Chapter 2 – Original Version

CHAPTER 2

They left Colgarma the very next day, the new Lord Avigor and his sister. The Unicorn banner was rolled carefully up and taken away from the front door, telling those who passed that way that the Avigor apartments were now empty. It went back to the niche it resided in when not in use.

Rainald rode Imril, a glossy black stallion that had been a gift from his father only a few weeks before he died. Every step the horse made reminded Rainald painfully of the first rode they’d had together, under his father’s eye, to show off Imril’s abilities. Still coltishly leggy although full-grown now, Imril could jump with ease an obstacle higher than Rainald’s head. The horse was now four years old, in his prime, the best in the Avigor stables. Alleth too had elected to ride; she rode sidesaddle, her wide skirt billowing over her white mare’s flank, her back straight, lightly veiled against the many curious glances from Colgarma’s streets.

Many did stare. The dark youth on the black stallion, the fair girl on the while mare, liveried escort with the Avigor insignia – and many had heard of the demise of the old Lord of that Clan, and Rainald knew they were drawing the correct conclusion rapidly. And he was suddenly proud. Proud to be the Leader of a Clan at his tender age, proud to be Avigor, proud of his escort and of the regal dignity of his sister there beside him. And he couldn’t wait to get to his ancestral home, Macha, and truly begin the life-s work which lay ahead of him. He turned slightly to look at Colgarma Keep once more, the brooding stone castle where he had left his youth on the doorstep of the High Council chamber, and mentally shook his fist at it.

I’ll beat you yet, you chunk of rock!

That’s better, said his sister soothingly in Contact. You see, you can do it if you try only do keep your pledges to yourself?

Sorry, he answered sheepishly.

Since you’re so full of energy, and she smiled at him from beneath her veil, I’ll race you to a target of your voice, as soon as we’re out of the city!

Rainald’s grin was all the answer she needed.

As soon as the last of Colgarma was behind them, Rainald pointed to a huge old tree by the side of the road, some distance away, and then Imril leapt forward at the slight pressure of his master’s knees upon his flank. The thunder of hooves behind him signified that his sister’s mount, too, had surged into a gallop. They ran, two blurs of speed; then Rainald, in a charitable mood, reigned in Imril ever so slightly. The hose responded, slackening the gallop imperceptibly, and before she could realize she had been allowed to, Alleth crossed the imaginary finish line first. She knew it immediately, though and turned on her brother, laughing and flushed.

“What did you do that for?” she demanded, panting. “You should have won, but you let me. That’s not fair!”

“I didn’t feel like winning,” he said, grinning. “I just enjoyed the race. Besides, you didn’t stand a chance against Imril here anyway.” He petted the horse on the neck proudly. “Let’s go. I can’t wait to get to Macha.” And then the boyish grin faded, and his eyes grew sad again. “It’s going to be so different. So… empty.”

Wordlessly she reached out a hand and they sat there for a moment, sifting through common memories. Then Alleth sighed deeply.

“Cone on,” said Rainald, shaking the dream loose, “we ought to get moving. Days are still short, and we have to be far away from Colgarma by nightfall.”

She nodded, and they set off again at a brisk trot.

Macha, the country Keep of Clan Avigor, lay a week’s ride from Colgarma at a leisurely pace.. Rainald and his little company arrived at the borders of the domain in the evening of the sixth day after they had set out from the city; Rainald had not driven the horses hard, but neither had he tarried on the road.

The Avigor estate was bordered around two sides by a deep and swiftly flowing river with treacherous currents. The only entrance to the Domain from the south, across the river, was a high, narrow bridge; the slim arch of white stone was barely wide enough to allow two people to pass one another if they met on the span. Alleth and Rainald walked onto it, leading their horses, while the retinue waited for them to cross before they followed. Rainald stopped for a moment on the highest point and gazed down at the foaming torrent of the River Eman.

“The snows must be melting late this year,” he commented absently. “It is higher than it should be.”

