“Tell me, Blade,” said Titus, who knew the answer perfectly well, “how old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” said Blade. He managed to not glance nervously over at Claudia, this time. If he had, he’d have seen her roll her eyes at her brother.
“Mm-hm,” said Titus, ignoring the eye-roll with perfect dignity. “And if I recall correctly--” which he did “--your father owns quite an impressive estate these days. You, on the other hand--”
“Oh, honestly, Titus!” cried Claudia, who has evidently reached her limit. “Stop being ridiculous. You know Blade doesn't have an estate, or a title, or any other nonsense. He’s got a dragon who teaches him magic and a lovely family and a nice personality and I like his face. Is all of this really necessary?”
“I’m sorry, Claudia, but as your brother it’s my solemn duty to ensure that your potential suitors feel as inadequate and wrong-footed as possible,” said Titus, at which point Blade began to realize he was being hazed. In a friendly sort of way, considering that Titus was Emperor of the South and had quite a large standing army at his beck and call, but hazed nonetheless.
“Is that why people’s stewards have been announcing me as ‘Blade Derktius Tertius’ all week?” Blade demanded. “Because that’s not my name, and it sounds ridiculous--”
“Well, it’s hardly my fault that here in the Empire we have proper naming conventions, that you northern barbarians ignore,” Titus said.
Fortunately, that was the point at which Isodel intervened. “Stop teasing him, dear,” she said. “You’re being dreadful. Here, take your daughter, she’s in a mood.” She shoved a baby, who would have been extremely sweet if her face wasn’t beet-red and scowling, at her husband. “Claudia, I was on my way to the orangerie, would you like to come along and let the boys puff up their feathers at each other?”
“Yes, please,” said Claudia, with evident relief. “Be nice,” she warned Titus, before taking Isodel’s arm and saying something in her ear that made them both laugh all the way out of the room.
Blade fixed Titus with a glare. Titus contrived to look innocent as he bounced the baby on his knee, and tried to sip his coffee without it being smacked away by a flailing little fist.
“In my defense,” Titus said, “the list of people at whose expense I can have even a little bit of fun, without starting a war or a treason plot, is vanishingly short. I don’t actually like to make fun of Claudia or Isodel, even if they wouldn’t mind, and I don’t see Lukin or Felim nearly often enough to get it out of my system.”
Blade, whose enormous number of siblings never hesitated to tease each other and never held grudges for too long, relented. A little, at least.
“Well, fine,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you need to grill me about my prospects like I’m some good-for-nothing fortune-hunter. I am the fifth strongest wizard in the world.”
“I thought you were fourth,” said Titus, unable to resist the opening.
“Old Policant bumped me down a spot,” Blade said resignedly. “It’s all right. I don’t hold it against him.”
“That’s very big of you,” Titus said, very solemn, and they gave up the argument in favor of making silly faces at little Junia until she smiled.
That afternoon, Blade went for a walk. Since Blade had something of a knack for translocation, the walk took him halfway across the continent before he fetched up at the edge of the Waste, which was still too big to cross in a single jump, and too dangerous to translocate into blindly, even for the fifth-most-powerful wizard in the world.
So he switched to ordinary walking, for a while, through copses of trees and down hillsides, and then through a long narrow valley with a pretty meadow running down the middle. This was where he ran across Querida, quite by accident.
“Oh, no, young man,” she said, as soon as she saw him. “Shoo! I was extremely clear: not until the summer holiday is over.”
“Oh! Sorry,” said Blade. “The University didn’t send me. I was just out for a ramble. Do you live all the way out here?”
“Yes, and I’ll thank you to ramble elsewhere,” Querida said. She looked annoyed with him, but that was nearly always the case, and Blade had never seen her annoyed with him and only him before. Usually she was annoyed about so many things at once that she hardly had any left to spare for him; compared to that, she now seemed positively serene.
“Why do you live all the way out here, anyway?” Blade asked, but he thought he’d worked the answer out before he finished the question. They were far from the Marshes, and far from the University, and far from anywhere else that might have any claim on Querida’s time or attention. Every adult wizard Blade had ever known, from his parents on down, bitterly resented anyone who tried to pull them away from their own work and studies.
“I’m enjoying my holiday,” Querida said, sure enough. “And I’m sure you have a home somewhere to go to. Now run along, I’ve work to do.”
Blade left her to it. But his return trip was a bit more thoughtful. He and Claudia had been courting for a little more than a year-- long enough that he’d spent time with her in the Empire and in the Marshes, and she at Derkholm with him. He’d just about wrapped up his work on the other continent, and once Claudia went back to the University for the next term, Blade suspected he was going to find himself at loose ends for the first time in a very long while.
But he had no great work to devote himself to, yet. No new creatures to invent, like Dad, or Waste to remediate, like Querida, or Moon to long for like poor Corkoran-- though in that case, the last Blade had heard, the man didn’t even go out of doors after dark any more if he could help it, and avoided looking at the sky.
