Cold fire the spiritwalk.., p.14
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       Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy), p.14

           Kate Elliott
 

  I grinned. “This coach is a passageway between the worlds. One door leads into the spirit world. But that one leads back to our world. We’ll jump out and run for it.”

  I scooted over to the other door. Sliding my sword half out of its sheath, I sliced a stinging, shallow cut in my right hand. I grasped the latch, smeared blood on it, and pushed down.

  The latch bit me.

  I yelped, jerking back my arm. Three tiny puncture wounds in the back of my hand prickled red with my blood. The latch glowered, having acquired a dour, brassy gremlin face as wide as my hand and as thin as a finger. Incisors sparked as if tipped with diamond. A thread of a tongue licked along the brass, and my blood vanished.

  Bee slid her knife from the knit bag and, with all her considerable strength, chopped where the latch was attached to the door. The blade thunked, and bounced off. The force of the blow redounded back up her arm. She cried out, dropping the knife as she doubled over.

  “We’ll see about that!” I cried, fully drawing my sword.

  The nasty little gremlin latch-face winced.

  The coach slammed to a stop so abruptly I was thrown back against the seat and Bee thrown forward, narrowly missing my unsheathed blade and banging her knees. The coach rocked violently. The door to the spirit world was flung open to reveal the coachman.

  “Out,” he said.

  It wasn’t that he looked angry. He didn’t look angry. It was just that I was suddenly sure he could yank both my arms out of their sockets if I did not obey. Not that he would want to, or would enjoy the act, but that he could.

  Bee’s face was a grimace of pain as she tried to uncurl her fingers. “My hand! My arm!”

  “Out.”

  We got out. I sheathed my sword as we huddled together at the side of the road. Bee had left the knife behind in the coach but made no attempt to dart back inside to grab it. She could not open or close her left hand. The knit bag sagged at her hip. He got in, and we heard him talking and a soft buzzing voice in reply, but no words I knew, nothing I could understand.

  The eru strolled over. Her two ordinary eyes gazed at me; her third eye narrowed, as at a nastily ugly sight, on Bee.

  “I’m not sorry we’re trying to save my cousin’s life,” I said.

  “He is slow to anger,” she said in a reflective tone. “But one thing will do it: assaulting his coach or his horses.”

  “I thought the coach and horses must belong to the master,” I said.

  “No more than he does. No less than he does. No more than my wings belong to the master, and no less than they belong to me.”

  He hopped out and regarded us for such a long time with such a steady stare whose emotions I could not possibly guess at—not anger, not sympathy, not rage, not pity—that Bee began to snivel, as if she had at last reached the end of her rope.

  He said, “The door into the mortal world is locked.”

  “What do you expect from us?” I burst out. “You can’t expect us to lie down and give up.”

  He said, “Go sit on warded ground. I’ll make tea.”

  He indicated a fire pit ringed by a low inner wall of bricks and an outer circle of marble benches. A fire burned. A lofty tree with red bark and white flowers shaded one side of the pit; there was also a granite pillar and a stone bowl from whose center burbled clear water. Bee and I sat side by side on a bench as the coachman brought over a kettle, filled it at the bowl, and set it across an iron grating over the flames. He carried two full buckets to water his horses. The eru flew ahead, scouting. Passed through the storm, we had reached the hills.

  “It’s a triangle,” said Bee.

  “What is?” I asked, watching the ease with which the eru flew, her smoky wings skimming the air. I had first seen her in the guise of a male human footman, booted and coated for winter, and it was not so easy to shake that image from my mind to see her as female.

  “The tree, the spring, and the pillar form an equilateral triangle,” said Bee. “I wonder if the form creates the ward.”

  “I think there has to be a tree, a stone, and water,” I said, remembering the djelimuso Lucia Kante’s fire. I had sheltered there, argued with Andevai, and met Rory. I had told her stories from my father’s journals, the price I had to pay so she would tell me how to leave the spirit world.

  Bee massaged her left hand with her right. “Did you see that sneering face on the latch?”

