down. *Pigs are dangerous,* he said defensively, flashing her an image of the wild boars he hunted, all tusks and driving muscle. *Better to have meat now than kittens in danger later.*
"That's why they're in fences," she said as calmly as she could. She didn't know how she would make this up to Mairin's family; they didn't have much, and Jhaliir had inadvertently taken a good share of what they did have. "I'm going to have to find some way to repay Morwen."
*I will hunt for them, if you ask me,* the cat offered. *I was hunting for you when I took the pig.*
"Me?" She looked askance at the carcass - more meat than she could eat in weeks. "Why?"
*I don't know what to do for humans. But you think I did wrong.* He started to pace uneasily. *If I wanted to serve a kindred witch, I would bring her meat and she would ask me to serve. But you are human and I don't know what you want.*
"You came here wanting to - to serve?" she asked incredulously.
*My brother was happy serving you. And you are alone. You shouldn't be alone.*
"I don't-" Don't have the experience with males. Don't deserve it. "I don't have any kind of Court."
*You are alone,* he repeated, his anxiously lashing tail tapping against her ankle as he paced. *It's Blood Law. I know Blood Law. No unmated Healer is supposed to live without a Blood male to serve her.*
"Jhaliir, I'm not a Healer."
He stoped pacing to give her an unwinking green stare. *You will be.*
Wilhelmina was up to her elbows in hot water - literally - and finding it oddly enjoyable. It was no surprise to her, though, that Mairin was piling up four clean dishes for every one that Wilhelmina laboriously scrubbed. But having accomplished the minor miracle of getting Morwen out of the kitchen, she wasn't about to leave her friend to tackle the cleanup alone...besides, she was still feeling guilty about the boar Jhaliir had killed.
She'd come by early that afternoon to apologize, bringing inexpertly perserved meat and a thoroughly chagrined tiger along with her. Jhaliir didn't understand the idea of property, but he understood territory and poaching. And the thought that he'd been trespassing on a senior witch's territory had made him so distressed that she'd stopped scolding him about the boar and started comforting instead.
Morwen scolded enough for both of them when she found out, but there was a gleam in her eyes and a curve to her lips that suggested she'd be laughing herself silly as soon as she got some privacy. After giving both of them a healthy piece of her mind, she'd promptly invited them to an early supper - pork, of course - with stern instructions to help with cleanup. Though Wilhelmina had no idea what Jhaliir was supposed to do with dishes.
"So he's really kindred?" Mairin asked, with a quick, curious glance toward where Jhaliir sprawled against the wall, watching one of the family puppies with utter fascination.
Wilhelmina nodded. "He showed up at my door - well, inside my door, actually - and seems to take turns making himself a nuisance and making himself indispensable."
She picked up a flicker of emotion that could only be a feline smirk, but by the time she looked back at him, he was utterly absorbed in stretching one massive paw across the floor and watching the puppy clamber across it.
Mairin just looked impressed. "We learned about the Scelties, of course, and I always thought there was something strange about some of the horses that range here, but to see something so wild..." She shook her head. "I don't know whether to be scared, or just sit and stare."
"Or act like Dirdre and do both?" she asked with a faint smile. Mairin's younger sister had spent dinner staring at Jhaliir with wide-eyed curiosity, but she'd nearly jumped out of her chair if the cat so much as twitched a whisker. Wilhelmina remembered feeling much the same way when she first encountered the wolf Graysfang.
The smile faded when Mairin's face went suddenly somber. "Dirdre's...well. None of us know what to do about Dirdre. Poor Mam's at her wit's end."
Mairin gave her a thoughtful, assessing look that Wilhelmina hadn't seen since her first acquaintance with the hearthwitch. "Not what you're thinking. Not quite." Wilhelmina felt the subtle stillness of a sound shield close around them, and added a thread of her Sapphire power to strengthen Mairin's. "This is family," Mairin said with a fierce undertone to her voice. "It can't go beyond you."
Wilhelmina nodded, faintly pleased when Mairin accepted that simple assurance without demanding more elaborate promises.
"It was like this." Mairin set her jaw against memory and the anger that still flared at any mention of the Terreillean occupation. "There were so many soldiers here, and Mam was terrified for all of us. I cut my hair short, and carried smelly kitchen garbage in my pockets if I had to go out, and nobody ever really bothered me. But a junior troop commander took a fancy to Dirdre.
"He didn't spear her," she added in response to Wilhelmina's unasked question. "But he...best to say he stalked her, like that tiger of yours after a deer. No, worse. He enjoyed her fear just as much as he would have the act itself, and he turned up everywhere, just to watch Dirdre go all white and big-eyed. A few more weeks, and I think he would have broken her from fear alone."
"I know the kind." It had been years since Chaillot, but some things weren't easily forgotten. She took strength from the thought of Jhaliir's undemanding companionship.
"He followed her so much I'm surprised he wasn't punished for ignoring his troops. We saw him everywhere, in the village, in the fields...we found what was left of him when the Lady's storm ended, but I don't think Dirdre will ever really believe he's dead. I went with her to watch the body get burned, and it didn't matter - she's still afraid of him. And I'm - oh, Hell's fire, I'm scared she'll still be looking over her shoulder for the bastard when she dies of old age."
Wilhelmina didn't stop to think, just wrapped a soapy arm around her friend's shoulders. "Can I help?"
"I don't know. I wish I did." Mairin shrugged restlessly. "Mam doesn't know whether to let her hide or push her out in the open, and I'm scared that the twins will follow Dirdre's example and decide that all males are something to be feared. And neither one of us knows how to fix things."
"I can't see an easy way out. Or any way out, really. But, I don't know..." The idea that was forming wasn't really a solution - there was no solution for fear like that, nothing but time and peace - but it was a chance. "If she could learn she was capable of something, anything, it would help." It had helped her. It wasn't running away from Beldon Mor, it was getting calluses on her hands, learning cooking and Craft and independence, that had left her subtly stronger. Strong enough to find the courage to come to Kaeleer at all.
She called in the shawl she'd worn earlier that day, balled it up carelessly in one hand, and started looking around the kitchen for a spot to fit what she had in mind.
A few minutes later, Wilhelmina had found a convenient nook where she could accidentally leave her shawl, and Mairin had promised not to find it until fifth-day, when she could send it back with Dirdre. The younger witch would be likely to find Wilhelmina and Karla sparring, and Wilhelmina intended to give her the best show she could . An encounter with Karla might just put a little steel back in Dirdre's spine - that, or make her decide that Blood witches were just as much to be feared as males.
The next day dawned grey and rainy, and Wilhelmina spent most of it prowling along the rocky shore with Jhaliir, looking for a certain seaweed that Andra had mentioned as being useful in poultices. Wilhelmina was hoping that a gift might soften the prickly apprentice Healer; she'd be just as pleased if she never had to sit through another set of "lessons" like the last one.
She enjoyed the quiet, broken only by the sound of the waves, but between the damp ground and the constant, misty drizzle, she was chilled and bedraggled by the time the sun set and Jhaliir herded her unceremoniously home. *Food. Hot food. And leaves-and-water,* the tiger urged. He'd taken to cooked and spiced food with surprising enthusiasm, but couldn't quite grasp the concept of "tea".
Wilhelmina smiled and acquiesced, though the majority of the stew Mairin had left them went into Jhaliir's bowl and not her own. Afterwards, she took a long, hot bath to chase the last of the chill away, brushed the tangles out of her hair, and settled into bed to read for a while before she slept. Content as she was, it was only long habit that set her uncoiling slow psychic tendrils, too delicate for detection, to test the land around her house. Jhaliir was a formidable defender, but she had to know for herself that she was safe.
Nothing in the garden but a sense of well-being from carefully tended plants. Quiet all around, and a sleepy sort of feeling from the first touch of fall in the air...
And an odd, cool blankness.
Her eyes widened, though what she was sensing was beyond sight. She skimmed past it, returned to probe again...couldn't penetrate it.
A Jewel shield, rich with Sapphire power. Darker than the Sapphire and she never would have noticed it; lighter, and she would have been able to break through and learn what the shield was hiding. Or who. All the old fear came back in a rush - fear of voices in the dark, of hands that caught at her and minds that tried to trap her - and she pressed her fist against her lips to stifle a whimper.
*I go.* The tiger's reply came back so clearly that she almost felt his hackles lift in response to her fear.
Wilhelmina squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on calling in her Sapphire Jewels, holding them for comfort. I'm not sixteen any more. I will not be afraid like that again. She was a grown witch, even if she preferred gentler arts than combat, and she would not let herself be cowed by something that reminded her of the bad old days.
Not where anyone could see it, at least.
She got out of her nightclothes and into the first dress that came to hand, and was down the stairs and halfway into the kitchen when Jhaliir's voice sounded in her head. *Strange male. Coming toward your den.* There was a pause as he ghosted through the underbrush, following the intruder by smell. *And two she-cats, young ones.*
She bristled. *How young?*
*Just weaned. Maybe a season after that.*
She did her best to translate from the tiger's dubious sense of time, and didn't like the answer she arrived at. Early adolescence, the most vulnerable time for a Blood female. *Follow him. Let me know when he's near.*
*Lady, I can-*
*No.* Not Opal against Sapphire, tiger or not. *At least come where I can shield you.*
She felt his reluctant agreement, and the low hum of his wariness as he shadowed the unknown male. *He moves like a hunter. The she-cats are not so fast.*
*Can you tell - are they hurt? Scared?*
Nothing but confusion from the tiger. Unfamiliar as he was with human moods and expressions, Jhaliir relied on psychic scents to understand the human Blood he dealt with. With psychic scents blocked by the male's Sapphire shield, he was at a loss for more than the simplest information. *They are tired. I smell no-* He broke off suddenly, with a purely mental snarl that raised the hair on her arms. *Close now.* He flashed her a mental image of the approach to her house and then vanished from her awareness.
Wilhelmina took a deep breath, wrapped her fists in her skirts to stop their tremble, and stepped out her door to meet whatever came.
Outside it was dark and rainy, with a flash of creamy fur in the underbrush where Jhaliir paused just long enough for her to see him. *He comes in a straight line like a boar. I can attack-*
*No. Not unless you have to.* Not in this confusing darkness, and not with two young witches who might be the strange male's victims or allies. Whoever was coming, she didn't think she could match him Jewel to Jewel. Her skills had always been in misdirection and evasion - but with a little thought, she could at least make sure the intruder was thrown as much off-balance as she was.
She concentrated on a spot in the air well above her, and fed power into it as she heard the crunch of approaching footsteps. Witchlight burst above her, bright enough to read by and then brighter still, flooding over the Blood male who stumbled out of the underbrush and onto clear ground. Wilhelmina had braced herself against the explosion of light, but the strange male was all but blinded. The Sapphire psychic shield flickered for an instant with the male's surprise, and Wilhelmina read everything she could in that brief moment: a Warlord. Anxious, determined, and very, very tired.
He threw a shield around himself and the two girls on his heels at the same time he flung a hand up to shade his eyes, squinting against the brilliant blue-white light. "Are you daft, woman? Jenna, it's me!"
"Who?" Whatever she'd been expecting, this wasn't it.
He dropped the shielding hand as his eyes adjusted to the light, and Wilhelmina got a better look at him. Light brown hair, a beard that bordered on scruffy, and bright blue eyes, fixed on hers with an expression somewhere between concern and challenge. The girls with him just looked ragged and weary; she couldn't read past the exhaustion to tell whether they were there by choice. "Lady Jenna. Where's she gotten to?"
"I don't know who she is, much less where." She let her own power swell, pushing against the edges of the Warlord's shield the way she might have shoved against a horse who was crowding her. But she let the witchlight dim from its former blinding level; the male might or might not be a threat, but she didn't think he posed any danger in the next few minutes. Especially not with Jhaliir's protective presence in the bushes.
"She lives here, last I heard." One hand, scraped and battered as if he'd been forging through woods for weeks, made a gesture that encompassed house and gardens. "She knows me. She's - well, I can't say she's expecting me, but at least she won't go shining witchlight in my eyes." He aimed a resentful glare at the glowing ball of light above them. "Do you do this to all your visitors?"
Wilhelmina glared right back. "What would you do, with a strange Warlord on your doorstep?"
*I would bite him,* Jhaliir said for her mind only. *Can I bite him?*
"Don't yell at him." The two girls had been clinging together as if they couldn't keep their feet otherwise. Now the older of them, a girl in her mid-teens with black hair and huge dark eyes, drew herself up and gave Wilhelmina a look that was probably intended to be defiant. It didn't come across as much more than mutely determined. "Diccan got us here all the way from Terreille and he doesn't deserve to have you-"
Annoyed with all the talking, Jhaliir padded out of the underbrush and gave the three intruders a stare that could only have come from a carnivore before stalking away to stand guard in front of Wilhelmina. The dark-haired girl broke off into a prudent - or possibly just exhausted - silence, and Wilhelmina caught a whiff of the two girls' psychic scent, carried on a burst of emotion. Fear of the tiger, disappointment, and a shrinking feeling at the thought of going any further. The younger witch bit her lip and edged closer to the Warlord.
He gave the dark-haired witch an exasperated glance, then turned back to Wilhelmina. She felt the tingle of an attempted communication thread, and shored up her inner barriers against it; whatever he wanted to say, he could damn well say out loud. He made a sound somewhere between a growl and a sigh, crossed his arms, uncrossed them when Wilhelmina stiffened in response to his pose, and dropped his hands carefully to his side, clearly trying to make himself look as unthreatening as possible. "My lady, we've come a long way, and the girls can't make it much farther. It took all they had just to get to the inn, but it's-"
"It's been burned. I know." Yet another thing lost in the Terreillean occupation.
He nodded. "So we came here. I swear Lady Jenna will vouch for me - can we at least come in long enough to get the girls warm and fed? After that I'll...think of something else to do."
Jenna - now she remembered where she'd heard the name. The aged witch who'd owned the property Wilhelmina was renting. Who'd died in the occupation of Maghre. And on the chance that the two exhausted girls had known her personally, she didn't want to upset them any further tonight. "I'll do what I can for them. But I need a private word with you, Lord...?"
"Diccan. Born and bred in Maghre, Lady; there's plenty here who can vouch for me."
"Diccan. We need to talk."
It didn't take Wilhelmina long to get the two young witches - Caillie and Reanna, who'd been the one to snarl at her outside - settled with dry, if oversized, clothes, warm bread, and the last of Mairin's stew. Even after an awkward introduction, Jhaliir stalked through the kitchen the whole time, growling just at the edge of hearing and keeping himself ostentatiously between Wilhelmina and the strange Warlord Diccan. The cat's agitation made it hard for her to think, but she was glad of him nonetheless; that protective presence gave her enough courage to stay firmly in her territory rather than catching the Winds and running.
Still, two males, radiating various degrees of protective anger, made the kitchen seem very small. It was a relief to get the girls settled and herd the males outside. The crisp air cooled her thoughts somewhat - enough at least that she could look calm long enough to deal with Diccan.
He was leaning against the waist-high garden wall, keeping a respectful distance from Wilhelmina and a cautious one from Jhaliir. His expression mixed concern, wariness, and rapid calculation - fair enough, since Wilhelmina was thinking just as hard and just as fast.
Wilhelmina settled herself in the open kitchen door and tried to ease the territoriality and defensiveness that had to be flooding her psychic scent. From Jhaliir's frequent worried glances, she couldn't be doing too well at it.
First things first.
"You asked about Lady Jenna. She died several months ago. I'm sorry." Courtesy would have demanded some expression of sympathy, but the sudden stricken look in his eyes made it more genuine than she'd expected.
"Damn." He looked away for a moment, his face blank. "Oh, damn." When he turned back to her, his expression had gone to a bland, courteous mask. "Lady Benedict, I owe you an apology. And an explanation."
She nodded, but didn't say anything.
"I apologize for intruding on your grounds. I thought my friend still - still lived here, and I wanted to get the girls somewhere they could be taken care of, by people who know better than I do what they need."
"What is it they need?" she inquired.
"Shelter. Medicine. Maybe a witch to listen to them - I don't know! I was able to get them out of Terreille, but I don't know what to do tonight."
"Terreille?" The studiedly cool tone she'd been maintaining hardened a little as curiosity and suspicion flared.
"Yes, Lady. It's a long story."
She raised an eyebrow at him. No one was going anywhere until she'd heard out the Warlord's story, long or not.
"Well. I...ah, have a knack for learning things - and occasionally going where I'm not wanted," he added. "I occasionally find things out for Lady Morghann. One of the things she asked me to find was the whereabouts of a Province Queen's young daughter, who'd disappeared some time ago."
"Caillie. It took me months to find her." Something that might have been self-disgust flickered through his psychic scent, there and gone before she could sort it out. "She'd been taken, along with a handful of other Scelt girls, when those Terreillean bas- when the Terreilleans were trying to soften the Territory before they attacked. By the time I caught up with them, it was too late for most of the girls. I found Caillie and Reanna in a Red Moon house near one of the Gates. They survived unbroken, the Darkness only knows how, but Caillie is...fragile. Crossing the Gate seems to have - well, unbalanced something in her - and she wasn't willing to take to the Winds when we reached Kaeleer. Forcing her wouldn't have helped, so-" He made a quick gesture to encompass his general torn and tattered state. "We came overland. Took us days."
"And the shield?"
His face tightened. "Caillie's been broadcasting, now and again. I didn't want the entire Territory waking up with her nightmares."
Which meant he'd been locked inside a shield with that same fear for days. No wonder he was looking more worn than travel alone could account for. Wilhelmina's watchfulness abated, just a little. "Lord Diccan, I'm not willing to turn those two away. But I can't say I trust you."
He frowned, baffled. "Then why didn't you call for help?"
"I-" She couldn't think of a single thing to say. Not one word. Nobody ever listened when you called for help; she'd learned that long ago.
Jhaliir paced forward and pushed his nose against her hand. *You called me. You can always call me.*
"Lady Benedict, I don't blame you for distrusting me. But I swear Lady Morghann will vouch for me. Would you be willing to let the girls stay tonight if I stay well out of reach?"
Jhaliir punctuated the question with a muted snarl; he'd be quite willing to make sure the Warlord stayed at a safe distance.
Wilhelmina thought, not caring how long it took or what the Warlord thought of her. Finally she said, "For tonight. And I'll speak with Lady Morghann in the morning." Well, with Khary, at least; she wasn't willing to disturb the Queen. "Do we have a bargain?"
He gave her a sceptical look. "I'm not likely to get any better terms from you, am I?"
"I'll take what I can, then. I've got a friend or two who might be willing to take me in-"
"Knock on their door first, or you might get singed."
"Lady-!" It wasn't quite a snarl, but she felt the surge of anger in his psychic scent, as well as the effort as he calmed himself. "I'll stay well away from your territory until the girls are rested. Just - take care of them."
Wilhelmina nodded; she could promise that much with a clear conscience. And the rest could wait until tomorrow.
Wilhelmina spent a sleepless night, and vindictively hoped that the strange Warlord was doing the same. Jhaliir, who'd loped off after a discreet interval to track the man to his resting place, reported with grudging respect that he'd kept his word and found shelter in a house on the edge of the village. In the meantime, Wilhelmina gently herded the two exhausted young witches to bed, layering the blankets with warming spells and the walls with muffling sound shields. No matter how scared and angry she'd been, the girls were still innocent; she'd cautiously tested their emotions when Diccan dropped his shields, and found nothing except weariness and a fierce determination to stick with each other.
They were reluctant to be separated, so she abandoned her plan to put one in each bedroom and squeezed them both in the guest bedroom instead. After that, she tried to sleep herself, but gave up on it after a restless half-hour. She spent the rest of the night on the couch downstairs, reading distractedly and keeping an ear out for Jhaliir on his frequent patrols. Her uneasiness was affecting the tiger, but she couldn't push it down, even if the immediate danger was past.
Just after the girls woke up, she sent what could only be described as a wail for help to Mairin, who arrived a few minutes later, freshly scrubbed and curious enough for any ten cats. That didn't stop her from diving into the pantry and starting on a breakfast that smelled more tempting than anything Wilhelmina could have managed. "How did you get yourself into this?" she whispered when they had a moment to themselves.
"I didn't get myself into anything," Wilhelmina retorted. "They showed up and got me into it all by themselves."
"Alone?" Mairin said in instant concern. She glanced at the two witches - pale Caillie, who was better off this morning but had a drifty, dreamy look that worried Wilhelmina, and dark-haired Reanna, who looked almost as fragile physically as her friend did mentally.
"Not exactly. It's a long story."
"And I'd better hear every word of it." Mairin's mock-glower dissolved into a grin, but that didn't stop her from threatening Wilhelmina with a ladle before she dove into breakfast preparations. Hearthwitches who were born to their Craft enjoyed it as much as Healers or Black Widows enjoyed their own, and Mairin looked positively delighted with the sudden domestic challenge.
While Mairin was absorbed in cooking, Wilhelmina sent a second and much more discreet psychic call to Khary; by the time she'd finished eating, he and Morghann were at the garden gate. Jhaliir was nowhere to be seen, but Wilhelmina couldn't spare him more than a thought; she was too surprised at Morghann's sudden appearance. Morghann might be Jaenelle's friend and Sister, but Wilhelmina had always found Queens more than a bit intimidating.
Morghann swept into the garden, cheerfully oblivious to the dew on her skirts, and held out her hands in formal greeting. "It's good to see you again. And I apologize for the scare you had last night."
"It wasn't your fault!" she said, surprised.
"Diccan was acting on my request, so I share some of the responsibility. Though if that wool-headed...male had thought to call me, we could have avoided all this."