With every step that he took, time fled backwards for him. He saw, not the present, but a boy exploring the mountains at Macha’s back, searching for the source of Eman… not getting very far… an older boy, riding with a white-haired man, flying falcons from gloved wrists, hunting deer in the Forest of Liscar… chai at the hearths,  when all the cousins had left, just the boy with his parents and his sisters… Alleth and Mirella… Mirella, older and haughtier, slapping him when he dared to pull her braids… Macha, Macha itself, the beloved old house that was really a true Keep, full of turrets and false walls and secret passages that fired a boy’s imagination… the old oak at the northeast corner… Macha was now…

Take over, my son. I am leaving…

…was now his own.

Rainald lifted his head and saw the familiar stars he had once studied in astronomy lessons. His vision was blurred with a sudden film of tears, but he blinked them away, squared his shoulders, and offered his arm to his sister. In that moment he threw away his eighteen years and watched Eman carry his childhood away on the tender fingertips of its foam. Rainald Avigor had stepped onto the bridge with the remnants of his boyhood still clinging to him –  but that was gone, shed like a butterfly’s chrysalis, and he stepped forward a man, a Lord, a Leader.

“Let’s go home,” he said quietly.

They crossed the bridge in silence, remounted their horses on Avigor soil and, by the light of torches held by two of their retinue, rode on into the last stretch of their journey.

Macha Keep stood an hour’s easy ride from the Bridge on the Eman. As they approached closer to the main house, the road became an avenue, flanked on both sides with ancient gnarled trees that spread their branches right into one another’s cousins to that the road became a tunnel. The night became darker as they entered into this living gateway, and the torches cast flickering shadows on boughs and twigs and dancing leaves. And then they rounded the last bend, passed the last pair of trees, and before them rose Macha, ancestral home of Clan Avigor, ablaze with lights to welcome home its Lord. Lady Avigor, Rainald’s mother, stood alone, a little apart from the rest of the gathered people; when the horses stopped, only she moved at first, to come up to her son’s stallion. Rainald dismounted and stood there in front of her, his hair tangling in the cool breeze that blew down from the mountains, tall and solemn and straight as a young oak. His mother tilted her head back to look at his face, and there was something in her expression – half pride in her son and half sorrow that it was no longer her husband whom she hailed as Avigor’s Lord – that made Rainald’s heart lurch painfully. She was only forty three, young to be a widow; she  had been married to her Lord at nineteen, and knew no other life and no other happiness. She could have remarried, but Rainald knew that she never would.

“Long life and fair reign, my son,” she said in a clear voice that nevertheless trembled slightly.

Rainald embraced her lovingly, sharing what strength he had. Half his mother’s had gone into the grave with the old Lord. She gasped, but her lip, and regained control. Stepping back slightly, she allowed Mirella, his other sister, to approach and wish him another long life and fair reign. Lady Avigor gazed at her son.

“How you have changed in only a few weeks,” she murmured, more to herself than aloud, but Rainald heard her, looked her way and smiled with a gentle sorrow.

You know why.

“Let us go inside,” she said aloud. “Macha’s winds are still cold, even in spring.”

Alleth, who had stood aside during his little family ceremony, now came up and hugged her mother and her sister. They murmured softly to each other and then started walking towards the inviting open door of Macha. Rainald paused only long enough to pat Imril on the back and give his reins into the hands of the groom who had cared for the horse since the day that he was foaled, and then he followed the three women into the house.

A Household of women! He thought, amused. And once I bring a bride…

That thought had almost ambushed him. He knew that this would be his duty now, to find a suitable woman who would stand at his side as Avigor’s new Lady – but he hadn’t been considering the realities of that situation – not even after Lord Dow had spoken to him about a prospect – not yet. He’d been preoccupied with other things. But now, here, on the doorstep of his home, it suddenly rose to haunt him, the future which he would have to grasp and shape.  He shook his head wryly as the door of Macha shut behind him.

His home.

