Cold fire the spiritwalk.., p.48
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       Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy), p.48

           Kate Elliott

  “Shall yee?” I asked with interest and in a pretty fair imitation of the local speech. “How many? Shall they come from Avenue Kolonkan?”

  “That way, is it?” he said with a roll of his eyes.

  “In fact,” said Vai, “it is not that way. I am buying her nothing from Avenue Kolonkan.”

  “Is yee not?” said the wagoner with a look at me to see how I would take this proclamation.

  “Shall yee not?” I asked with unfeigned surprise.

  “To do so would offend my radical principles. Nor are the mules scared. And by the way, half the tailors on Tailors’ Row in Passaporte have taken patterns from this very jacket. So you will not offend your radical principles by purchasing from them.”

  “See why I love he?” I said, simpering as I batted my eyelids again. “Some men court me with baubles, but he court me with radical principles.”

  Unfortunately, the wagoner was far more interested in Vai’s dash jackets than my wit. “Tailors’ Row in Passaporte District. Truly?”

  “At a tenth of the price a man would pay on Avenue Kolonkan. And the money goes into the pocket of the tailor who made it and not into the purse of the fancy shopkeeper who pays least wages to workers who are little better than indentured servants.”

  “I like that talk!” said the other fellow. He and Vai shook hands and had a moment of deep connection with firm, masculine smiles and fiery comments about the corrupt Council, last month’s infamous raid at Nance’s, and whether the poor of Expedition would boycott the wedding areito despite the bounty of free food sure to be available there. I had to drag Vai away or I would have been left conversing with the mules.

  “I hope you have not been spending money on Avenue Kolonkan,” he said, taking my hand.

  “Looking is not spending! Anyway, the tips I earned at Aunty Djeneba’s aren’t enough to buy a single ribbon in any of those shops.”

  “Kofi is going to set Aunty straight about what happened. I hope you don’t blame them.”

  “I admire their loyalty to you. What an awful moment that was, though—”

  I broke off as Vai halted. Ahead rose the gate and its watch lamps. A red-haired man stood beside wardens in the shadow of the gate, looking at us. The guard lamps flared as in a gust of oily wind. Vai released my hand and raised his. A slap of heat made the air snap. Vai closed his hand, and the sting vanished as though swallowed. The hilt of my sword trembled, tasting cold magic.

  “Stay next to me,” he said. With a brisk stride he closed the gap, me beside him. The lamp flames shrank as if losing fuel.

  Drake wore the half smile of a man anticipating a long-awaited treat. “Andevai Diarisso Haranwy, you are under arrest—”

  “I am a representative of Four Moons House, a magister of the Diarisso lineage. You have no grounds nor means to arrest me.”

  “We’ll see about that.” The lamp flames leaped as the air crackled with heat.

  Vai curled both hands into fists, and the lamps guttered out. “If you can’t do better than that, you shouldn’t even try.”

  Drake took a step toward him. “You’re under arrest as an unregistered fire bane. Which you’ve just let every warden here see. How do you like that, you bastard?”

  “I am not a bastard,” said Vai so icily I knew Drake’s words had truly angered him, “and I will give you one chance to apologize to my mother for even suggesting it. Then you’ll know why you should not try to play these games with me.”

  Drake’s grin flashed with a burst of fury. “Fucking arrogant bastard. See how you like fire.”

  A furnace heat shimmered out of nowhere like a blast of scalding wind. Flames caught on a passing wagon. The poor mules harnessed to it—Blessed Tanit! the very mules who had hidden our kiss!—began to kick and buck in the harness as the wagoner leaped off the driver’s bench with a string of panicked curses. How did Drake dare release so much fire?

  A fiery glow writhed around Vai’s form.

  Blessed Tanit! Drake was using Vai as a catch-fire to fuel the flames. He was going to burn him up alive! I leaped forward and punched Drake right up under the jaw with the handle of my cane. He went down hard.

  “Vai, douse the wagon!” I cried as I jabbed the blunt end of my cane against Drake’s chest.

  Onlookers had already run to try to help the frantic wagoner unhitch the mules, but the wild kicking of the beasts forced them back. My sword’s blade pulsed as cold magic bloomed. Flames vanished into thready smoke. I twisted the hilt and drew the blade. As Drake pushed up, I caught the tip in the cloth of his jacket.