Wool-headed? He hadn't seemed stupid to her. Bullheaded, though, that she could agree with. "You do know him, then."
"For years. He's done me a good many services, and it's not entirely his fault that he has the social skills of an ox. Was he at least able to find Lady Nieve's daughter?"
"Yes. She and a friend are inside now, eating enough breakfast for four."
Morghann relaxed, then frowned as she realized what she'd just heard. "Friend? Oh, dear. Is this going to get complicated?"
"I think it already has."
Morghann coaxed the two girls out into the garden, and was talking quietly with them when Diccan appeared at the front gates, trailed - or possibly herded - by a smug-looking Jhaliir. The tiger leaped lightly over the garden wall, bumped his head affectionately against Wilhelmina's hip, and sat down where he could keep a suspicious eye on the Warlord.
*I found him,* he announced, clearly enough for all of them to hear. *No more sneaking up on my Lady.*
"I wasn't trying to sneak, you great beast." Diccan glared at Jhaliir, who drew himself up and ignored him. "Lady Benedict, can't you keep him under control?"
"Prince Jhaliir serves me," Wilhelmina said frostily. "He's not a pet. If you want him under control, try a little courtesy."
Morghann cleared her throat. Diccan swallowed whatever he was going to say, but his face lit when he caught sight of the Queen. "My Lady," he said, relief washing through his psychic scent. "I found your friend's daughter, and one more witch besides. I...wish I could have done more."
"More?" Morghann looked worried, and Wilhelmina frowned at the trace of disgust and self-blame in his psychic scent. She recognized it from last night, but it was stronger here in the Queen's presence.
"It took me months, my Lady. And-" He cut himself off, with a worried glance toward Reanna and Caillie. Apparently there were parts of his story that he didn't want them to hear.
Jhaliir gave him a thoughtful look, rose, and trotted toward the two young witches for a polite introductory sniff. *Some words hurt cubs to hear. I will watch them while you talk.* He stretched his muzzle out to Reanna and rumbled at Caillie like an oversized housecat before bounding off with both of them in tow, looking more pleased than otherwise to be excluded from the adult conversation. Wilhelmina wondered when the tiger had started learning how to charm witches like that, and hoped he didn't try it with Morwen. He'd end up round as a barrel in days.
Morghann waited until the girls were out of earshot before turning to Diccan. "All right, Lord Diccan. You did what I asked of you - and more besides. So why are you talking to me as if you failed?"
"Because I didn't do enough. I had a lead - I was close to finding more of the girls who'd been taken from Scelt, but then they scattered them all and I had to choose. You sent me after Caillie, so I had to choose her." He spread his hands in a frustrated gesture, then went on at Morghann's silent look of inquiry. "The girls were originally taken as hostages, and held in an isolated part of Goth. But when the fighting started it was every man for himself, and some of them scattered the girls all over the Realms. Mostly to Red Moon houses. Reanna and Caillie got packed off to Terreille with two others, but-" He stopped. Set himself. "But by the time I got to them, only those two had survived. And avenging them is a damn poor substitute for bringing them home alive."
Wilhelmina bit her lip and tried to withdraw, but a sharp look from Morghann stopped her. *Don't you dare!* the Queen said sharply on a private distaff thread. *You're from Terreille yourself; I may need to discuss this with you.*
*Yes, you,* she said firmly, and snapped the thread. "Diccan, you did what I asked, and I thank you. Though...I don't think I'll inquire into what else you might have done. There are things it's best for a Queen not to know at all, just in case someone comes asking."
"That's...probably best, my Lady," the Warlord admitted.
"Tell me about Terreille. Were you there long? Are they going to pose a threat to us again?"
"No. Not for years. Lady, it's bad there. A lot of Blood died from the witchstorm, and a good many followed afterward. So many lost touch with the land, and they didn't know how to survive when the cities died. There's been riots, and murder - most of those who were broken in the witchstorm had made themselves a good plenty of enemies over the years, and some took the opportunity to settle old scores."
Wilhelmina's lips pressed together at the mental images his words triggered. It might not be her home any more, but she didn't like thinking of Beldon Mor in riot and ruins. Except for the house where Robert Benedict had stalked her; that could burn for all she cared.
Diccan gave her a curious glance, but didn't say anything to her. She thought it was her imagination that his next words were directed more to her than to Morghann. "It'll take years, but I think the Realm will heal itself. Not that I'd like to be there while it's healing, understand," he added hastily. "But if the children who survived grow up knowing how to act like Blood, there may be a chance for them."
"If the Darkness is merciful," Morghann said somberly. Then she straightened, a subtle note in her voice that spoke of Protocol. "Lord Diccan, I thank you for your service. Is there anything I can do for you?"
He made an amused huff that wasn't quite a laugh. "Lady, just at the moment the height of my ambitions is a bed. Other than that - well, it'd be a kindness if you'll just let me stay quiet in Maghre for a bit. These last few months, all I've been able to think about is getting home."
Morghann's smile warmed. "I think we can manage that. Welcome home, Lord Diccan."
Wilhelmina just squeezed her eyes shut. Mother Night...
By the time Karla had arrived for the promised sparring session on fifth-day, Wilhelmina and Mairin had arranged matters well enough to give them all a little peace. Caillie was resting with her mother, and Reanna, who'd lost her family to Terreillean soldiers, would soon follow; Morghann had arranged a place for her in Lady Nieve's Court. For the time being, she was still sleeping in Wilhelmina's guest room, but spent most of her time with Morghann, getting hasty lessons in Protocol and other Court necessities. Diccan came by in the mornings to escort her to Morghann, always staying scrupulously outside Wilhelmina's garden wall; she had a barely acknowledged wish he'd step inside once, just to give her an excuse to throw something at him. Overall, it was a precarious sort of peace, but better than she'd feared things might be.
That didn't stop her from telling Karla the entire story - complete with all the comments she'd had to keep to herself at the time, and quite a few she'd thought up since then. The Glacian Queen listened attentively, though not without a telltale sparkle of amusement in her ice-blue eyes. "Overbearing males," she said sympathetically.
"You have no idea."
"And terrified little witches-"
"They're better now."
"And Queens invading your garden." Karla shook her head. "At least it should give you some motivation for hitting things with sticks."
"I try to avoid hitting things with anything."
"I know," Karla said, not without sympathy. "But it's either me or Lucivar - not to mention the bullying I'm going to get from him if he finds out I've been avoiding practice."
"What are you going to do, fill in every pond in Glacia?" She'd never seen Lucivar douse any witches, but she'd heard about it. The morning he'd dunked Jaenelle, everyone had heard it. Possibly everyone in the next Territory as well.
"Lucivar's quite capable of digging one on the spot, just to toss me into," Karla said dryly. "Ready?" She called in a fighting stick and held it up in a guard position, giving Wilhelmina time to call in her own before making a move.
They worked through the simplest sparring patterns Lucivar had taught Wilhelmina, basic exercises designed more to teach stance and balance than actual fighting. Wilhelmina could relax into the patterns as long as she thought of them as some sort of strange dance, but she didn't think she'd ever be able to improvise well enough to fight effectively. But Karla seemed to be enjoying herself, if the wicked gleam in her eyes was any indication.
Concentrating as she was on the sparring, Wilhelmina forgot that she'd been expecting Dirdre to appear, until she heard footsteps on gravel and caught the girl's muted psychic scent. Karla glanced over her shoulder at the girl, then turned back to Wilhelmina without ever breaking the pace of the exercise. "One in the guest room and one in the garden - what are you doing, running a home for fledgling witches?"
"Don't. Even. Start," Wilhelmina growled.
Karla just grinned. "So what's she standing around for? Or do you think she wants to join in?"
'"I doubt it. Not yet, at least." On a private Sapphire thread, she told Karla what little she could tell her without breaking Mairin's confidence. Karla absorbed the sketchy information thoughtfully, then gave Wilhelmina a speculative look.
*In that case, what are you standing around for? Give her something worth watching!*
*She needs to watch you. You're the one who knows what she's doing.*
*I'm a Queen from a foreign Territory - an exciting novelty at best. You're the one she knows, and you're the one she's going to be watching. So hit me, dammit!*
Wanting to protest and knowing it wouldn't do any good, Wilhelmina made a tentative poke with her stick. Karla blocked it hard enough to set her wrists stinging from the vibration, and her stick bounced up above her head. Her effort to control it stopped it in an elementary guard position, and reflex and the few weeks of training she'd had made it seem like the easiest thing in the world to turn the guard into a two-handed slash. Karla had to move fast to block it, but Wilhelmina thought she saw the trace of a satisfied smile on the Queen's face before she started sparring in earnest.
It was hard work, and nothing she'd ever do for pleasure, but by the time they broke apart, Wilhelmina was starting to feel just a little more comfortable with the weapon in her hand. She'd spent so much of her life running and hiding that the thought of being able to hit something instead was strangely intoxicating. Maybe she could practice on some trees later that afternoon...
Karla looked happy with the exercise and its results, but she winced when she tried to step out of the guard stance she'd been maintaining. "Damn. I overdid it."
"Who could have imagined that?" Wilhelmina inquired with elaborate innocence.
Karla gave her a startled look, then burst out laughing. "You are growing a backbone. Do you mind if we sit for a few minutes before meeting Andra? I'm...afraid I strained something back there." She looked uncomfortable at having to make the admission, and Wilhelmina wondered uneasily what could be wrong with the Court in Glacia, that a Queen would feel threatened when she admitted a weakness. But she kept her thoughts off her face and merely offered a friendly arm for Karla to lean on.
Once inside, she called in a glass of cool water for Karla and hurried upstairs to change; between the sparring and the gardening she'd been doing earlier that morning, she was damp with sweat and thoroughly disheveled. Alexandra would have verbally flayed her for being in that state at all, and even free of her grandmother, Wilhelmina was fastidious enough to dislike receiving guests looking anything less than her best. Even when her guest had helped her get into that disheveled shape...pointless, really, when she thought about it.
But she changed into a serviceable dress, winced at her tangled reflection in the mirror, and tried her best to restore some order. A few minutes of intensive work had her merely looking rumpled, rather than looking like she'd just been dragged backward through a stable, but she was still reluctant to go back downstairs. Ladies just didn't host their guests looking like...well, looking like they'd been swinging sticks around all morning.
Witches, on the other hand, did whatever they damn well pleased.
She grinned at her reflection, twisted her tousled hair into a rough tail, and went downstairs to play hostess to Karla.
Summer ripened gradually into fall, as peacefully as Wilhelmina could have expected when dealing with sparring lessons, Healing lessons, and an adolescent witch and her protector. After three more mornings of sparring with Karla, Dirdre had taken to watching them openly and curiously, and Wilhelmina had come to look forward to the bouts with a kind of guarded enthusiasm. She didn't enjoy the combat itself, but with assorted lessons, assisting in Reanna's care, and her slowly growing responsibilities in the village, it was...refreshing...to have an interlude where she didn't have to think, only react.
She was stretching in preparation for the day's practice session with Karla when Jhaliir's thoughts brushed against her mind. *That male is looking for you. At the gate.*
The overtones of annoyance and suspicion in his voice were as good as a name or an image for identifying _which_ male Jhaliir meant, and Wilhelmina sighed as she relaxed the stretch. Diccan had already been by that morning to escort Reanna to her lessons with Morghann, and shouldn't be back with her until early afternoon. So what was he doing here at this time of day? If it wasn't something important, she would throw something at him.
Jhaliir caught her thoughts, and volunteered to find her a rock. A large rock.
She was still smiling at that when she rounded the corner of her house and found Diccan leaning comfortably against her garden gate. He caught a trace of the thoughtful smirk she hadn't quite been able to erase and straightened hurriedly. "Lady Benedict. I'll need to start escorting young Reanna later in the mornings for a while. With your consent, of course."
"For how long?"
He shrugged. "Two weeks, maybe three. They're trying to get the inn rebuilt, and I promised I'd help."
"Now?" she asked incredulously. With harvest growing ever nearer, she would have thought every hand would be needed in the fields.
"Of course, now. The innkeeper volunteers his extra space to store grain for families who are already stuffed to the rafters, and during harvest he'll be feeding everybody who's too exhausted to cook. Besides, the males in Maghre are feeling the loss; we all need a place to socialize, or eat when we're too tired to cook..." He gave her a sidelong, impish glance. "...Complain about pushy, suspicious witches..."
"Male inefficiency," Wilhelmina sniffed. "I've been complaining about you for weeks."
"I don't doubt it," Diccan said, with heartfelt certainty and a put-upon look. "I'm sure your ability to grouse is nothing short of legendary."
"How could it be anything else, when you present me with such wonderful opportunities to practice?"
The corners of his mouth twitched upward. "Would you like more? I'd hate to deny you the opportunity to improve your skills."
"Oh, your presence is more than sufficient," she shot back, in the honeyed tones she'd heard growing up in Alexandra's Court. "I couldn't possibly ask for more." She was surprised to find herself enjoying the exchange, in the same skittery way she enjoyed sparring with Karla. The realization made something lurch queerly in her stomach, but she did her best to suppress it and steer the conversation back into normal channels. Before she found herself enjoying it too much. "But I'm sure Reanna will be glad for a more leisurely morning. Will you be coming late tomorrow?"
Diccan had clearly been preparing his own retort; his eyes were sparking with something halfway between anger and amusement, and it took him a moment to follow her abrupt shift in topic. "Yes. From tomorrow until...oh, probably a week before harvest."
By which time Reanna would probably be ready to leave for the Court position Morghann had been training her for. For the first time, she wondered how the girl's absence would affect Diccan; he was troublesome enough now, with Reanna to focus on. Once she was gone, leaving no outlet for all that protective energy, things could get...interesting.
Jhaliir informed her that there were many good-sized rocks down on the seashore; was she sure she didn't want one? Or several?
"Ask Reanna about the change when you walk her back tonight," she told Diccan. "If it's all right with her, I won't mind."
Diccan grinned. "She's a witch in her teens - I doubt she'd mind any chance to sleep late. I'll be off then, Lady, and meet Reanna at midmorning tomorrow."
She nodded assent, and watched warily as he disappeared down the path that led to the village. She'd enjoyed the conversation much more than she should have; after a lifetime of being meek as a mouse, it felt strangely good to talk to someone who didn't care what she said. The realization left her fuming at herself; she didn't need to spend her time verbally needling someone just to see if he'd jump.
Jhaliir disagreed. *You should learn how to sharpen your claws.*
She wasn't sure whether he was referring to the physical sparring session with Karla, or the verbal one she'd just finished. For her own peace of mind, she had no intention of asking.
By the time Wilhelmina had watched Diccan safely out of sight, Karla was already waiting for her, and Dirdre was hovering around the edges of the patch of weedy earth they used as sparring ground. Dirdre gave her a wide-eyed look as she passed; Karla just raised on eyebrow and tossed her a stick. She caught it awkwardly, but more surely than she could have a few weeks ago, and stepped automatically into a guard position.
Karla gave her a skeptical look. "Are you ever going to start one of these bouts?"
"No," Wilhelmina said flatly. "I'm not good at fighting at all, much less starting fights. The best I can hope for is to hold off an attacker until help arrives."
But that didn't stop her from throwing herself into defense when Karla swung at her. After dealing with Diccan, the simple tests of strength and reflex felt good; at least sparring didn't confuse her. So she hit back as hard as she could when Karla attacked, hard enough to get a startled look from the other witch. *Something on your mind?*
*Males,* Wilhelmina snorted. *Arrogant, overbearing-* The rest of it dissolved in a burst of annoyance and frustration that would have had her sputtering if she'd been speaking aloud.
*Males? Or just one in particular?*
Wilhelmina huffed. Karla looked thoughtful, and stepped up the pace of her sparring. And Wilhelmina found out just how much she hadn't learned. Karla had aptitude and years of Lucivar's training; all Wilhelmina had was temper. But she did her best to keep up, scrambling so hard to meet the Queen's attacks that she completely forgot her earlier irritation.
By the time Karla backed off to let them catch their breath, she was focused on simply surviving the match, and Dirdre's hesitant voice sounded unnaturally loud in the sudden stillness. "Can...I try?"
Wilhelmina spun toward her; apparently mistaking her startled reaction for rejection, Dirdre flinched but stood her ground. "I want to know how you do that. Can I - maybe practice a little? I promise I won't bother anyone."
Karla gestured toward Wilhelmina. "Bother her," she said, with such aplomb that no one would guess she'd just shared a private mental cheer with Wilhelmina. "I'm about tired out, if you want to finish this session for me?" She held out her stick to Dirdre, who took it nervously and fumbled it into an approximation of the guard position she'd seen the other two witches use.
Karla stepped aside and sat down unceremoniously on air, watching as Wilhelmina explained the basics, step by step. Dirdre was clearly uneasy at best, but she took in the information hungrily. As Wilhelmina led the girl though a simple blocking pattern, the tense knot within her loosened and warmed. For all her skittish ways, Dirdre was a friend. And helping her heal was worth tolerating all the annoying males in the Realms.
Andra was less than amused when Karla and Wilhelmina finally reached her house for the day's lessons. They'd hardly gotten the door shut behind them before the young Healer started scolding them roundly - Karla for working her half-crippled legs into such a state and Wilhelmina for letting her. Karla took it all with surprisingly good grace - good enough that Wilhelmina, who'd been expecting an explosion, couldn't help but raise a curious eyebrow at her.
*She's a Healer, she really can't help but scold,* Karla said over a private distaff thread. *I'd scold too, if a patient of mine showed up in this condition.*
*But you're not her patient.*
*Healers tend to assume that anyone in pain is their patient,* she said dryly. *If you're lucky, they'll remember to tell you about it before they start dosing you.*
With that in mind, it was hard work to keep a straight face when Andra sat them unceremoniously down and dropped two mugs of hot tea in front of them. Nor would she hear of starting lessons until Karla, at least, had drained hers.
Wilhelmina was abashed to find herself grateful for the respite. She enjoyed listening to the theory of healing Craft, seeing how it meshed with the Craft she already knew, but she didn't have the near-instinctive grasp of it that Karla had and that Andra was developing. She could mix a healing brew or stop a cut from bleeding; beyond that, she wasn't much more accomplished than she'd been as a girl.
Still, Khary hadn't sent her here to learn Healing, he'd sent her to be a buffer between two strong-willed witches. And even after a month, it was still necessary; Andra generally deferred to Karla's experience, but she had her own ideas about how things should be done. It seemed to Wilhelmina that she spent half her time soothing ruffled feathers and the other half pondering the wisdom of a fast dive under the nearest table. But Andra was refining her Healing, and that was the important part. Maghre hadn't yet had the kind of emergency that would test the inexperienced Healer; if the Darkness was kind, she'd have some time to grow into her new position before anything really challenged her.
So she contributed to the conversation when she could, looked interested when she couldn't, and deflected several disagreements that could have turned into full-blown (and long-drawn) arguments. The afternoon passed quickly enough, though she found out by the end of lessons that Karla hadn't been fooled by her pretense.
"That bad, was it?" she asked - sympathetically, for Karla - when they'd finished for the afternoon and were walking from Andra's home to the landing web.
"Not bad, just tiring." And frustrating. But she kept that comment to herself. "It's getting harder to keep up with the two of you."
"Andra's born to that particular Craft. She can't help but learn it easily, while you...would have to work a lot harder. Sitting in on lessons isn't going to teach you everything you need to know."
"But I want to learn," she said stubbornly.
Karla studied her more carefully than she'd done since Wilhelmina first arrived in Jaenelle's Court. "Why?"
"Because-" Because she had an undefined urge to put things right. Because Jhaliir believed she would be a Healer, and the thought of letting him down made her flinch inside. "Because I want what I do to matter."
"I thought you wanted to be left alone."
"I do. Did. But-" She shook her head, unsure of what she wanted to say. "I see people needing help that I know how to give, and I can't just keep to myself when they're out there."
Karla shrugged. "Sounds like a Healer to me."
She flushed at being caught in the Queen's verbal net. But Karla's off-handed approval gave her heart an odd little lift, and she put aside her questions to enjoy it.
Her cheerful mood lasted until she got home, and felt Reanna's distress hanging over the house like a cloud. Self-doubt, resentment, and darker emotions filled the air, and Wilhelmina glanced worriedly up toward the young witch's room. Reanna only wore the Rose; for her emotions to imprint themselves this strongly, they had to be...intense.
She reached for Jhaliir on a psychic thread, and felt his response a moment before he came out the open kitchen door. He twined around her legs for a moment like an oversized - and anxious - housecat; he was only passingly fond of Reanna, but as long as Wilhelmina considered the girl her responsibility, he would be fiercely protective of her.
*She came back from the Queen's den that way,* he said in answer to her questions. *Won't play, won't eat, just sits like she had her paw in a trap. She won't talk to me.*
She wouldn't talk to Wilhelmina either, when she came up to the guest room with a pot of tea and the expectation that she'd spend the next several hours listening. But whatever was troubling Reanna, she couldn't or wouldn't talk about it; she tried, and answered Wilhelmina's questions if she couldn't dodge them, but the reluctance in her psychic scent and the way she hunched in on herself were as clear as any blunt refusal. "I'm all right," she insisted, while her black brows drew into a straight line and her hands twisted tightly around each other. "Nothing went wrong in lessons."
"Then why is Jhaliir downstairs looking like someone pulled out all his whiskers?" Wilhelmina asked as gently as she could.
