Chapter 2 – rewrite

CHAPTER 2

 

1.

 

There seemed to be little to linger for in Colgarma.

The Unicorn banner was rolled carefully up by a brace of footmen the very next morning, signifying that the Avigor apartments in the Keep were now empty. Even while this was being done, the new Lord Avigor and his sister were riding out of the main gates, onto the wide avenue which eventually led to the Great North Road… and home.

Rainald rode Imril, a glossy black stallion bred in Macha, destined for the Avigor heir as soon as both horse and boy became mature enough to appreciate one another. Rainald had watched the colt grow up even as he himself had been doing so, but Imril had been truly given to him, a gift from his father’s hand, only a few weeks before the old Lord had died. Imril had been an early birthday present, prepared for Rainald to take south to Colgarma when he left to do his Father’s bidding there. The stallion was a raw reminder of his father, now – every step it made reminded Rainald painfully of the first ride they’d had together, under his father’s eye, to show off Imril’s abilities.

He had been excited and proud, sitting the great black horse, and he could feel the power in Imril’s muscles beneath his own. It was an exhibition, and both horse and youth had known what had been expected of them, and had dutifully shown off Imril’s fine training and Rainald’s own horsemanship. But what they both wanted to do, more than anything, was simply… run. Rainald could feel it as the stallion’s muscles bunched against his leg, saw it in the impatient toss of the great head, in the gleam of the dark eye. His father, who was not unobservant, finally laughed and waved a regal hand in dismissal.

“Go, take him, take him,” he had said to his son. “Neither of you belong in the exercise yard today. Go, run.”

And they had, the two of them racing the wind, Imril fairly flying with his feet barely touching the ground, until they slowed to a breathless halt at last, horse and man, bonded, friends forever under the open skies.

Rainald was all too aware of the attention they were getting now – him on Imril, Alleth on her white mare. There were unmistakable insignia on their baggage, following in their wake; nobody who saw them passing by could fail to know who they were, and the sudden passing of Avigor’s Lord and the passing of the title to his young son were common knowledge in the streets by now. The people who stared knew who Rainald was, what he was… and all at once he was struck all at once by a returning stab of vivid grief and a sudden and blazing pride – pride to be Avigor and to bear his name and his lineage and his heraldry, pride in the regal dignity of his sister there beside him, proud of his house and his kin and his name.

A life’s work stretched ahead of him – and the place to begin it, to take it into his hand, was his ancestral home. Macha.

He suddenly could not wait to see it again.

He could not help turning to look back at Colgarma Keep once more as they left it in their wake, the brooding stone castle where he had left his youth on the doorstep of the High Council chamber. His thoughts were too chaotic to be coherent, but the sense of defiance and the fading glow of that pride were enough for Alleth to pick up on.

She tilted her head slightly, so that she could look at him through the light veil she wore on her hat.

Race you, she said, in Contact.

What, here? In the city?

As soon as we shake its dust off. You pick the target.

He made no response to that, except for a small smile that turned up just the corners of his mouth. But that, and the sudden snort from Imril, was all the answer Alleth needed. 

As Colgarma fell away behind them,  Rainald barely paused to point to a huge old tree by the side of the road, some distance away, before 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 raced side by side, two blurs of speed, and then Rainald, in a sudden charitable impulse, reined in Imril ever so slightly. The horse 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, flushed and laughing, tucking back the veil that had come undone.

“What did you do that for?” she demanded. “You let me win! That’s not fair!”

“I didn’t need to win this one,” he said, grinning. “But… thank you. I needed that.”

Alleth’s eyes filled with unexpected tears as she gazed on him.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

“It’s going to be so different,” Rainald said slowly. “So… empty.”

Wordlessly she reached out a hand and they sat there for a moment, sharing memories tinged with pain. Then Alleth sighed deeply.

“Come 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 on two sides by the Eman, a deep and swiftly flowing river whose treacherous currents had been the subject of dire childhood warnings for every Avigor child. The only entrance to the Domain from the south, across the river, was a high, narrow bridge – a slim arch of white stone, 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 below.

“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… never 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 hearthside,  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, enough to fire a boy’s imagination… the old oak at the northeast corner… Macha.

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. 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, echoing his sister’s words from the road just outside Colgarma. Then, they had been an invitation, a spur, a push to turn his back on the city and his face to the north. Now, here, they were no more than themselves – shorn of any other meaning but the last and plainest one. They were standing on the threshold.

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 arched into one another overhead, making the road into 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. Rainald dismounted and stood in front of her, his hair tangling in the cool breeze that blew down from the mountains. 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, his second bride, and knew no other life and no other happiness. She could remarry, 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, felt her tremble in his arms; she gasped, bit her lip, and regained control. Stepping back and gently disengaging herself from his arms, she allowed Mirella, his other sister, to approach and wish him another long life and fair reign.

“How you have changed in only a few weeks,” Lady Avigor murmured, gazing at her son. Her voice was very soft, her words uttered more to herself than aloud, but Rainald heard her, looked her way and smiled with a gentle sorrow.

