In Serein

2-2-4 Of Challenges And Pledges

Reyna, in a pretty russet dress, far more grown up and taller than I remembered her from before, looked from one to the other for a reaction to her emergency announcement, near jumping on the spot. I could feel Chay straightening and guessed that he would be exchanging glances with Marani.

I looked at the girl sternly.

“Lord Tremain. The one you owe not just your very life, but this dwelling and all it contains. You are to refer to him in the proper and respectful manner only. Is that understood?”

Reyna didn’t like to be thus admonished and blushed, but dropped her head and nodded nonetheless.

I could not reach through the barrier I had constructed myself and there was no time to take it down.

“Listen with care. Have everyone but Demma go to their rooms immediately and erect whatever shieldings you can muster. Make sure they stay where they are, absolutely and with no exceptions. Do you understand me?”

The girl nodded again, very seriously this time. She had always been at her best in moments of crisis when her leadership was called upon.

“Hurry then. Be sure to be upstairs when he arrives.”

“Yes, Lady Isca,” Reyna said, turned and ran from the room, leaving the door ajar. I walked across, through the doorway, and immediately, all the minds in the house, in utter turmoil, assaulted my senses once again. I shut them out and found Lucian, his so familiar pattern drawing me towards himself at once. He was just turning off the main road and down our drive, and he was shielded high and tight.

It worried me that he would return so soon, and it worried me more to have him come here. In the hallway, the children were scrambling to get up the stairs in time; Demma was looking from the kitchen and Marani stood close behind me.

Outside, the black clopped on the courtyard stone tiles and only a few heartbeats later, the front flew open and with a gust of wind, wet black and drenched, Lucian strode across the threshold. His face was pale and hard and as he walked through the hallway towards me, the white mist swirled about him as he set the drying process in motion, making him look as though he was emerging from clouds.

I stood aside to let him pass but he stopped on a level with me, finding my eyes; I send him a welcome with all my heart and he softened fractionally in response. We said nothing and did not touch in body or mind, and he entered the room where Chay was standing now by the fire place, and Marani had taken up what she must have thought would be an inconspicuous position in the corner of the wall behind the door.

Lucian scanned the room and the shielding and relaxed a little more.

He pulled off his gloves, loosening a finger at a time, and then took off his cloak and just held it out. From her corner, Marani came scuttling and took the items from him as he knew she would, then his eyes fell on the half empty wine bottle on the table.

“Bring me wine,” he instructed her curtly and she left, sliding behind him and out the door as quickly as she could move. I closed the door behind her.

Lucian undid the leather belt that held the swords and laid them carefully across the table, ignoring Chay completely who stood rigidly and absorbed only a few paces away, then sat down in the chair I had previously occupied.

I went over to him and sat down on the arm of the chair, turned and looked down at him.

What has happened, my love? You are here early?

His shielding was still tightly in place and he made no attempt to drop it for the link. Instead, he said, “The garrison is abandoned and in ruins. There was no information to be found, nor lodgings for the night.”

Marani came back with fresh wine and a fresh glass for him which she carefully placed on the table and without touching or disturbing the two sheathed blue black swords and the leather holster. I noted Lucian looking at her with interest. He had not seen her for over a year and in that time, she was much transformed. Chay moved and caused all of us to turn towards him. He was trying to be brave but finding it difficult, being confronted as he was with the reality of Lucian after all the tales and imaginings. He was also trying very hard not to think about what he had said to me just before Lucian’s arrival, and in trying not to think of it, of course he thought of it, and Lucian heard him loud and clear.

He dropped his shielding then and touched my mind.

What has been occurring?

I sighed deeply and just gave him full access to my memories on everything that had been said, and my feelings on the subject. Lucian tracked along with keen predatory interest and a worrisome absence of emotional involvement. He shut off the story when we came to my flashback on his experience with Marani’s daughter and turned his interest towards Chay, observing him carefully and checking him out on every level. Chay wanted to squirm under the attention but kept himself straight and outwardly motionless, although his lids flicked too swiftly and I could see him swallowing rapidly.

Do you desire this one?

My body finds him attractive.

And your heart, your mind?

I like him well enough in most ways.

