The brindle tom did come again, every morning, and then again in the evening, for whatever scraps Iaondrin saw fit to set out. She grumbled about it each time, but the plate was set out each time, without fail. The cat growled over the meal each time, as if he thought she might try to snatch it away (which sometimes it seemed she might do, when she began to have doubts about the wisdom of continuing to feed him), but he came each time, without fail.
“Mean-tempered thing,” Kaz remarked. He stood by the open kitchen window, leaning against the door-jamb while Vermillion double-checked their supplies, watching Iaondrin while she pretended not to watch the cat. “Knows how to use its teeth and claws, too.” He looked back to Vermillion. “You met Beatris yet? New girl? He scratched her all to hell.” His voice and expression carried no sympathy – it was just the misfortune of being a junior student, to be given shit detail like catching a feral cat and hustling it back to the Guild Hall so someone else could make sure it really was a feral cat.
Vermillion eyed his mentor for several long moments. “You know, that’s pretty fuckin’ paranoid.”
“So’s the fuckin’ cat.” His grin was quick, there and gone. " Heroz said to take it serious like. Considering she’s likely got mages after her, and what mages can do …" He shrugged. ‘Pissed him off something fierce, though. Gotta give it to Beatris, she bagged him up and brought back. I wouldn’t’ve wanted to be on the end of that sack when she opened it up after the return trip."
“Maybe we should use it as a new test of reflexes,” Vermillion mused aloud. “Hoping to stumble across some kid who has some skills isn’t very efficient.” He finished drying a plate — breakfast, lunch, he had been losing track as they shifted their sleep patterns the last couple of days. “This one’s got me worried,” he said finally.
“Should,” Kaz agreed readily enough. “It weren’t expecting what you gave it before. Might be now.” He was matter-of-fact, recognizing both the worry and the reason for it. “It don’t know me yet, though.” He didn’t bother mentioning the others who would be there; they wouldn’t be back-up for Vermillion, even if Kaz saw any reason to trust them.
“Just make sure I am in real trouble before you step in.” Vermillion knew if it came to it, he couldn’t keep Kaz out of the fight, much as he might want to. Just like Vermillion would be there for Kaz whenever he needed it. “I’d hate for my missing something to cause you to get hurt or worse.”
Kaz shrugged again, seemingly as indifferent to the possibility as he had been to the unfortunate Beatris’s battle-scars. “I know my orders.” Out on the patio, Iaondrin turned away from the cat and headed back to the door. “You or her.” Those were his priorities; the others would have to watch out for themselves. “Miss,” he said to her, with a touch of a finger to his forehead in a mock tip of the cap.
“Kaz.” The exchange, though brief, was as friendly as she got with anyone other than Vermillion or his family. Not even Azpiri escaped the scowls. “Ready?” Saraiva, Manton and Janne would meet them at the farm (which was, until close to sunset, undergoing a final inspection by the exacting Gerald and his assistants).
Vermillion touched the hilt of his new sword with one hand, settled his pack on his shoulder with the other. “Guess so,” he answered. “You? Got the scroll with the speed spells? The flying potion?”
Iaondrin just nodded, lacking the fire to make even a sarcastic comment about how she was planning to scribe them at the farm, while they waited. She had drawn more within herself each day, silent and tense, and had spent much of the afternoon with Jaely, lavishing attention on the already overly pampered, and now well-guarded, mare. The horses didn’t require her to talk, and didn’t take her silence personally.
Kaz didn’t either, she realized, and didn’t feel the need to try to carry on a conversation with her. Which makes him tolerable, she thought, one corner of her mouth twisting as she slung her pack over one shoulder.
A warm night, Vermillion thought as they walked. No need for a fire while they were out in the field this close to midsummer. Everything he might say he felt would be useless or redundant at this point, so they walked in silence.
No need for a fire, but that didn’t keep Janne from having made one. She had gathered stones to place in a circle, and commandeered some of the abandoned firewood. Perhaps there was just something about a skalding, in a rural setting, that required a campfire to sit around. She as busily engaged in nursing the flames while talking with Saraiva, who had dragged out a still mostly-solid crate as a make-shift seat. Iaondrin frowned as they approached, in a way that said Janne better not expect any songs in the round.
Vermillion grimaced slightly then sighed as they approached and he saw the fire and the seats. After giving a brief nod to Kaz as his partner moved to the barn to take his position, he led Iaondrin to the fire ring. “That’s a nice fire,” he offered pleasantly. “Now go and take your spots in the barn.”
