Cold fire the spiritwalk.., p.46
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       Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy), p.46

           Kate Elliott
 

  Bee examined me as if to make sure I was really her Cat. At length, she kissed me. “Good fortune to you, dearest.” She led the warden away, chatting merrily about her sea voyage in a way that made her life-threatening seasickness seem like the running joke in a comedic spectacle.

  “You can go around the back way by that path there,” said the professora in a matter-of-fact manner that made me grateful, for I was so nervous it seemed impossible to speak one more word.

  I cut through the night-shadowed garden and turned each latch until I found the chamber with the bed. There were also shelves, a chest, and a tiny altar with a wreath of fresh flowers and a sard stone on a platter. In the unlit room, I sat on the bed he had built for us. It seemed sturdy.

  Mice had made a nest in the eaves, their cozy scrabbling punctuated by the rattling of leaves heard when the wind gusted. His footfalls neared, and halted at the door. I sucked in a nervous breath.

  He opened the door. Cold fire ghosted along the backs of his hands like phosphorous. He had the same expression as on the evening I had first seen him, coming up the stairs of my aunt’s and uncle’s house, but I knew better now how to interpret it. He had been stricken by hope on a night he had expected only an unpleasant and soul-wearying duty. And yet, fearing more of the mockery and condescension he had endured in his seven years at Four Moons House, he had chosen to confront the encounter behind a screen of arrogance.

  I spoke before he could. “Vai, the year turns. Hallows’ Night comes.”

  He closed the door. “Beatrice! How could I have not thought of that! She walks the dreams of dragons. The Wild Hunt will come for her.”

  “Dismembered and her head thrown into a well.”

  “You want to protect her.”

  “I can save her.”

  He sat down next to me, as one might who must utter terrible news to a listener innocent of a heartbreaking truth. “Catherine, even the mansa is not powerful enough to drive off the Wild Hunt. Even with the ice lens to amplify the energy, it’s hard to see how it could be done.”

  “What is an ice lens?”

  Drawing out the chain, he showed me a metal ring whose diameter was no greater than the length of my thumb. At first I thought it was empty, but by the light of cold fire it gleamed. When I ventured to touch it, and he nodded to indicate I could, its slick surface chilled my skin.

  Startled, I drew back my hand. “It’s actually ice! How can they even have ice here?”

  “Professora Alhamrai has devised a cunningly engineered cold room. A kind of an icehouse, created with coils that condense vapors.”

  “What does the lens do?”

  “Cold magic is weak here. A lens focuses and amplifies the magic. It has to be made out of ice because other substances like a lens ground of glass don’t absorb or transfer the magic. I can keep it cool for a while against my skin.”

  “That’s what you’ve been doing with the Jovesday trolls.”

  “The Jovesday…? Ah. Yes.” He slipped the chain back under his jacket.

  My hands twitched, wishing to trace its path down his chest. “That’s how you froze that wave and saved me during the hurricane.”

  “Yes. Otherwise I couldn’t have done it. Not here in the Antilles.” He caught my hands in his. “What possessed you to climb into that boat? Trap yourself, knowing the flood was coming?”

  “Should I have left that man to die?”

  His fingers stroked mine. “No, of course you would never. Give me a moment to work this through. The Wild Hunt will ride on Hallows’ Night. You fear they will track down and kill Beatrice. The Hunt must shed blood to be put to rest. I trust you do not mean to sacrifice yourself.”

  I shook my head. The touch of his hands made me ache.

  “It’s likely you are not of interest to the Wild Hunt. I can’t think of any reasons you would threaten them as dragon dreamers or powerful mages do.”

  I tried to speak but only an exhalation came out.

  “I trust you are not planning to throw me into their path,” he added.

  “That’s not amusing!”

  He considered more narrowly. “We’d be well rid of that fire mage. He’s very powerful.”

  “He is? I’m amazed to hear you say it.”

  “I’m amazed he hasn’t burned himself up yet. The only thing stopping him from torching this whole city is the fact, unfortunate only for him, that he would die.”

