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A Midwinter's Tale

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Isyllt had never noticed, until the chirurgeons of the Arcanost put a metal plate in her hand and resewed her flesh over it, how blasted cold it got in Erisín in winter.

In part her previous indifference was a consequence of her chosen profession; necromancy was a chilly business, particularly forensic necromancy, which often involved spending extended periods of time in well-chilled morgues and necropolises examining corpses. Isyllt was young and healthy, and to some extent she had become inured to cold over her years of apprenticeship and practice.

But after Symir her indifference was shattered. The city’s moist wet heat had been a stifling blanket, despite the air conditioning spells in most of the buildings, but once back in Erisín she found she’d adapted to the humidity: the capital was too dry.

Though Isyllt readjusted to the weather in her home after a few weeks, her hand did not. She’d already lost almost all feeling in the two withered fingers, a development that, perversely, she welcomed, since it augured eventual freedom from pain. But the metal plate nestled between her bones and sinews was still very much capable of making its presence felt, and it did so at every change in the air pressure or humidity. Which, given the variability of the same in a coastal city at northern latitudes, happened frequently.

Isyllt was long accustomed to the cold ache that could and did emanate from her cabochon black diamond ring, on her left hand, but she’d now acquired a matching yet completely different ache in her right, and it was…wearing. She’d known immediately after the injury that her hand would never be the same, and she’d been right, but she hadn’t understood what that meant at all. The glove she’d taken to wearing on her right hand did nothing to assuage the dull throbbing, though it did keep people from glancing back at her in the street with shocked looks.

She met Adam one last time in a wine shop near the Arcanost a few days before the solstice, less because they actively desired each other’s company than because each understood at least some of what the other had felt and done in Symir, which couldn’t be said of most people in Erisín. Even Kyril couldn’t look at Isyllt without an expression of guilt flitting across his face, which angered her: she’d gone to Symir and been injured of her own free will. What right did he have to take responsibility for what had happened to her, when she’d had free choice to accept or decline the mission?

These thoughts swirled in her mind as her boots crunched through the rimed ice beginning to form over stray puddles on the pebblestones outside the wine shop, both her hands gloved against the weather and tucked deep inside her dark cloak. Gloves and cloak were no help against the bright stars of pain in her right hand, matching the stars twinkling in the dark sky above.

But the interior of the wine shop was lit by the golden glow, and warmth, of a wood fire, and when she stepped inside and threw back the hood of her cloak she saw Adam had snagged the table next to the hearth. He raised a hand in greeting, the light glinting dully on his bright hair, and she nodded to him and made her way across the room.

The wine was mulled, and after several cups of it, interspersed with a simple but delicious accompaniment of cheese and olives, Isyllt realized that she didn’t feel the bright cold metal in her hand distinctly, though it could have been the warmth of the cup as well as that of the drink that did it. She glanced at her hand, as though the difference would be visible, and Adam caught the motion.

“Does it bother you much?” he asked, nodding toward her hand, which now rested on the table next to her cup.

“Sometimes,” Isyllt replied, which was enough truth for most people. “Lately, a lot.”

He nodded. “I can still feel changes in the weather in some of my old injuries. I imagine that’ll hurt like a demon at this time of year.”

She snorted a little at his choice of analogy. “More like a ghost,” she said, snaring another olive with her right hand; she’d deliberately put the left in her lap when she sat down. The last thing she needed was to lose what function the hand still did have by coddling it. “It feels like cold fire, sometimes.”

Adam took another drink of his wine, and Isyllt thought that she’d probably reached the extent of his sympathy. She found his unsentimentality refreshing; too many people she knew in the city still had nothing but pity for her, whether over Kyril or her hand or both. It would take time, years maybe, before they forgot about either.

“So what will you do?” she asked instead. “Are you staying in Erisín for the solstice festival?”

The mercenary shrugged, the firelight twinkling on his piercings. “I might,” he said. “If I do, I’ll head out immediately afterwards.”

“Where to?”

He shrugged again with one shoulder, selecting a chunk of cheese with his other hand. “Not sure yet,” he said. “But I am sure that it’s time to go.”

Isyllt nodded, not quite willing to vocalize the tendril of envy uncurling inside her, that he could leave so simply and cleanly. She had chosen a home, and all the complicated loyalties that went along with owning one.

They drained another flagon of wine between them in companionable silence. Around midnight, Adam stood up and retrieved his cloak from its hook on the wall. “Farewell, Isyllt Iskaldur,” he said formally. “It was good working with you. Hilare festum brumalis.”

The necromancer put her gloves back on her hands, first the left and then the right, and smiled darkly. “Hilare festum brumalis tibi, Adam. Farewell.”