Janne looked up, surprised, and opened her mouth to protest. Saraiva, however, had already stood. He was dressed more simply than either time they had seen him before, sensibly, with a chain shirt and padding. He moved in it easily, as if he were accustomed to it despite his languid fop’s manner. He held out one gloved hand to Janne. “I would offer you a roll in the hay, but Vermillion’s guild seems to have cleaned all of that up. So perhaps we can get up to some mischief with the ropes hanging from the beams?” Behind him, Manton waited, without comment, to see whether the girl would comply or whether he would have to intervene.
“Yes sir,” Janne muttered as she stood and brushed her hands off.
“Hey, Janne, I’ve never asked someone to do something that wasn’t necessary. These things don’t have to move across the ground. They can go from the edge of the trees there,” he gestured with one hand, “to between you and the barn in the blink of an eye. It happened to me last time and I had a spell on me to make me twice as fast as normal. You’ll have plenty of time to talk up in the rafters.”
“Far away,” Iaondrin murmured so that only Vermillion could hear. She knew it wasn’t fair to hold the girl’s carefree nature, and her mother, against her. Still, it was with great satisfaction that she watched Janne turn and head for the barn with the other three men. “Where I don’t have to listen to you.”
Vermillion smiled crookedly as he turned to dowse the small fire, kicking dirt over it. Taking Iaondrin’s hand, he led her out to somewhere near where they had waited the last time. Then they settled into place to wait.
The first night passed without incident, with Vermillion and Iaondrin outside and Janne’s and Saraiva’s voices only an occasional distant murmur. In the morning, once the sun was well up, they dispersed to go their separate ways, Manton nodding without comment before leaving with Janne and Kaz the only one to escort them back to their home.
“That girl can’t seem to shut up,” Kaz remarked to no one in particular. “Sure weren’t no dozing off with her around.” Iaondrin’s mouth twitched before she could manage to completely squelch the beginnings of a wan smile, but Kaz had the good sense to pretend not to notice.
Back at the house, Iaondrin tossed her pack aside and walked to the kitchen window to look at the back patio. The cat, perched atop the wall with his tail curling steady patterns in the air, looked back and mrowred imperiously for his breakfast. He was back again in the evening before they left, confident now that his meal would be forthcoming, but none the friendlier for the kindnesses extended to him.
The second night, Janne didn’t bother starting a fire, but she did come equipped with a pillow or two to make their time in the barn less uncomfortable. This time she didn’t have to be told where to take her place, and she did so cheerfully enough. Before long, the sound of her singing could be heard through the night air.
“Well maybe Kaz will find that more pleasant,” Iaondrin remarked.
“Maybe,” Vermillion said without conviction. He threw a quick glance at the barn, then shrugged. After another moment, he said, “You should tell me about Josepha.” They didn’t have much else to do while they waited.
Iaondrin didn’t answer right away, but simply sat with her knees pulled up staring towards the west for a long time. When she did speak, her voice was flat and her expression distant. “She was Grazia’s friend. She offered a space in her House.” She stopped, looking for more words, and then shrugged. “I don’t know that she really wanted me there. But I didn’t make it easy for anyone to want me anywhere.” Morgan had gone to Wyndham, to Lazare Hoalino; she had gone to Malisis. Neither of them had been happy with the space between them, and neither of them had cooperated with those who had taken them in.
Bryan grimaced slightly. “I know, cara mia. A shitty time,” he said softly. “But she seems to be a connection between Ginevra, Locopo, and your family. What made you think she didn’t want you there?”
Iaondrin frowned slightly while she thought about the question. It wasn’t an easy thing to explain, given her own general inability to properly navigate normal social interactions. “I just felt like- She was always so-” The frown deepened, close to approaching her full-blown scowl. “Watchful. Wanting to know what happened. And when she figured out I wasn’t going to say anything – she wasn’t interested. I was in the way.” She fell silent, considering, and then shrugged. “I can’t explain it. I don’t understand how other people think, or how to understand what they mean if they don’t just say it outright.”
“How did you end up with her again?” Bryan wasn’t sure Iaondrin even knew how that had happened. There had to have been some politicking. Might take another talk with Lady So, if Manton agreed.
This time, she took even longer to answer, before she finally said, “I don’t really know. My mother was from Bense, and so … well, that really wasn’t an option. She was Grazia’s friend. She told me she took me in because of that. That she would have taken Morgan, too, since he was Grazia’s son, but that Isidro’s brother had insisted on having his nephew with the Hoalinos.”
Bryan was quiet for several long minutes, turning over the information in his mind and still feeling like he was missing some or most of it. “How strong a mage is she?” he asked absently.