  For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder what it would be like to hold so much power and know you could never use it. To know it could kill you at any moment. “If cold mages are fire banes, then couldn’t a cold mage act as a catch-fire for a fire mage? By extinguishing the fire?”

  “Catch-fires don’t extinguish fires. As far as I can tell, they take the fire into them. Or I should more properly say, the backwash of fire magic floods into them instead of into the mage.”

  I remembered the way Drake’s fire had limned the skin of the dying man at the inn. As the backlash of his fire magic had consumed the dying man, Drake had healed one who could live. “I just thought if a cold mage could act as a catch-fire, that maybe working in concert with a fire mage they might be powerful enough to…to…”

  He pressed a finger to my lips.

  “To defy the Wild Hunt and save your cousin.” By no means did he look astonished. “There you have the real question, Catherine. What purpose does the Wild Hunt serve? Everyone is taught that the Hunt gathers the souls of those who will die in the coming year. A few people know it also hunts down and kills the women who walk the dreams of dragons. But only mages know that any mage who becomes too powerful will be killed by the Hunt. Why would the courts fear us? Do they fear what we might discover? Or what we might become?”

  I could not resist gently biting his finger. That was a kind of question, wasn’t it? What might he and I become?

  He inhaled sharply, but he did not otherwise move.

  I had him now.

  I released his finger, and he splayed his hand across my cheek. His touch was firm, promising strength, but also precise in being a question rather than a claim.

  “Tell me what you want, Catherine. For the worst of it has been wondering if you really meant the way you looked at me, the words you said, on the night of the areito.”

  I studied the planes of his face and the precise stubble of his beard. How much time had he taken this afternoon in shaving, trimming, washing, and dressing, knowing I was coming? I considered his eyes, so dark a brown they seemed black, and his lips so full and inviting. Ought a man be allowed to be so handsome? How was a gal to think in the face of such looks?

  I put a hand on each shoulder. The damask weave of his dash jacket caressed my palms.

  “I want this chain off my tongue, Vai. Just as you want the chains off your village, just as Bee wants to live. I want not to live at the mercy of Four Moons House, or a prince’s militia, or the general’s schemes. Surely it’s the same thing most people want. Health and vigor. A refuge which is not a cage but those who care for us and whom we care for. Like Luce’s giggle. Aunt Tilly’s smile. Rory’s loyalty. Bee’s happiness. You.”

  I pushed him onto the bed and pinned him there with my body stretched atop the length of his. His was a fine body to borrow as a mattress, not one bit soft. He lay beneath me, his dark gaze steady. I drew my fingers down his throat, then spread my hand so fingers and thumb spanned his collarbone, for his jacket was unbuttoned just that far. To measure my skin against his in so simple a way made me almost dizzy. Really, it was provoking how quiet the man could be.

  “Vai, I made my choice the night of the areito. I can’t walk free and leave you behind. So I choose the path I walk with you, whatever it brings. Anyhow, I’m not going to let some mage House woman steal you from me.”

  I brushed my mouth over his. His eyes fluttered as his lips parted and chin lifted to receive a full kiss. But I drew back and slowly counted down the buttons until I got to the sixth. He watched me, not quite smiling
. If anything, he looked a bit dazed.

  “I’ve changed my mind,” I said as I unbuttoned the sixth and slid my fingers to the seventh. “I am going to take off ”—the eighth and the ninth slipped free—“this beautiful jacket… Unless by that quiver of your eyebrows you mean to indicate there is something you want to say first.”

  “Yes,” he said, in quite the hoarsest voice I had ever heard out of him.

  “Gracious Melqart, Vai, how many buttons does this garment have?”

  He breathed, if you could call that breathing when in fact it sounded more as if he had been running most of the way across Expedition.

  “Fourteen?” I demanded as I sat back to undo the last buttons. I spread the jacket to either side to expose not a vest and linen shirt beneath or even a singlet, as I had expected, but only bare chest. “Oh,” I said, intelligently. “Well. Let me not pretend I haven’t been thinking about doing this.”