"I didn't do anything to him!" The girl's eyes widened, and a surge of fear spiked through her psychic scent. Fear of leaving, fear of staying, fear of Wilhelmina herself, all of it strong enough that Wilhelmina had to shield against it before it triggered her own reaction. She'd spent years feeling just that trapped and imperiled, and it was an easy mindset to fall back into.
"I know. But he's got eyes, and he's worried about you. So am I."
"What are you-" She cut herself off, biting her lip in thought, and stayed that way for a long time. "Lady Morghann's sending me away," she said eventually. "She says I've learned everything I need to know for a Court position."
"Then you probably have. Morghann wouldn't send you into a situation you weren't ready for." She kept her voice low and calm, as she might have to soothe some frightened creature, but it wasn't working. Even after several weeks spent in Wilhelmina's guest room, the young witch was wary, as if she expected a physical or psychic assault at any moment. Whatever she'd survived in a Red Moon house, it had buried her strength deep.
"That's what she said, but it's not home. And I-" She broke off again, and Wilhelmina braced herself against the emotions that flooded the girl's psychic scent. Shame and anger and fear, and a feeling of "not good enough" that couldn't have been clearer if she'd shouted it out loud. All of it strong enough to twist and warp her if she held it inside, and nothing she'd be willing to share with Wilhelmina. The only people she trusted enough were Caillie, who was hours away, and...Wilhelmina bit back a sigh. She knew what she needed to do, but she was hardly going to enjoy it.
She reminded herself firmly that sometimes the only way to Heal was to find the proper medicine, set herself, and reached out. It took only a moment to locate the familiar glow of Sapphire power. *Lord Diccan. I need your help.*
When Wilhelmina touched Diccan's mind, she felt his surprise and skepticism as clearly as if they were her own. *Help, Lady? What's wrong - someone sneaking through your garden again?*
*Not for me,* she answered sharply. *It's Reanna. She needs to talk, and not to me.*
A moment ago she'd been able to all but see the wicked smile tugging at his mouth; now she knew it had fallen away, and she could feel him setting down his tools and scrambling to his feet. *I'll be there as quickly as I can. What should I expect?*
*I don't know what to tell you. She's upset - the Darkness knows she's got enough to be upset about - but she doesn't trust me enough to tell me about it.*
She caught a flicker of emotion that could have been a resigned headshake. *I'm sorry, Lady.*
*Don't apologize for her, just get up here and help her.*
He broke the connection, but she could sense him getting nearer. She reached for Jhaliir's familiar presence. *Lord Diccan is coming to help Reanna. Don't bite him.*
Sulky acquiescence came over the link between them, and Wilhelmina broke the contact with a little mental caress. After that, all she could do was try to keep Reanna talking until Diccan reached them. She knew she wouldn't be able to draw the girl any further out of herself, but she wasn't sure anyone would be able to break that sullen isolation if Reanna withdrew into it again.
Jhaliir alerted her well before she heard footsteps coming up the stairs. "Lass?" Diccan tapped lightly on the door before leaning inside. "Heard you had a bit of a rough time."
Reanna looked up, started to say something, and flung herself against the Warlord instead. Wilhelmina watched the two of them for a moment, then withdrew quietly, calling in a water pitcher and glasses and leaving them by the door. If there was any healing to be done here, it would be best served by her absence.
She went downstairs to give Diccan and Reanna some privacy, and after a few aimless minutes, took herself off to the garden. Reanna's emotional storm had shaken her more than she liked to admit, and the quiet vitality of the plants was soothing. So she pulled up the few weeds stubborn enough to sprout in fall and patted straw down around the roots of her herbs and flowers, while Jhaliir followed behind her, occasionally yielding to temptation long enough to swat at a stray leaf or straw. When she was done with that, she just sat, threading her fingers through Jhaliir's ruff and enjoying the brief space of quiet.
It was well after sunset, and the fall chill was starting to nip at her skin, when she heard Diccan trudging down the stairs and through her kitchen. He looked tired but not anxious; still, there was a tightness to his expression, as though whatever pain he'd eased for Reanna had been taken on himself instead. Clearly, the problem was far from solved.
Jhaliir laid his ears back but trotted off to a safe distance when Wilhelmina indicated that she wanted privacy.
"She's all right," Diccan said in answer to Wilhelmina's inquiring look. "Or she will be, at least. She said she wanted to get some supper, but I think she'll likely be dead asleep inside an hour."
Wilhelmina smiled at that, and made a mental note to have a large breakfast ready the next morning. It was a relief to have Diccan trying to help her rather than working at cross purposes; he was much more tolerable when he had a goal to work toward. "I'll make sure she doesn't perish of hunger. What's wrong? Is it only the trouble she had with Lady Morghann?"
"No. There's more to it than that, but-" Diccan shook his head. He shut the kitchen door behind him, came into the garden, and settled against the wall at a comfortable distance from Wilhelmina. "She's so tangled up inside, it's hard to tell where one problem ends and the next begins, and she's had no time to sort it out so she can understand it."
"Well, that we can do something about. If we both ask Morghann, I'm sure she'll let Reanna stay for a few weeks more to get her bearings before she goes to that new Court position." She stopped as a thought came to her. "My sister always used to talk about the harvest dances in Scelt, and they're not far off. Do you think they'd be good for her?"
"Like a tonic. Not a drop of romance to those, just pure celebration. If we can give her the time till the dances to get her feet back under her - I think that'd be very good for her indeed." His eyes lit with relief at finding a solution, and the quick flash of a smile he gave her made her stomach give a queer little lurch. Sternly, she told it to behave.
Diccan's smile went reminiscent. "Truthfully, I'm looking forward to the dances myself. It's been a damn long time since I was home during harvest."
"Morghann keeps you that busy?"
"You have no idea. Though after this last excursion-" For an instant, pain spiked through his psychic scent. Then it was gone as if it had never existed. "It'll be a relief, really, to be home for a while. This time last year I was in Glacia, freezing my - well, freezing."
He launched into a story about a trip to look into a group of Glacian trappers who'd wanted a trade agreement with Scelt. He told the story with verve and enthusiasm - it was funny, and not only because the idea of Diccan tumbling face-down into a snowdrift was one Wilhelmina found deeply appealing - but she didn't think his sudden animation went much beneath the surface. Not every shield was created from Jewels, and she knew a shield when she saw one. Was he trying to hide that flash of pain from her, or from himself?
But she knew better than to force her way past any kind of a shield, so she let him go on with the story. And another. And discovered that behind the deliberate country-bumpkin air was a mind that wouldn't have been out of place in her grandmother's formal salons. With that and the Sapphire Jewels he wore, she wondered why he didn't formally serve in Morghann's Court.
"How did you become-" She stopped, at a loss for diplomatic words.
"Lady Morghann's spy?" He shrugged. "Born with a roving foot, mostly. Always wanted to see what was over the next hill, or behind a locked door, or - well, anything that people didn't already know about. The Guard was always catching me snooping around the Court or trying to eavesdrop on diplomatic talks. After the fourth time the Master of the Guard hauled me in front of Lady Breanna - the Queen before Morghann - she got tired of it and told me to make myself useful if I couldn't make myself stop. After that, she had this little wiry fellow from her Guard take me under his wing, teach me some dirty fighting, and turn me loose. When Lady Breanna turned over the Queenship, she commended me to Morghann. And she started working me harder than I've ever done in my life," he added with a wry grin.
With the conflict that had brewed between the Realms for years, that was understandable. But- "I thought Kaeleer Queens got along well enough. Do they all need - people like you?"
"No way to know. But I've never acted against another Queen. Mostly I just investigate rumors - if there's whispers of a subordinate Queen abusing her power, or a child with unusual needs or talents - not everything comes to a Queen's ears, and it's best to have some people who will listen for her. And if I can bring back good news - say, finding a strong new trade partner before Dharo or Glacia snaps it up - then I've done my Queen and my Territory a service. It's a good feeling."
When talking about his work, his eyes lit in a way he'd only been able to feign earlier, and the pain she'd sensed was well buried. She wasn't sure when she'd become determined to mend it, though it was only sensible; something like Reanna's emotional storm, with the power of the Sapphire behind it, could effect the whole village.
And he was good company. When he wasn't sniping at her, or worrying himself senseless over Reanna.
They talked for a little while longer, until Reanna's light flickered out and reminded them both of the time. Diccan pushed himself away from the wall, not noticeably stiffened by the cold stone he'd been leaning against. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jhaliir rise and trot toward her, apparently willing to leave her alone with the Warlord only as long as he wasn't actually moving.
Diccan gave her a friendly nod that was more cordial than she'd ever seen from him. "Thank you for your help with Reanna. But I've kept you from your supper much too long, and I'd best be getting to mine."
*I am not hunting for him,* Jhaliir announced for her mind only.
She converted the burst of laughter to a cough, and shot a look at both males that dared them to say anything. After a moment, she forced a calm expression. "I'll let you know how Reanna is feeling tomorrow...or would you be able to come by in the morning and walk with her for a while? She may not need lessons, but I think she needs you."
His face lit - but that same distress flickered through his psychic scent, a toxic mix of anger, shame and regret. Jhaliir's ears flicked back in what was almost a flinch, though she didn't know if it was at the Warlord's pain or at her own reaction to it. "I'll be here at the usual time then, Lady, and look forward to it." He smiled at her, nodded to Jhaliir, and let himself out of the garden.
Wilhelmina watched him go with a worried frown. The distress in his psychic scent was nagging at her, and she didn't know what - if anything - she could do about it.
Neither did Jhaliir; the tiger glanced worriedly between her and Diccan's fading silhouette, then gave her a questioning look. *Healer?* From the inflection, he was wondering whether Diccan needed a Healer's attention. Jhaliir might not have much use for the other male, but he wanted anything that disturbed Wilhelmina promptly taken care of.
She shook her head, still watching the path where the Warlord had left. "I don't know."
The harvest dances approached rapidly, and Wilhelmina alternated between dubious anticipation and outright panic. She wasn't sure she wanted to go at all; she fit in well enough in Maghre's day-to-day life, but not in a celebration, and her last memories of dances were less than happy. Dancing at all, or making any kind of a public entrance, felt uncomfortably like making a target of herself.
But she had enough on her mind to make the dances little more than an afterthought. After the conversation in the garden, Diccan's visits became much more frequent. His presence jarred what little remained of Wilhelmina's peaceful routine, even though he was sharply focused on Reanna's well-being and asked very little of Wilhelmina. Instead, he waited in the garden every morning to meet Reanna, taking her for long rambles through the woods or around the village, getting her accustomed to the normal rhythms of Blood life once again. On hearing of the morning walks, Mairin promptly started leaving a supply of portable lunches for the two of them - which meant they often stayed gone well into the afternoon, leaving Wilhelmina to revel in the restored quiet of her house.
At least, until the day Diccan and Reanna came back in the middle of her sparring practice with Karla and Dirdre. Reanna brightened visibly at the sight, which was all the prompting Diccan needed to ask if she could be included in the practice as well.
"Ask Karla," Wilhelmina said, as quickly as she might have dodged a practice blow. "She's the Queen."
"It's not my territory," Karla said heartlessly. "Not my decision at all."
Wilhelmina shot her a split-second glare; she'd seen that not-quite-repressed smirk. But she couldn't turn Reanna away, not with the girl looking truly interested for the first time since Wilhelmina had known here. So she agreed, called in the last of the practice sticks, and set Reanna to sparring against Karla - there was no way she was going to threaten Dirdre's fragile confidence with an unknown opponent.
Confidence seemed to be the least of Reanna's problems - training was, to judge by her gleeful flailing - but she'd taken to the sparring with surprising enthusiasm. And Diccan was watching her with a thoroughly self-satisfied look on his face. "You timed this on purpose, didn't you?" she accused him when her match with Dirdre broke off.
He half-shrugged and grinned at her sidelong. "Young Reanna's got - had - brothers, and she's talked about how she misses roughhousing with them...I gather she ran wild at home. I thought if I brought her here, it'd make her feel better without reminding her what she lost."
"And you call me pushy," Wilhelmina muttered, but she couldn't stop the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. After seeing Reanna furtive and defensive for so long, it was good to see her enjoying herself out in the sun.
That didn't stop her from being thoroughly annoyed at Diccan for disrupting even more of her routine, and at herself for letting him. But he was hard to deny when he was focused on something - healing Reanna, at the moment - and realizing that only made her more annoyed. Just now, all she wanted to do was retreat into the cool quiet of her kitchen and lean her head against the wall - because banging her head against the wall would be counterproductive, and banging Diccan's head would be...difficult.
So she settled for a long, heartfelt and detailed description of the day and its problems later that evening, when she went to meet Mairin and help her family with harvest preparations. She'd promised to help Morwen and her brood of daughters get ready for the dance, whether or not she went herself, but she would have welcomed the chance to talk with Mairin regardless. She'd barely taken her wrap off and stowed it in a cranny of the kitchen before explaining what she thought of Diccan and Karla, at length. The hearthwitch listened sympathetically, but with the same look of suppressed amusement that she'd become accustomed to with Karla. Wilhelmina didn't know what either of them found funny - unless it was relief that they didn't have to deal with Diccan - but they weren't really laughing at her, so she didn't much mind.
"Reanna's a nice girl, but it'll be a relief when she moves on," she said, a little shamefaced at the admission. "I want my house back. And I want a rest from overprotective Warlords poking their noses into my business."
Mairin opened her mouth, got a most peculiar look on her face, and closed it again, giving Wilhelmina an innocent look that she didn't believe for an instant. "I'm sure you'll be glad of the rest," the hearthwitch said placidly.
Wilhelmina scowled at her. "You're plotting something, aren't you?"
"Nothing at all."
"Going over something you've already plotted?"
"Thinking something that would embarass me if I knew about it?"
"Probably." She deposited a pile of dishes unceremoniously in Wilhelmina's arms. "Here. If we don't get these out to Mam, she's likely to send my little sisters in to find out what's become of us. And they're loud."
Wilhelmina looked quizzically down at her armful. "Your mother needs every clean dish in the house?"
"Taffy," Mairin said succinctly, shifting her pile of dishes to one hip to wrestle one-handed with the kitchen door. "It has to cool somewhere - preferably somewhere that sisters and puppies can't get to it."
When they got outside, Wilhelmina saw what she meant; the grass back of the house had been beaten down to bare dirt by years' worth of rambunctious children and dogs, and Morwen had taken advantage of it to build a fire that illuminated the gathering dusk. She was stirring an oversized pot full of something sticky and sweet-smelling; Mairin's little sisters were watching it raptly and with definite predatory intent, with Dirdre watching them in turn to prevent any premature sampling. The younger witch looked up and smiled in greeting as they shut the door behind them; her confidence might be new and fragile, but she met their eyes forthrightly, making Wilhelmina's answering smile brighter than she'd expected. Seeing the first signs of the girl's returning spirit made Wilhelmina feel...right, somehow. As if she'd done something she was meant for.
"There's any number of sweets for the children at the harvest dances," Mairin explained as they set the plates down on a makeshift table. "They'll all turn into little terrors with this much candy in them, of course - but it's only once a year, and they do enjoy it so."
Personally, Wilhelmina thought Mairin's little sisters were quite terrifying enough already. Charming, at least to somebody who could go home at the end of the day, but terrifying. "So, lots of loud children - happy loud children," she added hastily, as Mairin drew herself up in defense of the local tradition. "What else should I expect?"
"Loud everybody, pretty much," Mairin said cheerfully. "And dancing, and drinking - it can get pretty boisterous, so don't wear your best dress or anything like that."
Wilhelmina, who'd been strongly tempted to wear something drab and blend in with the walls if she went at all, nodded solemnly. She loved to dance, and as a girl had been thrilled to show off her prettiest things at formal dances - but the memories of males watching her with hungry, hostile eyes had stolen that pleasure from her. And others as well, like her first kiss or her Virgin Night; she'd had both, and both times had guarded herself so tightly that she'd found no joy in the experience.
Damned if she'd let them steal anything else.
She turned to Mairin. "Would you help me pick out something to wear? I've never been to one of these, and I want to do it right."
Wilhelmina left some hours later, having helped to the best of her limited ability with taffy, cider, taffy again, and several batches of sweet stuff that she'd had no hope of identifying. When she was safely out of earshot, Mairin turned to her mother. "Just because I'm not plotting anything doesn't mean you're not."
"Well, you should be," she said indignantly. "She needs a good steady male, and he needs - well, anybody who can keep him under control, to start with."
Morwen kept her focus on her potful of taffy. "Too fast, and it'll be hard and bitter. Too slow, and it'll be sticky and bland. Some things just have to simmer at their own pace."
Mairin thought about it for a moment. "I still think you're plotting something."
"I am not plotting," Morwen said with dignity. "I'm...nudging things along a bit. Nothing a good hearthwitch wouldn't do if she saw a recipe that needed adjusting."
Mairin grinned, a teasing light in her eye. "Like you adjusted things for Cam and Beyla? Or Davan and Cushla? Or-"
"And they're all happy together, I'll have you know."
"They wouldn't dare be anything else."
That earned her a mock-offended glare and an assignment to wash all the dishes they'd dirtied that night - a chore for which Mairin cheerfully conscripted her younger sisters. But she was more thoughtful than usual, even while ducking flying soap suds that inexplicably ended up on sisters instead of dishes. Wilhelmina apparently believed that Lord Diccan was stopping by her cottage for Reanna's sake and not for hers, and Mairin wasn't sure what she'd do when she was disabused of that notion. Add to that one hearthwitch with her heart set on matchmaking, and Wilhelmina's own anxiety about the upcoming dance, and the next few days promised to be, at the very least, interesting.
The last few days before the dances passed in a flurry of activity, with Wilhelmina dashing back and forth between her home and Morwen's to help with last-minute preparations. When Mairin found out on the morning of the dance that she'd done nothing to get herself ready, the hearthwitch gave an ostentatiously long-suffering sigh, herded Wilhelmina home, and bullied her into a wine-red dress instead of the unobtrusive grey she'd been planning on wearing. Jhaliir watched the whole process with bemused interest, until the primping got to be too much for him and he fled to the relative safety of Morwen's house. He'd come to terms with the idea of burning meat, but apparently considered altering fur to be completely inexplicable.
He returned in time to escort Wilhelmina to the village that evening, though he flattened his ears in dismay at the surge of firelight and voices coming from the inn. Wilhelmina burst out laughing; that mulish expression was entirely too close to what she must have looked like most of the day.
So she told him he was free to go, and broke the contact with a little mental caress before he could feel her nerving herself for the evening ahead. She felt safe enough with Mairin and her family, or at lessons with Andra, but she'd be dealing with the whole village at one time or another tonight. She might wear the darkest Jewel of anyone there, but all that meant was that everybody would be watching her.
She hesitated on the path for a long moment before Mairin's little sisters burst out the inn door, at the forefront of a veritable explosion of small children. They saw her, veered away from the rest, and made a beeline for her, the older one bouncing up for an enthusiastic hug while the younger pulled her skirts and explained that she had to come see the dancers, right this minute! Laughing, Wilhelmina followed them in.
Inside, the floor of the dining room had been cleared to allow room to dance, with all the tables pushed against the walls and piled high with food. She could hear music, but couldn't see the players, lost as they were among the crowds of dancers, children, and people filtering in and out of the inn. It was loud, disorganized, and nothing like any dance she was familiar with - and the very differences made her feel more sure of herself. Not confident enough to dance, not quite yet, but - well, maybe the evening wouldn't be quite so scary after all.
She glanced around curiously and saw Mairin, keeping a careful eye on the refreshments despite her mother's obvious efforts to shoo her into the crowd. And Dirdre, hovering cautiously close to her sister but actually wearing a dress instead of the shapeless overcoat she'd been hiding under all summer. Even though she hadn't yet spoken to them, the presence of the two girls and their mother made her feel a little warmer, a little more like she was safe with family instead of at a public event with dozens of Blood she didn't know.
And she was going to need that sense of safety. She felt the male presence nearby just before Diccan pushed his way out of the crowd and gave her an energetic flourish of a bow. "Lady Benedict. Enjoying the music, I hope?"
"Very much so." She wasn't surprised to meet him. She couldn't be; she'd been aware of that tingle of dark, masculine power before even opening the door. So why in Hell's name was her breath coming faster now that he was close by? "Do the musicians practice all year for this?" she asked, to distract him - or maybe herself.
"Not really, no - they're just a few Blood who like any excuse to play. They step in and out as the mood takes them, so you never know what the next dance will be." He grinned. "I took a notion to join in myself as a lad, so I went to Lady Morwen and asked for the loan of some pipes. She was most helpful, until I chased all her pigs away with my first three notes."
"You didn't." She couldn't quite stop the giggle that bubbled up. "Did you?"
"Most truly I did," he said with a mournful shake of his head. "She set me to chase them all back, and hid the pipes while I was gone."
"She's a very wise witch," Wilhelmina said in tones of mock-solemnity to match his own. "I'm sure she was looking out for your own best interests."
"Mine and the whole village's, too," he agreed gravely. "I'm a terrible musician. But my dancing's much better, I promise." He held out a hand invitingly toward the dance floor.
Her heart kicked hard against her ribs, though whether it was from anticipation or fear she didn't know. "I don't know any of these," she protested, looking at the linked-arm circle dance going on in the middle of the floor.
He nodded toward the couples spinning around the circle's edge in a pattern that was almost familiar. "The ring dance is mostly for those who don't have or want partners. The rest are doing something close to a minuet - I can show you any differences that you don't pick up on your own."
She almost turned him down. But the pipes were playing a high, wild tune that tugged at her feet, Diccan was giving her a look that was part invitation and part challenge, and she'd been standing still long enough. Dubiously, she held out a hand to him. "If you lead me wrong, I'll - I'll step on your feet."