  “The one that bit me? Of course I did!”

  Around us lay open forest, trees spaced apart and grass and bushes grown thickly in the gaps. Four big animals trotted into view and settled onto their haunches to leer at us. They looked something like what a dog and a cat and a pig would look like if smashed together, with coarse short hair and hind legs shorter than their forelegs. They had the teeth of carnivores and the gazes worn by the coldhearted who have nothing better to do than plot the ruin of all they see. When the coachman looked at them, they ambled out of sight, but I had a feeling they were hiding in a tangle of undergrowth, waiting hungrily.

  Bee pulled her sketchbook out of her bag and paged through it.

  I identified the faces of young men, studies from life, some shaded to fine detail and others a few deft lines that caught an essence. “Maester Lewis. That good-looking Keita lad whose family left for New Jenne. Here’s that laughing bootblack Uncle Jonatan scolded you for flirting with.”

  She turned another page without replying.

  I went on, unable to bear her silence. “Now we’re at summer solstice, when the Barry family arrived at the academy. My! Isn’t Legate Amadou Barry pretty? To think all those months we thought him a student at the academy, when instead he was a Roman spy. Do you suppose he was spying only on us? Or are there other pupils from disreputable families worth investigating?”

  “I’m not the only one who has endured an unpleasant romantic interlude, Cat. I won’t hesitate to remind you of yours if you don’t stop teasing me about mine.”

  The unyielding rigidity of her tone convinced me to change the subject. “Here’s Cold Fort. With Amadou Barry standing at the gates—​not that I mean anything by mentioning him! Is this from the dream that made you ask him to look for me there?”

  “Yes. Last summer I began to realize that sometimes I would dream an ordinary event, like people meeting at a shop or a fruit seller’s wagon overturned at an intersection. Later I would encounter the very thing. Or hear it had happened, like when Banker Pisilco was rude to a troll at the Merchant’s Exchange and the troll had to be restrained from killing him by its companions.”

  “I can see that might be disturbing,” I said cautiously. “I wish you had told me.”

  She wasn’t really listening. “I don’t think walking the dreams of dragons is divination, seeing into the future.”

  “That’s what the mansa thinks it is,” I said.

  “I think it’s a way to find things. So the question is, what I am trying to find?” Her expression reminded me of the brooding of clouds before a storm. “Did it ever occur to you, Cat, to wonder why we act the way we do?”

  “I often wonder why you act the way you do!”

  She rolled her eyes, and I was cheered by her brief smile. “You know what I mean. Why should I obey the strictures we’ve always been told must fence in our lives? We must learn the skills appropriate to Hassi Barahal women. We must marry to oblige the family. We must serve the house by bearing children and by carrying out all orders given by the elders. Travel to a new city and spy on a princely household? Very well. Take a position as a governess or factotum and serve the clan that way? Shiffa and Evved are as deep in the family business as my parents are. My parents threw you away to save me because they were told to do so.”

  I swallowed a lump in my throat. Bad enough that Uncle Jonatan had betrayed me by handing me over to Four Moons House, but for my beloved Aunt Tilly to have gone along with it was a knife in my heart I could never shake loose.

  “I can’t expect to be like my mother,” she went on.
“She married where the family told her to marry, to a man she does not love and never expected to love. She has never complained, although she does not always approve of what Papa does and says. For the sake of the clan she gave birth to three daughters—”

  “She loves you!”

  “Yes, she loves me, and Hanan, and Astraea. And despite everything, she loves you, Cat. That’s why it’s so unpardonable that she betrayed you. But she serves as she was brought up to serve. I can’t. The dreams that bind my life have changed everything for me.”

  I took her hand in mine. I had nothing to say. There was nothing to say.

  “So I ask again. Why should I feel bound to strictures that won’t protect me from being torn to pieces by the Wild Hunt and having my head thrown in a well?”

  “Bee, that’s such a horrible thought. Why are you blushing like that?”

  The rosy glamour creeping into her cheeks brightened. “In ancient days, Kena’ani girls like us could offer their first night to the goddess, at Her temple.”