Lucian picked up the bottle and poured himself a glass of the deep, dark wine. He drank it slowly and with relish.

I think he is in love with me, Lucian. Don’t hold it against him.

“Attention!” Lucian snapped unexpectedly and Chay automatically and without any thought whatsoever assumed a rigid army posture.

Lucian got up and stood quite closely in front of Chay. He was taller by nearly a head and much more solidly built than Chay. His age and power lay around him like a cloak and his authority was unquestionable. Chay looked straight ahead and did not give eye contact.

“So,” said Lucian, slowly. “You would take my bride from me.”

I could see Marani from the corner of my eyes putting a hand to her mouth and looking scared. Chay continued to stand straight and look straight ahead.

“You would challenge me for the Lady Isca?” Lucian asked again, directly this time and Chay’s eyes lost their unfocussed stare and he made eye contact instead.

I could feel how scared he was without any magic or intuition, all the way across the room, but no matter how scared, he still managed to say, “Yes I would.” in the overly loud style of the army responses.

Lucian gave a tiny smile and stood back by a pace.

“How do you propose we should settle this? A duel, perhaps?” he asked, and I well knew the razor edge of sarcasm beneath his tone, yet it was lost on Chay who took a deep breath, put his head back a little and said, “Yes. A duel.”

“To the death, presumably.” Lucian said, dryly, and still Chay didn’t catch on to the fact that Lucian was playing with him entirely.

Seriously, the handsome blond man nodded. “To the death.”

“And to the victor, the spoils.” Lucian had to actually make a real effort not to laugh at the last part of that sentence.

Before Chay had the opportunity to make even more of a fool of himself in my lord’s eyes, I intervened.

“There will be no duel,” I said gently.

Both men looked at me with identical mirror image movements of their heads which was amusing to see.

What do you find appealing about this one? He is –

Stop torturing him, Lucian – and no comments about how you can do much worse. You do know I will never forgive you if you hurt him, don’t you?

He shook his head.

What do you expect of me?

Just be nice to him!

At that, Lucian started to chuckle, then laugh out loud, until eventually he was laughing so hard that he was near doubled over and had to support himself with one hand on the mantle piece.

His laughter filled the room and Chay and Marani stared at him in utter dismay.

Lucian tried to control himself but broke out into more laughing. With one hand across his stomach, he made his way back into the chair where I was still sitting on the arm and collapsed into it. He looked up at me, the second time I had seen actual tears in his eyes, and he reached up to me and touched my cheek.

You are absolutely priceless. I would battle to the death for you, any time, any day. Ah my little witch queen.

I caught his hand in mine and brought it to my lips.

My lord. You are insane but I love you more than I could ever love another. No matter how pretty he may be.

Yet, you desire him.

My body desires him.

How is that different?

If he struck me with a sword, I would bleed. That is what bodies do, they react and respond. He presents himself to me and my body responds with wanting him. But there is no force on earth that could make me take him when I know that I have you, my lord.

I would kill him where he stands, just for that.

Him and all the other men like him?


That is not sensible.

That is how I feel.

I can understand that (I felt like that when you looked at Thoran’s woman with longing).

I cannot let him go with his challenge unanswered.

Why not?

It is not something that I can do.

Why not?

He tried to pull his hand away from me but I held it tightly, firmly.

Loud enough to be clearly heard across the room, I said, “I love you, my lord. I am yours. Always. Will you give me his life for a present, and for a token of trust in my love for you?”

Lucian struggled within himself and finally, he replied with a sigh, “Whatever you wish, my lady. He is yours.”

Chay shook his head and took a step towards us.

“No. No! I will not be spoken of in this manner. I challenge you, Lord Tremain! I demand satisfaction from you – damn you, sir, are you a coward that you will not settle this honourably and let a woman tell you what you can and cannot do?”

I could have killed the stupid boy myself in that instant. Lucian raised an eyebrow and looked questioningly to me.

I am sorry, Lucian. The boy is an utter fool. Is there any way you might decline?

It is becoming  most difficult. You can appreciate this?

I nodded, grimly. Yes. I can appreciate it. Listen, could you not have a duel with him and not kill him? Just win convincingly in some other way?

Chay was most impatient and interrupted our conference.