  I would have stabbed him. I almost ran him through, thinking of the way that glow had lit Vai’s body. But Vai had said Drake was an unusually powerful fire mage. So I had to spare him in case I needed him to save Bee.

  Yet Drake must have seen the killing lust in my expression, because he flopped back down.

  Vai appeared beside me, seemingly untouched by the backlash of Drake’s magic. His brown gaze met Drake’s blue one.

  Men can have a way of looking at each other that is itself a surge of heat and cold warring.

  Noble Ba’al! I had been quite mistaken: Drake had never been specifically interested in me, had he? Through me, he had taken a petty but predictable revenge on the cold mage who had treated him so scornfully, man to man, in the entry hall of the law offices of Godwik and Clutch.

  Remarkably pretty. Had I really fallen for that line? Twice?

  “I am still waiting for that apology,” said Vai.

  Despite my blade pressed against his shoulder, Drake did not bother to look at me. He sneered at Vai. “You shall be waiting for that apology just as long as you shall be waiting to find out your wife is not a whore.”

  Vai drew his sword so quickly it took a breath for a satisfying expression of fear to sweep Drake’s face. I would have enjoyed his fear longer, but I had to speak fast.

  “Vai, don’t do it. We need him alive.”

  Vai exhaled as he closed a fist around his emotions and choked them down.

  “You’re right, love,” he said coolly, sheathing his blade. “His apology would be worthless anyway. Come. I know General Camjiata is eager to meet with a mage who is actually trained and effective. Just as my wife was eager to bed a man who could actually give her pleasure.”

  Lips pinched and eyes narrowed, Drake raised a hand. “Now I take you down.”

  Too late I heard the click and release of crossbows from the gate walk above. I slammed into Vai, driving him sideways. A bolt flashed past my cheek. A jolt stung my upper right arm. Then I slammed Vai down onto the ground, my body on top of his and both of us sprawled across the cobblestones.

  “Here, now, lads!” shouted the wagoner. “The dogs who serve the Council are attacking we own. Who shall come to the maku’s defense?”

  Hearts paused and minds considered. Men gathered about the burned wagon. Wardens bristled, raising their staves as they called for the riflemen. From up on the gate walk, crossbows clicked as they were reloaded. I rolled off Vai and grabbed a fistful of Drake’s shirt. With a burst of pain in my arm, I hauled him to his feet and yanked him to a halt between the crossbows above and Vai, behind me, who was just now shaking off the shock of the impact.

  I shouted. “Have yee had enough of the Council stealing yee own kin? Can we not put a stop to it? If all are not equal before the law, then what is the law worth?”

  Pushing up to his knees, Vai pulled at the chains around his neck to drag out an ice lens.

  “Stand down! Go about yee business!” cried a warden.

  The wagoner called, “They have shot the gal! Look! She arm is bleeding! I say we roust them, lads! Enough!”

  Drake spoke. “You bitch. Catch this.”

  Heat screamed along my skin like the rake of fiery coals. I sucked for a breath as my lungs burned and my tongue withered. My grip on Drake’s shirt gave way as the backwash of his fire magic poured into my body as flames. Pain seared me.

  Blessed Tanit. Let this
agony pass quickly.

  “Cat!” Vai shouted.

  Cold magic hit like a hammer. First I was standing, about to burst into flame, and then I crumpled to hands and knees, washed cold but alive. My tears fell as ice, shattering on the cobblestones. My belly cramped; I coughed out a drop of blood. But I would be cursed if I would let Drake strike while I was down. I crawled toward my sword, its blade shining as cold magic fed its heart. Drake kicked the sword away. But he was not looking at me but at Vai.

  “I guess I’m stronger than you thought, Magister. Because I’m still standing and you’re on your knees. You’ve made a fatal mistake. You’ve revealed that she’s your weakness. This is so easy. You doused me once. But next time you won’t be fast enough to save her. Beg for her life, bastard.”

  A brick flew out of the air and struck him on the shoulder. A piece of charred wood clattered at his feet. Another brick shattered an arm’s length from my head, and a fragment spat up to gouge my chin.

  “Wardens! Arrest these rioters!”