“I don’t know. I never had reason to try to take her measure.” Someone else had started to sing with Janne, a man’s voice, a counterpoint to the girl’s alto. She couldn’t imagine either Kaz or Manton being the sort to break into song, so that left Saraiva. “She runs her own House, a respected one. So she has some combination of strength, and family name, and political savvy.”
Bryan fell silent again with a shrug, scanning the darkness fruitlessly. He hoped Josepha could shed some light on what the three Houses were poking into that got the Vershrikking sent after them. It was long moments before he started, another possibility occurring to him.
Iaondrin shifted uncomfortably on the ground, and then stood to stretch the stiffness out of her legs. “What?” she asked when Bryan jerked slightly.
“I had been thinking, since our latest talk with Ellinden So, that Josepha could give us information about what the three Houses were working on since she seems to be the connection,” he answered. “They all spent time there teaching and learning and working together. But there’s another reason they could all connect through her.” Bryan looked up at Iaondrin, head tilted to one side. “Maybe she did it.”
“Josepha?” Iaondrin’s tone reflected her surprise at the suggestion. “I don’t like the woman, but I can’t see- I mean, Grazia was her friend. She visited us…” Her voice trailed off, and the image of Azpiri came to her, his belief that some prior visitor to the Keep had to have been involved. She shivered, suddenly chilled by the possibility. Janne’s and Saraiva’s voices had become distant, barely heard.
“It’s just a theory,” Bryan cautioned. “But it may explain why Ellinden So stopped talking when she first thought of Josepha – she may suspect it. We have no proof, and the only motive we have came from Safford who seems to say it was to cover up the secret of getting through other people’s gates.” He shook his head. “It’s just something we should be aware of.”
Something we should be aware of. Iaondrin closed her eyes, trying not to let her thoughts run away from her. Despite the warm summer air, she shivered, unable to hear Janne or Saraiva at all now for the rushing of the blood in her ears. “Bryan-” The word caught in her throat, and she gasped as the cold slashed across her back, sudden and searing like a wound reopened. Her right arm, numb from shoulder to wrist, spasmed.
“They’re coming!!” Vermillion yelled to those in the barn even as he sprang to his feet. Surprise that he had timed the Hunt’s coming this well briefly passed through him followed by dismay that he might have missed and brought them to the city. “Light these,” he told Iaondrin, holding out the stones for her wand. He wanted to see if they had changed any since their last visit, what they might have learned. “Then we need speed, then you drink the potion.” His voice was a lot calmer than he felt, mostly to help keep Iaondrin calm, too.
The fight was definitely more difficult than the first one against the Hunt. It started much the same, with spells and a mad dash across the open field. The first part of the Hunt to get close on the ice went down with quick strikes from Vermillion’s cold iron short sword. They used that ability they had to send a bone-chilling fear through both Vermillion and Iaondrin. But then things changed.
The rest of the hunt wouldn’t step on the ice to get to Vermillion. Without the ice, Vermillion was not able to hit them while their guard was down. They seemed more adept at throwing off the enchantments Vermillion and Iaondrin had on them. They lost the extra speed and agility and the fly potion kept ending, dropping Iaondrin back within reach of the claws, until finally he told her to just climb up one of the ropes. They were able to merge together into larger and more vicious forms. And they hit harder than he remembered. By the time the fight was over, he was bloodied and bruised.
When the last one disappeared, Vermillion looked to Iaondrin for her nod that they had truly gone before relaxing. “Son of a bitch,” he swore through gritted teeth.
Iaondrin, perched on a rafter next to Kaz, rubbing her right shoulder. The ache was fading, but more slowly than before. The other three had stayed motionless, Janne with a white face, with Manton in shadow behind her, Saraiva watchful and assessing. But there had been moments, there at the end, where Kaz had tensed, ever so slightly, as if he were about to drop to the floor with Vermillion. Part of her had wanted to do that herself. But part of her had wanted to flee, especially when three of the hunt had flowed into each other and reshaped themselves into one. It was colder, she thought, and rolled her shoulder again against the stiffness.
“At least they didn’t seem to have learned how to climb a rope. Or walls,” Saraiva offered in a conversational tone. He peered over, looking from side to side. “I might just stay up here until dawn,” he added. “Just in case.”
“Whole floor needs to be ice,” Vermillion said. “Should’ve figured that.” He longed to sit down and rest, but wasn’t sure he would get up again for awhile. “And less space for the big ones.” He used his free hand to wipe sweat from his face. “That I didn’t see coming.”