He hardly went out of that house for the next three months. Macha’s affairs were complex; Full Council – a gathering of all Clan, not just the Clan Lords – loomed in less than three months’ time. He knew that all his doings would be discussed there, at least behind closed doors; the older Lords couldn’t really admit the ability of an eighteen-year-old to rule a Clan wisely, and were bound to find fault with whatever he was doing.

Those three months fled before he knew it, and it was with a sense of astonishment that Rainald realised that it was time to travel back to Colgarma again for Council. He had actually never particularly enjoyed these gatherings. At best, they were a distracting social whirl; at their absolute worst, they were forums at which more often than not it was the petty things that were aired and judgments passed. It would be the  third Full Council he had attended, and already he had learned to actively dread them. And he had a lifetime of them to sit through.

So they had left Macha, those of the Clan who wished to go; Rainald’s mother was not among their number, and nor was Alleth, who told Rainald that she’d be just as happy to stay behind and keep his mother company – she had just returned from Colgarma, after all, and would be just as happy to miss one Full Council every so often. He told her he envied her. But Mirella had come, his older sister, and also Sever Avigor, the son of one of Rainald’s uncles and Rainald’s senior by five years. Accompanying these three were a ragtag band of cousins who had made Macha their permanent or temporary abode.

It took this large group of people almost ten days to reach the city. Their banner had already been unfurled, at the doors of the Avigor apartments; they would house the senior members of the family – Sever, Mirella, and the young Lord Avigor himself – together with such sundry kin as could be fitted into the apartments. The rest would be quartered with other lesser Clan kin, sharing  quarters in otherwise unoccupied wings of the Keep.

In the Avigor chambers, tired and distracted, Rainald walked almost mechanically towards the room he usually occupied when in the city. He started at Mirella’s touch on his arm, and turned to look down at her.

“That way, Lord Avigor,” she said, and pointed to the chambers that the Clan head always stayed in.

Rainald flushed darkly. “If it takes me this long to get used to being Lord Avigor, I really cannot blame the High Council!”

He entered what had until only recently been his Father’s private sanctum and looked around him. He had been in this room only a handful of times in his life, and he had forgotten the details – the huge hardwood desk, the private balcony, and wall devoted to miniatures of Avigor’s Ladies. He went closer. The best picture was of his own mother, painted when she had been a new bride.  There was a happiness in her eyes then that was now quenched, and would never quite relight. He touched it lightly with his fingertips, grieving for both his parents.

There was a knock at the door and he turned, starting quickly as though he’d been caught doing something he was not allowed to. He caught himself at this, and smothered a wry grin. Would he never snap out of it?

“Come in,” he called.

The footman from the front door, where now the Avigor banner again hung, pushed open the door to the study.

“My Lord,” the man said, “Lord Dow is in the anteroom. He sends his compliments and asks if you will receive him.”

“Show him in.”

“Yes, my Lord,” the footman said, offering a small bow, and retreated, closing the doors behind him. He was back after a few moments, holding the door of the study open for the visitor.

Lord Dow entered as his name was given, slipping his cloak from his shoulders as he did so.

“I am sorry to barge in just about the minute you arrived,” he began, after the customary greetings had been exchanged. “Brace yourself, my young friend, it’s going to be a tough Council.”

“What is it?”

“Lord Lammuir is quite ill, it appears, and he has sent his son Gilden as his representative.”

“Gilden is my foster-brother, I spent four years fostering with the Lammuir Clan,” said Rainald, smiling. “I shall be happy to see him again. I think I only saw him twice, and that only for a few days at a time, in this last year.”

“Well, there’s more to it than that,” said Down. “Since he is only the Heir, Lord Lammuir has deemed it necessary that Gilden be placed under Guardianship for the duration of the Council. The Guardians Lord Lammuir has named are Lord Catallin, myself, and,” he squirmed, “you.”

“Me? That is ridiculous! Gilden is two years older than me!”