“What do you say, Lord Tremain? Will you hide behind this woman’s skirts or face me and fight like a man? Or have you forgotten what it is to be a man?”

Lucian sighed and a small amusement lay on his lips.

“Enough of the insults, soldier,” he said calmly. “I will duel with you in the morning. Now, be off and leave us be.”

Chay’s mouth fell open and he didn’t know what to say in response, but luckily, Marani went into action and took him by the elbow and physically steered him from the room. He allowed her to do so without a struggle or a fight.

We watched them leave, and when the polished door had closed softly behind them, I looked down at Lucian and carefully traced his nose with the tip of my finger. He smiled and looked back at me, holding out an inviting arm and I let myself slip across into this lap. He took me in his arms and I laid my head on his shoulder.

“I am glad you are here,” I said to him and he kissed me lightly in return.

I am glad I returned early. I might have come to find this man in your bed in the morning.

He send the thought as though in jest yet it wasn’t funny and not meant to be, either. More like a warning, a warning which I did not need.

What could Chay possibly give me that I don’t get from you?

He played back my own thoughts on the subject – easy friendship, laughter, happiness, children. A young body like my own and an innocent mind very unlike mine, indeed.

Instead of arguing this, I just linked with him and literally forced him to go deep and deeper to the place where who each was became blurred and indistinct and where my love for him and his love for me became just love, a force in itself of a strength and power that could terrify.

He backed us out of it and tightened his embrace about me, kissed me, and I kissed him back, wrapping my hands about his neck. In a far corner of my mind, I felt Marani peek in through the door, beyond the shielding, and her horrified astonishment at seeing us thus innocently engaged in a lover’s activity send ripples of amusement through us both, causing what had been a deep and moving kiss to turn to a hiding of our smiles so she would not know we had noticed.

Are you hungry, my lord? I asked him when she had withdrawn.

He considered and he was but he was also unwilling to move from his position and settled into a comfortable embrace of me instead.

I am much troubled at what I found at Ural garrison.


It is burned to the ground, not even the support village still stands. I cannot recall a time when there wasn’t at least a dozen headmen’s groups stationed there. It is the last of the southern main posts.

I remembered the soldiers I had met on the road, just after I had left on my journey to the North Mountain.

When Trant started the war, there were those who turned on their own officers and switched sides. Perhaps it happened at Ural too.

Lucian sighed and nuzzled my hair.

Nothing is as it should be. Everything has become deranged. And we must go to Pertineri.

I do not like that thought, Lucian. There may be a trap for us there.

I agree. I am fair certain that there will be. But what kind of trap, I cannot figure.

What is your intention? Will you have us ride straight into Pertineri and demand that Trant give you the kingdoms? Will you kill him and just place the crown on your own head?

Lucian smiled in my hair.

It is a strange thing to be here with someone who I cannot convince that I know what is to be done for the best. Doubts are something a general must never be known to have. We – I – make decisions and it is assumed I have a faultless plan.

It was my turn to smile into his chest whilst my fingers white played with the buttons of his jacket.

A plan would be good. Any plan. Not to mention a faultless one.

We start with the outcome and then we work back, he send me quite soberly. I promised Malme when he lay dying that I would watch over his sons and their sons in turn.

A memory, stark and black, and with respect we both allowed it to come and be shared.

Malme’s personal quarters in the South Wing of the Palace at Pertineri. They are sober and unadorned, a long lasting tribute to a soldier’s discipline, no brocades here nor fancy gold enleavements, just clear walls with weapons, real weapons that saw battle many times and are scarred and pitted, their outlines now distorted in the shifting shadows, a four poster bed made from stout straight wood, simple linen coverings.

It is the darkest part of night, the air is chill and misty moist. A single oil lamp burns on a low table by the side of the bed of the greatest king the world had ever known. He is wasted away with the pain of these many months, his hair is long and white and he is frail like a child when once he had been the strongest of all warriors.

I am sitting on his bed, guarding him at his command. There is no-one else here, no courtiers, not his wife of 40 years nor any of his 13 sons and daughters and their children and children’s children; no priests, no physicians, no Serein; the huge room is empty, save for the shadows, for me and the sounds of Malme’s laboured breathing that stops and starts, then stops again.