  “Which, if you recall, is why the Romans called us whores.”

  “I don’t care what lies the cursed Romans told! The point is, those girls could give their first night to whomever they wanted. So why shouldn’t I take Amadou Barry as a lover?”

  “Bee!”

  She skewered me with her gaze. “I might be dead tomorrow!” Her fingers brushed across an infatuated portrait of Amadou Barry: the tight curls of his cropped hair, his pretty eyes, the single gold earring, the gracious smile on his lips. “Don’t you wonder, Cat? I saw you kiss him.”

  “I did not kiss Amadou Barry! He’s very pretty, but not what I look for in a man. And after the way he spoke to you, I’m surprised you still think of him—”

  “You know who I mean! I saw you kiss the cold mage!”

  I hated blushing. “Of course I wonder! But if I were to…bed Andevai, then I’d belong to Four Moons House. I’d be trapped.”

  “He seems very loyal to you. Likely to treat you kindly. You would live well.”

  “In a gilded cage? Can you even imagine Rory at Four Moons House? Oh, Bee, I had so hoped we would find shelter with the radicals. I was shocked to my heart when Camjiata showed up and said those troubling things. Honestly, Bee, didn’t you find it creepy that his wife had seen you and me in her dreams?”

  “Once I would have.” She closed the sketchbook. “Not now. If we can escape from these two, maybe we can track down your sire and he can help us get out of the spirit world.”

  “Coming to the spirit world was the worst idea I ever had and I’m grateful to you for not reminding me of how stupid it was! Haven’t you asked yourself yet, who spoke through Bran Cof  ’s mouth? Someone who could put me under a compulsion? Someone Bran Cof called ‘my tormenter’?”

  “Bran Cof is obviously not the best judge of character. He compared me to an axe.”

  “So did Camjiata’s wife.” I drew the sketchbook off her lap and opened it to a picturesque drawing of a summer carpentry yard where half-dressed and well-built men worked. “You were magnificent, Bee.”

  “I was, wasn’t I? I couldn’t believe he fell for the old ‘I don’t think he knows’ trick.”

  I laughed, too. “He was an awful old lecher. I wish we knew what the headmaster wants, and who he is! At least I can imagine Rory will survive a while in Adurnam without us. No doubt he already has women arguing over who gets to feed and pet him.”

  She chuckled, then snatched the sketchbook off my lap and stuffed it into the bag. “Oh, la! How thirsty I am!”

  The coachman approached, carrying four mugs, a tin basket, and a small white ceramic pot in the shape of a boar with a pair of tusks for spouts. He busied himself measuring tea leaves out of the tin basket and into the pot.

  “I suppose it’s difficult to run away from things that fly,” Bee said, looking for the eru.

  “I suppose it is,” he agreed as he poured water from the kettle into the pot to steep. “Not to mention the four hyenas awaiting you in the bush, if you proved so unwise as to leave warded ground and strike out on your own.”

  Bee said, with cool politeness, “Is hyenas what you call them?”

  “There are other names. Like most creatures, they don’t always wear the same clothing, but their souls don’t change.”

  “Have they been following us?” I asked. “We saw four wolves. Then four kingfishers.”

  He set down the kettle on stone and covered the pot. “It is certainly possible they are the same souls in different clothing, hunting you.”

  “Why do the creatures here attack my cousin?” I asked.

  His blue eyes had the remote intensity of the winter sky, but his gaze did not seem unfriendly. “She is the servant of the enemy.”

  “That’s no answer,” retorted Bee. “It doesn’t really explain anything.”

  The lines at his eyes crinkled, although his lips did not smile. “It is an answer, but not the one you wish you had. What you do not understand is that I cannot speak as I might wish to speak, because I belong to the one who breathed life into me.”

  “You belong to the gods?” Bee asked.

  “I belong to the one who owns my breath.”

  I nudged Bee. “The headmaster’s assistant said that, about goblins losing their breath.”