“You’re right, of course – I can’t see Gilden as your ward – I believe he said much the same thing you did when he heard. But you can’t wriggle out of this one. When a Lord is appointed Guardian, he cannot turn his back on it…although I heard that Lord Catallin has got mixed feelings. With you and Gilden – well – I think you can be counted on to provide,” he smiled, “shall we say, an ‘experienced’ friend. I just thought I would warn you before your ‘ward’ descends on you unawares.”

Dow stood up from the chair where he’d been sitting and walked to the doors leading to the balcony. “Isn’t it cold in these rooms in winter? I should think that facing the sea…”

“They are primarily summer rooms. There’s hardly anyone here in the winter months. But they are equipped with shutters and fireplaces, just in case someone takes up residence, like I had at the end of this winter. They are comfortable.”

“We look out over Colgarma,” said Dow with a grimace. And then, turning back into the room abruptly changed the subject. “Tell me, have you thought about Fostering my daughter at Macha? If you recall our talk after High Council…”

“Yes, indeed. And Macha will be happy to have her. When did you plan on getting her there?”

“I have her with me, here.”

Rainald raised his eyebrow. “Isn’t that a tender age for Colgarma?”

“She’s under strict supervision, and it is only for two weeks at the outside. I presume you will be going back after Summer Solstice?”

“No, but my sister, Lady Mirella, will. If you wish, I will talk to her, and you can start the girl with us now. What is her name?”

“Annica,” said Dow. “With your leave, I shall speak to your sister on my way out. Oh, and incidentally, I remember my ‘candidate’ for you?” Rainald nodded, and Dow smiled conspiratorially. “Well, it is her first Council. She is staying with her De Skari kin. I’ll contrive to have her visiting when you do, if you will.”

“I may as well offer you my opinion!” laughed Rainald lightly. “I’ll let you know.”

“All right.” Dow gathered his cloak and prepared to leave. “Once again, I do apologize for barging in here like this….”

“On the contrary, thank you. At least now I can face my foster-brother with excuses and not a blank stare. Any helpful hints on how to sweeten Catallin’s temper?”

“Just one: don’t try. He’s in no mood to be placated. Do videnya, Avigor.”

“Do videnya.”

Dow took his leave, leaving Rainald to digest this latest piece of news. What was Lammuir trying to do? If he was trying to build up young Avigor’s standing in the greybeard’s Council, he was going about it in precisely the wrong way. This choice of Guardian would alienate everyone, from the other Lords to the Ward himself. Rainald, who knew his Foster-brother Gilden Lammuir well, could guess how amused he would be at the situation; but he also knew that he would not much care being put into the charge of someone close to two years younger than himself. They were foster-brothers, and friends – but Gilden, Heir as he was to one of the most powerful Clans in the Council, could be a tough enemy once he got control of Lammuir if Rainald botched this situation.

He shook his head in chagrin. Diplomacy on a foster brother? Planning for the future of the Clan? What was it he said to Alleth about growing old sooner than he would have liked to? And Gilden…

As if magicked up by the thought, the footman appeared at the door again to inquire if his Lordship would receive Gilden Lammuir. Rainald hesitated a fraction of a second before nodding. He wasn’t ready for Gilden, not yet, but, under the circumstances it seemed better to receive him unready than to put him off with an excuse.

And then Gilden was inside. And it was his Foster-brother, whom he hadn’t seen for a long, long time. Both youths moved towards one another with open arms and embraced warmly before saying a word. And then they stood apart.

Rainald spoke first, suddenly serious.

“I didn’t ask for it, Gilden. Either of it; I would much rather my Father was still alive. If it makes you any happier, the other Lords aren’t too happy about me either. If they’ll let me, I’ll keep out of your way… as a Guardian, I mean.”