Blade got back to the Imperial Palace a little before supper. He paused just inside the gates-- the legionnaires on duty saluted him, and of course they would keep calling him “my lord Derktius Tertius, sir!” --but Blade hardly noticed. He looked down the long colonnade, to the graceful pediments and arches of the Palace, the formal gardens laid out in serene and regular patterns.
“Hm,” said Blade. “Do I need a house?”
After Claudia returned to the University for the fall term, Blade decided he wanted to go visiting for a while. First, of course, he went home to Derkholm, which he found a little smaller than he’d left it.
This was meant entirely literally: for a long time his parents had left up the expansions they’d done for the last Pilgrim Party, much-altered of course. But with only Flo and Angelo still living at home anymore, they’d decided they didn’t need quite so much house. Derkholm was now nearly back to the size Blade remembered from when he was tiny, though there were a lot more outbuildings.
After the usual din of arrival, and once Flo had apologized for bowling him over and picked most of the feathers she’d shed off of his clothes, and after a rather hasty and thrown-together luncheon (“Well, dear,” Mara told him, “it’s not as though you warned us we were coming, and we usually only all sit down for supper, and Flo and Angelo are being such picky eaters at the moment--”) Blade discovered that he no longer had a bedroom.
“You dismantled my room?” Blade demanded.
“No! Well, only partly. There’s still bedrooms on the second floor, but we changed the layout so we have some proper guest rooms, and a playroom with a high enough ceiling,” said Dad. He didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed about it. “And we did box up anything you left that we thought you might want again; it’s all in the attic.”
Blade did not pitch a fit at this, because he wasn’t Kit or Shona, and it wasn’t as though he was going to be turned out in the street, or anything. He slept in the guest room. But he didn’t like it.
In the morning, Blade set out to visit Shona, who he hadn’t seen since spring. Shona and her husband had a tall, narrow townhouse that was deeper than it looked from the street, and it was crammed with interesting art and musical instruments and things that looked like they could be either one, or both.
Shona also had a guest room, which she said he was welcome to, “so long as you don’t mind the pianoforte, anyway. Can you stay for long? It does feel like it’s been ages since I saw you properly.”
But after a week Blade still wasn't sure they’d seen each other properly. Shona was always busy: with her children, with her work. It seemed like she and her husband hardly even saw each other except at mealtimes. On the fifth night Blade found himself pressed into service as baby-sitter, so Shona could have an evening out with her husband for, apparently, the first time in three months.
On the ninth night, Shona had a troupe of traveling musicians staying over after their performance. “Oh, we’ll make them fit,” she assured Blade. “You don't mind having the horn section on the floor in your room, do you?”
Blade decided he was urgently needed several hundred miles away, and ceded the bed to the back-up vocalists.
Except he really wasn’t urgently needed anywhere. That was the trouble. Not with the griffins on the other continent, who’d sorted nearly everything out and didn’t need his help with the last bits; and not at the University, where Claudia and Lydda had their studies and their friends, and hanging around made him feel weird and superfluous. And he didn’t have an all-consuming passion yet, like most wizards did; he felt, Blade admitted, like a great unsightly tangle of loose ends.
“Young man, I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” said Querida, annoyed as ever. “If you must go on so, kindly make yourself useful.”
So Blade spent the rest of that day, and the next few days that followed, helping Querida turn bits of the Waste back into safe and unsorcelled territory. Sludgy pools of poisonous murk were, with some effort, returned to ordinary springs and pools; a grove of carnivorous trees became inoffensive beeches and elms once again. They spent a whole afternoon clearing a hillside of razor-edged sawgrass and deadly nightshade, and by the time the sun began to set had uncovered the foundations of a house, long since destroyed.
“Did someone live here before the tours started?” Blade asked Querida.
“In the Waste? Yes,” she said. “Though not on this particular spot. This, I think, is much older.”
“Hm,” said Blade, and in the morning he translocated back to the University, to ask the librarian for some maps.
Flury found him there a little after lunch. “Architecture, really?” he asked, looking over the stack of books Blade had amassed.
“Mm-hm,” Blade said, not looking up. “H’lo, Flury. Do you know anything about greenhouses?”
“Well, you need a lot of glass for them,” Flury ventured. Blade waved this off dismissively.
“Dad’s got loads of things at Derkholm I can use for materials, that’s not the trouble. Tell me, do you have any strong opinions on roofing materials?”
Some weeks later, Blade was woken by Kit shoving his entire head and shoulders into the pavilion Blade was using as living quarters during construction, and shouting at him.
“Where in seven hells have you been?” Kit demanded, bristling all over. “No one’s heard from you in over a month! Dad resorted to sending pigeons to everyone who might have seen you, and it was only dumb luck that he thought to include one for Querida! And I had to sit through ten minutes of her scolding me for not keeping better track of my siblings and involving her in-- and I quote-- ‘our nonsense’!”