I am standing guard with him for one last time on this eve before his final battle.

Through his skin, I can see his skull, broad and wide still. I can see the bones sharply projecting in his hands, his wrists. His fingers flutter sometimes, the square nails a bluish colour – he is but one short step away from turning to a corpse, no, he is turning into a corpse beneath my eyes.

I think of Sepheal then, and how with his dying I had been at a loss, still was at a loss, all this time. I wish with a tiredness that it could be me here on this bed, and Malme sitting silently and watching my passing.

Before me, the king opens his eyes. They are red veined, sore, the whites yellowed over and the pupils milky cloudy, yet there is recognition and he speaks my name in a whisper.

“Lucian,” he says.

My voice is steady as I reply, “I am here, my king.”

“You,” he says and tries to cough but does no longer have the strength to do so, it is an impotent tremble, a spasm that recedes slowly. He tries to speak and I lean closer to him. A hand attempts to reach me and I take it, guide it up my arm so he can complete the soldier’s greeting.

“You have always …” he says, then another spasm shudders him and he has left me behind.

I sit in silence until the lamp has burned dry, and then until the dawn breaks. When a merciless sun, bright white, tears into the room, I release his hand and lay him out, with his sword straight across his body. Then I leave and inform the guards that the king is gone.

You have always, he said. I wished he could have finished the sentence. It was a foolishness but with all my heart and soul, I wished he would have finished it and told me, you have always been my friend.

Isca. Don’t cry. It was a very long time ago.

No, that is where you are wrong. It is here, it is now. It just happened all over again. It has never stopped, it is still there. Your loss and grief. No, don’t deny it. You have never stopped serving him, have you. Not in all those years.

(Silent acknowledgement)

There were so many things I would have liked to have said, thought about, but I did not want to pry further into a place where I really had no business of intruding, where I should never have been save for that accident that gave me Lucian’s memories.

I will restore Pertineri to his descendants, as I promised that I would.

It was my turn to send a silent acknowledgement and with it, my pledge to support him in this endeavour as best I could. It was accepted without reservations and we just sat in silence until my weight began to cause him discomfort and I reluctantly slid off him and got up.

We drank wine then, and ate from the plate and he asked me about the house and how I had acquired it. I told him what had happened, how we had come to be here, and our discovery that most everyone can learn to do basic pattern magic with some instruction.

Eventually, I asked his leave to check out the arrangements in the house; he was happy enough to have a time by himself in the shielding of this room and so I left him stretched out in the chair before the magical fire and went in search of Marani.

Stepping across the threshold and passing through the shielding was an interesting experience; a lot of different minds, hard at work not trying to think of anything in particular and most especially not of Lucian. Strangely, it didn’t bother me as it had done when I first arrived; quite in the contrary, it was enlivening.

I made my way to the kitchen where most of the conspirators would be assembled, and sure enough, there around the top end of the big table there was Demma, and Marani, Chay, as well as Thoran’s girl, sitting very close to Demma and with her glorious curls tied up in a severe bun, making her look more childlike still. They turned as one at my appearance, and I pulled up a chair and sat down next to Chay, who withdrew slightly from me and took to staring down at his own hands.

“Where’s Dory?” I asked brightly into the silence and received the information long before Marani, after much exchanging of glances amongst them, answered me.

“She is looking after her mother, who is quite poorly, in Chartem. She took the baby along – a little girl, did you know?”

“Ah,” I said with a grin. “So you have a daughter, Chay? What did you call her?”

He looked at me sideways, only briefly. “Dory called her Mella, after an aunt.”

I nodded and then focussed on the blond girl. Her bruises were dark shadows and she looked only marginally better orientated to real life than last time I had encountered her. I recognised her dress as one of the sober autumn coloured ones belonging to Demma.

Before I could say anything, Demma said, “We think her name is Camu, but she doesn’t talk. Poor thing.”

At the mention of her name, the girl’s lids flicked briefly but the non-expression in her face did not change. She sat still and pale, within the fog that covered her mind; it would take time for her to come to some kind of healing.

“With your care here, she will get well. I am sure of it,” I said and for a short moment, there was the beginning of a rapport before each one of them withdrew from me into resentment and unhappiness again, each for their own reasons.

