Cold fire the spiritwalk.., p.36
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       Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy), p.36

           Kate Elliott
 

  “This is the servers’ stair,” he said, pulling the curtain aside to reveal a narrow stairwell illuminated at the top by one of the cobo hood gas lamps. The curtain slithered down behind us just as the lamp’s flame was sucked dead by Vai’s presence. Shrouded in the darkness of a stifling, windowless space, I halted to let my eyes adjust.

  A wan spark of light caught and expanded like blown glass to the size of a fist.

  “Oh!” I breathed, for the cold fire he could call never ceased to dazzle me.

  Concentration creased his brow. He shaped the light until it appeared as a pewter holder with a candle framed by glass. Even the flame had a pulse and ripple.

  “So beautiful,” I said in wonderment.

  “Yes,” he murmured, brushing fingers lightly down my cheek, for he was now looking at me, not at the illusion. I caught in a breath because I thought he was going to kiss me, but instead he stepped back and took my hand. “Upstairs.”

  We climbed to a curtain made of long strings of beads. The beads rustled and clacked together as we pushed past into a corridor that ran the length of this floor, with closed doors on either side that led to private parlors. The corridor stood open—unwalled—at either end. The night breeze tickled down its length. At the far end, guarding the main stairs, a burly man with a bandaged head looked our way. He headed for us. He was wearing a singlet over trousers, and his arms were so corded with muscle I expected he could lift me with one and Vai with the other.

  “Yee shall be the maku fire bane we have heard so many tales of.” He did no more than glance at the “candle” Vai was holding, seeing the illusion as real. By its nacreous light, I saw he had a pair of shockingly green eyes in a face otherwise Roman in its features. “Who is the gal?”

  “This woman is my wife.”

  “The gal was not invited, maku.” His appraising gaze lingered too long on my chest.

  Vai stepped between us. “I said, she is my wife.”

  A kind of heat flared that had nothing magic about it as the two men stared each other down. Vai did not have Kofi’s height. Although he had a carpenter’s back and arms and a dancer’s build, that was no match for the guard’s powerful girth and loose boxer’s stance, ready to land a punch. An eddy chilled around us as my laughing, teasing Vai transformed into the arrogant cold mage who had hammered the mansa to his knees. The guard gave ground with a startled look.

  “Which door?” said Vai in an imperious tone that was not really a question.

  A woman dressed in the local way appeared from the main stairs, fanning herself with a pamphlet which she lowered the instant she saw us.

  “Thank Ma Jupiter yee have come, Jasmeen,” said our guard. “Yee’s late.”

  “Who is this, Verus?” Her glance at me was swift and dismissive; she looked Vai up and down in the same way the guard had just measured me. “Surely the fire bane. Who is the gal?”

  “His wife, he say,” said Verus.

  “She was not invited,” said Jasmeen, pausing before a door, “although we heard a tale about the maku fire bane’s lost woman providentially washing up on the jetty.”

  “What did you hear?” asked Vai, gaze narrowing.

  Jasmeen was a handsome woman of middle years, old enough to have adult children and yet young enough that she might think about bearing more if the appreciative look she gave Vai was any indicator of her state of mind. She smiled, amused by my frown. “We hear everything. Let her come in.”

  We entered a pleasant chamber with a long table and chairs set just inside the door, and divans and wicker chairs spaced along a row of open doors that let onto a balcony. The remains of a meal had turned the table into a complex pattern of abandoned platters and bowls plundered of their riches. The woman crossed to the divans and chairs, where she greeted the personages already in the chamber: three humans and three trolls; she made a seventh.

  They watched Vai and me approach. The only illumination came from Vai’s illusory candle. Its pearlescent glow cast strangely distorted shadows along the crests of the three trolls and across the faces of the three rats. One was a vigorous-looking old man, the second a middle-aged man with such a pleasant expression and calm smile that I was instantly suspicious of him, and the third the young woman I had seen at Aunty’s gate the night before and walking with Kofi at the areito earlier this evening.