“Gods, I know. I know you. But I truly do not understand what my father was hoping to do. Although he really is ill. He went from bad to worse in these last two months – I think it’s the heart. Quite frankly, although it does stretch it a bit, I’m almost prepared to believe he might have forgotten that you were Lord Avigor now, and gave me into Guardianship of your father,” said Gilden darkly. “Still, I would have thought I didn’t really need Guardianship, seeing as I’m of age, hardly still a child any more – or  maybe he’s forgotten that, too. But I’m talking too much. Tell me, Foster-brother, what awaits me one day.”

“It won’t be so bad for you. I’ll have paved the way,” Rainald said, and shrugged at his foster-brother’s raised eyebrow. “High Council is having problems trying to digest the fact of my presence there. But you’ll be a reasonably respectable age. They’ve never had to swallow an eighteen-year-old Lord before.”

“Must be the age, that digestive problem.” Gilden nodded sagely, with a completely straight face. Rainald stared at him incredulously for a moment, and then they both laughed.

“You haven’t changed,” gasped Rainald at length. “Sit down, will you? Would you like some wine, to toast the reunion?”

“With pleasure.” Gilden seated himself in a wide armchair as Rainald gave the necessary instructions to a footman he had summoned. Gilden watched him critically. “Quite the young lord, aren’t we?”

“More thank you know. They’re already sending fosterlings to Macha.”

“What! Are you wed?” squeaked Gilden, shooting forward out of his chair.

“No! But I daresay the Council will hound me to provide an heir…”

That shouldn’t be too much of a problem!” said Gilden with an evil little gleam in his eye. “I’m sure that there are willing ladies enough…” he ducked a cushion from the second armchair, laughing. “Cone now, what’s wrong with that? Both our fathers did it, several times; and throwing cushions is unbecoming to a Clan Lord.”

“You deserved that.”

“Okay. Quits. But if you aren’t, I am betrothed!”

“I don’t think… I beg your pardon?”

Gilden was enjoying this. “Yes. Have you by any chance met Lady Rialle of Clan Catallin?”

“No, I don’t think I… no, wait. She’s a tiny thing, isn’t she, with that incredible hair the color of Asturias’ light?”

“Ha! You’re a romantic after all! But yes, that’s right. We’ve now been betrothed for about seven months, although the official announcement is due at Council, later. The wedding is probably planned for this winter.”

“Couldn’t you have told me gently?” protested Rainald. “On the other hand, you always did enjoy pulling rugs out from under people’s feet. Well, now. We have both branched out, haven’t we?”

The wine arrived, and the footman withdrew. An instant later, the door opened again. Rainald glanced up disinterestedly. He had planned this, and knew who it was. “Oh, by the way,” he said to Gilden, whose back was to the door, “you’ve got a visitor.”

Gilden put his wine down and twisted in his seat; then, in one fluid movement, he was up and smiling. “Mirella! Gods, I haven’t seen you since you were my age!”

Mirella entered, smiling back. “That sounds terrible,” she said, “but it’s true. How are you, Foster-brother?”

“He’s betrothed,” threw in Rainald. “Come and join us for some wine.”

“Oh?” said Mirella, accepting a glass. “Who to?”

Gilden cuffed Rainald playfully on the wrist. “She’s taken it better than you  have!” He turned to Mirella again. “To Rialle Catallin, Mirella. You should know her. Your…”

There was suddenly a deathly silence in the room. Mirella had gone pale, and the hand holding the wineglass trembled slightly.

Gilden swore softly. “I’m sorry. I should have thought.”

“It’s all right. It’s been… a long time.” Mirella had also been betrothed into the House of Catallin; she and her betrothed had known each other since a very young age, and even the betrothal had taken place then he was fifteen and she twelve. It was obviously too young an age to marry, and they were obliged to wait at least three to four years before they could fulfill their pledge. But, before the due date arrived, the young Catallin drowned in a freak storm out in Ariath sea. Mirella had turned sixteen on the day that she heard the news; she barely left her bed for almost a year until her father had taken matters into his own hands and laid down the law. She never mentioned the drowned youth’s name again, and flinched at every mention of even his Clan. And she hated the sea. She had never even considered the thought of another betrothal.