“How’s the little boy who came with her? Matus’ brother – I don’t even know his name, either.”

Marani answered. “Ricco. He is a very nice boy, sharp, helpful. He is upstairs with the other children. He was only here for half a day before he made his first fire. I think Reyna is much taken with him, he has been telling tales of soldiery.”

I nodded. “Do you think I could have a berry tea?” it occurred to me to ask, and Marani smiled and got up right away.

Next to me, Chay took to hitting the sides of his left hand on the table top, denoting his mounting frustration. He was not one to keep his calm for long, and sure enough, before Marani had even placed the kettle on the range to boil, he turned to me and blurted out,

“I am going to fight to the death for you in the morning and you don’t even care. You don’t care at all.”

At his raised voice, the blond girl drew even closer towards Demma who put a protective arm around her. Marani stopped and looked over her shoulder, waiting for my response.

I turned sideways on my chair so I could face Chay fully, and said, “And whose fault is that going to be? You are an idiot, Chay Catena! I did the best I could to protect you from your own stupidity – what were you thinking shouting insults at Lucian?”

He tried to keep my gaze but could not and dropped his shoulders with a sigh.

“I thought, …” he said, and let the sentence trail away. I still heard the rest loud and clear. He had really thought there that he could impress me with his bravery by standing up to Lucian and challenging him to a duel over me.

I shook my head in despair. And I did feel very sorry for him.

“Look, Chay,” I said, and reached out to touch his arm. He withdrew it sharply. I sighed, retrieved my hand and continued, “You know how much I like you, and admire you. I am truly sorry I don’t feel the kind of love for you have for me, but that is no reason to throw your life away in a futile gesture of ill conceived bravery. Let me tell Lucian that you have changed your mind, and I’m sure we will all be much relieved and the happier for it.”

Chay’s face changed colour remarkably as I said those words and his jaw set.

“What do you take me for?” he asked, angrily. “Do you think I’m a coward? Do you think I have no honour? Do you think I’m just going to run away with my tail between my legs like some street cur that is afraid of a kicking? And …” he pushed himself off the table and stood up, looking down at me, “… what makes you so sure I’m going to lose, anyway? He’s an old man, out of training, plain to see for all, and you kindly gave me the ability to do magic with a sword. “ He bend down towards me and stared hard at me. “I’m going to take Tremain’s head in the morning. Just wait and see.”

For an instant, I was so impressed by his own convicings that I considered the possibility of Chay besting Lucian in a straight fight but then I had to shake my head.

“Chay,” I said quietly and with all the conviction I could muster, “If you so much as scratch him, I’m going to kill you myself. I shall raise lightning from the sky and strike you down where you stand. You cannot win me by hurting the man I love, don’t you understand that at all?”

“You know, I don’t care anymore what or whom you love,” he said, more bitter than angry now. “I was a fool to reveal myself to you. You are hell bent on losing your soul and turning your back on all that’s good and graceful in creation, and I can’t stop you. But I have a good chance of stopping him and doing everyone a favour. So raise your lightning! I tell you I will take your butcher’s head, and mount it on the fence post for all to see, and to hell with you.” With that, he struck the table with his flat hand and then walked from the room, slamming the door behind him.

All of us women sighed exactly at the same time, even vague little Camu.

Marani poured the hot water into the pot and a short while later, the aroma of the berry tea filled the room, spiralling me back for an instant to the grey, dour kitchen at Tower Keep and the comfort I had derived from Marani’s presence there and her ministrations.

She filled four earth ware mugs that had been decorated by some apprentice magician with all manners of motifs, in all the colours of the rainbow, and placed them on the table before taking her seat once more.

I picked up a mug that was sporting moons and stars in a swirling blue and purple sky and as it was far too hot to drink as yet, just held it in both hands, elbows balanced on the table, and breathed in the steam that carried its flavour.

“We could put Chay into a deep sleep easily enough,” remarked Demma. “He would be asleep and when he wakes up, Lord Lucian could be gone. He will be gone, soon?”