“Yer making it think,” Kaz commented. He ignored Saraiva, as if it didn’t matter to him whether the Shal decided to stay up there all night, or all month. He looked at Iaondrin, giving her first option for descending down the rope, but she shook her head and waved him towards the rope first. Once he was down, Manton followed with a murmured order (it was clearly not a request) that Janne stay in place until he confirmed it was safe for her to descend.
“One of them simply disappeared,” the Evandin pointed out when he was on the ground. “Did that happen before?” He clearly did not want Janne to come down until that question had been answered.
“Not the last time here,” Iaondrin answered from above. “But they have before.” Before, when she had simply run rather than fighting. She felt tired, and even though she wondered whether Ellinden So had watched through Manton’s eyes, Iaondrin simply wanted them gone, off to report whatever it was they would report, to whomever they would report. She did not like Janne So’s avid curiosity, or Marzio Shal Saraiva’s carefully cultivated indifference, nor even Manton’s implacable calm. She didn’t like any of them, any more than she liked that constant, throbbing ache in the scars across her back, and she didn’t even bother trying to keep the impatience from her face or her voice.
After a moment, Manton waved the young skalding down, and Janne scrambled down the rope. There was a pause while Saraiva contemplated whether he actually wanted to remain in the rafters, but then he slid down as well. Iaondrin herself waited, fighting the urge to call Vermillion and Kaz back up, to leave the others to walk back to Tarrish by themselves, and then sighed in resignation. At least now they can go away, she tried to console herself, and reached for the rope to join the rest below.
“I can help with some of that,” Janne offered Vermillion as Iaondrin reached for the rope and prepared to slide down. “One of the things skaldings can do, a little healing.”
Vermillion hesitated, he had potions back at the house, then nodded, knowing it would make the walk back easier. He slid his sword back into its scabbard slowly, as if he wasn’t sure he could make his hand let go of the hilt. While Janne worked, he turned to Manton and asked, “Did Lady So see?”
Janne began to hum, and then to sing softly under her breath. Iaondrin paused for a moment to push the younger woman’s pillow to the ground, and then to watch the skalding at work. The threads, bright to her eyes (and possibly, she realized, to Manton’s) twitched in response to the song, pulsing in time, but did not form into a weave that Iaondrin could recognize. Not something I can learn, she thought sourly, and slid off the rafter with the rope in both hands.
Manton nodded in response to Vermillion’s question. “She did.” He left it at that, volunteering nothing about the silent conversation he may, or may not, have had with the distant Lady So while Vermillion had battled the hunt. He also ignored the eyebrow Saraiva raised at the question itself.
Right shoulder still chilled, and the grip of her right hand just a little unsure, Iaondrin slid down the rope faster than planned, and bit off a curse when her boots thumped to the floor. Without thinking, Janne automatically reached out to steady her, only to have Manton, in a motion faster then a blink, knock her arm aside so hard the skalding winced in pain. She rubbed the forearm where he had struck her, and opened her mouth to protest, but Saraiva broke in as if the exchange had never happened.
“Lord Tallentire is anxiously awaiting my report. I suppose I should make my way back to my quarters and give it to him, in all its bloody detail.”
Vermillion nodded. “Make sure he understands how dangerous this thing is. And remind him that the more people who know about it, the more danger everyone is in.” He didn’t think it would be secret for long, but as soon as the person behind this found out someone was looking into it, there were going to be more Vershrikking’s showing up.
He turned to Janne as Saraiva headed out. “It tracks the A’nari and those they touch.”
“She already knows that.” Manton’s tone was even, conversational, but something in the way he did not quite look at Janne as he exited the barn spoke of his displeasure at her thoughtlessness. Janne wrinkled her nose in annoyance at the rebuke, and muttered something under her breath before following him.
Iaondrin lingered, just long enough to put some distance between them and the others, just in case Janne or Saraiva were inclined to engage in any chit-chat. However, neither of them engaged in their prior easy-going banter, and were nearly as quiet as Iaondrin herself on the walk back into Tarrish. They kept themselves to only the minimal formalities necessary to pass through the gates (at which point, she wondered whether the guards’ lack of interest indicated either the guards’ utter lack of interest in politics or that Manton and Janne had given false names).
Just inside, Saraiva took his leave and headed off on his own, perhaps to report to Tallentire, perhaps to engage first in some debauchery.
Vermillion watched Saraiva go, feeling like he should say something, but unable to come up with anything. Instead, he asked Manton, “Does Lady So think Josepha had anything to do with this?”
“It is a possibility that she is considering.” The answer came without pause, and without any effort to dodge the question. Janne glanced at the Evandin in surprise at how readily he had responded; obviously, she was more accustomed to a patter of obfuscation from both her mother and Manton.