And still, after all that time, it was still alive in her.

She smiled at her foster-brother who was gazing at her apologetically. “It’s all right,” she repeated. “Best of luck, Gilden. When is it to be?”
“Soon. Probably this winter.”

“Lord Dow happened to mention a certain young lady to me, Rainald,” said Mirella mysteriously.

“Annica or…”

“Both,” interrupted his sister. “One is bringing the other. I’ll probably ask her to stay for refreshment.”

“Mirella, sieri, I shall be the object of matrimonial squabbles on the part of everyone with a female of marriageable age in the family. Please don’t put me though it from the inside of my own Clan!”

They were trying to relax the tension in the room; and, little by little, the succeeded. It was near twilight when Gilden decided it could just be time for him to leave; and it was about this time, too, that Liara Rimmuz-De Skari brought Avigor’s new Fosterling, Annica Dow, to them. Accompanying them was another girl, of some fourteen years of age; she was the first one who drew Rainald’s eye. Liara was, as Dow has said, pretty was a picture; but the other girl wasn’t even that. She was… well, striking would be the word, with a cloud of wavy, dark-blonde hair and large violet eyes in a face which seemed to small to contain them.

“My sister, Aleta, Lord Avigor,” said Liara with a little curtsy when she introduced her.

A shiver ran down Rainald’s spine. She shared the same name as his sister, Alleth, whose own was but a variation. Something gathered cloudily in the subconscious of his mind, his belly contracted as a sudden and sure wave of foreknowledge swept through him. With difficulty he managed to regain control of himself and was a charming and courteous host at the refreshments that Mirella, true to her word, had prepared. But every time his eyes fell on Aleta Rimmuz-De Skari, the precog impulse that had touched him just a moment before would rear up and clamor in his mind.

This girl will be your Lady!

His Father had had it, his sister had had it, and now he had it. Three precogs in one family. And what Gift would she bring in, his Aleta? He smiled, an introspective little smile. How easily it had come to think of her as his. He must find out from Dow who her Guardian was, or, at any rate, who to speak to about her. And soon. Before Council, if he could.

When the visitors left, he went out too. He was looking so intent that Mirella knew better than to ask where he was going; but she had a fair idea. She was a sharply observant person, and the way her brother had looked at Liara’s little sister did not escape her watchful eye. But it was very possible that he could run into problems. After all, the girl had an older unmarried sister, whom they had to take care of first.

That was what Rainald was thinking, too. But he was telling himself that, if his precog impulse was a true one, then the difficulty would take care of itself. Shortly he found himself before the door of the Dow apartment and told the footman to announce him, which was immediately dome, and he was ushered into an apartment consisting of a study and a bedroom, similar to his own. Dow rose to greet him.

“You are lucky that I’m still up,” he remarked, “but I had something to catch up on. You look terribly pale; what is it?

“Sorry about being so late, I really lost track of the time,” said Rainald apologetically.

“Sit down. I’ll get you something to revive you,” said Dow and moved towards a cabinet from where he took two ornate crystal-cut classes and a bottle of dark brown liquid that caught the light and sent mellow brown shadows leaping along the wall.

“Brandy,” he said, pouring two small glassfuls. “The best. It’s from the D’Alleara cellars, and their people know how to make this.” He leaned back, stretching his legs out in front and crossing them at the ankle. “Now. What is it?”

Rainald took a sip of the brandy, gingerly, and it scalded its way down his throat. He shook his head, making a grimace. “Powerful stuff, this,” he said, and put the glass down, turning to face his companion. “Now, not an hour ago I had a particularly vivid flash of a very sure foreknowledge. My father apparently had precog talent; but I didn’t know I did… it wouldn’t have been anything else, though.”

“Precog?” muttered Dow, rubbing his chin. “What of? Why has it unsettled you so?”

“Well, firstly, I’ve never had it before, and it distinctly unnerving. Secondly, it presents difficulties.”