I truly wished not everybody would hate him so. I truly wished some people would see what I would see, what Malme had seen, to go beyond their fears, even just for a moment. Marani had become a much better reader in the year since I last saw her, and she picked up my thought clearly, which was somewhat disconcerting.

“It’s his own fault,” she said as though answering a conversation. “He should stop frightening people to death, and then perhaps they’d be less afraid of him. Ah, he should stop putting people to death first. That would help.”

Carefully, I pursed my lips and sucked in a little tea. It was sweet and delicious.

“Alright. Look, Marani. He hasn’t killed anyone in this house yet, nor shown any inclination that he wants to. And Chay really pushed him to the limits back there. I thought he was very restrained.”

Marani took a drink from her own mug and nodded. “It is true. In fact, I am disbelieving of it, though I saw it with my own eyes and heard with my own ears what Chay said to him. It’s a miracle, really.”

After a pause filled with berry tea drinking, she added, “You must be a good influence on him.”

The thought made me smile. “We have been through – quite a bit together since last year. Some things have changed beyond recognition.” I sighed and stopped smiling. “Not the children thing, though, unfortunately.”

Marani said, “I never understood that about him. It really is as though he loses his mind altogether. Especially when they come upon him unexpectedly.” And she shuddered, undoubtedly at the remembrance of incidents she had witnessed.

Across the table, Demma was putting the fourth mug into the hands of the blond girl, who sat like a lifeless doll, obedient but without any will of her own. Demma physically made her lift the mug to her lips and the girl drank then, little small sips, regular, until Demma moved her hands back down to the table.

“I think I know why he is like that,” I said, and gently reached into the thick mist that lay around Camu’s mind in an absentminded fashion. Here and there were encapsulated islands of knowing and remembering things that should not be known or remembered, like the knots in the veins of a piece of timber, floating amidst the confusion.

Marani said, “Well? Why is he like that?” and Demma too leaned forward with interest.

I left the girl’s mind alone and thought about Marani’s question.

“I think it must have something to do with himself as a child. He doesn’t remember any of it, and I’m thinking when he sees young children, there is a danger that he might remember and he must not.” It didn’t really make much sense to me, even as I said it, but Marani looked at me, eyes wide.

“I cannot imagine that he would have ever been a child,” she said, shaking her head at the absurdity of the idea.

“I saw a – kind of painting of him,” I said, translating the idea of Sepheal’s recording devices for them both. “He was skinny, and bright blond, much like Cyno in looks, actually.”

Marani shook her head again. “Cyno is a little angel! How can you say such a thing!.”

I drank some more tea and sighed deeply.

“Lucian used to be. When he was that age.”

Marani kept shaking her head, the thought of an angelic young Lucian entirely irreconcilable to her in all ways.  “He had a real mother? And a father? What became of them?”

“Well yes, of course. His father was the then Lord Tremain and had a vast holding spanning most of the north-eastern territories of what is now Solland. His mother was a highborn lady, I don’t know of what exact lineage. He had an older sister and a baby brother who was very sickly from birth. They were all – killed, in a war many hundreds of years ago, and the lands taken.”

Into the silence that followed, a soft young voice said unexpectedly, “I had a sister. And three brothers.”

We all turned to look at Camu, who sat looking at the mug before her, and it was really not until then it struck me that she had lived through events as terrifying as those I had seen in Lucian’s memories herself. A compassion for her that was real and deep made a connection from me to her and I went through the mist to her own true mind, screaming in a darkness and isolation, caught in a never ending loop of replaying those awful events that had befallen her and her family, out of nowhere. It was not until then that I understood that somewhere, somewhere inside Lucian too, there must be this, these dungeons of never ending horror where the torture never stopped for an instant, looping around and around with never a beginning and never an end, no resolution, not now or in eternity.

It recoiled me from the connection and when I picked up my mug again, my hands were shaking.

Marani noticed and send me a link request, nice and subtle. I accepted it and showed her what I had seen in the girl’s mind; yet before she could pick up more than a slight flavour of what it was all about, she had backed out of the link with a gasp and pushed herself away from the table.

Gently, I said, “What’s done, is done.”