But he was as good as his word, guiding her through the first round of the dance and showing her where it differed from what she knew, so subtly that she didn't once stumble. Before long, she had relaxed enough to enjoy the dance for itself; the quick pace was a challenge, but one she could meet, and she delighted in the music and the feel of her skirts flying out around her. The warm hand at her waist was...scary, but much nicer than she remembered from dances as a young girl.
They spun past Reanna, who had her arms linked with two other girls in a circle dance, and Wilhelmina smiled with relief at the unselfconscious happiness on the young witch's face. Diccan looked just as pleased as she was to see the change.
"She's looking better. We did right, keeping her here a while longer."
She took a breath to protest that "we", but a moment's thought made her reconsider. She'd listened to his worries, helped him find a solution, and stood behind him when he presented it to Morghann; that was partnership, no matter how strange it felt to her. Strange, but not bad.
"We did," she agreed.
She followed Diccan's lead through several more dances, enjoying herself even through the ineveitable missteps. Not all of them hers; he stumbled once or twice, with the rueful admission that he'd been away from Maghre too long. He might have said more, but the music changed to a reel that left them both too breathless for conversation. By the time the dance ended, her heart was racing and her breath coming fast, but when Diccan tried to usher her to one of the benches that lined the wall, she planted her feet and shook her head. "I can dance just as long as you can."
His eyes gleamed. "I'll consider that a challenge, my Lady."
Both of them were feeling quite sufficiently challenged by the time they left the dancing by mutual consent; Wilhelmina was flushed and out of breath, but took comfort in the fact that Diccan didn't look any better. She drained the cup of cider he handed her without coming up for air, and marched off to refill it without a word to anyone. When she returned, Diccan had acquired an impressive array of food and cleared a spot for them at one of the tables outside, where the harvest bonfires were slowly dying down. She was grateful for the seat; she hadn't danced that long in years. Surprising that Diccan wasn't showing more strain; she couldn't imagine his duties for Morghann giving him much time for dancing, much less learning the formal dances that were rare here in Scelt.
"Where did you learn all those?" she asked, during a lull in her assault on a baked apple.
"Dancing? We all grow up with it, Lady - I don't really know where or when I learned how."
"Formal dancing," she clarified. "Court dances and such - the ones I'm used to."
"Those? Learned them here and there, really. The first Queen I served wanted me to learn them so I'd fit in better at other courts, back when she had some hope of passing me off as a Warlord of gentility and refinement."
"Whatever could have possessed her?" Wilhelmina murmured.
Diccan grinned unrepentantly. "The Darkness only knows. When she first took the notion to have me spy things out for her, she wanted to send me to other Territories as an official Court visitor. Didn't take her - or me - long to realize that I'm not made for a formal Court."
"You...don't seem unsuited to it, to me." She felt her cheeks heat at making any sort of personal observation, but he kept smoothly on.
"I don't enjoy it," he replied frankly. "It's a joy to watch a Court ruled by a good Queen, but by the nature of my duties, the ones Lady Duana sent me to look into were the ones she doubted. I had to be too careful, and care's not something that comes easily to me."
She preserved a diplomatic silence.
"Eventually we decided that it'd be best for me to investigate a District or Province in my own way, and my Queen stopped inflicting all those tutors on me." His expression left no doubt as to how much a relief it had been.
"And stopped inflicting you on them?" she asked with a demure, slightly wicked smile.
"I might have given them a bit of trouble," he admitted. "A grown man shouldn't have to learn that many variations of Protocol. As it was, I had several blessed years free of lessons and Court intrigues, until Terreille...started to worry us."
All Wilhelmina's relaxation evaporated at the way he hesistated on the name. It was barely noticeable, just a hitch in his voice like a concealed stumble in a dance step, but she heard an echo of the same regret - the same pain - she'd felt from him weeks ago in her garden. Whatever had troubled him then was worse now.
She tried to draw him out, but knew she wouldn't have anything to show for it when the musicians struck up again - faint and muffled now that they were outside the inn, but loud enough to catch Diccan's attention. Some of the younger males ran through the crowd, clearing space around the bonfire's last low flames, and Diccan raised a questioning eyebrow at her. "I'm not dancing any more," she said flatly, wriggling into a more comfortable position on the bench to show exactly how uninterested she was in getting up.
"Good," Diccan said with abashed relief. "My feet are sore-"
"-and this is really a dance for the young and foolhardy."
"Not just foolhardy?" she asked with a grin.
"I haven't done anything stupid in months," he protested. "And at my age, I'd hope I could find better ways to impress a Lady."
She frowned in puzzlement for a moment, but saw what he meant as the dance took shape. Most of the males and quite a few of the witches were leaping the dying flames; it was exciting to watch, but she'd much rather keep watching than try it herself. That didn't stop her from grinning with sisterly pride when Mairin vaulted the flames with a comfortable amount of room to spare and a cavalier toss of her head toward the young males who weren't quite as agile.
"It's supposed to bring luck for next year's harvest," Diccan explained.
"I wouldn't know. My harvests have never been the best."
Was he thinking of settling down and farming? Wilhelmina couldn't quite see him with his hands in the soil all his life. "Don't come to me for advice. I've never planted anything at all." She shook her head. "I'm surprised I've managed to keep the garden at my cottage alive this long."
"Do you want me to show you how to get it ready for winter?" He made the offer so fast that it surprised Wilhelmina. What surprised her even more was the immediate flush of happiness she felt at the thought. He'd probably been looking for a favor that he could do her in return for sheltering Reanna, but she was coming to enjoy his company. An afternoon in the garden would be something to look forward to.
She smiled up at him. "I'd like that."
She wasn't surprised when Diccan came, two days after the dance, to help her put her garden in order for the winter, and only a little surprised - at herself - when she started to accompany him on his morning rambles around the village and its surroundings. She'd known he was relieved to return home, but she hadn't known how much until she saw his face light up with open delight at the story of some village child's antics or the sight of a familiar bit of land. In his company, she soon learned every handspan of the countryside around Maghre. and tried not to admit to herself that she was paying more attention to the teacher than to what she was learning. Still, she drew the line when he suggested that he take Reanna's place in the weekly sparring sessions with Karla.
At least, she tried to. But his request came on the heels of a long and thoroughly frustrating morning of Healing lessons, when she was tired from arguing with Andra and exasperated with herself for failing to grasp the lesson. Being exasperated with Diccan instead was much more satisfying, especially when he insisted on coming up with logical arguments to counter her refusal. It was only sensible to have a fourth sparring partner so no one would be left out, but she was feeling tired and prickly, and in no mood for male intrusion on the time she spent with the other two witches. So she flung her hands up, told him to do whatever he wanted so long as it didn't involve her, and stalked inside to change, leaving Diccan to his own devices and trusting Karla to chase the Warlord off more effectively than she could.
Except that she didn't. When Wilhelmina came out of the cottage, she caught a whiff of emotion from the sparring area - a distinctly self-satisfied feeling from Diccan, and amused curiosity from Karla. Between the two, she knew exactly what she'd find before she came around the cottage to the patch of weedy ground they used for sparring. Diccan was running his hands thoughtfully over a fighting stick, while Karla watched him speculatively. Dirdre hovered in the background, wary but not frightened - at least, not yet, Wilhelmina thought, with a glare at Diccan for pushing his way into what could be a delicate situation. He had the good grace to look at least a little abashed when he saw her, but Karla was another matter altogether.
"Lord Diccan's been good enough to provide us with another sparring partner," Karla said smoothly, adding for Wilhelmina alone, *If you want him to go away, tell him so; I'm not doing your dirty work for you.* Her mental voice was laced with amusement, and it was that, more than the words themselves, that made her send Karla a burst of resigned annoyance as effective as any glare. Diccan, aware of the byplay even if he couldn't overhear it, raised an ironic eyebrow at Dirdre and settled himself down to wait, leaning comfortably on his fighting stick.
"Don't do that, you'll warp it," Wilhelmina snapped. She might have been outmanuevered by the Queen, but she was in no mood to be gracious about it. *And he'll have to spar with you, she said to Karla. I won't risk him panicking Dirdre.*
*Agreed.* Karla picked up her stick and swung into a guard stance in front of Diccan, so smoothly that he automatically engaged with her. Wilhelmina breathed a sigh of relief that the Queen had finally decided to act sensibly; she couldn't take sparring with Diccan on top of everything else.
"Everything else" - obstinate Warlords, bossy Queens, and the continuing frustration of Healing lessons that she couldn't quite grasp - kept her so distracted that Dirdre was able to score several mock-crippling blows on her. But they both spun around, all thoughts of sparring forgotten, at the sound of a pained gasp and the thump of Karla's body hitting the ground.
Wilhelmina dropped the stick and bolted toward her, marshaling what little Healing she could command, and Dirdre followed, eyes wide but hands clamped tight around her weapon. But Karla was already pushing herself into a sitting position, hands probing cautiously along one leg. "I think I strained something," she admitted as Wilhelmina came to a stop beside her. "The grass is more slippery than it looks."
Diccan stepped back to give Wilhelmina room to work, and without a second thought she began probing Karla's leg with healing Craft. But she could find nothing immediately wrong, only the scarred and twisted muscles that Jaenelle had Healed as best she could, and looked up at Karla questioningly. The Queen shook her head.
"I can't really say what happened. Jaenelle did the best she could, but sometimes things just don't work right."
Wilhelmina scowled, unwilling to take "I don't know" for an answer, and probed again. Absorbed in her search, it took a long time for her to really notice the rhythmic tapping of wood against wood behind her. Then, as she realized what it had to be, she whipped around to see Dirdre and Diccan carefully going through a set of simple drills. Dirdre looked almost confident as she led the drill, with Diccan frowning as he tried to accustom himself to the fighting sticks. Dirdre's face was set with concentration and caution, but Wilhelmina couldn't sense any of the the old, crippling fear in her psychic scent. That didn't stop her from gathering her power to force a shield between the two - but Karla caught her eye with a firm headshake. "Give them a minute."
"What's he thinking?" she hissed.
"That he's a Warlord and she's a witch in need of help? It's pretty obvious to anyone wearing the Jewels he does - or who has eyes and the mind to use them. Facing off against a male might be just what she needs."
"Or it might panic her and she'll never get any better."
Karla gave her an odd look. "She's already stronger than when I met her. Give her a little credit - and yourself, too, for that matter. You're a better Healer than you know."
Her confusion over that remark was almost enough to distract her from the sparring match between Dirdre and Diccan - almost. This close to the Warlord, it was harder to shut his emotions out than it was to pick them up, and she was aware of his fierce concentration as if it had been her own. Concentration not on the unfamiliar weapon or on the sparring, but on Dirdre herself. And not a bit of concern for Karla; apparently everyone was more confident of her Healing skills than she was herself.
Or else Karla hadn't hurt herself at all.
She puzzled over that for a moment, until a spike of - something - in Dirdre's psychic scent put her on alert. Not fear, but - anger? From Dirdre? Diccan was pushing her a little bit, but this was old, deep-buried anger - and that idiot Warlord hadn't realized it. He was concentrating on the match, crowding the young witch, scraping at her temper until anger drove out any trace of fear in her psychic scent. He wore the Sapphire, he should be able to notice-
"Idiot," she growled, realizing what he was doing at the same time that Dirdre broke the drill pattern. Diccan's face never changed, but she felt a flicker of his sense of achievement as the young witch broke out of her defensive pattern and started pushing back. They were matched well enough, with Dirdre's relative experience balanced against the Warlord's greater strength, but he was fighting back only hard enough to keep her on the offensive. Diccan fell back before the flurry of blows, his face a mask of concentration and his mind radiating workmanlike satisfaction. Dirdre presented no such contradiction; her face and psychic scent alike were ablaze with a mixture of anger and excitement, her breath coming audibly faster as she pressed the attack.
Until she swung too hard and Diccan missed his parry. The stick cracked against his ribs, and Dirdre dropped it and froze wide-eyed where she stood. "I didn't mean to-"
"Yes you did, and you're supposed to mean it if you ever have to truly fight." Diccan pushed himself carefully to his feet, one hand pressed to his side. "No harm done; I'll just be off and find myself some willowbark tea."
*No you won't,* Wilhelmina said fiercely along a private thread. *Not until I can take a look at you.
*Lady? I thought you'd be angry at me.*
*Oh, I am. But I heard that stick hit - they probably heard it hit down in the village - and you're not leaving here until I know you're all right.*
*As you like.* A touch of inexplicable pleasure flavored the satisfaction in his psychic scent.
She turned to Karla. "Can you look after Dirdre while I see to Lord Diccan?"
"Of course." Karla didn't seem at all sympathetic to her irritation. But looking at Dirdre was almost enough to soothe her; the young witch was trying hard to look properly contrite, but her eyes were sparkling, and a disbelieving smile kept fighting its way through the embarassed look on her face. Her psychic scent frothed with excitement and something like relief - almost the way Wilhelmina had felt after making the Offering, when she thought for the first time she might just be strong enough to survive a threat. It wasn't healing, not quite, but it would lead there soon.
Seeing the change in Dirdre left Wilhelmina less angry, but that only cleared the way for something else that she couldn't quite name. Idiot Warlord, putting himself in harm's way like that!
She glared at Diccan. "Inside."
He followed her meekly enough into the cottage kitchen, and sat down gingerly at the table while she rummaged for herbs. But she didn't expect his cooperative mood to last for long, and she was right.
"It's just a bruise."
"Or she might have cracked a rib." She pushed him unceremoniously back down when he tried to get up.
"I've gotten worse-"
"Not with me around."
"-and besides, it was worth it."
Which reminded her all over again why she was angry at him, and she stopped what she was doing until she was no longer quite so tempted to throw her healing herbs at him. "I realized what you were doing about the time Dirdre started chasing you. But why in Hell's name didn't you warn me first?"
He blinked at her. "You wouldn't have let me do it."
Males, she thought again, and set her Healing supplies down very, very carefully, to avoid temptation.
"I asked Lady Karla beforehand, and she agreed to...er, get Dirdre's attention so she wouldn't be so worried about me," Diccan explained, keeping a wary eye on the pot of water, which Wilhelmina was heating with more force than was strictly necessary. Or maybe it was the fact that she wasn't using the stove to do it. "I'd been watching all of you spar since I starting bringing Reanna by, and - well, Dirdre's been so scared for so long, I thought it might be what she needed to learn she could fight against a male and still come out all right."
"It...may have been," Wilhelmina said reluctantly.
"Not that she could have until just recently. I thought she'd run for cover the first time I came by with Reanna, but you and Lady Karla have done more for her than you realize."
"Just Karla." Wilhelmina shook her head. "I only gave her someone to spar with."
"Karla wasn't the one I felt getting ready to thrash me if I scared Dirdre one little bit, m'Lady. I hope I never make you really angry," he said with a rueful grin and a glance toward the water pot, which was bubbling merrily and on its way to boiling over. Wilhelmina swallowed a squeak of surprise, snatched the cloth she'd been planning to use as a poultice, and soaked it in the water before shaking herbs over it and setting it aside to cool.
"Let me see it," she demanded, Healer's training coming to the fore over all other considerations, and reluctantly Diccan pulled his shirt up and to the side. The area where Dirdre had hit him was red and swelling, and would darken soon to a truly impressive bruise. But when Wilhelmina probed it with healing Craft, she couldn't feel cracked ribs or anything else that might mean long-term damage.
"It looks like you'll be all right," she reported. "Aside from being blockheaded enough to get yourself hit in the first place."
Diccan muttered something uncomplimentary about Healers, but stared blandly back at her when she gave him a challenging look. The fact that she'd heard most of what he said and was trying hard not to laugh probably didn't help.
"You'll be sore for a while, but this should help," she said, retrieving the cooled poultice. Biting her lip at her own daring, she brushed her fingers across his ribs and summoned what Healing she knew. The bruise faded around the edges, and Wilhelmina rubbed her fingertips thoughtfully together, frowning at the lingering warmth she felt. Karla had never said anything about feeling that when you Healed someone...but she'd done the best she could, and she knew she could at least handle a bone-bruise. She laid the poultice on and worked a bit of Craft to keep it in place, knowing that Diccan wouldn't keep still for an afternoon no matter what threats she used. He stood up and smoothed his shirt back into place, looking almost as disconcerted as she felt.
"Those herbs will lose their potency in a few hours, but keep them on till nightfall and you should be well enough. Now go home and let me get some peace." She gave him a mock-ferocious glower. "And if you do anything that stupid again, I'll - I'll bruise the other side for you."
His fingers drifted unconsciously over the places she'd touched. "If you do the Healing afterward, I...can't say that'll discourage me from being stupid."
Wilhelmina flushed red from her hairline down. "Out!"
Diccan fled, but she could hear him laughing all the way out of the house and into the garden. It should have made her feel defensive, but it wasn't an unpleasant sound at all. Almost comforting, really. If she wasn't careful, she could imagine...
Shaking her head at her own foolishness, Wilhelmina turned away from the open garden door and began cleaning up.
"And then what?" Mairin asked.
Wilhelmina shrugged. She hadn't meant to tell the story when she came to help her friend with gathering the last of the nut harvest. But Dirdre had already told her family about her triumph over Diccan, and Mairin was intent on knowing everything that had happened. "Then nothing. I told him to go home, and as far as I know, he went." She stretched to reach the lowest limb of the hickory tree they were standing under, shaking off the few nuts that she could reach and wishing grumpily that Jhaliir didn't consider climbing trees to be beneath his dignity.
Mairin set her basket down and stared at Wilhelmina. "You had a Sapphire-Jeweled Warlord in your kitchen with his shirt off-"
"It was not off, it was just pulled up." And her reaction to that was none of Mairin's business.
"-and every reason to feel grateful to you, and you let him get away?"
"Well, what would you have d- never mind," Wilhelmina added hastily, as Mairin took a deep breath to tell her just that, in detail.
The hearthwitch just shook her head. "What are we going to do with you?" she asked in a tone of theatrical sorrow.
"Take me home and feed me some of whatever your mother's making with these nuts?" she asked hopefully. She'd developed a heartfelt appreciation for whatever Morwen cooked...which of course resulted in Morwen's heartfelt appreciation of Wilhelmina.
"Sorry, the nuts are for roasting at Winsol." Mairin paused and assumed a solicitous expression. "Do you think by then you'll have figured out what to do with-"
Wilhelmina threw a hickory nut at her. Mairin squeaked and dove for the basket she'd set down. The situation degenerated until they were both laughing like a pair of girls, and had ensured a prosperous winter for the local squirrels by the sheer number of nuts they'd lost in the underbrush. Jhaliir informed them loftily that most witches stopped pouncing on each other's tails when they left cubhood behind. Wilhelmina exchanged a thoughtful look with Mairin and turned back to Jhaliir; the tiger took one look at the speculative expressions on their faces, flattened his ears, and slunk into the underbrush before he got pounced on himself.
"Truce?" Mairin asked cautiously, ready to duck behind a sheltering tree. "You've got a wicked aim for being raised aristo, you know that?"
Wilhelmina opened her mouth to explain that Diccan had been showing her how to skip stones, considered Mairin's probable reaction, and shut it again. "Do you think we've gotten enough to keep your mother happy?" she asked instead.
"No such thing," Mairin said mournfully, eyeing her depleted basket. "If there's enough for me and my sisters, then she'll start trying to feed the rest of the village with the leftovers."
"Your mother probably could."
Mairin grinned in agreement, and helped Wilhelmina shake up the baskets of nuts until they no longer looked quite so much like they'd lost their top layers to a couple of witches looking for ammunition. They'd promised to meet Morwen at the inn with whatever they could gather; the innkeeper had promised storage space for all the food that would be needed for the Winsol feasts, and Morwen seemed determined to fill his pantries all by herself.
Just outside the inn, Wilhelmina paused curiously, struck by an unusual psychic scent. She hadn't quite puzzled it out when they came inside and saw Morghann, perched on a table and talking animatedly with Morwen and the innkeeper. She was looking completely un-Queenly and very, very comfortable in a long, shapeless sweater and worn trousers, and glanced up with a friendly smile when the two witches entered.
"Lady," Wilhelmina said as politely as her startlement allowed. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Neither was anyone else," Morghann said cheerfully. "My housekeeper's at the manor right now, alternating between panic and thinking up names to call me for dropping in like this."
Morwen stifled a snort of laughter, though whether it was in sympathy with the Queen or the housekeeper Wilhelmina couldn't tell.
"So I came down here to avoid the servants - none of whom are very pleased with me - and to talk over the Winsol preparations."
"Already? It's weeks yet till Winsol."
"And you wouldn't believe the work it takes for everything to go smoothly," Morwen said with an unmistakable note of anticipation in her voice. "Cooking's the least of it - there's cleaning and repairing and musicians to hire and deliveries to arrange..."
Wilhelmina shook her head. "It doesn't seem quite fair, though. Winsol comes so soon after harvest, and then there are no more celebrations for almost a year."
Morghann just grinned. "The way we celebrate Winsol, everybody needs the rest of the year just to recover."
Wilhelmina started laughing, as much from the smug look on Morghann's face as from anything the Queen had said.
"Actually, there's something I do need your help on, if you can spare me a few minutes," Morghann went on. "I'm not entirely sure that one of that last set of merchants isn't trying to cheat me, and you've got a better head for accounts than I do..."
She drew Wilhelmina expertly aside, but something in her eyes suggested that merchants and accounts were the last thing on her mind. So when they were safely out of earshot, Wilhelmina tugged the sheaf of papers out of Morghann's hands. "Shall I pretend to look these over while you tell me what your real question is?"