“What if I was to add Lazare Hoalino’s name to the cookpot?” Vermillion explained how the name had shown up once in Tallentire’s list of dealings. “There’s just something about the two who happened to take in the survivors both having connections to Ginevra and Locopo that gets my hackles up.”
Manton nodded. “As I understand it, the hunt did not come while you were at Josepha’s in Malisis. But it did, when you went to Darilei.”
With Derek, Iaondrin thought.
“Well, it did need to find its way past the wardings,” Vermillion answered, but he tilted his head to one side. “But, that does seem suspicious timing, now that you mention it.”
“But if they were behind it, why didn’t they just-” Janne stopped, with a look on her face that said she was fairly sure she was about to say something that would set Iaondrin’s teeth on edge. Of course, what she hadn’t yet begun to fully understand was that no matter what she said, it would put Iaondrin’s teeth on edge.) “Um… if they were involved, why wouldn’t they just have killed you then? Morgan was just, what, six? And Lazare’s own brother was killed.”
“They fucked it up,” Vermillion said suddenly, bluntly, then grimaced with a look at Iaondrin. “Whoever did it didn’t do it right. ‘A sledgehammer when a stiletto would do’, ”/campaign/rubies/wikis/safford/new" class=“create-wiki-page-link”> Safford said. Whoever did it didn’t want to slaughter everybody. Just the person or persons who knew how gates work. But they sent it after all the similar patterns, too." He had no idea how that worked, but that wasn’t really his concern. “There was no need to take action against two children who seemed to know nothing.”
“But just leave them ignorant and defenseless whenever they left you?” Janne asked the question with a note of disbelief in her voice. “I mean, not to be offensive – oh, hell,” she threw up her hands in exasperation, “look, this is going to offend you,” she spoke directly to Iaondrin. “It would offend me, and I don’t offend easily. But I don’t think it’s going to surprise anyone. At the very least keeping you two alive and on a leash was a way to eventually get at the A’nari seat.”
“So is havin’ ’em dead,” Kaz pointed out, his first contribution to the conversation. “And killed on their own, far away from your doorstep, by some dark and mysterious creature the likes of which no one’s seen before?” He shrugged. “You can pretend to be as shocked and surprised as everybody else, with no blood to be seen on your hands.”
Iaondrin frowned and gave him a sideways glance, surprised that he had spoken three whole sentences. With him quiet and silent and grim, too, her own lack of participation hadn’t been quite so noticeable. Still, Janne’s attention had been drawn away from her.
“I don’t pretend to know what goes on involving the Seat,” Vermillion said. “Unless they are working with another claimant, they haven’t put forth a claim. At least not a leading one.” He considered what Iaondrin had told him about the Shal taking a different view of time, thought that might be why – there would be no rush.
They continued on in silence for a bit after that, though Janne shot one or two glances in Manton’s direction as if to prompt him to say something. Finally, she sighed, unable to stay quiet. “Well, do you know if they are working with another claimant?” The way she asked it indicated it was the sort of thing she would expect her mother to know, and by extension Manton himself – and for both of them to not bother mentioning to her.
Vermillion wasn’t sure it mattered – if these people could plop this thing down on a ship that was sailing, they could remove people in their way with it— but he let the question stand. The answer might be another piece of the puzzle. He was still thinking this had to do with the gates, though he might be mad for following up on something a madman said.
The message hung there between them, until it seemed Manton would not answer, and the longer the silence stretched the more Iaondrin scowled at the ground. “To my knowledge,” he answered, “the Hoalinos, like some of the other families of Wyndham, have followed your mother’s lead, and remain uncommitted.”
“There are two viable contenders there. Marcelo Shal Priore and Lucetta Shal Fournier.” Vermillion heard the words in Ginko’s voice. “Priore is championed by the most traditional of the Shal, those of the east – Sa’iph, Visaiyain, Malisis and the like. Fournier finds her support in the western Shal, with one notable exception. There is only one real possibility for those who would like to rewrite the rules, Parlan Tavis of Darilei.”
“Who doesn’t support Fournier?” Vermillion had asked.
“The Lady of Sutton, and those who follow her, mostly the Houses of Wyndham." Ginko then, like Manton now, had not bothered to point out that Wyndham’s loyalty to Sutton had been bought by Ellinden So’s son, and Janne’s brother, when he had protected the evacuation of the city in the face of Seldez’s armies, saving it from being razed as Bense had been before it.
“But House Veanna?” Janne prompted.