To my surprise, Camu responded by nodding fractionally. She had heard what I said and responded with agreement. Demma placed an arm around her shoulders and her hand on the girls hand, and after a short hesitation, the girl laid her head against Demma and closed her eyes. From beneath her long, dark lashes, a single tear emerged and began to slowly make its way down her cheek.

All three of us watched in silence for a time, then I began to send the girl a gentle, light wave of soothing blue; Marani picked it up and added a tint of purple and she sighed and relaxed, and seemed to go to sleep in Demma’s embrace.

It seemed the right thing to do to set a small starfield for the girl and so I did, and as it unfolded all across her head, shoulders and pouring down her body to encase her altogether, Marani said quietly, “I don’t think I could ever learn to do what you do.”

I considered it for a moment, watching the starfield embrace the girl in her entirety, and knew that Marani was quite correct. There were certain things, it seemed, that were within the reach of anyone who so desired, and others were a natural born gift that could not be explained, that could not be learned, that resonated from somewhere so old and so deep and far that the mind could not conceive.

I sighed.

“Well, it seems we shall have a swordfight then in the morning,” I said and stretched. “Time to go to sleep. My room is empty and ready, I presume?”

Marani said urgently, “You can’t let Chay be killed. You have got to stop it from happening.”

I got up and turned to look at her.

“I don’t really think it is any of my business. Chay is a grown man, and I cannot make his choices for him. For what its worth, I have asked of Lucian that he spare his life and he has agreed to this. I think that is all I could – should – do.”

Demma said, “Chay has been practicing every day, all summer, and in the stables when the whether turned. Perhaps he will win.”

Marani and I both stared at her with eyebrows raised and shook our heads simultaneously but neither of us had the heart left to argue the point.

I pushed my chair under the table with some care as not to disturb the sleeping girl who had slid down with her head in Demma’s lap.

“Just make sure the children are out of the way tomorrow. Well out of the way. We will do the duel and I will get him to leave right away.” This reminded me of another matter. “Lucian wants you to come back to Tower Keep with us –“ Marani’s face went into a contortion of sheer dismay at the thought in an instant, “but I will prevail on him that our current housekeeper will suffice for us and that you should remain here.”

She looked at me with eyes wide again, an incongruent expression in the face of one so old.

“Thank you,” she said uncertainly. I smiled at her encouragingly and left the room.

I checked that the stairs and the passages were all clear and the children well shielded and asleep. My room was much as I had left it, clean, ready and waiting. Satisfied, I went downstairs to fetch Lucian from the family room.

He was still in the chair, legs crossed and a half empty glass of wine balanced on his stomach. On my entry, he smiled tiredly.

I went over to him and kissed the top of his head, took his glass and emptied it in one thirsty draught.

“Are you ready for sleep?” I asked him softly.

He nodded and got up immediately, picked up the swords from the table and waited for me to show him to our quarters.

In the cool, silent hallway beyond the shielding of the family room, illuminated by star shaped glow patterns in random distribution along the walls, I could feel him scanning the house and its inhabitants with a nervous edge. I tracked him and he barely touched the shielding behind which the children waited or slept; he touched Marani’s mind briefly and disliked her instant recoil, yet noted with interest how well developed her magical abilities had become since last he knew her; flicked past Demma, noted the starfield and the sleeping girl Camu and then ranged to find Chay who had taken to sleeping in the stable with my black for the night, rather than being under the same roof with us/him. He ranged further still but beyond some small minds of woodland creatures and pasture animals further out, and further still to a few farmsteads with their occupants, there was nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary.

I noted that this did not relax him in the least; it could change soon enough, and although of course he was right in that assessment, I found it vaguely disturbing that not even the absence of threat was in the end, an absence of threat or any guarantee of safety whatsoever.

Nonetheless, we went up the stairs and I led the way across the corridor, Lucian looking around himself with acute sensory perception, touching the patterns of the walls, the flooring that had once been wood and now was something that probably had never existed in this world before I came to create it. He found the decorations that were everywhere – mosaics and pictures and areas of colour or mosaic of one kind or the other – intrusive and disturbing, and I briefly mused on his perception of colour and texture as a kind of noise that could cause him physical discomfort before we were upon the door of my room.

I opened the door and stood aside to let him pass; I closed the door carefully as not to disturb the sleeping children and at the same time, laid a dense cloak all around the perimeters of the room.