Taken aback, Morghann blinked at her for a moment, then chuckled and relaxed. "Well, that saves me some time, at least. It's...probably nothing, but if there is a problem, I didn't want to be overheard."
"Lady Benedict, you've been spending more time with him than anyone. Can you tell me what in Hell's name is wrong with my Warlord?"
"Diccan?" She only wished she knew what was wrong with him; she was aware of him almost all the time now, and the pain he was hiding nagged at her almost as much as it did at him. And if Morghann was concerned, then the problem was more serious than she'd first thought. She frowned suddenly, attention caught by the Queen's phrasing. "What do you mean, more time than anyone? He's-"
"Not talking to much of anyone, since Reanna left for Lady Nieve's Court. From what I've heard, he's spending most of his time either in the woods or with you. And he's not talking to me at all; he's perfectly courteous if he can't avoid me, but he won't come near me if he can help it. Like he's expecting me to ask something terrible of him." Distress was rising in her psychic scent, and without thinking Wilhelmina extended a tendril of soothing emotion toward the Queen. "And I've never asked anything of my Court that they weren't willing to give."
Wilhelmina shook her head. "He's told me stories about serving in your Court, and he seemed happy when he talked about it. You're his Queen; can't you just ask him what's wrong?"
"No, damn it!" Her psychic scent spiked with pain and anxiety, and Wilhelmina built a hasty aural shield to prevent the others in the inn from feeling the Queen's distress. "He's afraid of me or something to do with me and I don't know why - when I tried to talk about it, it just made things worse. I swear, I'd pack him off to a Healer in an instant, if there were one for the mind and not the body." She bit her lip and looked away, clearly uncomfortable with the sudden burst of emotion.
"I can't help you with that," Wilhelmina said ruefully. "I'm having trouble enough just with Healing lessons."
Morghann seized on the chance to change the subject, and soon they were discussing Andra's progress as the village Healer, a safe enough subject for them to drift back and rejoin the others in the inn. But Wilhelmina was withdrawn and anxious for the rest of the afternoon. Diccan was...well, he was her friend, and she didn't have enough of those to let one slip away. She'd been aware of Diccan's hidden wounds - whatever they might be - but had hoped that some peace in his home might ease them. But if he was isolating himself...it might be all right for Kindred to lick their wounds in private, but Diccan was human and needed the support of other Blood.
And he would be getting hers whether he wanted it or not.
Just before sunset, Wilhelmina was comfortably curled up with a well-thumbed Healing text when the knock on her door broke her concentration. Loud, abrupt, and frantic enough to set her heart hammering, even without the urgency in the psychic scent that rolled over her a moment later. Jhaliir scrambled to his feet, snarling at the spike of fear he felt from her as she dropped her book and raced toward the door.
The child waiting anxiously outside was a boy she knew vaguely from one of the outlying farms. His eyes were wide with panic, and unthinkingly she fed him a gentle trickle of Sapphire strength to calm him.
"Lady? Healer Andra sent me - she's at our house and she's with my brother and she needs your help, bad! He was playing on the pasture fence and he fell and the bull-" The fear radiating from him made it clear that this was no childish exaggeration. Knowing he would forgive the intrusion, she brushed lightly against the boy's surface thoughts and found an image of the house where he lived. And another image of the boy's injured brother, one that made her go white around the lips. Andra had been right to call for her; the Healer would need all the help that she could get. More help than Wilhelmina had to offer, but it would have to do.
She touched Jhaliir's mind with a request to see the boy safely home, called in her Healing supplies, gathered up her skirts, and ran.
She raced to the well-kept farmhouse she'd seen in the boy's mind, caught Andra's psychic scent, and followed it out behind the outlying barn. And squeezed her eyes shut at the scene in front of her, telling herself that she would not disgrace herself in a situation like this. Andra was here for the boy and didn't need to be distracted by a witch with a weak stomach. But she'd never raised a hand in anger, never really seen blood beyond the few drops used for rituals. Never seen anything like the child who lay on the crushed grass, one leg awkwardly twisted and the other a ruin of crushed bone. His parents hovered around him, crowding Andra in their worry, but the Healer was too absorbed in her work to object.
Wilhelmina breathed carefully, forcing down the roiling in her stomach until she could drop down beside Andra. "What do you need?"
"Jewels like yours and another year's training," the Healer snapped. "I can't-" She glanced up at the boy's parents and spoke along a private thread instead. *I can keep him alive, but I don't know if he'll ever be able to walk normally. Or at all. Damn it, I've got half the training and none of the power for this-*
*Then take what you need.* From a male to a witch, those were words of surrender. From one witch to another, they meant commitment to a shared goal. And with the bloodied body on the ground, the thin wail of pain ringing in her mind well after the boy's voice had given out, Wilhelmina had no doubt of her goal.
Andra didn't waste time asking if she was sure, just grasped desperately for the strength that flowed along the channel Wilhelmina was creating. Wilhelmina swayed as the power drained away from her, but after a moment's disorientation, she was able to control the channel and keep it to a flow that wouldn't exhaust her or overwhelm Andra. She could feel the Healer's fear of the unaccustomed power and of the task ahead of them, and reached to soothe it with a tiny psychic tendril. Self-doubt would only put patient and Healer both in danger.
Andra healed the boy's torn artery in a burst of power, then probed carefully along his leg, realigning the shattered bones with hands and Craft at once. Wilhelmina could feel the other witch taking her raw power and turning it to Healing Craft, could feel the sluggish response of the boy's body as Andra urged it back toward wholeness, could feel...interference. Fear and pain from the child, fear from his parents, and, inevitably, a current of uneasiness about the untried young Healer. Strong emotions could disrupt a Healing, and that distrust would be worst of all.
She didn't dare disrupt the channel between herself and Andra, but she coaxed a little more power out of her Sapphire Jewels, creating soothing psychic tendrils and spinning them out toward the boy and his parents. With what was left, she built a light psychic shield around Andra, to keep out whatever emotions she couldn't damp down - a fragile barrier at best, but all she had left to give. She felt rather than heard the Healer's unconscious sigh of relief, and sensed her increased concentration on the boy - and the sudden hope. A fully-trained Healer would have been able to do this more smoothly, without resorting to the raw power that the two of them were using, but they were doing it. With Andra free of distractions, the Healing should be only a matter of time.
How much time, she never knew. With her attention split among the channel, shields, and keeping the boy and his family calm, there wasn't enough of her left to wonder about time passing, and nothing to do except endure. When she came to the end of the reserves in her Sapphire Jewels, she tapped her Birthright Purple Dusk without hesitation; Andra frowned abstractedly at the brief interruption in the flow of power, but all her concentration was on her patient. And Wilhelmina waited. The small things she'd done didn't require much of her Jeweled strength, but the effort of keeping Andra shielded and the others calm was sapping her mentally almost as fast as Andra was draining her Jewels. She barely noticed when Jhaliir ran up behind her, and didn't answer when she felt his anxious touch on her mind. If she spoke to the tiger, she would lose control of something, and endanger their makeshift Healing.
But it was working; she could feel the boy's fear turn to tentative hope - and appalling weariness as his body met the Healer's demands. She tried to use her Jewels to strengthen him, and had to search for the last drops of power; the shock of that disturbed her concentration, and she put out a hand to steady herself.
Andra felt her surprise, and snapped her head up with a startled look. *You're that badly off? I can - well, I can try to finish by myself-*
She braced herself. *Keep going.*
Andra frowned dubiously, but gathered herself and pushed with all the strength she could gather from both of themWilhelmina bit her lip and held on as the power flowed out of her and into the boy, coursing through blood and bone and forcing them into wholeness. The boy screamed as the bones of his leg realigned and fused under the torrent of power; Andra flinched at the sound but didn't back away until he went suddenly, bonelessly limp.
And Healed. The flesh was still raw and red, but he was no longer bleeding, and the fear and pain in his mind had faded away into allover exhaustion. Any doubts Wilhelmina might have had were erased by the flood of relief and pride that flowed from Andra over the fading link between them. The Healer brushed careful fingers over her patient's wounded leg and sat back on her heels with an expression of weary triumph. "He's going to be all right," she told the boy's mother. "But he'll need time to recover from the Healing itself, so keep him in bed. If he's not sleeping, he should be eating; if he's not eating, make him sleep."
She went on, but Wilhelmina didn't really hear her; she was having an inexplicably difficult time getting her feet under her. Tapping all her Jeweled strength had been bad enough, but the fine control she'd had to exert had sapped what power she had left. Now she just felt dizzy and disconnected, and very, very tired. As soon as she could get up, she was going home and straight to bed.
*Lady?* Jhaliir nudged her shoulder, and with her barriers weakened she felt his worry surge over her. *Lady!*
"'M all right," she said, tangling a hand in his ruff and dragging herself to her feet. "Just tired."
Jhaliir disagreed. *Drained.* He circled around her legs and directed an inquiring thought at Andra. *Healer?*
Looking thoroughly drained herself, the younger witch turned to look Wilhelmina over. "Oh, Mother Night," she said, sounding more exasperated than concerned. "You're not supposed to make a martyr of yourself until after you're a full-fledged Healer, don't you know that?" On a private thread, though, her voice was more somber. *Thank you. With luck, his family won't know how close that was.* Power flowed from the Healer back into her - just a trickle compared to the way she'd drained her Jewels, but enough that she no longer felt quite so cold. A quivery feeling told her that she should be ravenous, but nothing quite felt real, except for the urge to sleep.
Jhaliir bumped his head gently against her legs. *Home?*
"Oh, yes," she agreed, and took a wobbly step forward. Home would be good, with a nice, warm bed, or maybe she could curl up on the couch in front of the fire. Or maybe she could just stay where she was; the ground was flat enough...
*This is bad. This won't work.* Jhaliir wound in an anxious circle around her, huffed, and examined the rest of the group - exhausted Healer, wounded child, and his distracted parents - with his ears flicking dubiously. *I will call help,* he said reluctantly, and nudged Wilhelmina again. *Home.*
Tigers weren't meant to be leaned on, but with a healthy dose of Craft Jhaliir managed to support her out of the farm gate and onto the lane just outside. He kept scanning the path ahead, but relaxed when he saw Diccan hurrying toward them. *Warlord.*
"Prince," Diccan said with a quick but courteous nod. "Thank you for calling me. M'Lady, are you-" His quick glance at her apparently told him all he needed to know, as his expression changed from worry to protective annoyance. "Never mind. You look like Hell."
She mustered enough energy to glare at him. "Are you this nice to all the witches, or is it just me?"
"Just you." He sidestepped Jhaliir, wrapped his cloak around her, and slid one arm under hers to support her, matching his pace to hers as she walked toward home. "At least, I haven't noticed any other witches who roust me out of a comfortable bed, in a blind panic because her close-mouthed tiger won't say anything besides 'she needs help'-"
*Needed someone with hands,* Jhaliir interrupted, ears tilting backward. *Hands to make food and medicine and fix leaves-and-water.*
"-And I damn well don't know any other witches who'll let themselves be drained to a shadow without even asking for help afterward."
She blinked. "I had to."
"Healers," he growled, though the touch of his hand against her side stayed as gentle as ever. "Insane, every one of them."
"Not a Healer," she said sadly. "I can't keep up with the lessons any more."
"Well, you're acting like a Healer. All that self-sacrifice and not a grain of sense to go with it."
She tried to pull away from him, but the road got lumpy and she decided that staying upright was more important than wounded pride. She settled for crossing her arms instead. "Andra knew how to Heal him but she didn't have the strength. I had the strength but I didn't know how. Perfect sense."
"You're speaking female, aren't you? Some strange new meaning of 'sense' we poor males just can't comprehend."
She was too tired to snarl, but the tiny spark of temper he provoked gave her strength enough to trudge home, where the warmth of the kitchen drew her like a magnet. It wasn't until she was settled with a blanket and a mug of tea that she realized he might have done it on purpose, and by then she was too comfortable and sleepy to raise a fuss.
That didn't stop her from balking when he tried to make her eat. The hot, sweet tea was wonderful, but the smell of the bread and cheese Diccan brought left her feeling faintly nauseated. She set it quietly aside as soon as Diccan turned his back.
Jhaliir flattened his ears at her. *Eat.*
"I don't want it," she said with strained patience.
"I know you don't," Diccan said, with what might have been a nod of gratitude toward the tiger. "But you've worn yourself out in just about every way a witch can, and you'll be ravenous tomorrow. I'm already prepared to deal with a tired, cranky witch in the morning; I'm not going to contend with a hungry one on top of that."
"I am not cranky."
She didn't even notice Diccan's - or her own - assumption that he'd stay until she felt a flicker of territorial hostility from Jhaliir. The tiger's muzzle wrinkled to show just the tips of his teeth. *I serve. You don't.*
"I could fix that, if your Lady would no-" He broke off, stifling the flash of temper until Wilhelmina could detect no trace of it in his psychic scent. But shielding out the flaring male emotions was leaving her just as tired as before, and all she wanted to do was curl up and sleep somewhere, anywhere. She tried to glare at the two males, but couldn't manage more than a squint.
"If you don't stop arguing, I will lock you both out and go to bed. Which I should have done already."
Diccan and Jhaliir traded a mutually suspicious but thoughtful look, and then the Warlord put the plate of food firmly back in her hands. "I'll be quiet if you eat."
Wilhelmina thought about it, nibbled a piece of bread, and eyed Diccan warily to see if he would keep his end of the bargain. He spread his hands with a deliberately placid expression on his face; not to be outdone, Jhaliir sat down and coiled his tail decorously around his forepaws.
"Better." She munched determinedly through the bread and cheese until Diccan looked satisfied, then set the food aside. "Now will you let me get some sleep?" she asked plaintively.
"All you want. I'd offer to make you breakfast when you get up, but it's more likely to be lunch."
She frowned blearily at him. "How do you know?"
"Long story, m'Lady. I'll..." He made a sound of surprised recognition. "Well. Maybe I will tell it later." He half-pulled her to her feet. She wobbled a little, but did feel stronger with some food inside her. And the arm around her felt...right. Warm and safe, like a tight roof and a snug blanket on a stormy night.
Jhaliir paced them up the stairs, and Diccan glanced down at him with a wry quirk to his mouth. "Wrestle you for the couch?"
Jhaliir rumbled deep in his chest.
"Didn't think so."
"Males," Wilhelmina muttered, taking a certain pleasure in shutting her bedroom door on both their noses. And a more subtle pleasure in the warmth of the two masculine presences nearby...but before she could do more than recognize it, she was slipping away, falling into a sleep as deep and welcoming as the abyss.
Wilhelmina felt an odd but pleasant sense of well-being the next morning when she woke up. Both times that she woke up; the first time, a distinct flavor of masculine surliness filtered into her dreams and pulled her out of sleep. She sorted through the psychic scents long enough to reassure herself that there was no serious conflict brewing, then ruthlessly abandoned Diccan and Jhaliir to whatever conflict they'd gotten into as she wriggled deeper into her blankets.
The second time, she got up reluctantly when she realized the sun was starting to slant into her bedroom window. So it was probably sometime a little after noon; Diccan's prediction about how long she'd sleep had been more accurate than she'd thought.
And he would probably be annoyingly smug about it for weeks.
But when she went downstairs, he was pacing idly around her parlor, and not smug in the least. Restless, maybe, or simply unsure of his place here - something she wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been so obnoxiously sure of himself the night before. But whatever was behind his distraction, it faded when he caught her psychic scent. "Lady 'Mina. Feeling better?"
"Feeling hungry," she admitted. "But if you start telling me how you were right to make me eat something, I'll have to throw one of my books at you."
"I'll keep quiet, then," he said solemnly.
"Don't strain yourself." Then she looked around and realized what was missing. "Where's Jhaliir?"
"Taking out his temper on the local rabbits, I imagine. After he got his tail stepped on-"
She raised her eyebrows.
She just looked at him.
"Mostly accidentally. If he hadn't been crowding me like he thought I was going to steal the silver and burn the house down, I wouldn't have stepped on him when Mairin came by and pushed us both out of the kitchen. But between the tail and Mairin scolding him for getting in her way, he decided to preserve his dignity and go hunt up his own breakfast."
"Mairin was here?" It wasn't one of the hearthwitch's scheduled days at the cottage, but as a rule, she dropped in whenever the whim took her.
"Indeed she did. Showed up early this morning, told me that your antics last night were the talk of the village, and shoved me out of the way so she could fix a proper breakfast." The wry expression on his face told her that Mairin hadn't thought much of his efforts.
"So what you mean is that there's enough food in the kitchen to feed an entire Court."
"With leftovers. Between me and Mairin, I don't think you'll need to lift a finger until sixth-day at least." There was a tentative note in his voice, but she didn't quite understand it; a moment later he was all self-assurance again, as he bullied her into a comfortable spot on the sofa and vanished into the kitchen, returning a moment later with a tray full of Mairin's prodigious breakfast.
Which reminded her of what he'd said earlier. "All over the village?" she repeated, a little dubiously. She'd only done what she had to; she didn't want to come to anybody's attention as - as - well, not at all.
Diccan leaned comfortably against the sofa arm across from her, helping himself to a plate of something fluffy and savory-smelling. "A lot of people felt the power you were tapping. You can't create a spectacle like that and not expect people to notice."
She frowned. "Was that a compliment? I can never tell with you."
"It was a compliment."
The warmth in his eyes was as intimate as any caress, and she swallowed the fear and - something else - that it triggered, struggling to keep her face pleasantly calm until the confusion passed. "In that case, thank you. But I'd really rather not make any more spectacles."
His eyebrows arched skeptically at that, but he didn't say anything else, just dove into his food with typical male concentration. Though Mairin's cooking was definitely worth concentrating on...
When he'd taken the first edge off his appetite, Diccan kept up a steady flow of small talk, keeping a watchful eye on her all the while to make sure she was eating enough. But she was enjoying the conversation nonetheless; it was strangely restful to just sit companionably and listen to all the latest gossip. Eventually, though, her conscience prodded her; Diccan had to have something he needed to do, besides sit in her living room and talk. No matter how much she'd been enjoying the quiet afternoon.
"I've kept you too long," she confessed. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to take up your whole day."
"Do you think I'm leaving before you're safely recovered? Besides, it wasn't much of a sacrifice. I...liked feeling needed."
She blinked at him. "You're a Sapphire-Jeweled Warlord, and you're worried about being needed? Aside from Lady Morghann-"
His eyes flickered, in a motion that might have been a flinch if it were not so tightly contained. "She doesn't need me. Not that badly. Not after the hash I made of things the last time she sent me out."
"Whatever it was, she's not disappointed in you." Fretting about him, yes, but Morghann had shown both a friend's worry and a Queen's concern for a valued male.
"She should be." He looked down. "I...did so many things wrong - missed clues, jumping at shadows half the time...I'd resign my position in the Court, but there's no one else who wants me."
She tested his psychic scent and drew back in surprise, finding it feverish and tight somehow, like the skin around a wound halfway between healing and infection. And her Healer's training wouldn't allow her to let a wound fester, even an intangible one. So she asked a couple of gentle questions and listened while he told her about his increasingly frantic search for the abducted girls, about clues that led nowhere and trails that faded away into uselessness. Grim though the story was, he told it with all the flair and talent of his more lighthearted tales, and Wilhelmina could feel the fear and frustration that had driven him across Kaeleer and into Terreille. And more...bewilderment and hurt when a Terreillean witch pulled away from him in fear; baffled rage at the males who saw everyone as predator and prey, and were desperate to join the predators. Beneath it all, an overwhelming but unacknowledged hunger for a friendly touch.
Wilhelmina could no more let that hunger go unanswered than she could have walked away from Andra's Healing the day before. But when she tried to put her arm around his waist, he flinched away as if he feared he'd get her dirty.
She slid closer to him and laced her fingers firmly through his, in a wordless denial of his self-hatred.
"I failed, Lady," he said fiercely, in answer to the words she hadn't spoken. "I was too slow, followed the wrong leads - trusted the wrong people-"
"Who?" she asked carefully, as carefully as any Healer probing the edges of a raging infection. Whatever was hurting him, the source was here, and the wrong words would only deepen his wounds.
He was silent for a long time, long enough that Wilhelmina was afraid she'd pushed him too far. But he leaned against her as if seeking strength, and when he finally spoke, she could feel his determination to finish the story. "I lost the trails of the other girls, but I finally managed to track Reanna and Caillie to a Province in Terreille. Learned that they'd been sold, but I didn't know to where. The Red Moon houses in the area were - discriminating-" His mouth twisted on the word as if it had a bitter taste. "-and wouldn't tolerate a male who didn't share their particular perversions. I couldn't find anything out without tearing the building down around them. Maybe a Warlord Prince could have done it-"
A Warlord Prince would have left a trail of bodies and never found the subtle clues Diccan had followed, Wilhelmina thought but did not say. An interruption now would only destroy the courage he'd gathered to tell this story at all.
"-but I couldn't destroy the Houses. Innocent or not, they were still witches in there, and a Warlord is supposed to protect-"
He broke off, psychic scent going dark and bitter, and Wilhelmina wrapped comforting tendrils of emotion around him. He didn't relax, but the deathly tight grip on her hand eased a little.
"I couldn't get anywhere. But I'd heard rumors of a Black Widow who knew more than an ordinary witch could, so I went to her. Thought surely if she knew of two young Sisters who'd been taken against their will, she'd want to help save them."
Wilhelmina knew the end of that story without having to ask. Trustworthy witches were vanishingly rare in Terreille, and none of them had any power to speak of.