  A well-aimed brick hit Drake a glancing blow on the side of the head, and he reeled back as shouts of triumph rose from the wagons. Our friends advanced brandishing bricks, shovels, knives, and axes. Wardens and riflemen pounded up, the captain calling for them to line up. Gouts of shimmering heat surged off Drake as he struggled to control himself. I saw it now through eyes clogged with drifting matter as I blinked, trying to clear them. He was trapped by the power of his fire magic; no wonder he hated Vai, who was fed by his magic, not harmed by it.

  “Catherine, speak to me.” Vai was groping at the other chain as he got to his feet.

  “Don’t do it, Vai,” I said, my lips stinging and my voice as husky as if I were parched. “He knows if he kills me in public, he’ll become a criminal. If you kill him, you’ll be arrested.”

  “I’m taking no chances with you.”

  I staggered up and found him, pressing my face into his beautiful dash jacket, which was smeared with the slimy churn of the streets. “I’m thinking with my feet. I have more powerful kinfolk than anyone knows. Let him think he’s won for now.”

  “He will not think he has won by the time I’m done with him,” he said in that way men have when they have decided their position on Triumph Spire is at stake.

  Bricks thudded down, the crowd growing in boldness as Drake did nothing and the militia did not fire. The rippling heat of Drake fumed at my back, like a man wanting more gloat and less stymie. Yet a surly undercurrent dragged on the wind. The city’s anger had woken like a beast prodded until it lashed out to bite. I was having a hard time staying on my feet.

  “Storm the walls now, brothers! ’Tis time for the Council to dissolve.”

  A rifle clicked, not firing. A rumble like thunder rose out of the old city.

  “Make way! Make way!”

  A procession emerged from the gate. Three carriages jolted to a halt as their drivers surveyed the massing crowd and the street blocked by men ready to fight.

  Drake took a step toward us. Vai shifted me to one side and again drew his sword.

  Drake’s fear sparked beneath his anger. “I can kill her faster than you can kill me.”

  “But you’ll still be dead,” said Vai.

  The door of the front carriage banged open and a man climbed out and strode over to us, expression as thunderous as a looming storm cloud.

  “What in the pox-ridden hells is this?” demanded the general in a ringing voice that carried like the boom of artillery.

  He marked Drake; he marked me; last of all, he marked Vai and the glittering cold steel that could cut the life out of a man merely by drawing blood. So naturally he planted himself in the path of Vai’s blade, between the two mages.

  “I’m waiting. What is meant by this disturbance?”

  “Besides the insult to my mother, he called my wife a bitch and a whore.”

  “Yet who could say they were false words?” said Drake with a smirk.

  Even I didn’t see it coming.

  Camjiata backhanded Drake across the face so hard the fire mage staggered back, tripped on his own feet, and dropped on his ass. The wardens and riflemen hissed as in sympathy, and the crowd actually cheered.

  “My mother taught me more respect for women than that,” remarked the general.

  He raised a hand; the crossbowmen on the walls, the wardens, and the riflemen all lowered their weapons. He surveyed Vai’s fixed stare and steady hand. I could practically see the mansa standing as if with shadowy voice urging Vai forward. Not one person could stop Vai from killing the Iberian Monster and ridding Europa of him and the threat he posed forever. Not even me.

  “I take it,” said the general in the tone he would use to a man he had chanced into conversation with at Nance’s over a friendly drink, “that you were coming along either to meet with me or to kill me. I should guess the former, but I am willing to entertain the idea it was the latter.” He looked at me, brows knit down. “Jupiter Magnus, Cat. Your shoulder is bleeding.”

  The point of Vai’s sword dropped as he took a step toward me, gaze flashing to my face, then to my shoulder.

  The general addressed the restless but notably surprised crowd. “My friends, your generosity is noted. Your courage in standing up for a comrade is evident. But I fear this has been an unexpectedly dramatic altercation between rivals. You know the sort of arseness I mean.”

  There is a damper that an older man’s pointed jocularity can put on a younger man’s self-important flash, as unseen as magic but just as effective. That shrank what had just happened down to manageable size, and made Drake look like a man who had lost at love and Vai a hothead who ought to know better than to rub his rival’s face in the fact.

  “Magister, I suggest we talk after her wounds are tended.”

  “Where is Bee?” I was startled to hear how hoarse my voice sounded and how much it hurt to swallow. A wave of dizziness rent me top to toe. I was going to have to swallow again and I dreaded it, the raw scrape of pain about to rip through me…

  “Catherine.” Vai sheathed his sword and swept me into his arms. He looked past me at the general. “She needs to lie down.”