Blade blinked up at Kit, trying to adjust from having been dead asleep two minutes previous. “Er,” he said. “I may have been a bit preoccupied.”
Kit glowered at him, but at least he backed out of the tent so Blade had room to sit up. Blade threw some warmer clothes on. The days had been getting colder, he now realized, but he’d put a keep-warm spell on the tent and all the finished bits of the house, so he hadn’t noticed.
When Blade emerged, he found Kit sitting back on his haunches, studying Blade’s work. The house didn’t look like much, yet, even Blade would admit. He’d spent the first few weeks pushing the edges of the Waste back to a safe distance, before he started building anything. This had, at least, improved the view: instead of being half-shrouded in menacing undergrowth and commanding a view of withered, clawing branches, the house now stood just below the top of a grassy, sloping hill, with a scattering of mature trees around it and stands of white beeches flanking the bottom of the slope.
The original house had been partly built into the hill, which Blade was taking advantage of, though finding the right placement for the orangerie had given him fits. Eventually he’d gotten it, and so far it was the only finished part of the house.
Otherwise, he had a first floor, though he kept changing his mind about the windows; he had part of a second, though he couldn’t decide how tall to make the turret. Some of the stone was from Derkholm, and some was the lighter, grayer stone the original foundation had been built from. He still hadn’t made up his mind about the roof.
“The greenhouse isn’t bad,” Kit admitted, but grudgingly. Blade accepted this for the concession it was. “How’d you get the iron to cooperate?"
Blade had, with some difficulty, given the orangerie an arched roof wrought from a lattice of branching iron supports. The flat panes of glass between them made the whole thing look like an enormous faceted gem when it caught the light right, and Blade was enormously proud of it.
“There’s a trick to it,” he told Kit. “I’ll show you, if you like. And I wouldn’t mind a bit of advice on the house itself, to be honest.”
“Not until you’ve explained where this sudden passion for architecture came from,” Kit said.
“Ugh,” said Blade. “Can I have breakfast first?”
Blade had been translocating to the nearest town most mornings, but their sole café was decidedly not griffin-sized. But Kit had a hamper from Lydda with him (“in case I found you starving in a ditch somewhere,” he said, glowering again) so they went and sat in the orangerie to eat.
“I needed something to do, that’s all,” Blade explained. “And Mum and Dad dismantled my room, so I needed a place to do it from. And this used to be part of the Waste, so no one really owns it-- I checked, and the people who owned the land before the tours don’t have any heirs. And-- well-- I thought it might be a nice surprise, for Claudia.”
Kit tipped his head to one side, considering this. “Fair enough,” he said. “But you can’t just vanish for weeks at a time, you know. Lydda and Callette and Don have been absolutely pelting me with anxious letters, and Elda tried to skip her exams to help me look.”
Blade felt a sinking, unhappy pit open up in the bottom of his stomach. “I really am sorry,” he said. “Everyone’s been so busy. I was rather enjoying being busy too, but that’s not an excuse for disappearing.”
“No, it isn’t,” Kit agreed, but he stopped bristling at Blade after that.
After they’d eaten, Blade and Kit went back outside, to look at the house. “So, any suggestions?” Blade asked.
“I suggest you ask Claudia what she wants her house to look like,” Kit said. “At least, if you want her to live in it for any length of time.”
“...Oh,” said Blade, feeling very stupid. He’d imagined presenting her with the finished house as a grand romantic gesture, but Claudia wasn’t the sort of person who wanted to be handed something like that, and be expected to like it just as it was. She would have all sorts of ideas. Also, the thought of working with her on a big magical project like this appealed much more than tearing his hair out over roofing while trying to guess what kind of staircase Claudia would like best.
So Blade accompanied Kit back to the University, where he endured a thorough scolding from Elda and a shorter, but more upsetting, one from Claudia, whom he had neglected to write to for several weeks along with everyone else.
“In my defense,” he said, “I was working on a surprise for you.”
And when the term was over, he and Claudia bundled themselves up in layers of keep-warm spells, and went to see the house.
It had snowed while he was gone, and Blade was relieved to see that the spell-bubble currently serving as a roof on the second floor had held. The greenhouse had already melted itself free, and caught the light just the way Blade had intended.
“Er, it’s not finished,” Blade said. “But I was hoping you’d build the rest of it with me?”
Claudia was looking at the house with a funny expression on her face, one that Blade couldn’t quite make out. “Where are we right now?” she asked.
“Sort of a long way from anywhere,” Blade said. “I can show you on a map. This used to be part of the Waste, you see. It’s a bit of a long trip to the Marshes, I’m afraid, and nearly as far to see Titus, but--”
“It’s perfect,” Claudia said, and threw her arms around him.