  “You’ve seen a goblin!” The coachman’s lips parted in almost comical astonishment.

  Bee looked at him, then at me, a question in the lift of her brows.

  “What do you know about goblins?” I asked.

  “The goblins are my makers. But it is my master who owns my breath.”

  “Your makers!” Yet when I thought about the clockwork troll, and the lifelike statues waiting in ranks underground, I wondered if he might be not flesh and blood, even though he looked exactly like a man, but something far stranger.

  “Cat, close your mouth.” Bee twisted the strap of the knit bag through her fingers as she addressed him. “The creatures here don’t like dragons because the tides of dragon dreams keep changing this world. They can smell dragons on me because I walk the dreams of dragons in the mortal world. That’s why they call me the servant of the enemy. But I’m not.”

  “You cannot escape what you are,” he said.

  “What are you?” Bee demanded.

  “I am a coachman.”

  “You work as a coachman. Surely that is not all you are,” she insisted.

  “You may think this part of my body”—he touched his chest—“is the only part, because you are confined in a single body. But this is only one part of me. The horses and the coach are the rest of me. So when you take a knife or a sword to my person, naturally I will defend myself.”

  As with one thought, Bee and I looked toward the coach and four horses steaming on the road, and then at each other with raised eyebrows, and then back at him.

  “Tea?” He poured out four cups. One he took over to the pillar, where he emptied its steeped contents at the base. Returning to the fire, he handed a mug to Bee and one to me.

  Bee found her voice. “Food and drink in the spirit world may pose a risk for us.”

  He took the fourth. “This tea will offer no harm to either of you, and may do you some good.”

  I cupped hands around the mug’s warmth. “You saved my life once. Can you promise me you will save my cousin’s life, if it comes to that?”

  “It is not my intention to see her come to harm. But I cannot promise what I cannot be sure I can deliver. I will do what I can. That is what I promise.”

  “Why would you alone of the creatures of the spirit world not wish me to come to harm?” asked Bee in a low voice.

  “I was not created in the spirit world.” He sipped from his mug as he glanced toward the road. What hands had built that road? “But you may call it kindness, if you wish.”

  I crossed to the pillar, spilled a few drops as an offering, and drank the rest. The brew tasted of drowsy summer afternoons adrift in a field of flowers. How tired I w
as! I lay down on the bench, and as soon as I pillowed my head on my hands, my eyes closed. Bee sighed, trying to say my name.

  The world faded as the drugged tea took hold. We had been betrayed.

  12

  How had I come to find myself standing beside Andevai, on a ship in the middle of the ocean? He was leaning on a railing, looking queasy, his mouth drawn tight. A female hand as black as his own wiped his sweating forehead with a stained kerchief. It had to be a dream, because he was wearing homespun laborer’s trews and an ill-cut wool tunic badly dyed in a squamous nettle green, nothing like the flashy, expensive, fashionable clothes he spent so much effort on wearing decoratively, as Lord Marius had said. How fortunate Bee had not been there to hear Lord Marius’s comment, for certainly no mention of Andevai would then have passed without a reference to decoration. Where had she been that she had not heard? Where was she now?

  “Bee?” It was my own voice mumbling. I opened my eyes.

  For an instant, utterly disoriented, I thought myself back in the bedchamber Bee and I had shared in the house on Falle Square. If the bed were as cold as stone and twice as hard.

  No, I no longer had a home. No place was safe.

  Bee slumbered on the next bench, the rise and fall of her chest as steady as a clock’s pendulum. Above, the sky remained a leaden blue-gray color. It might have been an hour or a day we had slept there, and by the creased state of my skirts and the rumpled mess of Bee’s hair, I would have called it closer to a day than an hour.

  We hadn’t been drugged; we had just been exhausted. I felt rested, and absolutely gut-gnawingly starving. I heard murmuring over by the stone bowl, so I let my hearing take wing.

  “I think we should help them,” the coachman was saying in a low voice. “The master expects us to bring the little cat. I see no reason we should bring him the other one, too.”

 
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