"I should have known." Diccan's shoulders hunched. "I should have sensed - should have noticed the little things. All the males that served her - I thought they were frightened for her, not of her. But she looked so alone, and I thought she needed help, so when she told me of a place we could meet that was safe from spies, I went. Like a fool."
She did know the end of this story. "She tried to Ring you."
"She tried to seduce me first. Succeeded, too, pretty much. I don't need a Court to feel comfortable, but spending weeks in a place where all the witches wanted to run from me, or hurt me before I hurt them...well." He shrugged, a sharp, restless movement. "I was vulnerable. And stupid. But when I realized what she had planned for me, I bolted. Figured I would lose myself in the alleys outside and get away safe. She had her Escorts waiting, and...I panicked. Killed all of them."
"And the witch?" she asked, when the silence had stretched for far too long.
He pulled into himself, bracing for rejection. "Dead. I...destroyed her, Lady. Broke her barriers, took everything I needed to know from her mind, and finished the kill. There was nothing left of her, and I...was glad to do it. Was glad to see her body. I don't remember much of what happened after that, not until I found the girls and ran for home. Haven't really thought about it since, not with all the problems Caillie had, and then looking after Reanna, but...I killed her. I'm supposed to defend witches, not-" He broke off, shaking his head in disgust.
"You defended Reanna and Caillie," she pointed out, hoping he didn't notice her sudden unease. Diccan's normal self-confidence could be annoying, but its sudden disappearance was...disconcerting. "And I know Reanna trusts you." She swallowed. "I trust you."
He let out a long breath, the fear draining slowly away from him. "How?" he asked after a moment. "I was there for a few weeks and that damn place is like - like poison. I can't get it out of my head, what that witch wanted to do to me. What I did do to her. You were there for years - how do you trust anybody again, after that?"
You don't, she wanted to reply - but that wasn't the answer she'd been slowly working out for herself. "You find somebody who you know won't hurt you, and practice trusting them," she said instead, with a half-smile in his direction. "It works better than you think."
He made a thoughtful sound, absorbing the words she'd said and those she hadn't. When he turned back to her, there was the barest hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth, and he brushed the fingers of his free hand against the back of hers. "You may have something there, m'Lady. I'll let you know how it works."
He looked a little shaken, still, as he stood to go, but the friendly nod he gave her at the door held respect as well as his usual warmth. Wilhelmina watched him go with a faint feeling of satisfaction and hope; he wasn't healed, not even close, but with that deep wound finally opened up to light and air, he would heal. Given time.
She felt Jhaliir's curious presence a moment before the tiger padded up to her and nosed her hand. *Healer,* he said approvingly.
She huffed and plopped down in a kitchen chair, too weary from the talk with Diccan and last night's Healing to be polite. "I'm not a Healer, damn it. I can't keep up with Karla's lessons any more - I get sick at the sight of blood-"
*Healer,* he said, more firmly, and flicked her a series of mental images: Reanna, Dirdre, Diccan. *The cub is stronger because you let her stay in your den. The little fox-colored witch can use her claws and teeth now. And the Warlord was poisoned. You cleansed him. Healer.*
She shook her head. "That was just...talking. And time and practice. Nothing special."
*Not all wounds bleed. Not all Healing needs Craft.* He nudged her reassuringly. *You are strong enough to Heal.*
She tangled her fingers absently in his ruff, thinking about what the tiger had said. About the respect in Diccan's eyes as he took his leave.
When she'd been younger and at her family's mercy, it had been a triumph just to summon enough strength to protect herself. But her family was scattered, and no one threatened her now. If she didn't have to concentrate on defending herself, if she didn't have to gather all her strength just to build barriers to protect herself, what kind of power could she spare for strengthening others? Enough, maybe, to help some of the Blood who had been wounded in ways beyond the physical by Dorothea's taint?
She stared out the window, thinking, until well after sunset.
Late fall passed swiftly into winter, and Wilhelmina was caught up in the flurry of Winsol preparations. As well as occasional letters to or from Jaenelle, long walks and conversations with Diccan, time spent with Mairin and her family, and continued Healing lessons - though her talents might not lie with physical Healing, there were enough similarities between body and mind that the lessons were valuable. She vaguely remembered the quiet life she'd planned for herself when she'd first rented the little cottage, but couldn't bring herself to miss it; this sense of belonging was too warm and inviting for that. And - well, fun, even during the frantic hours she spent with Mairin and Morwen getting ready for the village's Winsol celebrations.
But their work had definitely been worth it, she thought as she watched villagers start to trickle into the inn, fresh from their own family celebrations. She hadn't quite been brave enough to spend the day with Diccan, but that didn't matter; Morwen had invited them both to her house and spent the afternoon watching them with a self-satisfied maternal glint in her eye. Mairin had just informed Wilhelmina that none of this was her fault, and then gone off with Dirdre to giggle over the whole situation. And Wilhelmina found it impossible to be upset with any of them, not with crisp winter air outside and warm merriment inside and the anticipation of Winsol hanging in the air.
That anticipation was stronger now, as the crowd gathered for food and talk and dancing at midnight, and Wilhelmina found herself looking forward to all of it. She'd never really enjoyed Winsol, not since the disastrous night that had ended with Jaenelle's disappearance, but here she felt...at home. Wanted. And she intended to enjoy every minute of it.
So she did - talking and laughing, eating entirely too much, and dancing until her feet were sore. She threw herself into the dancing at midnight, enjoying it more than she had since she first learned to dance.
She was sitting on a bench against the wall, taking a moment to rest her tired feet, when Diccan caught her eye from across the room. 'Mina. Come with me? There's something I want to show you.
Old habits should have made her wary of anything that would draw her away from the relative safety of the crowd. But Diccan's eyes were bright and guileless, his psychic scent sparking with excitement, and without hesitation she called in her cloak and followed him outside.
"What are you doing?" she hissed when they were outside the inn.
"You'll see." He grinned like a boy, took her hand, and tugged her after him - through the village and into the trees beyond, along the little stream that led to the bluffs over the seashore. When they reached the bluff, he snuffed the tiny witchlight he'd created, urged her into the shelter of a wind-twisted bush, and settled in beside her. "Stay quiet. It's not long now."
Then she saw what he'd been waiting for, though at first she didn't understand it - seals, gathering inside the bay and riding the waves into shore. Those that reached the sand stretched, changed, and stood up on human legs, leaving sleek sealskins on the sand beside them. She turned to Diccan, bewildered. *People?* she asked.
*Selkies, they're called, if you can get any of the old fishermen or grannies to talk about them. They say they're Blood who gave up their Craft to become caretakers of the sea, thousands of years ago.*
*Do you think that's true?*
*Has to be. They dance on Winsol just like we do.*
When she looked back down, she saw what he meant. The people - selkies - were dancing noiselessly on the sand, following an intricate pattern while the seals in the bay echoed their dance in the water. Pale human bodies on the dark sand, black seal-shapes in the moon-silvered water...she leaned forward to watch, entranced, and felt Diccan sharing her delight.
*I was out rambling after Winsol when I first saw them,* he said softly in her mind. *They dance at high tide like we do at midnight, so whenever I can, I come to watch them.*
*Do they know you're here?*
*I think so. As long as I don't come any closer than this, they tolerate me. I was afraid they'd scatter if you came, but...* He trailed off with a gesture toward the complex dance going on beneath them.
*You didn't know?*
He shrugged. *Never met anyone I wanted to show this to before.*
Wilhelmina felt her heart thump in what could have been fear or happiness, but the selkies' dance took all her attention, and soon she was conscious of nothing but the complex patterns. They weren't quite Blood, weren't Kindred either, and she wondered if Diccan's story were true. She couldn't imagine giving up the Craft for anything, but there was a joyous freedom in their dance that she couldn't help but envy. But true or not, it was enchanting to watch, and she sighed in disappointment as the dance ended. One by one, the dancers broke away, picked up the pelts they'd left lying on the sand, and rejoined their kin in the water.
She turned back to Diccan when the last one had gone. "Thank you for showing me this."
He grinned, eyes alight. "I thought you might like it. Well - I was hoping you would, anyway. Most witches would be upset at getting dragged through the woods on a cold night, and I worried-"
"I liked it." He was babbling, as he hadn't when he first called her out here, and to stop him she went on tiptoes and kissed his cheek. He froze, then cupped one hand around her face and carefully kissed her back.
She wanted to like it. And she did, for a moment - liked it much better than the few kisses she'd had before. But all the old fears rose up, chilling her blood and stiffening her body. Fear of male strength that outmatched hers, of male hands that grasped and took - it didn't matter that Diccan was a friend, or that her Jewels matched his own. It only mattered that he was male, and she pulled away with a panicky apology.
He let her go, but not before she saw the sudden flash of hurt. "I'm sorry, my Lady," he said, more formally than she was used to. "I thought - no, I know you were happy to be with me. But I apologize for presuming."
"You didn't presume," she said in a low voice, standing safely away from him with her hands cupped around her elbows to stop her from shaking. Fear, shame at her fear, shame that she didn't know what she wanted, even now...
She'd changed. She hadn't changed enough.
She took a shaky breath. "It's not your fault. I...thought I was braver than I am. Now I know I'm not."
"You're here. If you were a coward, you'd still be in Terreille, and dead or broken or some pampered aristo broodmare." He reached one hand toward her, careful as a man building a teetering house of cards. "You've told me some of what you're afraid of, and I'm not so stupid that I can't figure out the rest. But I'm not one of the ones who scared you."
She took his hand, but couldn't bring herself to move any closer to him. Too many years of fear, all the secrets she'd kept and all the defenses she'd built, all of it combined into dread of allowing a male to touch her heart or her body. She couldn't move.
"Lady, you've been my beacon ever since I came to know you. If a friend is all you want, then a friend is all I'll be - but-" His voice turned wistful, and Wilhelmina winced at the mingled pain and hope she heard. "Let me at least try to be a little more?"
He saw the fear on her face and sighed, his own expression growing more shuttered. "You said you trusted me. Let me prove you were right. Let me try?"
"I can't," Wilhelmina said, and fled.
Jhaliir stalked out of the hall and down the stairs, ears back, tail lashing and chest rumbling one long, low note of anger. His Lady was walled up in her den and she wasn't talking to him and it was all the fault of that Warlord.
She'd come back late from the Winsol dances last night and tried to slip past him. Alerted by the turbulence in her psychic scent, he'd followed her upstairs, only to have the door slammed in his face. And reopened almost immediately by a very apologetic witch. She'd clung to him for comfort after that, but wouldn't tell him what had distressed her. But with the physical and psychic scent of the Warlord still lingering around her, Jhaliir didn't need clumsy human words to tell him what had happened.
He'd tried this morning to ask her what was wrong, but she'd just made a muffled, incoherent sound from under her blankets and pulled her pillow over her head. For a moment he wondered if she were coming into her Time and trying to make herself a den, but then he remembered human females didn't come into season the way she-cats did.
Which meant that all her distress could be blamed on the Warlord.
He padded across the kitchen floor and out of the house by the most direct route, using Craft to pass through the nearest wall without bothering with human niceties like doors. He wanted to bite someone, and playing with handles and latches would only make him want to bite worse.
Outside, the winter air was crisp and clean, and empty of the particular scent he was searching for. He wanted to find the Warlord; his Lady would probably be upset if he bit the man, but he thought she would forgive him for just pouncing a little. So he circled the house in a widening spiral until he caught a trace of the scent he wanted and followed it away from the village and into the trees. The physical scent was the same one he was familiar with, but the psychic scent was different; unbalanced somehow, like a wolf without its pack. Naturally enough; there was much that was canine about the Warlord. He was an efficient enough predator in his own right, but at his best when he had others to look after and to look after him.
Jhaliir, however, needed no one to help him hunt.
Nose to the ground, he followed the trail, expecting it to lead to the human den where the Warlord lived. But it twisted away from the den and into the woods, leading through rougher and rougher terrain. For whatever reason, the male was seeking solitude.
When the physical scent freshened on the breeze, Jhaliir dropped into a crouch and created sight and sound shields around himself. The Warlord was just ahead on the trail, standing motionless and unguarded. Jhaliir would almost have thought that the human male was hunting as well, if it weren't for that strange disconnected undercurrent in his psychic scent. In a hunting stalk, he slid through the brush until he was near enough, then gathered himself and leapt.
He'd planned to bowl the man over and scare him a little - or a lot, depending on how sorry he was for upsetting Jhaliir's Lady - and things went just as he had planned. For a moment. His forepaws hit the Warlord solidly between the shoulders, knocking him to the ground - but then the other male rolled, twisted, and threw Jhaliir across the trail with a blast of carefully controlled Sapphire power. By the time the tiger regained his feet, Diccan had called a sizable tree branch to his hand and was holding it in a practiced guard position.
"Something wrong, Prince?" he asked mildly.
Stupid humans, always asking questions when the answer was obvious. Jhaliir growled.
"Or did you just want to fight someone? Because I'd be happy to oblige you." The tone might be mild, but Jhaliir could hear the lashing tail beneath the man's even voice.
Jhaliir flattened his ears. *You hurt my Lady.*
"I did nothing of the sort!" Diccan retorted, his psychic scent a mix of anger and regret. "I scared her. And I didn't mean to do that. Is she - all right?"
*She is in her den and won't come out.* Some of Jhaliir's worry must have leaked through into the thread between them; the Warlord swore, dropped his stick, and started down the path that led back to the village.
Or tried to, at least. Jhaliir stepped to block him with a noiseless snarl. Diccan examined him thoughtfully and took a carefully calculated half-step back; enough to show respect but not surrender. "All right, I'll hear what you have to say. But if you keep me from getting to Lady Benedict when she needs me, I will hit you, and never mind that she'll be upset with me."
Which was very nearly what Jhaliir had been thinking earlier. Maybe the human could be reasoned with, a little.
Even if Jhaliir would rather bite him. *What happened?*
"We...had some words. I upset Lady Benedict, and I apologized. That's all I care to tell you."
Jhaliir's ears tilted back. *When a female is upset with a male, she claws him. When she runs away and hides in her den, that is more than upset. What did you do?*
He couldn't read human faces well, but he didn't need to; the other male's psychic scent ached like a bruise. "I didn't do anything, cat. I asked her a question. She hasn't given me an answer. Beyond that, it's not your concern."
He hissed. *My concern. My place. I serve.*
Either the hiss or the temper in Jhaliir's psychic scent caught the Warlord's attention and distracted him from the whirl of anger and regret that kept pulling his attention inward. He frowned at Jhaliir thoughtfully. "Formally?"
*I asked. She accepted. I serve.*
"Hm." He studied Jhaliir for a moment, clearly torn between anger at the intrusion and acceptance of court Protocol. Protocol - the knowledge that if Jhaliir served Wilhelmina formally, he had a right to a say in her life - won out, and slowly the aggression bled out of his psychic scent. "I...wanted to pay court to Lady Benedict," he said eventually, grudgingly. "She didn't take to the idea."
*She doesn't like males who want to mate with her,* Jhaliir said. Only a human could have missed the subtle wariness that crept into his Lady's psychic scent whenever she was near an unattached male.
"I don't want to mate with her, I want to be her mate," he snapped. "Help her when she's tired from Healing, make a home somewhere, have ch- ah, cubs, if she wants...mating in itself is grand, but I do want a bit more than that."
Jhaliir thought, ears flicking dubiously as he tried to puzzle his way through the complicated human relationships. Felines were so much more sensible. His Lady didn't like males who might want to mate with her. But was her suspicion the defensiveness of a seasoned witch with her own hunting grounds and no need of a mate, or the anticipation and anxiety of a young female in her first Time?
Or was it the fear of one who had caught her paw in a trap and now feared to find another one with every step she took?
A good mate would make his Lady less afraid. He would like that, even if it meant having to tolerate more of the Warlord's presence. But it was what Wilhelmina thought of the male that mattered. If he could prove himself to her, then Jhaliir wouldn't object.
Any more than was needed to keep Diccan alert.
He rumbled thoughtfully. *I will not help you court, he announced. But I will not block your path.*
"Good enough. Agreed, Prince."
The rumble deepened. *She doesn't like males because they scared her when she was a cub. Scare her again and I will bite you hard.*
Diccan met his eyes evenly. "If I scare her like that, Prince, you won't need to."
Jhaliir dipped his head in agreement, turned, and trotted back to the village and Wilhelmina's den, pleased with the solution he'd arrived at. But when he neared the den, he slowed to a cautious walk, hackles lifting at the faint sense of something wrong. He could catch his Lady's physical scent on the wind, but her psychic scent was shielded tightly away. Only a faint hint of emotion reached him; nothing he could identify, but something bad, something that stole away thought and movement like icy winter water.
He found her in the garden, back stiff and eyes focused on something far away. This close, he could identify the emotion she was trying to keep locked away - a cold, sick dread, silent and hidden like a stream under thick winter ice.
*Lady?* He nudged her hand, and she flinched, dropping one of the white sheets humans used for messages. *Lady!*
Her fingers tangled themselves in his ruff, but she ignored the paper entirely. "My grandmother is dead. And my family-" She made a short, bitter sound that was not a laugh. "What's left of my family wants to see me."
Cold. She was cold all over, and no amount of warming spells seemed to help. But she turned away from the warmth of the village, heading instead for the concealment of the trees and the chilly bluffs that overlooked the ocean.
She'd managed to slip away from Jhaliir, and raised the tightest mental shield she could against any contact from him or Diccan. She wasn't sure what would be worse: the tiger, who wouldn't understand the conflicted emotions she fought, or Diccan, who would. All she knew was that she wanted to wall herself away from everything and everybody, and hide until the danger passed. Until she no longer felt quite so cold inside, as if her bones and her heart were filled with ice.
But the ice inside made her feel stronger, and she was desperate to cling to what scraps of strength she had.
She'd thought she was free of the old tangle of familial loyalty and anger. Jaenelle had severed all ties to her blood kin, but Wilhelmina couldn't quite bring herself to do the same. She remembered tears and shame and Alexandra's constant scrutiny, but she also remembered Leland deftly turning conversations to give Wilhelmina a verbal or actual escape route, and Philip's refusal to tell Alexandra where she was hiding, before she'd escaped to Kaeleer. Philip's unfeigned delight at her Sapphire Jewel, and Leland's relief to find her safe and unharmed in the Shadow Realm. Even Alexandra's cool and distant pride in her social graces...stifled and half-strangled love blended with years of fear and resentment, until she couldn't tell where one ended and the next began.
Even in death, Alexandra baffled and frightened her. But she couldn't cut herself off completely from Philip and Leland. They hadn't been strong enough to protect her when she needed it, but they'd loved her as well as they could. Philip had, at least; he had Diccan's honor but none of his bedrock strength. Leland, too bewildered by her own strange daughter to really focus on her husband's older child, had never acknowledged the threat Robert Benedict posed. But she had discreetly redirected his attention away from Wilhelmina too many times for it to be an accident. It hadn't been protection, but it had helped keep her safe long enough that she could learn how to protect herself.
Long enough for her to run to Kaeleer, where danger didn't cloak itself in mocking courtesy and too-soft words. She felt safe here, where the Blood's web of trust supported rather than snared her. But if she set foot on Terreillean soil, the old fear would be back, the crippling distrust of others - and herself - that made it all but impossible to act. Even with Jaenelle's purge, the memories of the anger and suspicion of Terreille were terrifyingly vivid, and knowing what had happened to Diccan there only made the paralyzing fear stronger. She didn't think that a few warm memories of family would be enough to strengthen her for what she remembered from Terreille.
Now they wanted to see her, but were barred by Jaenelle's decree from ever entering Kaeleer again. If she met them, it would have to be in Terreille. And Wilhelmina was afraid to stay and afraid to go - afraid that simply entering the Realm of Light would turn her back to the scared, powerless girl she'd been, afraid that ignoring the message would mark her as a coward in her own eyes. She'd just come to trust her own strength; she didn't want to throw that feeling away for an illusion of safety.
She reached the ocean bluffs and curled up against a wind-gnarled tree for shelter, pulling her knees up to her chest in an attempt to ward off the chill. But she couldn't summon any kind of warmth, not with body or Craft. She couldn't think when she was so cold, but she couldn't go home either. Not until she knew what to do. Not until she felt safe.
And she would never feel safe until she reached some sort of agreement with her family. She knew that, felt it with the same sort of surety that told her when she'd done some bit of Craft right or what the next step in a dance would be. But she was scared to leave the safe haven of Kaeleer, and terrified of setting foot in the Territory, maybe even in the house, where she'd been afraid, powerless, disbelieved. It wasn't fear for her safety, not with Jhaliir's watchful presence and her own Sapphire Jewels to guard her. But the confidence she'd built, the first spark of belief that her will and talents might actually matter - those she feared to lose.
If she didn't go back, how would she know those things were real?
She could stay in the Shadow Realm. She could stay where it was safe, and no one ever needed to know that she'd faced this...peril? Opportunity? The past could never find her here - but she'd never be able to escape it wholly. Never be able to build any kind of a life without always fearing her own memories, good and bad. Never quite be able to thaw the ice inside.
Ice might be strong, but ice was brittle. She would need more than ice to strengthen her in Terreille.
Everything she was afraid of was past, long gone except for the echoes it woke in her. The only thing in the present that scared her was...was honorable and gentle, when she forced herself to look at him directly and not through the eyes of the frightened girl she'd been. She owed him trust. She owed him...a chance.