  “This is the fire bane, Livvy?” said the old man, looking at the young woman.

  “Yes, ’tis he,” Livvy answered. “Hard to mistake once yee have seen him. The gal is he lost woman.”

  “She is the one yee other associate don’ trust?”

  “Yes, the very one.” She considered me with a frown that shaded rueful, as if she was sorry to have to say such a thing. I was certainly sorry to have to hear it!

  “Very well. Yee may remain for the meeting, Livvy.”

  “Me thanks, Grandfa’.” She retreated to a chair in the shadows where she sat with hands clasped, leaning toward the conversation as toward a long-anticipated treat.

  Outside, the long moan of a conch sounded. A high-spirited brawl had overtaken the wide deck while drummers out on the plaza started up a driving rhythm.

  The old man sighed. “What is done is done. Sit, if yee please.”

  Vai pretended to set the candle on a shelf by the window, although its light was surely too bright for anyone to be fooled into believing that it was real. We sat on a divan placed perpendicular to the others. The woman with the pamphlet, Jasmeen, sat between the men.

  “Ooo. Elegant jacket,” said one of the trolls, by the brilliance of his crest likely elderly and male. He was flanked by two younger trolls, one of whom I guessed to be female by her larger stature. About the other I could not tell. “Silk. That pattern look like shiny chains. I love shiny chains.”

  “Thank you,” said Vai so coolly I could tell he was pleased.

  The elderly troll’s gaze flicked to me and then to my cane. He showed his teeth but made no comment. The old man and Jasmeen were looking at me the way hungry people look at food that is spoiled. The other man watched with that vaguely pleasant and thereby ominous smile.

  The old man spoke. “Ja, maku, this is not a philosophical society where friendly debate is served along with beer and supper in a public venue. I don’ like that yee is told yee may meet with us, and then yee bring this gal without permission.”

  “She is my wife. I have kept nothing from her.”

  “She know why yee’s come to Expedition?”

  “She knows everything.”

  “That yee was sent here to assassinate General Camjiata?”

  “That I was sent here to stop him from returning to Europa, by whatever means necessary. Yes, she knows.”

  Jasmeen waved the pamphlet in Vai’s direction. “Our committee have taken a considerable chance in meeting with yee tonight. We have done it at short notice so as to protect we own selves from arrest and, most importantly, to protect the cause of liberty which we champion.”

  The old man spoke as with the slash of a whip. “Yee services we can trust because yee’s an unregistered fire bane. We can turn yee over to the wardens if yee shall prove troublesome. But how can we trust she when we know nothing of she? Where did yee lose she? How did she reach the Antilles? Yee own associates don’ trust she, so we’s told.”

  Vai stiffened, jaw tight, chin lifted. I knew that expression well. It often preceded his saying or doing something it would have been better for him not to. I had to help him.

  I rose. “I have not formally introduced myself. My name is Catherine Bell Barahal. I was raised in the city of Adurnam, in a Hassi Barahal household.”

  The middle-aged man started visibly, the first crack in his mask. The old troll’s crest rose.

  “Some of you recognize the name.” I recalled what Chartji had said the first time we had met. “The old histories call my people ‘the messengers.’ I have been trained in all aspects of the business. My sword-craft is rusted, but decent. Also, I can memorize
large blocks of text and repeat them later. So you see, I am perfectly suited for the work of radicals. These were my husband’s only considerations when the time came to decide whether to bring me along to your society.”

  In the corner, the young woman made a noise more like a snort than a laugh.

  “Have yee aught yee wish to say, Livvy?” asked the old man. “Speak.”

  “After everything I have heard from me friends, I think it more likely he brought she along to impress her with daring revolutionary deeds.”

  “That way, is it?” said Jasmeen with a cutting smile, again fanning herself with the pamphlet. “Not so sure of the gal, after all.”

  The trolls’ half-lifted crests I could not interpret, but with the rats I had clearly dug Vai in deeper. I had to try again.