  I explored the muscled curve of his shoulders, fondled the necklace chain and, briefly, his nipples, and stroked along the contours of his chest. My hands halted at the line of buttons that fastened the waistband of his trousers. At which point, stricken by the first onslaught of shyness I had ever experienced in my entire life, I lost my voice.

  He found his. “If I had stayed in the village, my grandmother would have found a hard-working, placid, quiet young woman for me. I would have married her without expectation of anything except a hard-working, placid, quiet affection that might have arisen after years of going on together. Everyone knows that is the best way. The one least disruptive to the harmonious peace of the community. Not to mention a man’s peace of mind.”

  I bit back a smile and, instead, drew down my brows to indicate vexed consideration. “Is there a point to this pedantic speech? As you know, I’m very hard-working.”

  He slid his hands caressingly up my hips, and by the tensing of his arms and back, my Barahal training and cat’s instincts warned me he was about to attempt an abrupt reversal.

  “I don’t think you should try that, Vai,” I murmured, bracing myself.

  “But are you truly hard-working, Catherine? I suppose we’re about to find out.”

  32

  I woke at dawn with birds singing and the scent of flowers wafting in through the open shutters, which seemed a little much even considering my euphoric mood. Lying tucked in against him, my head resting on his shoulder, felt the most natural thing in the world. In case he was still asleep, I whispered.

  “Vai?”

  “Mmm.”

  “I had no idea.”

  Eyes shut, he smiled in a drowsy, contented way. “Of course you couldn’t have had. You weren’t with me.”

  Silence allowed me to contemplate this astonishing statement for a while, during which I stroked my fingers up and down his admirable chest.

  “Vai?”

  “Mmm?”

  “Are you really that conceited? Or are you having a bit of a joke with yourself at times?”

  “Catherine, I promise you, no one will ever make you feel as good as I will.”

  “As the djeli said, ‘Men act humble until they get what they want.’ Although obviously the djeli who said that hadn’t met you. Anyway, wouldn’t a person of scientific inclination say that to verify such a statement I would need to make a significant number of comparative tests with other subjects?”

  His eyes opened as at a shot. “No!”

  “Then I could never actually know.”

  He pushed up onto one elbow, dislodging my head from its pleasant resting place, and brushed hair from my cheek. “You can’t possibly have any complaints.”

  “But I do.”

  His hand stilled. “Name one.”

  “You’re talking.”

  He smiled and bent to kiss me.

  Things were proceeding in just the way I had planned when a series of hollow pops rattled the roof. He released me and rolled off the bed.

  “Do you need me?” I asked as he quickly dressed in a pair of faded and clumsily mended workman’s trousers and a singlet he pulled off a shelf.

  “Of course I need you, Catherine, but not in that workshop. You were fortunate yesterday. They’re obsessed with my ability to kill combustion. They keep lighting different combinations of things on fire and adjusting me for distance, angle, and substances placed between me and the fire. Eventually they’re going to burn the whole place down.”

  He went out the door so fast he forgot to close it behind him. I used a foot to hook my pagne off the floor and tied it just above my breasts the way we women had at Aunty Djeneba’s when we went down to shower, the cloth covering me from armpits to knees. I stuck my head out the door, but the little courtyard was deserted since the professora slept on the other side of the compound and all the other rooms in this wing were empty.

  I hurried to the outhouse set out from the compound’s outer wall, which Vai had shown me in the middle of the night. Built into the wall was a washroom furnished with a brass tub, and a sideboard on which sat a copper basin, three pitchers, and threadbare pagnes to use as towels. The water we had splashed all over in the middle of the night had dried up. I filled the pitchers from the pump outside. I combed out my hair with my fingers and braided it, then twisted the braid around a stick from the garden and pinned it up on my head so I could wash. Afterward, I refilled the pitchers and hung up the towels to dry.

  Back in the room, I tidied up the bed and the precautionary sheaths Vai had been so prudent, and confident, as to obtain the night of the areito. Smiling like a besotted fool, I shook out and folded the clothes we’d strewn all over. In my haste to get off his dash jacket, I had accidentally torn two buttons off a cuff, so I draped the jacket over the back of the chair for mending later. A cedar traveling chest tucked in a corner caught my eye. Kneeling, I opened it. Gracious Melqart! How many fashionable dash jackets and waistcoats could a man own?