Manton shrugged. “They are Malisis, and most of Malisis supports Priore.”
Vermilion remained silent as they walked, a slight frown on his face and his fixed on the ground about three paces ahead. When the group got closer to where they would split, he said, “We need to keep talking,” and led them back home.
Iaondrin’s scowled deepened when she realized he intended to invite Janne and Manton back to the house. Keep talking? she thought, and gave a sideways glance to Kaz, wondering whether he was inclined to continue being chatty. Obviously all this company was a bad influence on him.
“Helve to Bense to Wyndham. Wyndham to Bense to Helve,” he said as he set out goblets and wine, then moved for bread and cheese. “Ginevra and Locopo in business with Desmarais of Bense and Lazare in Wyndham. Their business interests were in Seldez. I don’t know much ’bout the war, but both Bense and Wyndham fell, yes?”
Iaondrin didn’t say anything, but simply took a goblet of wine, the book she was studying and a mage-light out to the back patio. Within seconds of taking her seat on the bench, the cat appeared, a low crouching shape in the shadows atop the stone wall, eyes glinting golden with reflected light.
Inside the kitchen, Janne likewise took wine and a plate, then curled upon one end of the couch. “Bense burned to its foundations,” she corrected. She gave a quick glance to Manton. “My brother’s doing from what I understand.” She was uncomfortable saying it, as if she worried her mother might be listening and be displeased. “Not long after the A’nari Keep. And then Wyndham. But that one Kallin left standing.” From the tone of her voice, she had little affection for her much older sibling.
Kaz waved off food and drink, then took up a position by the exit to the patio that let him watch Iaondrin through the iron grating covering the window. “Just in case the cat gets uppity about the lack of snacks,” he murmured to Vermillion.
Manton, for his part, simply took a seat at the table with wine and food. He nodded at Janne’s response but gave no separate answer to Vermillion’s question.
“And the connection from the A’nari to that group is Grazia taught Ginevra and Locopo at Veanna’s.” Vermillion nibbled some cheese. "Assuming I am interpreting the words of a madman correctly, the Vershrikking was sent to Ginevra and Locopo because they knew where or how to grasp the errant threads… a master key to open any door.’
“But there were six years between attacks. So either Ginevra and Locopo had just figured out the secret, or…,” he trailed off, knowing the or was more likely just because that’s how things went when committing crimes.
Janne frowned as she nibbled at the bread, and visibly puzzling over the mystery. Manton cradled his goblet in his hands without speaking, gaze level.
“Or it was three can keep a secret if two are dead,” Kaz finished. Outside, the cat growled softly, the rumble low and continuous.
Vermillion’s mind worked quickly, now. Locopo did not distinguish himself as a mage… So Ginevra, Veanna, and Grazia… Did Grazia know or only suspect? Does it matter? Attacked because she, at least, would have known when they actually used the knowledge…
He looked at Manton and narrowed his eyes slightly, but something else had occurred to him, so before speaking, he moved to the back door. “You should talk to Morgan,” he suggested softly. “Warn him, let him know you’re alright.” He turned to go back in, then paused. “Ask him if he remembers his mother ever talking about Veanna or Ginevra. I know he was young…,” he shrugged. He rested a hand on her shoulder, then pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
Iaondrin nodded without looking up from the book she wasn’t really reading. He was back inside before she looked up, but the cat was still there, hunkered, with its tail curling sinuously in the darkness.
Back inside, Vermillion sat in a chair across from Manton. “You didn’t have to wait for me to catch up. You could have just told me why your son burnt Bense, Dominta. I mean I know why I had to burn Palderton, but Bense wasn’t full of the living dead, was it?”
Janne sat bolt upright, sloshing wine onto her tunic. Whether her curse was for the stain or the realization that her mother was listening was unclear.
Manton glanced at Kaz, whose eyes had snapped from Iaondrin to the Evandin. Manton’s sigh was soft and not his own. “No, it was not.” Again the inflection and the pacing of the words were Ellinden So’s. “Our focus was on the mosaic. We did not even see the gate as an issue.”
Kaz raised both eyebrows. When he looked Janne, she just shrugged.
“I was going to tell Kaz anyway,” Vermillion semi-apologized. “And I won’t tell Janne how to spot the difference.”
“”/campaign/rubies/wikis/seldez" class=“wiki-page-link”>Seldez had control of the mosaic. Savit bargained for a … voluntary… occupation." At that, Janne straightened again, though this time she managed to maintain control of her wine. “And with it, control of the mosaic.”