  The general beckoned. I hadn’t noticed Captain Tira and Juba, who stood at the horses’ heads. Juba sheathed two knives up his sleeves and walked over to us.

  “I have a meeting. Beatrice remains at the house, preparing for her departure. Juba will escort you there. He knows something of medicine. You may rely on him. I shall return at midday.” He shot yet one more frowning look of evident concern at me, and headed for the carriage. “James.”

  The look that sparked between Drake and Vai might have been combustion or it might have been hatred or it might have been the vestiges of unspent magic bursting and melting in the air.

  “James! With me.”

  Drake followed, staring at the general’s back with a look I dared not interpret, for men might look so when they are thinking of kissing or of killing or of a sudden change of heart betwixt the two.

  “Vai,” I said, “Put me down. I need my sword.”

  “I am not putting you down until I see you to a safe place,” said Vai in a tone that reminded me that as far as he knew, Drake had gotten to his feet first and unaided.

  Why by the starry brow of Noble Ba’al had I so stupidly said, Let him think he’s won?

  Fortunately, Juba arrived and spoke to Vai. “You are the fire bane. I am called Juba.”

  The two men measured each other and determined on a truce. Juba looked over the crowd, then gestured. A Taino man appeared with a wagon hitched to a donkey. He rearranged baskets of ginger and chilies, and Vai set me in the wagon bed. He had them wait while he fetched my sword, again appearing as a cane; strangely, he was able to pick it up as if it were his own cold steel.

  Juba and Vai walking behind, we jolted through the gate with its iron tripods twisted into freakish shapes by the power of Vai’s cold magic, and their lamps completely drained. Swept, quiet streets took us
to the general’s town house. Juba paid the Taino man and sent him on his way.

  I said to Juba, “You became an exile, for refusing to become what almost killed me.”

  His gaze met mine, and I decided I liked him.

  “Cat must lie down,” said Vai.

  “I return with medicine,” said Juba.

  He left Vai and me to go up alone. I had to lean on Vai on the stairs. When we reached the bedchamber I realized Vai was shaking. I shut the door as he collapsed over the bed.

  “Vai? Blessed Tanit! Drake used you as a catch-fire for longer than he did me. I didn’t stop him fast enough.”

  “I’m not burned,” he whispered. “It was so strange…the fire pouring through me like I was the conduit into another place…I can’t keep my eyes open.”

  I pulled off his boots and unbuttoned his dirtied jacket and pried him out of it as he made a faint protest and promptly passed out. I pressed my cheek against his. His breathing remained even and steady, so I stepped back and let him sleep. I scarcely noticed that I handled both my cane and his cold steel until I propped them against the wardrobe and realized his sword had not stung me.

  The door opened and Bee appeared. “Blessed Tanit! There’s blood on your sleeve!” She ran to me, but stopped before embracing me. “Your skin looks flushed.”

  “Drake used me as a catch-fire.” The words were strangely easy to say, as if I were speaking of someone else. “Vai, too, but it didn’t burn him.”

  She swayed, and it was I who maneuvered her to the bed, where she sat with a look of stunned horror. “What happened to Andevai, then?” she whispered.

  “He drained himself to stop Drake. He just fell hard asleep.”

  She grasped my hands convulsively. When I whimpered, she released me. “How bad is it?”

  “I feel like I came up one spit short of being cooked. But it’s not too bad, more the shock.”

  “I should never have sent that note. I mentioned it in front of Drake. I will kill him myself !”

  “Leave Drake alone, Bee. I’ll take care of him. Believe me, I can.”

  She had left the door open. Juba appeared at the threshold. He carried a tray with a pitcher and basin, a vial, a ceramic jar stoppered with a bit of cork, strips of linen, and a small glass bottle. With a surgeon’s knife he cut away the blood-soaked cloth, careful of my modesty, and washed the wound, which was more of a gouge along the skin. I had been fortunate. Just below my elbow, he paused as a swipe of the cloth cleaned a smear of blood off to reveal the bite scar. He looked up, meeting my gaze although I could not guess what he was thinking. He glanced at Bee and, without a word, finished his nursing. After painting the gash with a white salve, he bound it with linen.

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