“Was it about Liara?” asked the older man shrewdly.

“No,” said Rainald softly. “Her sister.”

Aleta?” Down repeated, surprised. “She’s still a child… well, no, I suppose she isn’t, not really…” Then he raised an eyebrow in a mildly calculative air. “Strange. Do you know she has a very strong precog Gift herself? Council at least should be pleased.”

“Who is her Guardian, Dow? Who must I speak to?”

Dow paused just long enough to make a dramatic impact. “As it happens, I am,” he said. “I am her Guardian, and you’ve just spoken. If it was a true precog impulse, then there is nothing to stand in your way. I give my consent, willingly; Rimmuz, as the head of her Ranking Clan, will have to perform the ceremony, though. I shall speak to him tomorrow. If all goes well, you shall have a betrothed by Summer Solstice Ball.” He clapped Rainald, sitting silent, on the shoulder, smiling. “Congratulations. What is it, why so silent?”

“In shock, I think,” said Rainald. “Somehow I didn’t expect it to end like this. I thought that I’d be sent from one responsible person to another, with a possible eventual refusal owing to the fact that she had an as yet unbetrothed sister. I was even contemplating asking a kinsman of mine who is here with me, Sever Avigor, to offer for Liara – which is an underhand way of doing it, I grant you, but…” he shrugged, and then smiled.

Dow found himself widening his own grin. Rainald’s smiles were usually infectious. “Life never quite turns out,” he said, rising, “as one expects or indeed wants it to. Not in the short term, anyway. A toast?”

“Gladly!”

They filled their glasses again and drank to the imminent betrothal, and then twice more, one toast to the proposed bride and groom, led by Dow, and a return toast to the guardian, proposed by Rainald. And then Rainald put the glass down and got up, running a hand through his hair.

“It’s late. I really must leave. Thank you, Dow.”

“I shall, as I said, talk to Rimmuz tomorrow… and I shall have a word with my Ward. To see if she has had any precognitions lately. It ought to be settled fairly quickly. If all goes well, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t, you should be having a visit from one or both of them shortly.” He sniffed, scratching his head. “How is Annica settling in?”

“She’s hit if off with Mirella, as far as I could tell. She’ll be fine. She seems to be a young lady of spirit, though.”

“Without a doubt, without a doubt,” Dow agreed with a grin.

Then they made their farewells, and Rainald departed. But it wasn’t to end there. The night was not yet over for Clan Avigor’s young Lord.

It was well past the middle of the night by the time he left Lord Dow’s quarters. Colgarma Keep was sleeping and still. Except for the odd scuttling footman, or the livened guards outside the Clan doors, there was no one moving, nothing except the shadows, cast by the flickering lights, dancing on the walls. Colgarma, both the city and the Keep, became realms of shadows at night.

Rainald walked briskly, intent. He hardly saw his surroundings at all. His precog wave still held him in the backwash, and he kept getting unnerving glimpses into the pattern of his life. One of the eddies of this current them brought him back to the present, sharply, just in time for him to see a shadow darker than the rest and a good deal more solid detach itself from one of the pillars in the Great Hall. He stared, and the shadow, which he could now see as being wrapped in a black cloak, stared back. He spoke without thinking, simply knowing.

“Why are you here?” and then, more softly, “Let me see you.”

The concealing hood fell back, after a brief hesitation, with a brief toss of the head, and the lights suddenly picked out soft highlights in the loose, tumbled hair of Aleta Rimmuz-De Skari. Her eyes were wide, and endearingly puzzled, but serene. She, too, knew.

“So it’s true,” she said in a low voice. “I had to come back and see you, just to make sure. You weren’t supposed to know I came back.”

“It’s true,” Rainald agreed. “It’s almost over. Your Guardian has consented. It remains for Lord Rimmuz to perform the ceremony.”

“You’ve been to see Lord Dow already?” she asked, her eyes going wide.