  “I am in Expedition because I am a fugitive. If you wish to be rid of me, you need only turn me over to any representative of the prince of Tarrant. I arrived in Expedition because I…escaped from a ship and almost drowned.”

  “An entertaining tale,” said the old troll brightly, although I did not like the look in his eye. Trolls seemed such hospitable companions until you realized they could eat you. “I hope there is more of it.”

  To avoid the troll’s predatory scrutiny, I glanced at the pamphlet now resting on Jasmeen’s pagne, its title in bold print: ON NECESSARY CONSIDERATIONS IN DRAFTING A CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES ACCORDING TO THE LECTURES OF PROFESSORA KEHINDE NAYO KUTI.

  Blessed Tanit had smiled on me!

  “As it happens, I was forced to leave the city of Adurnam most precipitously just after I was offered employment with the radical movement by Kehinde Nayo Kuti and Brennan Du.”

  Had I on the spot burst into fragrant bloom like a nymph seeking refuge from a persistent suitor, they could not have been more startled. Suspicion and reserve melted like ice under Expedition’s sun.

  “La Professora?” exclaimed the old man. “Yee have met her? What is she like?”

  I was not going to let this advantage lie. “Can one truly say one knows a personage of such distinction? Yet might I say she is modest in demeanor and brilliant in aspect?”

  “Have yee news of she progress in Europa?” asked Jasmeen, looking flushed.

  “What did yee speak of ?” asked the old troll.

  I racked my mind for memories of that evening at the Griffin Inn. “Was it the color, texture, weight, height, volume, and consistency of ice?” I said ruminatively. Vai was no help because he was staring at me with eyes narrowed. “Isn’t she a printer, by trade? Didn’t she get a jobber press from Expedition?”

  Everyone turned to look at the trolls, then back at me.

  “We heard the airship was destroyed,” said the old troll.

  I did not meet Vai’s gaze. “Yes, it was, but she managed to recover enough of the parts from the remains that it was likely the press could be reconstructed.” I pressed fingers to my forehead, dredging up words. “‘We dispute the arbitrary distribution of power and wealth, which is claimed as the natural order, but which is in fact not natural at all but rather artificially created and sustained by ancient privileges.’”

  “That yee is acquainted with La Professora is quite unexpected,” said the middle-aged man, this being the first time he had spoken. His voice was a bass rumble.

  “Everything about Catherine tends to be unexpected,” muttered Vai.

  The young woman called Livvy had shifted to the edge of her chair. Quite beside herself, she spoke without asking permission. “Black-haired Brennan! Have yee really met him? I hear he is the most charming and handsome man imaginable, and that he have never lost a fight.”

  How I hated my blushes! I smiled at her anyway, gal to gal, and she grinned back. “Well, he’s not got black hair. It’s likely true about the fighting. Anyone who met him would believe it. And he does have a most enchanting smile and a way of making you feel you are the only person in the room when he speaks to you. My cousin called him the handsomest man she had ever met.”

  Vai had developed what I could only describe as a thunderous frown.

  The young woman clapped her hands together. “Tell me more about him! I mean, begging yee pardon, Grandfa’, for the interruption.”

  “Yee said nothing about a cousin,” said the old man, exchanging glances with the old troll.

  “I have one,” I said hastily. “My cousin and I made our way to the radicals because we had heard the words of La Professora. My cousin and I have been chained by obligations fixed on us by others. Surely we may wish to contest a vexatious legal code that allows others to bind us without our consent. Surely we may wish to have our dignity respected. To secure the freedom of our families and lineages and clans. And if we wish these rights for our communities, should we not therefore strive to see that other communities and clans also have what we ask for?”

  “Bravo!” said the young woman.

  But they were a hard, canny lot. I might have amused them, but I was not sure I had convinced them. I sat, quite out of breath. Frown banished by my passionate speech, Vai took my hand in his.

  “Very stirring,” said the middle-aged man. “So tell me, fire bane, tell me true, is yee sure she is on we side? She who washed up on the jetty in a canoe that came from Cow Killer Beach?”