She stood, took a breath to steady herself, and followed the beacon of warm, masculine power that had been flickering in the back of her mind all this time. Wrapped in a sight shield, it didn't take her long to reach the small cottage Diccan rented. It took longer - at least, it felt like it did - to release the shield and knock on his door. His psychic scent washed over her when he opened it, worry rapidly fading to surprise, relief - and tentative hope.
"I'm cold," she said simply. "Can I come in?"
"My Lady." His voice went deep and velvet-soft on the possessive, and he slipped an arm around her shoulders and drew her into the warmth inside.
Once he had her safely inside, Diccan petted and worried and - well - fussed. And Wilhelmina let him, too exhausted from the day's events to do anything but sit in numb silence. But the warmth and Diccan's concern revived her a little, enough for her to scowl at him indignantly when he scolded her for not at least telling Jhaliir where she was. "He's been frantic."
"I didn't want anybody around. Even Jhaliir."
"Why not, damn it?"
"He wouldn't understand." She bit her lip. "I don't want him to understand." The thought of the tiger's fierce innocence tainted by something like her family secrets made her ache inside.
Diccan reached out a hand, dropped it, and pulled up a chair next to her instead, braced for another rejection but willing to take the chance. "I might. Understand, that is."
The careful sympathy in his voice broke down the self-control she'd spent the day fighting to maintain, and she told him everything. The things he had guessed, and the things he hadn't. The things she was ashamed of, and those that still frightened her. Midway through he wrapped an arm unthinkingly around her; she leaned into it just as instinctively, taking comfort in his warmth and solid strength.
"I'm scared I'll get hurt if I go, and scared I...scared I won't be worth anything if I stay. And I've spent so long trying to decide what to do that I can hardly think any more, but I can't stop thinking."
She felt his sigh, but couldn't quite hear it. "You're right, you can't run away from this. But you don't have to charge it head-on, either."
She frowned, confused.
"You can wait, at least for a day or two, and decide what to do when you're not so rattled. No one's expecting an immediate answer from you - and if they are, I'm sure Jhaliir would be happy to explain matters to them. He's got something of a talent for that." He rubbed one knee gingerly, and Wilhelmina's eyebrows lifted. Someone was going to have to explain just what the two males had been up to when she wasn't looking.
Diccan stood up and pulled her up with him, with a careful hug. "Whatever you choose, I'll stand behind you. But right now, just let me get you warmed up and fed, and then I can see you safely home."
She bit her lip, scared now with something other than the bone-chilling dread she'd been feeling all day. She didn't know if she could overcome her fear, even for Diccan, but she could at least keep him from guessing it. "I - I'd rather not go home."
He went absolutely still, his psychic scent awash with conflicting emotions that Wilhelmina couldn't identify. "Lady," he said finally, "there's nothing I want more than for you to come to me. But I want it to be because you want me, not because you're scared and lonely. Are you sure?"
She could yell at Diccan. She could talk to him, tease him, laugh with him. But she couldn't lie to him, and her hesitation was answer enough. He nodded to himself, reached out, and brushed his fingers gently along her jawline. "I'll wait, then. Until you are sure."
Despite his demurral, he kissed her - just once, a careful brush of his lips against hers that woke a spark of curiosity beneath the ineveitable fear. The Escort who'd seen her through her Virgin Night hadn't kissed like that at all.
"...All right, m'Lady." Diccan seemed to be having difficulty maintaining his own composure, something she noticed with just a touch of satisfaction. "Let's get you warm and fed, and then I'll see you home so you can rest. In the morning, if you want to...well, we can talk."
He shepherded her into a chair, piled with entirely too many blankets, until he could fortify her with a bowl of hot stew. She ate it hungrily, and didn't object - much - when he bundled her into a disreputable old cloak and one of his jackets for the walk home. When she shivered against the wind, he added a warming spell to the layers of cloth, and kept up a steady, friendly stream of small talk - whether to distract her from the cold or from the subtle tension between them, she didn't know. But it kept her attention on him and not on the turmoil inside. His presence disrupted the way her mind kept circling back to old fears and angers, and gave her a little of the rest she needed. So she tucked her arm through his and just listened as they walked, warmed by his presence and his concern.
When they reached home, she felt Jhaliir's worried presence almost immediately. And felt his thoughtful withdrawal as soon as he recognized Diccan. She didn't know why, but she wasn't going to complain; Jhaliir would only ask questions she couldn't answer, and she felt safe with Diccan.
The Warlord had been wary of her boundaries since he'd frightened her on Winsol; now he ushered her inside without quite crossing the threshold of her cottage. "All right, m'Lady, I'll see you settled for the night. In the morning - or if you need anything - we can talk."
"I'll look for you," she promised, and felt his acceptance. And more - protective worry, a keen determination to take on her problems as if they were his own, and desire carefully held in check. Nothing like the males who had terrified her as a girl; this was a clean, bright flame that drew her in, not the smoky roil of hostility and fear she remembered from the aristo males in Terreille. And it seemed the most natural thing in the world to lay a hand on his arm as he turned to go.
"Diccan." Her voice quivered a little, but she met his eyes steadily. "I'm sure."
She watched his face change from studied courtesy to hope to delight. "M'Lady," he said with a slow smile that warmed her to her toes, and kissed her.
"Have you been practicing?" she asked shakily a moment later.
He shook his head. "Daydreaming."
Upstairs, things were awkward for both of them at first; without the formalities of a Court or the rituals of a Virgin Night, it was hard to know what to ask for and what to give in the bed. But Diccan was intense and gentle, and Wilhelmina...wasn't as afraid as she thought she'd be. She'd been so worried about hiding her fear from Diccan that she never noticed it melt away until it was gone. After a moment, she knew why. The other males she'd known - even the Escort who'd seen her through her Virgin Night, considerate as he'd been - had wanted to take her. Diccan wanted to give himself.
That knowledge spread through her and warmed her heart, warmed her blood. Her hesitation and his careful vigilance sped and blended to a dance, and she surrendered herself to it eagerly.
After all the upset of the day before, Wilhelmina spent a luxuriously late morning talking with Diccan and...well, snuggling. She'd never considered snuggling to be a separate activity before, but she thought she could get to like it.
It was close to lunchtime when the question of breakfast came up, but when Diccan asked her plaintively if she wanted to starve him on top of wearing him to a shadow, Wilhelmina examined him thoughtfully, considered the question, and hit him with a pillow. He stole the blankets.
The tussle that followed meant it was well past lunchtime when they finally got to the kitchen, where Jhaliir was lounging by the hearth and trying hard not to look like he'd been waiting for them. The tiger rose to his feet and gave Wilhelmina a thoughtful stare and Diccan a perfunctory one. *Good mate?* he asked her.
Wilhelmina went bright red. Diccan bit his lip to keep from snickering, but she knew she'd be hearing more than enough from him later.
"Males," she muttered, and stalked into the pantry to find something to eat.
Between the two of them and Jhaliir, they scoured the pantry clean of anything remotely edible, and ate it in comfortable disarray around the kitchen table. In the friendly clutter of the kitchen, it was easier than she'd expected to talk about the message she'd received from Terreille. It wasn't long before the three of them were discussing the problems over what little remained of their meal. And Jhaliir wasn't in the least pleased with her decision to travel to Terreille.
*Not your sire. Not your dam. You owe them nothing.* The tone was hostile, but she read only worry in the way his ears kept flicking backward.
"They're not blood kin," she admitted. "But - I don't know if I owe it to them or owe it to myself, but I have to meet them. Will you come with me?"
His ears flattened completely for a startled moment; then he got to his feet and bumped his head against her ribcage. *My Lady,* he answered, and seemed to think that was all that needed to be said.
She tangled her fingers in his ruff, drawing strength from his unquestioning loyalty. She knew Diccan would come with her as well...she just didn't know what it would cost him. Terreille had scarred him as well, and his wounds were fresher than hers. She would do all she could to prevent those wounds from reopening, but she didn't know if she would be able to protect him.
So she told him what she knew about Chaillot and Beldon Mor, about where they could stay without drawing undue attention and how best to deal with the local Blood. With two Sapphire Jewels between them, they might well be the most powerful Blood in the Territory, but that very power might alarm the people who had survived Dorothea's rule. Jhaliir, who saw no point in talking about something when they'd already decided to do it, padded off to lie in the sun by the kitchen door, but Wilhelmina and Diccan were deep in conversation when Wilhelmina looked up at a familiar psychic scent. "Mother Night." She'd forgotten-
Mairin breezed into the kitchen with no more than a token tap on the door, basket hooked over one arm. She glanced at the two of them, crowed with delight, and bent down to kiss Jhaliir squarely between the ears. "Finally! I was beginning to think you'd just dance around each other forever."
Wilhelmina blinked. "Does everybody worry about my - who I - about my personal life?"
"Just me. And Mam and Dirdre. And likely Lady Karla." Mairin paused for thought. "And maybe-"
"Stop it!" Wilhelmina protested, not sure whether the hearthwitch was joking but entirely sure she didn't want to find out.
Mairin subsided, though there was a wicked gleam in her eyes that told Wilhelmina her friend would have much more to say on the subject. It faded, though, as she took a longer and more thoughtful look at Diccan and Wilhelmina. "So why does it look like I've walked in on a war council and not a celebration?"
"Because that's more or less what it is." With a Warlord's sure instinct for allies, Diccan pulled out a chair for Mairin and explained the last day's events to her. "So we're going to Terreille so she can do...whatever she has to do."
"Just the two of you?"
"Three of you," she corrected. "But still - that's all?"
"That's all," Wilhelmina said. "I couldn't ask anyone else to come with me."
Mairin frowned dubiously. "Lady Morghann won't like it."
"Whyever not?" Diccan was part of Morghann's Court, but she'd already made it clear that she wouldn't be placing any demands on him for some time.
"She may want a show of strength," Diccan said. "After all that's happened between Terreille and Scelt...well, a hint of teeth and claws may be just what's needed."
"I don't like it." Wilhelmina's jaw set stubbornly.
"I know you don't." Diccan stroked her hand, looking momentarily delighted at being able to do so openly. "But she's the Queen, and we'll need her permission even if you don't want her help."
Wilhelmina scowled, not quite able to explain the reluctance she felt. Even with as little of her family was left, and as badly as they'd hurt her, she didn't want their flaws and her own failings exposed. Bad enough to think of Diccan seeing what she'd left behind; the thought of Blood she didn't even know following her to Terreille made her cringe inside. But that insistence on secrets was what had hurt her, and what had almost destroyed Jaenelle.
Maybe Diccan's wounds weren't the only ones that had needed to be exposed to light and air.
Diccan made a sound that wasn't quite a sigh. "Well. No matter what you tell Morghann, I'll need to make a few changes before seeing her," he said, with a rueful glance at his rumpled, day-old clothes. "Let me go home for a bit, and then we'll have our talk with the Lady."
He leaned over, kissed her lightly, and bowed himself out with a cheerful promise to see her in a few hours. Mairin watched him go with a thoroughly satisfied smirk, which lasted even after she realized there were dirty dishes on the table and reflexively started clearing them. "That took you entirely too long."
"I think it took just long enough," Wilhelmina said demurely, and watched Mairin sputter with considerable satisfaction.
But the hearthwitch kept glancing thoughtfully at her, and when she had everything neatened to her satisfaction, she sighed sharply, visibly braced herself, and crossed her arms. "I'm coming too."
"What? It's dangerous!" Mairin was smart and fearless, but she still wore a Yellow Jewel, and light-Jeweled witches were easy prey in Terreille.
"With Diccan and Jhaliir along? And whoever Lady Morghann sends as escorts?" Her shoulders were hunched unhappily at the conflict, but Wilhelmina didn't think she was likely to back down. "I'm not stupid, and I'm not going to do anything dangerous. But I want to come with you."
"Why? There's nothing there that's - Hell's fire, I don't want to go at all!"
"I don't want you to go either. I've heard what you say - and what you don't say - about your home. But if you are going..." Mairin paused to collect her thoughts. "I'm glad you have a lover. But I think you're going to need a friend."
Wilhelmina bit her lip, caught between worry and relief. Another witch to help and to help her, without the responsibilities that Protocol would demand between her and the males...simpler and more importantly, a friend. "I think you're right."
"I don't like this." Diccan paced the length of the suite's sitting room, deftly avoiding Wilhelmina and Mairin and clearly assuming that the other males in the room would avoid him. "It's not a court occasion - not a formal occasion of any kind. So why can't we just find your kin, say what needs saying, and get out?"
Jhaliir and the two Escorts Morghann had insisted on sending looked faintly wistful. Mairin looked...neutral. Diccan had been restless and on guard ever since they'd first crossed the Gate from Kaeleer, and the others had taken their cue from him as the dominant male; both witches were weary from coping with edgy, overprotective males at every turn.
Wilhelmina shook her head. "I'd rather not do this myself," she admitted. Any of this. "But we have to at least present ourselves to the Territory Queen - it's Protocol, and we can't afford to ignore Protocol. The last thing anybody in Terreille needs right now is powerful outsiders running roughshod over them."
"She's the Queen. She's bound to have the darkest Jewels in the Territory serving her. What threat could we be?"
She took a slow breath. "I think you and I may be two of the darkest Jewels in Chaillot." Between Dorothea's careful elimination of dark-Jeweled Blood and the destruction Jaenelle's Purge had unleashed, the Realm itself felt...empty. Drained. Wrung dry of power.
"So we don't dare take a step outside of Protocol-"
"Or the Queen-" the new Queen, and it felt strange and painful to even think those words - "may well assume we're less friendly than we look. Whether she prepares for war or panics, this Territory can't afford the instability that would bring." That had been one of Morghann's many arguments, in the private and slightly frantic strategy session she and Wilhelmina had shared before leaving for Terreille. Wilhelmina had wanted no escort beyond Diccan and Jhaliir, but Morghann had argued that a pair of males from her Second Circle would make it clear that she took Wilhelmina seriously, without being enough of a threat to alarm the ruling power of Chaillot. "The granddaughter of the former Queen and a high-ranking male in another Queen's court could be easily...misconstrued."
Diccan huffed. "I've lost my taste for sneaking, I think."
"This isn't sneaking, it's diplomacy."
"Never had a taste for that."
"Can you pretend you do for a few days?" On a psychic thread she added, *And then we can go home, and I can keep studying with Andra, and you can help me plant my garden and - and let Dirdre hit you with sticks.*
She'd meant it teasingly, and the touch of warmth in his returning thought was so unexpected that the blood rushed to her cheeks. *I'd like that.*
He broke the contact with a little mental caress and turned to the two Escorts. "We can't all go descending on the Queen at once, so I'll need the two of you looking after Lady Mairin's safety to start. Jhaliir, I'll need your eyes and ears, but stay under a sight shield - and any other kind of shield you can dream up - because I doubt anybody's going to be too happy to see a Jewel-wearing tiger following along..."
The discussion went almost as long as had Wilhelmina's earlier conversation with Morghann. But Diccan slowly lost the driven, hostile edge he'd had since leaving Kaeleer. Only once did she feel his presence on a psychic thread. *I...failed...the last time I was here. Don't let me do anything stupid this time, Lady.*
*I'm not sure coming here was wise to start with. But I'll watch your steps if you'll watch mine.*
Terreille itself was not what she'd expected. She'd braced herself for the loss of life and its consequences, for the half-empty streets and the deserted homes - even for the buildings that had been torn down and burned, when the lighter-Jeweled Blood realized their tormentors were dead or powerless. But she hadn't really let herself hope for the signs of returning life - witches walking unescorted, males without fear or hostility clouding their psychic scents, gardens growing where the ruins had been cleared away. When she cautiously stretched out her senses, the city felt almost barren. Like fields that had been planted and replanted until all life was stripped from the soil...but it would always come back, if you waited long enough.
None of it prepared her for the new Queen of Chaillot, when they came to the Court she'd established in a comfortable manor in an unfashionable district. It was nowhere near the size needed for a true court, not for a Territory Queen, but for a Queen and a generous handful of First and Second Circle males, it was - well, adequate. Just. The two males who met them at the door gave them openly distrustful looks; Diccan bristled, but Wilhelmina felt obscurely reassured. Alexandra's First Circle had been coolly loyal, but she'd never inspired this sort of determined protectiveness.
She'd been told that the Queen would meet them in an audience chamber - likely a converted parlor, in this location - but the woman just down the hall from them, loudly arguing with a weary-looking Warlord, had apparently decided otherwise.
"No, I don't know what they need, and I don't know how we'll get it when we do find out," she said, scowling over the list crumpled in one hand. "But we've got to take care of this somehow..."
Wilhelmina withdrew a little, for courtesy's sake and to take a moment to study the woman who now ruled Chaillot. She'd expected someone like the minor aristos who'd always hovered on the fringes of Alexandra's court. But Elenor Veren was a strong, square-built woman in her fifties with short-cut, greying blond hair and sun-wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Wilhelmina didn't need to see her Jewels to know that the Queen's psychic strength ran far less deep than her own, but the stubborn jaw and alert, assessing look made it clear that Jeweled strength wasn't the only kind she had to draw on.
"I can go without. We all can, if it comes to that," the Queen said. "At least set up some hot food and bedding for the youngest, and we'll see what's to be done tomorrow."
She dismissed the Warlord - her Steward? - with a firm nod that reminded Wilhelmina more of Mrs. Beale than of any of the Queens in Jaenelle's Court, and turned to face the two of them. "Lady Benedict. Warlord. I'm pleased to meet you both."
*No, she's not,* Diccan snorted on a psychic thread. Wilhelmina had to agree with him, but she didn't share his indignation; the Court's and especially the Queen's emotions were too thick in the air for that. Weariness, worry, and a harried feeling like someone bailing a boat that was flooding just too fast for them. Like Morwen and her fears for Dirdre's stability, like Andra struggling with Healer's training that was too much for her...
"Lady," she said, holding out her hands in formal greeting. She let her wrists drop a little under the pressure of Elenor's hands, an unspoken assurance that she wasn't seeking conflict. "Thank you for meeting us."
She nodded. "I'll have to keep it short. There's a lot of business I need to tend to."
"Maybe we could discuss it in the garden, then?" Wilhelminasuggested. The gardens weren't much - small, walled, and new-planted - but she'd never known a Queen who wasn't calmed by living earth under her feet. And the Darkness knew that Lady Elenor needed all the calm she could get; her brusqueness didn't seen to spring from hostility, but from sheer overworked panic.
"That'd be...good. I haven't been in the gardens for several days; I'd like to see how they're growing."
Outside, away from the crowded manor, the Queen relaxed visibly; her gaze was more intent and less harried when she turned to Wilhelmina. "So, Lady Benedict, should I welcome you home or wish you a safe journey?"
The gardens might ease her mind, but they weren't doing anything for the Queen's...bluntness. Wilhelmina stifled the urge to snarl at the woman and kept her voice even as she replied, "Home is - well, not really here any longer. I don't plan to stay any more time than it takes to visit my uncle and his wife."
"Philip Alexander is your uncle?"
"Good. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."
"I've asked him several times to serve in my court, and each time he's refused. He's not afraid of me, and he's not angry, he's just - very polite. And stubborn."
"Your Court seems-" She choked on her attempt at diplomacy. A First Circle that was letting its Queen work itself into frantic exhaustion wasn't worthy of the name, and the Second Circle should at least be able to recall the senior males to their duty.
The Queen caught Wilhelmina's scramble for a polite term, and her psychic scent flared with sudden protective anger. "My court," she said, "is trying to help me piece together a Territory that's been falling into tatters for decades. The tradesmen are terrified of losing what little they've got left, the peasants don't trust the remaining aristos not to bleed them dry, and the nobility won't take orders from a jumped-up farmer like me. And children everywhere - orphans from the purge, young ones who lost their parents to fighting - we can feed and shelter them, just. But there's no time to do more than tend to their bodies, while their souls are going hungry..." She broke off with a restless, dissatisfied shake of her head. "Somebody who could command a little respect among the surviving aristos might buy me the breathing room to take care of the other problems - but there's damn few people like that I respect. Your uncle's one of them."
"Is it only a question of...diplomacy?"
"Diplomacy would be a start. Every time I try it, something comes out wrong and everybody starts looking at me like I'd just pissed on their fancy carpets."
Wilhelmina blinked, not sure if she was amused or appalled, Elenor made a huff of unsuccessfully-stifled laughter, and some of the barriers went down between them. "Like that. Hell's fire, I'm a horse breeder. Would've been happy to stay a horse breeder, but there's no Queens left in the cities strong enough to center a Court, and there's no dark Queens at all that anybody trusts. So my husband's at home trying to hold the farm together, and I'm here trying to hold Chaillot together, and the last strong male in the Territory doesn't want anything to do with me."
She drew in a breath to defend Philip, despite all her wariness of her family. He was a good Prince - by Terreille's standards - and would be an asset to Elenor's court. That didn't mean he should be - well, badgered into service.
"I asked him in a letter the first two times," Elenor said quietly. "The third time, I went to him in person. I won't ask again."
"Why not, Lady?"
"He's a good man. He's got enough strength left to be a good husband if his Lady asks him to. But serving that-" The Queen caught herself as she visibly remembered who she was talking to. "The demands of serving in Lady Angelline's court...burned something out of him. I won't be the one to destroy what's left by pushing him."
Fear and doubt and curiosity roiled like clouds in the Queen's psychic scent, and Wilhelmina leaned forward. "Lady - just what happened to my grandmother?"
"I...suspect, but I don't know. I've felt - something - around her manor house, but the land won't speak to me there. Nobody knows, except maybe for Prince Philip. And he and Lady Leland are only waiting on my permission - and your visit - to move to a more distant part of the Territory."