  How could a woman who loved cloth resist stroking each neatly folded garment? He favored vivid colors: deep browns as dark as his skin, burnished golds, kingly reds, and warm bright oranges, one midnight purple as dark as ecstasy, and indigos so saturated they would drive a peacock to envy. The stronger the patterns the better: plaitwork and interlace, dyed damask beaten and pounded until the fabric was stiff, bold geometric designs, and some strange, crazy block prints. At the bottom, folded between sheets of paper as if to hide it, lay the spectacular red-and-gold-chained dash jacket he had worn the night of the areito.

  The door shut. “I have soot all over me, and you look so clean and inviting. But close the chest first.”

  I kept the lid open. “Don’t you dare!”

  He didn’t shift from the door, but somehow his tone made me feel as if he were nuzzling the nape of my bare neck. “Then wash me like you did last night, my sweet Catherine.”

  My grip wavered on the lid as my flesh began to melt.

  “Oh, curse it.” He opened the door just as I realized someone was walking up outside, and he spoke in a changed and entirely polite voice. “Peace of the morning to you, Professora.”

  “Peace of the morning. My apologies.” When he stepped back, she appeared in the door, wearing a loose floor-length robe of cotton dyed in an undulating purple. A four-winged messenger bird balanced on her arm. It had an alert gaze and startling barb-like talons on its forelimbs. What I had taken for the second pair of wings was better described as the feathery ornamentation of its hind limbs. Like her gown, its feathers shaded from a deep purple to a pale gray. “I’ve a message for you, Maestressa Barahal.” She handed me a scroll and, with an understanding smile, stepped back. “There is rice porridge if you are hungry. Just come to the kitchen.”

  She left.

  I unrolled the scrap of paper to see Bee’s distinctively grandiose handwriting. “I hope all is well because I must assume you either found a way or made one and I am sorry to write but I just got word that I am to be handed over to the cacica at dusk so please come.”

  I handed i
t to Vai.

  His gaze flicked over the words twice. “Tell me if you think she wrote this herself.”

  “She wrote it. She quoted the great general Hanniba’al to let me know she wasn’t coerced. Had she quoted a Roman, she would have meant otherwise.”

  “Then we have to go.” He went out.

  We? I shut the lid and hurried after him to the washroom. “Vai, we can’t trust the general.”

  “I know,” he said as he stripped and stepped into the brass tub. “But we can’t ignore him. We discussed all this last night, love. As I hope you remember.”

  “That’s not what I remember about last night.” I poured a pitcher of cold water over his head; he didn’t even flinch. But in fact we had talked for a long time about our situation; it was remarkable how pleasing it was to converse with a man in the dark when he was holding you close and you were both quite naked and well sated. I smiled, watching as he soaped down: He was lean but not thin, not short but not particularly tall either, and the view from the back was simply so alluring I had to clamp my mind to Bee’s message and our circumstances.

  I said, “It’s easy to talk noble philosophy at the table and then change your mind when you’re in the mud. Even if the general becomes emperor and abolishes clientage, it will take years of war. By then the mansa could have taken his revenge on you by destroying Haranwy.”

  “I’m not the only one in Haranwy willing to risk the struggle. Other people in the village have skills as useful in their own way as mine for a radical sort of enterprise.”

  “Like your brother Duvai? Is he a radical now, too?”

  “Perhaps. Rinse me off and hand me a towel, if it pleases you.” I emptied the other two pitchers over him and offered to dry him off, but he shook his head and took the faded pagne. “Start that, and we’ll never leave. Anyway, I’m not as concerned for myself.”

  “You should be!” I folded his dirtied work clothes to be washed later.

  “I’m simply too valuable to him alive and as an ally. I have to play that drum. But as long as the general believes you’re going to have something to do with his death, he’s a danger to you.”

 
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