  “She was lost,” said Vai.

  “Was she, indeed? Yee’s sure? Absolutely sure?”

  Letting go of my hand, Vai stood. With him rose the candle lantern, drifting off the shelf and twisting like a creature transformed by the tide of a dragon’s dream. From candle lantern it bulged into a sphere of glowing lacework, spinning slowly upward to the eaves, and melted into a perfect illusion of a cobo hood glass lamp. If astonished expressions were anything to go by, they had never before seen such a display of cold magic, as modest as it was. As the light floated beneath the eaves, casting oddly distorted shadows across us, I saw that the rafters needed to have a broom taken to them to wipe out the cobwebs. Strange what the eye catches on.

  “You have my apologies if it seems my action in bringing Catherine here was reckless or ill considered,” he said with a hauteur appropriate to his spectacular jacket and casual exercise of magic. “Or if I seem to have been keeping secrets from you. If you feel you cannot trust my judgment, which I admit must seem to be compromised, then I will understand.”

  “But yee need us,” said the middle-aged man. “Is that not what yee said? That yee would prefer to accomplish yee goals with no killing?”

  “That is what I want. No killing.”

  “But what do yee think will happen, fire bane? People shall die regardless. All that will happen is that blood will not stain yee hands.”

  “Blood has already stained my hands. I’d rather not repeat the experience. Killing the general does not change your circumstances in Expedition. That’s why the best solution is to leave him alive but without support. If he cannot return to Europa, that serves me just as well.”

  “Alive but without support? No change in circumstances?” The middle-aged man laughed without humor. “Don’ yee understand? When he first came and placed he request before them, all the Council could see was trade and profit. The Council would have voted to support him. Expedition is a small place. We’s like a basket, all woven together. We radicals is the ones who got that vote to turn against him. And then what did he do? He went running to the Taino. And now he is back, with some manner of agreement with them. That make things worse for us. For the Council can now say ’tis the fault of the radicals that the general made a pact with the Taino. As for the Taino, who know what they mean to do?”

  “What are you trying to say?” Vai asked, looking at each one.

  The old man gave Vai a bitter look. “Yee have boasted yee have a certain means to kill him.”

  “It is no boast. It is the truth.”

  This was not only too much, it was terrifying, for they meant to throw away Vai’s life!

  I jumped to my feet. “Vai is worth far more to everyone al
ive. If you demand he try to assassinate the general, you’ll only be making him throw away his life on a task he can’t accomplish.”

  “Catherine!”

  “One man with adequate fighting skills, pitted against trained soldiers who will have crossbows? The mansa can’t have known cold magic is so weak here or I can’t believe he’d have sent you. In Europa, there’s no one you could not destroy. Here, without truly powerful cold magic to protect yourself, the general’s people will cut you down before you can get close enough to draw blood.”

  I desperately needed some way to persuade Vai away from this foredoomed course of action. I recalled Brennan’s words when we had been digging through the wreckage of the airship. “Why do you radicals see the general as your enemy? Why do you want him dead?”

  The old man waved a hand like wiping away a stain. “We ancestors escaped an empire. Shall we help raise another? A man who is on his father’s side a Keita, a descendant of the Malian royal lineage? Even from over the ocean, such an emperor can come back and say he have the right to trample us because we ancestors once served his.”

  “Brennan Du told me that if you examine Camjiata’s legal code, you’ll see he understands he can only succeed by offering rights and privileges to the common people that their masters have denied them. Why kill him? Have you considered making an alliance with him against the Council?”

  “A question,” said the old man, “made more interesting by the fact that yee is the one who have posed it.”

  “Yee do know, fire bane,” remarked the middle-aged man, “that this gal is known to have arrived on the jetty in the company of James Drake, a notorious fire mage?”

  Vai’s mouth turned down, and his shoulders stiffened. “I know that. Have you a point?”

  “Beside the point ’tis rumored he have used unwilling people—dying people—as catch-fires to absorb his magic?”

  I choked, but no one was watching me. They were all watching Vai.

 
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