Outside, Iaondrin rolled the glittering stone between the fingers of her left hand. Her own goblet hung loose in her right. The conversation inside had caught her attention — there were a few hours still before the hunt would reach hem, she knew. Morgan could wait.
“So what was it about the mosaic that required burning a city?” Vermillion asked.
“The western mosaics were built together,” Janne said slowly. When one corner of Manton’s mouth turned upwards and he gave a nod characteristic of her mother, Janne pointed one finger at him. “Stop it. That’s just… too weird.” She gave a slight shake of her head to clear it. “And… linked together?” she finished, questioning whether she had gotten the last part correct.
“An adequate way for a non-mage to describe it.” Manton’s eyes turned back to Vermillion. “Bense and Wyndham, Sutton and the Keep.” Manton set the goblet aside and folded his hands atop the table. “Of course, by then, the Keep’s mosaic was no longer an issue. There were no other mages sworn to it.”
“What does that mean, ‘linked’? Each could draw from the others?” Vermillion was still trying to get a basic understanding.
“Or feed into each other,” Manton said it slowly, as if he – or Ellinden So – had expected a different question. He paused, as the Lady of Sutton considered what to say in further explanation. “When Bense fell, and it’s mosaic was broken, every mage that had bound him or herself to it died. Not just those in Bense.” She – Manton – sat back in the chair. “Kallin, and those with him, broke one to save the others. And marched to Wyndham before Seldez.”
“But…” Janne, face white, trailed off. “But he didn’t break Wyndham.” She swallowed hard. “Because he was caught before he could.”
“Everyone thinks you bargained a seat on the Council to Seldez in payment for your son,” Kaz said grimly. “But it was for more, wasn’t it? For withdrawing from Wyndham.”
“And what could they have done to you from Bense, or Wyndham?” Vermillion asked. “I’m assuming you’re sworn to your own mosaic and it was linked.”
“I am. Like many others in my family.” She answered the second statement first, perhaps to give herself time to think about how to respond to Vermillion’s opening question. “We spent two years dancing with each other as ”/campaigns/rubies/characters/vactor" class=“wiki-content-link”>Vactor Adelu tested what he could do from Wyndham, and what we could do to counter him." One shoulder shrugged. “It was enough of a threat that I made a deal with him. And after he withdrew from Wyndham, we spent three years rebuilding the mosaics in Wyndham and Sutton, to untangle them.” Manton’s head turned to look out the window to the back patio. “We tried to reach the A’nari mosaic to make sure we were unbound, but it never responded.”
Iaondrin closed her eyes. Because it has no keystone, she thought. And it turns its wards upon itself. But she did not share that with Ellinden So. No matter how forthcoming the Lady of Sutton seemed to be, Iaondrin would stay silent about the keystone. The cat grumbled and she opened her eyes to meet its angry glare. “That’s what I get for feeding you,” she whispered. “A feral cat with a sense of entitlement.”
“Well, as you know now, there’s some weird shit going on at the Keep,” Vermillion said. It took a moment for him to go through what Lady So had said, but then, “Wait, how did Seldez… They were waiting for your son. And you didn’t know how until now.”
“I did not know how until now.” Manton half-smiled again, but there was no humor in it.
“’Cause somebody snuck in the back door,” Janne’s voice shook.
“Because as we have surmised with very little proof as of yet, Josepha fucking-Shal – no offense – Veanna opened the gate. Fuck we can’t even prove the things we think she can do. Get into any gate? Call an abomination from <between>?”
Iaondrin folded the book closed and set it aside. She leaned over, head between her knees, fighting a sudden dizziness and the urge to throw up. How long had she stayed in Josepha’s house? Had Lazare known? The thought of Morgan, so small and defenseless handed over to someone who had known, made her sick.
Inside, Kaz shifted his weight ever so slightly. When Vermillion glanced his way he gave just the smallest tip of his head to the window.
“What did Kallin tell you? Did he see anything or hear anything?” Janne had managed to regain control of her voice, a valuable skill for a scalding.
Manton’s eyes closed momentarily, and then reopened. “We do not talk.” When Janne leaned forward to follow up on that, one of Manton’s hands rose in warning. It was not a topic Lady So was willing to discuss.
“’Scuse me,” Vermillion murmured hurriedly, then moved to the back patio, not caring that the cat scattered noisily. “Cara mia,” he whispered, kneeling, resting one hand on her back. “Deep breaths.”
The cat yowled in protest from somewhere at the far end of the wall where it had retreated. Iaondrin drew in a deep breath, and swallowed back the rising bile. Behind the sudden rage, she could feel the lingering ache in her shoulder. “How about I just go ask her?” she said in a shuddering voice. “Let’s see if she’ll take my hand.”