“It is not altogether wise to shield it like this,” Lucian remarked as he balanced the long swords in their belt sheaths on the chest of drawers beneath the window. “Although I appreciate the privacy it conveys.”

I nodded as I finally took off my cloak and carelessly threw it over the end of the bed.

“We would never know who was approaching. You’re right. I hadn’t thought of it like that. But I would have thought Marani or one of the – others, would let us know if something was coming. They told me of your approach, soon enough.”

Lucian reached past me and picked up the cloak. Casting around for a wardrobe and failing to find one, he commandeered the dressing table, folded the cloak with care and placed it squarely on the left side, perfectly aligned with the corners of the surface. Then he proceeded to take his jacket off and do the same with it, stacking the folded garment neatly on top.

To test his interesting attempt at keeping good order, I pulled the Serein robe over my head and let it fall to the floor. Seemingly unconcerned, I said, “I’ll take first turn on the washroom” and made towards the door, kicking my boots off along the way.

From the corner of my eye, I observed him collecting the robe and the shoes and quite unconsciously, folding and stacking the former, and arranging the latter squarely beneath the dressing table.

My lord was a man who needed his order. I smiled to myself and slipped from the room.

When I returned a short while later, his boots had joined mine and his shirt was the last item in the neat stack. He was standing by the window, his broad bare back rising up into his strong neck most inviting, and looking out into the darkness beyond.

I slid up behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist.

I could feel a smile straight through his warm back as I stroked his skin with my cheek, yet he remained entirely relaxed and did nothing but lean fractionally into my touch. Slightly reluctantly, I let him go with a kiss that was just a little too long and a little too moist to be strictly friendly, and stepped back.

He turned around slowly, his arms loose and relaxed by his side, and looked down at me with a quite unreadable expression in his face. I surveyed him in return at leisure and noted how my wanting of him was building, moment by moment; and more importantly, how my wanting of him was so different in quality to my response to Chay’s body this close up.

The best way to describe this difference was that I wanted all of him at once, all that he was and all he would ever be, and that that would be enough to satisfy a hunger that had so many different levels to it, they seemed to reach into infinity. My Lucian was a dish of flavours that was the only one to match my appetites. The thought was most bizarre yet fitting somehow and it made me smile into his stern eyes.

An expression of near pain went across his face, a wave so briefly there and so quickly gone that one might think it was nothing but imagined, then he closed his eyes and reached for me and drew me into a deep embrace. I could feel myself melting into his shape and his being.

So we stood silently until we were ready to let go again.

I slipped off my undergarment and after a brief hesitation, folded it as best as the slippery material would allow and carefully placed it on the top of the pile, tweaking it here and there so it would be straight. I caught a glimpse of Lucian in the mirror who had hesitated on his way to the washroom and turned to watch me do this thing with an inordinate mixture of delight in seeing my body move, astonishment that I would try to emulate his quest for order, realisation that I had taken note of what he had been doing, and a true and pure non-understanding of what I was or what I was about.

I nearly laughed out loud. He had, it seemed, not yet gotten the measure of the woman.

Hurry back to me, I send to him, my amusement strongly underlying my message to him which only added to his consternation, and I slipped between the cover blanket and the sheets below, superbly soft and delightfully modelled on Serein material yet improving upon it in comfort and pleasant aspect to a bare skin.

He shook his head slightly and then purposefully left the room.

I lay and drifted and felt happy. I didn’t know who either of us where, I had no idea of where we were going, or what we were doing. The only thing I knew was that in a short few moments, he would be here, right here beside me and it would be good to feel him there.

He did return soon enough without incident and when he joined me, I snuggled myself real close to him and send him my delight at his presence.

He turned off the lights in the room and all went velvet and perfect, the lack of  distinction and absence of colour heightening all the other senses humming with awareness of him.

Stroking my back with long, slow, heavy strokes, he said into the darkness, “You are a mystery to me.”

I arched my back up to his hand in response and replied, “A mystery in the good way?”

Once again, I could feel his smile and then his lips on my shoulder as he replied.

In the most unusually good way.

It was one of those nights where you wish that sleep or morning would never come.