“Just now. I’m coming straight from his apartments.”

“Are you a precog?”

“Well… a recent one. I wasn’t, not until this evening.

Aleta considered this, her head held at an angle; she resembled nothing more than a young puppy puzzled by a strange noise. Then she looked away with a start, and reached for her hood again.

“Have you seen how soon?” she asked.

Rainald simply shook his head.

“There’s death, too… soon. It will be the push.” She sounded near to tears now. Rainald, who had only recently experienced the precog shock himself, watched her in overwhelming sympathy.

“That I haven’t seen. But it’s all right. What will happen will happen.”

That seemed to reassure her. She sniffed. “Yes, yes. I suppose so.”

“Go back now, go to sleep,” he admonished gently. “Do you want me to walk back with you?”

“No. Thank you.” She suddenly sounded like she was a good ten years older. The thought gave an inexplicable pang of regret to Rainald, and he wondered why, but then dismissed it. He smiled down at her.

“All right. Sleep well.”

“Good night,” she answered shyly, a child again. And then she was gone, melting into the shadows behind her.

Alone once again, Rainald sighed and ran a hand through his hair. All this was going to make an interesting Council. If it all went through on schedule, though, he would not have to endure the Festival Ball exposed to the greedy gazes of matchmaking mothers and aunts. For this, at least, he was grateful.

A wide yawn took him more or less by surprise; then, close on its heels, came a second one. Rainald decided it was high time to seek his repose, and turned his footsteps towards the Avigor apartments with a good deal of haste. The truth of the matter was that by now he was falling asleep on his feet. And tomorrow… well, tomorrow would be quite a day for the entire Clan. It would be a veritable thunderclap from a blue sky. He had not even breathed of an intention to marry. The thought of the effect on the clan of the announcement caused a smile to play about the corners of his mouth. Why, he was more like his Foster-brother Gilden Lammuir every day. Gilden, too, enjoyed springing news onto people. Rainald recalled the way he had been told of Gilden’s own betrothal, that very afternoon; recalled, and planned retaliation.

The footman on duty in the Avigor anteroom was nodding sleepily when Rainald came in; but he was instantly alert when the door closed with a gentle thud behind Rainald’s back. He bowed respectfully; Rainald, passing, nodded to him in return, the smile of a few moments back still hovering in his eyes. He passed into the dark and empty reception Hall beyond; the curtains here were drawn back, and the two moons drew a faint shimmer from the polished floor by the oblique beams of their light. The window faced the sea; Rainald walked over, his soft-soled boots making no sound. The green-tinged Argones dominated the smaller moon, Asturias, and the light that bathed the night sky bore a corresponding hue. However, Argones was in the waning stage; Rainald noted this with a practiced eye that had been schooled in Castala’s astronomy from a very tender age. A proficiency in this was an important contribution to a young gentleman’s education. Argones was waning, and once it reached the New Moon stage, dark and absent from the sky, gentle Asturias would take over with its cream and silver nuances of light. Traditionally, this, the time of Asturias’s sovereignty over the night and the Summer Solstice, was a good time for promises, especially betrothals. There was always a spate of them around Council time.

The young Lord of Avigor was under no illusion but that his own was going to be the star attraction this time around. He drew the curtains closed, and the darkness hid the amused twinkle in his eyes.

By the Gods, he thought, I’m actually beginning to enjoy this.

He entered the corridor of the sleeping chambers. No lights showed under doors; Clan Avigor was asleep. No… there was one light. Mirella’s. She was still awake. Rainald hesitated briefly before her door, and then picked up a wave of ancient and melancholy grief what made him actually take a step back. So. It was still alive in her heart, the sorrow of her betrothed’s passing. Gilden, unwittingly, had stirred it up. And he, Rainald, was going to aggravate it the following day by his own announcement.

He would have liked to have told her, but instinct, and something deeper, made him refrain from it. He left her alone, walking away with soft steps and a bowed head. And the light glowed softly into the night.

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