“How ‘bout if it isn’t settled in two and a half months, we go stay there for a few weeks.?”
She chuckled with little or no humor. “And hide in the rafters.”
Bryan remained silent for a few moments, stroking her back and her hair. “The suspicion is that it won’t attack her place.” He frowned, tilted his head to one side. “Which means she has a defense against it.”
“I don’t want her to have a defense against it. I want to know it will rend her apart.” She sat up, and her face was pale in the mage-light. Her eyes glittered with anger, and the cat’s growl make her blink. “Yes, that’s how I feel.”
Bryan nodded in understanding. “Well, Safford did say the pattern it was sent for or the pattern who called it.’ Maybe there’s a way.”
For a moment, she looked hopeful, and then she sat back, shoulders slumping. “But a sledgehammer.” Iaondrin shook her head, tired and sore and angry. “I can’t let myself do that to anyone else around her. And I don’t even know for sure.” She dropped her voice, to make sure it wouldn’t carry. “I have to say, I understand how Marren Savit feels.” Everything he cared about burned around him, sacrificed to save others.
Bryan sighed, still kneeling, holding Iaondrin’s hand. He looked to Kaz, a small motion of his head to draw him a step closer. “Her place can’t be any harder than the Aihv’.”
Kaz grinned, teeth flashing in the light. “Easier without a bag of heads to slow us down.” He glanced at Iaondrin. “Not that we know what that’s like.”
“We’re almost done with this conversation for tonight,” Bryan told her. “Unless there’s something else you want to know from them?”
“I’m sure there is. I’m sure there’s plenty she isn’t telling us.” Iaondrin didn’t trust Ellinden So, even if the Lady of Sutton had been upfront about wanting to use them. She will sacrifice us, too, if it meets her purpose. The thought was written on her face for Vermillion and Kaz both to see. “But I can’t think of it now.” The cat’s snarl might have been her own, so closely did it match her mood.
“Alright, we’ll be able to try to sleep soon.” Bryan squeezed her hand and leaned up to press a quick kiss to her lips.
Back inside, Vermillion poured himself some more wine. “So we have a theory. The only thing left is to find proof. I’ll let you know when I get some. Anything else you need to add?”
Janne blinked disbelieving, and leaned forward. “You’re just going to go get some proof?” she asked skeptically, ready to interrogate Vermillion about exactly how he planned to accomplish that task. But Manton had already pushed back the chair, and waved one hand – his, or her mother’s gesture – to quieten her. “Nothing tonight.”
Iaondrin waited until they were gone to re-enter the house, and sat at the table to put the stone before her and whisper Morgan’s name. No time for idle talk, she wanted to give him as much information as she could about what had happened at the barn, so he and those around him could be prepared once the sun set in Clun. She also wanted to relay, in the little time left after that, their many suppositions. He recalled no particular mention by his parents of Ginevra or Josepha or Locopo, though he did remember Josepha visiting the A’nari Keep before, and visiting Wyndham long after the war had ended.
At the end, when time ran short, he asked, voice grave and uncertain, a question Iaondrin had feared – whether she thought Grazia or Isidro had schemed with Josepha at any point, whether they had suspected, but had not warned Euricio and Lillias. She did not know how to answer him, and sat silent while the weave linking stone to stone began to unravel.
“I thought about it for a minute,” Bryan said quietly after a few moments of Iaondrin’s silence. “Professional habit. They killed your family before they made their other moves. You do that to someone who is in your way, or who can get you caught later.” He paused, shrugged. “There are few people alive now who could tell us who knew what and when. And we’re going to visit them.”
Whatever Morgan might have said in response went unheard, as the last of the threads broke free. Iaondrin took the stone and slipped it back into the pouch where she carried it. She wasn’t sure she would be able to sleep (the cat, occasionally growling outside, might make it difficult), but there wasn’t much else to be done that night.
“I should draw you a map of the House,” she told Bryan as she rubbed her shoulder again. “What I remember of it, anyway.” She had known it well at one time, had memorized what halls led where, all the better to try to avoid anyone, all the better to hide. “It won’t be to scale, though. And it might have changed.”
“I was going to ask when it came time to plan,” Bryan assured her. “Even vague memories are better than going in blind. Now, I am tired and still sore from that fight. Would you like to go to bed?”
She nodded. After Bryan had checked the windows and doors, she checked them again, making certain the iron grates were locked and the shades drawn. It took her a long time to go to sleep, knowing that no matter how she tried to be still, she kept him awake next to her.