Wilhelmina settled back, watching the Queen thoughtfully. "Are you going to give it to them?"
"Of course I am," she snorted. "What do you think I am, a - oh, never mind."
"Truthfully, I think you're precisely what Chaillot needs." If she could forge outraged aristos, terrified city-dwellers and stubborn farmers into one people. "But I don't know if what's left of my grandmother's court will be any help to you."
"Which brings us full circle," she said with a rueful smile. "Lady Benedict, you've got my permission to stay here. But one piece of advice..."
"Go home. To your old home. I don't know what's there, but...whatever decisions you have to make, I think it will help you with them."
In the end, she did more than that, and went with Diccan and Jhaliir on a cautious exploration of Beldon Mor. It wasn't easy for any of them; the males were edgy and alert, all their usual sniping discarded in their mutual need to be on guard. Jhaliir didn't even complain when Diccan used his darker Jewels to wrap the tiger in a sight shield; Wilhelmina didn't tell them that she didn't sense anyone, anywhere in the city, who could have penetrated even Jhaliir's Opal shield.
Even with the darker Blood gone, there was a sense of slow regrowth around the city. The streets were dotted with newly built taverns offering hot food, buildings being restored or torn down to make room for informal little parks and gardens, and open-air markets selling firewood, nuts, and whatever could be brought in from the countryside. It wasn't running smoothly yet, and it was nothing like the city she remembered, but it felt...better than she'd expected. New, almost.
Or maybe it was just the children - now that Elenor had called her attention to them, she couldn't help but see them everywhere. All cared for to one degree or another - warm clothing, if not necessarily clean, and though many were thin, none were painfully so. But Wilhelmina had to wonder what would happen to those whose needs went beyond the physical. She and Jaenelle both bore wounds from a childhood in Beldon Mor; Briarwood had been destroyed, but that was only the most visible symptom of a poison that had endured until Jaenelle cleansed it. Wilhelmina wasn't stupid enough to believe that no one else in Chaillot had suffered from that poison.
Tereille was better - and worse - off than she could have anticipated. But her old home was nothing she could have expected at all.
Quiet. Beldon Mor felt exhausted but somehow relieved, like a woman finished with weeping; the Angelline estate felt like someone too reserved to give in to tears at all. There were only the faintest traces of psychic scent around the outbuildings and servants' quarters, as if they'd been standing empty for a long time. But the manor itself - she pulled sharply away after extending a tentative probe toward the building she'd grown up in. Broken or not, Alexandra's emotions lingered all around the building, soaked into wood and stone. Anger, resentment, and a hint of stiff-necked sorrow...Wilhelmina threw up a hasty shield, before her grandmother's last emotions could stir any echoes within her.
*Mina?* Diccan's gentle query touched her mind at the same time that Jhaliir shed his sight shield and butted his head against her.
"I'm...well enough," she said to both of them. "Can we just walk for a few minutes?"
Whatever Elenor wanted her to see, it was escaping her, though what she did see was subtly wrong. The grounds were untended and ragged, more than they should have become in the short time since Alexandra's death, and Wilhelmina wondered fleetingly how many of the staff had deserted her grandmother when she came back broken from Kaeleer. But the earth itself was another story; Wilhelmina could never be as attuned to the land as a Queen, but even to her senses the soil pulsed with life. Even in the cold, grass was growing rampant around her, vines coiled up the walls and carefully-planted trees, and here and there she could catch flickers of color. Flower buds, in the dead of winter-
She took a slow, steadying breath. She knew now what Elenor had suspected about Alexandra's death, and why her family wished to talk to her.
It was a good thing they did, because she wanted very, very badly to talk to Philip. Leland couldn't have stopped this. But a Prince, an honorable man sworn to Alexandra's service...
Jhaliir rumbled under her hand, ears swiveling and tail lashing as he searched for whatever had disturbed her. Diccan just looked at her sharply, knowing that the trouble wasn't physical.
"I think I know what I was supposed to see now. I need to go-" home, she almost said, but the inn wasn't home. And home wasn't - quite - Kaeleer, and the Darkness knew it wasn't this hulk in front of her. "Back. I need to go back to the inn. We can talk there."
"You look fine," Diccan said reassuringly, while Jhaliir grumbled on a spear thread about human clothes and human customs and how no witch should need to change her fur to be taken seriously. Wilhelmina ignored them both, scowling at the dresses laid across the bed in her suite at the inn. It wasn't a question of how she looked; what mattered was that whatever she put on to meet her family, she still felt naked. But that wasn't something she could explain to Diccan, much less Jhaliir.
Mairin didn't even bother with explaining; she looked Wilhelmina over thoughtfully, glanced at the two males, and shoved them both out of the room. "All right," she said once they were alone, "it's not a question of the way you look - though the Darkness knows I can't see why you want to impress your kin - so what's wrong?"
Wilhelmina shrugged, annoyed with the nebulous discontent she was feeling. "It's not the clothes I'm wearing, it's - it's what the clothes say. Back in Kaeleer, nobody cares what a witch is wearing, but it's not like that here."
Mairin snorted. Wilhelmina frowned, trying to explain to herself why that idle observation felt important. The clothes she'd brought from Maghre were simple and comfortable but well-worn, and here in Terreille that meant "powerless". Any dress she could buy here in Beldon Mor would be frilly and childlike, and tell people she was harmless - or dramatic and revealing, and say that her only power came from the males she attracted. She didn't want either.
She didn't want to hide any longer.
She eyed the dresses again. "Mairin? Can you alter any of these for me?"
"Of course I can." She didn't quite sniff at the notion of being unable to alter a dress. "How many do you need in one piece?"
"Just one, so long as it's what I need." Wilhelmina outlined what she wanted; Mairin listened, frowned critically at the pile of dresses, then nodded to herself and snatched up her sewing kit. Prudently, Wilhelmina kept out of her way.
By the time Mairin was done, she'd stripped all the frills and froth off the least objectionable dress, sewn it into clean, simple lines, and added a touch of ornamentation designed to emphasize the Sapphire Jewel at Wilhelmina's neck. Nothing distracting, and nothing concealing, just a statement of the strength that came with being a dark-Jeweled witch.
Jhaliir didn't notice any change, but was pleased that she was finally content with her fur. Diccan looked her over more carefully, his eyes warm with affection and respect, and held his arm out for her. "M'Lady. Are you ready?"
She wasn't...but she was better, now. "We'll find out," she replied, tucking her arm through his.
They met Philip and Leland in a small park on the edge of Beldon Mor. Wilhelmina was grateful for the open space, for anything that would let her feel less trapped. Still, looking at the nearby streets, she began weaving Sapphire tendrils all around her, creating a subtle net of power that would deter any potential eavesdroppers.
Diccan caught her attention with a light touch on the arm when he saw the two of them approach, and Wilhelmina shook herself free of the spell she'd been building in time to greet her uncle and stepmother. Leland didn't look as bad as she'd feared - dressed far less elaborately than she remembered, but looking content. But Philip...she began to understand what Elenor had said about him. A psychic scent that she could only compare to the taste of ashes, lines of worry around his mouth and eyes, and something that might be guilt in the set of his shoulders - not surprising, if what she'd guessed about Alexandra were true.
Leland flinched, just a little, when Wilhelmina held out her hands in formal greeting. "We're still family," she protested.
"We are," Wilhelmina agreed. "But a lot of things have changed." All the tangle of love and resentment that had bound her for years, the pain of Alexandra's breaking and death, the utter silence after their return to Terreille...she wasn't angry at them, hoped they weren't angry at her, but she couldn't pretend it all away. "Have you been well, at least?"
Philip's face went very still; Leland flicked a glance at him and put on a determinedly pleasant expression. "Well enough. Things have been difficult since - since everything, but we're managing. People seem to believe that only Mother was responsible for Hayll's intrusion, and Bobby was to blame for Briarwood, so at least we've been safe."
Wilhelmina let out a sigh of relief. "I'd heard there was some unrest. I'm glad you weren't caught in it."
"We escaped the worst of it. In other Territories, whole courts died because of what their Queens had done."
"Not here," Philip said bitterly. "There was no one left here. After she came back broken, the whole court just drifted away by twos and threes - in the night, usually, not one of them with the courage to stand and sever the contract to her face."
Leland nodded. "Mother...withdrew. Kept to her rooms, barely came out even to eat, didn't try to hold on to what was left of the court. Maybe if she'd tried to fight-" She broke off, psychic scent rippling with grief and baffled anger.
It didn't surprise Wilhelmina. Alexandra's pride had kept her standing through decades of diminishing power, had driven her to fight as best she could against Hayll's subtle demands. But that same pride wouldn't have let her sacrifice her dignity and admit that she needed help.
She didn't want to ask. She had to ask. "What happened to her?"
"I didn't know," Philip said. "My word to the Darkness, I didn't know what she was thinking until it was over. She didn't have the Craft any longer to make us sleep, so she dosed the food and...went outside. At midnight. When I found her the next day, she'd opened her veins and walked as far as she could before she collapsed. It was far too late by the time I got there."
Queen's blood on the land. A Queen's lifeblood, and that more than explained the rich vitality of Alexandra's gardens. And with pride that couldn't unbend enough to apologize or even regret, perhaps it was Alexandra's only way to make restitution.
"If I'd known, I would have found a way to stop her," Philip said. "I would have. But I didn't realize-"
"Neither of us did," Leland said, and a little of Wilhelmina's worry for her uncle eased. Philip had nothing left to give, but it looked as though Leland would at least be able to give something back to him. "It wasn't your fault."
"I'm sorry," she said - more for Philip's pain than Alexandra's choice.
He nodded stiffly. "The new Queen doesn't hold us responsible for what happened to Alexandra." But I do, his eyes added silently. "She's given us permission to move to a remote Province, once you're done with your visit. Maybe I'll...I don't know. Take up farming. Something like that."
"There's a lot to do here in Beldon Mor," Wilhelmina said tentatively.
"There is. And I won't do any of it. Lady Elenor has things well enough in hand. If you want to help her, consider donating some of Alexandra's property to her."
Leland frowned. "Didn't you know? She left everything to you."
"Mother Night, what am I going to do with it?" Wilhelmina eyed the stack of papers she'd brought back to the inn as she might have watched a poisonous snake. She'd had to track the information from Alexandra's man of business, down through his apprentice, a clerk, and an underclerk in a dusty back office; Philip hadn't overstated the change in their fortunes.
"Keep it. Sell it. Give it away." Mairin picked up the documents, riffled through them, and absently stacked them before handing them back to Wilhelmina. "It's just land and some houses, nowhere near as difficult as dealing with your kin. What's upsetting you?"
"Whatever it is, we can work around it," Diccan said from the chair where he'd ducked to escape her pacing. "Lady Elenor can probably find you a trustworthy agent-"
Wilhelmina snorted. "Lady Elenor is scrambling for anybody trustworthy at this point. I'm not going to trouble her with anything else."
"Then what are you going to do?"
"I've got no idea." Wilhelmina huffed, but the question set her mind working regardless. "I've seen the grounds, and they need work, but I'll have to at least look at the manor house before I contact anyone about selling it. Just because I was - surprised-"
"Flabbergasted," Diccan murmured.
She looked at him sidelong; he grinned back unrepentantly.
"-doesn't mean that I want to be cheated. Or cheat anyone else."
*And you don't want to leave things unfinished,* he added on a thread meant for her mind alone.
She sent him back a flicker of warmth like a private smile, grateful for the understanding that calmed and challenged her at once. *No. I don't.*
Visiting her old home had been difficult the first time. Now, knowing how Alexandra had died and what all that rich greenery had sprung from, it was worse. But she lifted her head and walked through the empty grounds as carefully as she would have done in an unfamiliar Court. Though the buildings were in disrepair and the grounds untended, there was nothing wrong on any deeper level. Alexandra's blood had nourished more than the gardens; whatever lived here next would be likely to grow as strong and unblighted as the plants.
Examining the manor house was harder, though at least she was away from the immediate reminder of her grandmother's death. The memories here were worse but more distant - the last desperate months before she'd fled Beldon Mor, Jaenelle's rage and confusion, Alexandra's implacable expectations. Diccan caught something of it in her psychic scent or the set of her shoulders, and wrapped a comforting arm around her waist. But it was the feel of his mind she welcomed, the touch of his Sapphire power like a net ready to catch her if she fell.
"Is it all bad, m'Lady?" he asked. "I don't have any ties here - say the word, and I'll burn this place to the ground if it will ease you."
He was concerned, but the faint note of enthusiasm in his psychic scent was enough to make her chuckle. "I think I'll be all right without arson. And things were never good, but they weren't terrible until the very end. When I was younger..."
She trailed off. Graff had been horrible, but she remembered dancing practice with Leland and doing her lessons in the warmth of the kitchens. Hiding from Bobby in unused halls and back rooms; racing through those same halls in shrieking games of tag with Jaenelle. Alexandra's rigid expectations; Alexandra's pride when she showed Wilhelmina how to dress for formal court or let her watch the intricate dance of Protocol from the sidelines. As a girl, she'd always believed she'd grow up to be Lady of a house just like this one; some of it was romantic fancy, but Alexandra had made sure she was grounded in all the social and practical skills she'd need to do it. Budgeting, staffing, planning, all she'd need to make a safe, stable place for a family and the network of people who depended on them...
Maybe it was a flicker of power from her Black Widow mother's blood. Maybe it was her own intuition. But for a moment she saw the possibilities in her old home. Comfortable dormitories in the rooms that hadn't been used for decades, savory meals that could feed the children she'd seen running wild in Beldon Mor, trails crisscrossing the lush grounds that were carved by running feet and not by a gardener's plan. Briarwood and places like it had scarred this Territory almost beyond recovery; here, she could build something to begin healing those scars.
She could do it. She could. If she gave up what she'd built in Maghre and committed herself to this wounded Territory instead. She had resources Elenor didn't for dealing with the children that plagued the Queen, and enough knowledge of the taint they'd survived that the children might let her heal more than their bodies. She could see Jhaliir supervising the "kittens", Mairin using all her hearthwitch skills to the hilt, and Diccan - her lips tightened. Diccan, who'd come to Terreille only to guard her. Who walked the streets as if expecting an attack at any moment. Who'd been quivering-tense with bad memories and new fears since they'd crossed the Gate into Terreille.
He felt the tension in her mind or in her body. "M'Lady?"
"Diccan," she said after a moment. "I think I know what I need to do. But you're not going to like it."
"You don't make it easy, m'Lady. I've got to think." That was all Diccan had said, before brushing his lips lightly over hers and walking out of the inn. She'd felt the tension boiling off him, so tightly contained that a power lighter than the Sapphire couldn't have perceived it, and only just restrained herself from following after him. She couldn't - wouldn't - make him stay; she could only hope he chose to. So she'd spent the time since then attending to the business that she could attend to, including a hastily requested audience with Lady Elenor.
Possibly too hasty, Wilhelmina thought as Elenor dusted her soil-covered hands against her pants and stared at her. "I can't have heard you right."
"It didn't seem that complicated to me." Undiplomatic, but all she could muster after a restless night and a morning of planning with Mairin.
"No, it was pretty simple," Elenor agreed, hoisting a pile of papers out of the nearest chair and motioning Wilhelmina to sit down. The Queen's offices were in no better shape than they'd been the first time - then again, the Steward here had more to concern him than housekeeping. "When you first came here, it was with a letter saying you wanted to complete your business and then get back to your home in Kaeleer. Now you're telling me you want to immigrate?"
"With your permission, Lady." She'd never signed a formal contract with Morghann and didn't need her permission to leave Maghre, but she'd have to have Elenor's approval to remain in Chaillot longer than the few days she'd originally planned.
"What would possess you to want to come to a Territory with years of rebuilding ahead and nothing to offer?"
Wilhelmina thought of the plans she'd made with Mairin and the arguments with Diccan, but in the end what came out was, "I can help."
Elenor raised an expectant eyebrow.
"My grandmother's - the old house can hold most of the children you've been trying to house, and if I sell the outlying properties, we can afford to feed and clothe them for a long while." Quick decision it might have been, but that didn't mean she hadn't thought.
"All on your own?" Elenor was watching her through narrowed eyes.
"With my friends." Her court, she supposed, though a witch who wasn't a Queen set up her court along very different lines. "And I have some income outside of what my grandmother left me."
"Which will eventually run out." Elenor leaned forward, still watching her intently. "Truthfully, Lady, I need some assurance that this won't be a - a hobby for you, something you'll abandon when your interest runs out. And you will need some support when your resources run low. I'll give you permission to settle here if you're willing to sign a contract for Court service with me. Third or Fourth Circle, I think, would do."
High enough that the powers in Terreille would take her seriously; low enough that she wouldn't be expected to spend all her time in day-to-day service to the Queen. Elenor was more politically astute than she believed she was. Wilhelmina nodded. "Fair enough."
"This is a hell of a commitment you're looking at, Lady Benedict, for a Territory that you've got no reason to be grateful to. Why?"
It was the same thing Diccan had asked, and she gave the same answer. "It needs to be done, and I can do it. Maybe better than anybody else - I've seen some of the same rot these children have, and I can at least give them a safe place while they heal." Healer, Jhaliir's remembered voice whispered in her mind.
"And your escort? What does he think of your change of plans?"
Wilhelmina's chest tightened. "I don't know yet."
"What are you going to do if he's not willing to stay here?" Mairin asked, when Wilhelmina came back to the inn. She'd been restraining herself by sheer force of will from improving on Wilhelmina's packing, and had apparently decided that asking uncomfortable questions was preferable to sitting and fidgeting.
"The same thing I'll do if he is willing," she answered. "It'll just...be harder. I can - I can visit Maghre, at least, and maybe things will be all right. But I can't just leave, now that I've seen what needs doing here."
Mairin chuckled. "Are you sure you don't have some hearthwitch in you? You can't let a mess sit unattended any more than I can."
"Oh yes I can. You've seen my library."
"Well, no, not physically. But people, the way they work together-" Mairin shrugged. "This Territory of yours is in the biggest mess I've ever seen. Just means somebody needs to dig in and start fixing it before it gets worse."
"You make it sound easy."
"It's not. But it's good work. I'll be glad to help with it." Mairin hugged her, then gestured to the cases stacked near the door. "Now then, those Escorts that Lady Morgann sent with us know you're upset, and they're fretting about it. Let's give them something heavy to carry to distract them."
Packing aside, it was several days before Wilhelmina was able to get back to her grandmother's house - her house, now. Home, if she could make it one.
Diccan wasn't arguing with her any longer - she almost wished he would, but he was just silent, in mind if not in body. At night, he made love to her with an intensity that felt uncomfortably like farewell, and held her fiercely after. But whether he was out in the city or pacing their suite in the inn, he wasn't there any more than if he'd been a shadow. She wanted to reach out and test his temper with a private thread, but held herself back; whatever decision he reached, she had to let him make it alone. She hoped he could bring himself to leave his home for her; she wouldn't take the chance that he'd come to hate her for demanding it.
And in the days, she was almost too busy to worry; there was simply too much to do since Elenor had given her permission to immigrate. At the moment she was sitting in the shade outside the house, using a dainty chair and writing desk that had never been intended to see the outdoors. Jhaliir was lounging nearby - close enough for comfort, far enough that he could bask in the weak winter sun - and surveying the scene with slit-eyed contentment. *Good land. Good den,* he sent. *This will be a good place for kittens.*
"I wasn't precisely planning on kittens, you know."
*It is still a good den. And you and your mate can teach them to play and hunt as they should.*
She shied away from thoughts of her "mate" and glanced down at the stack of letters on the desk, hoping to distract herself from worries about Diccan. Letters to Mairin's mother and sister, inviting Dirdre to come and help with the children they'd be taking in; letters to Karla and Andra, and one to Morghann informing her of the change in Wilhelmina's plans. If things went well, the Escorts Morghann had sent would take them along when they returned to Kaeleer. If not, then Diccan could take them when he...went.
After a morning's worth of genteel bullying, Alexandra's former man of business had agreed to let his apprentice handle affairs with Wilhelmina; she thought she would be just as happy with the apprentice, especially after he'd drawn up a list of every unemployed carpenter and mason in the area. A good many of them were on the property now, building furniture, repairing what had deteriorated, and altering plans so the house could hold as many as it needed to. Mairin was keeping an eye on the builders, interviewing staff, and enjoying both roles to the hilt, while Wilhelmina split her time between the house and Elenor's court, trying to advise the Queen on the history and idiosyncrasies of Beldon Mor's aristos. It was only going to get harder when they were ready to take in the children - but when she remembered that fleeting vision of well-worn garden trails and a house grown shabby through active use instead of neglect, she couldn't quite be scared of the burden she'd taken on.
Well. Not too scared.
She folded the note to Morghann and was about to seal it when she felt Diccan's presence at the gates - calmer and less conflicted than he'd been in days, but shielded so tightly that she could sense no more of him than that. Jhaliir glanced up at her, then nudged her lightly and padded away. Wilhelmina bit her lip, told herself it was not the end of everything if Diccan walked away - she could visit, he could visit, things could always change - and walked to meet him.
He smiled when he saw her, and visibly gathered himself. Hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around her. "It's not going to be easy."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"I've sent Morghann my formal resignation. If you want me-"
"What do you think?" She scowled at him.
"-you've got me."
The tension went out of her in a single relieved breath, and she laid her head against his chest for a moment. "They need us here. And I need you. I don't want to take you away from your home-"
He huffed. "You're my home."
She couldn't stop the smile that grew as she stretched up to kiss him. "Welcome home."