You know why.

She managed a smile. “Come on in, come inside,” she said. “Welcome home.”

Alleth, who had hung back during all of this and allowed Rainald his moment with the family, now came up and hugged her step-mother and her sister. They murmured softly to each other and then moved towards the inviting open door of Macha. Rainald paused only long enough to pat Imril on the neck and give his reins into the hands of the groom who had cared for the horse since the day that he  had been 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 had put the idea from his mind, had not even begun to consider the realities of that situation – not even after Lord Dow had spoken to him about a prospect. Not yet.  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.

His responsibility.

And he was not given the time to mourn, or to make detailed plans for the future of the Clan – he could not do the latter until he had a firm grasp on its present, and his father’s sudden death had left a lot of loose ends for his heir to deal with. Full Council – a gathering of all Clan, not just the Clan Lords – loomed in less than three months’ time, and Rainald knew that he would have to return to Colgarma for that. He was very keenly aware that those short months that he had had in between assuming the leadership of his Clan and the Full Council would be closely watched by the other Lords, by the Clan themselves. It was not as though this was a trial period in which he had to prove himself – but he knew that all his doings would be discussed at Council, at least behind closed doors.  The older Lords were probably less than convinced of the ability of an eighteen-year-old to rule a Clan wisely, despite the fact that he was his father’s chosen successor, and were bound to find fault with whatever he was doing, however tiny or insignificant.

So Rainald set himself a stern schedule. He found the time to visit the households of all the important branches of the Clan, as the new Lord, and listen to everyone’s problems and try to find solutions to them. He received the delegations from the Avigor fiefs, the village elders and township mayors and guildsmen, and held meetings with them all, smiling, being pleasant, being fair, being firm, aware that he was being scrutinized and evaluated and compared to his father.

It was exhausting, taking almost every waking hour of his life, and he treasured the breaks he had – the occasional wild ride on Imril when he couldn’t bear to be cooped up one moment longer inside a room with a dozen people who all needed something from him, a game of cards every now and then with Alleth by the fire, even (although these times were sometimes hard) taking his mother out for long walks on days when the shadows came and would not leave her alone.

The three months he had were somehow gone before he knew it, and it was with a sense of sincere astonishment that Rainald realized that it was time to travel back to Colgarma for Council.

He had 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 by people who were usually in no position to offer them. 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.

Rainald’s mother, not suprisingly, elected not to make the journey to Colgarma that year – and Alleth told Rainald that she’d be just as happy to stay behind and keep his mother company. Rainald told her he envied her, and meant it. 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. Word had gone ahead – their banner had already been unfurled, at the doors of the Avigor apartments. These, for the duration of the Council, 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 or had never noticed some of the details – just how big the huge hardwood desk was, the double doors to the private balcony, and the 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 smothered a wry grin at the stab of unwarranted guilt. Three months at the helm of the Clan, three hard and dedicated months, and he was still starting at shadows, expecting his father to step out, shaking his head at his son and heir. Would he never snap out of it?

“Come in,” Rainald called out after a moment, collecting himself.

A footman 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.”

Rainald hesitated, but only for a moment. Then he nodded at the footman.

“Show him in,” he said.

“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 he was announced, 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 only the most cursory of greetings, settling into the chair that Rainald offered. “But there were things you had to know that could not wait. 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 more than 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 Dow. “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. Somewhat intemperately, by all accounts. But you can’t wriggle out of this one. When a Lord is appointed Guardian, he cannot turn his back on it. 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.”

“I do appreciate it,” Rainald said.

Dow rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and then stood up from the chair where he’d subsided 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 again. “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 that he had been affronted, possibly outraged, at the situation;  Gilden, being Gilden, 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, clearing his throat diffidently before inquiring 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.

 

2.

 

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.”

Gilden let out a sharp bark of a laugh – and Rainald let himself relax a little. T least Gilden had gone far enough past being upset to have the grace to be amused by the whole thing. “Gods, I know,” Gilden said. “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 his heart. Quite frankly, I’m almost prepared to believe he might have forgotten that you were Lord Avigor now, and gave me into Guardianship of your father. 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.”

“Problems with digestion, eh. Must be the age.” 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,” Rainald said. “Sit down, will you? Would you like some wine, to toast the reunion?”

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

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

“What! Are you wed?” yelped 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 a grin.  “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 clearly 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. “Couldn’t you have told me back when it happened? On the other hand, you always did enjoy the surprise game. 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. “Always the gallant,” she said. “But all too unfortunately, 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 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 when he was fifteen and she twelve. It was 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 in the 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. He had spoken long to her, alone, behind closed doors; nobody ever knew what it was that he had said, but Mirella had taken her place again in Clan society, as his oldest child – but she had never released the aura of her loss. She never mentioned the drowned youth’s name again, and tried not to flinch 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 just as 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 as 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 dark eyes in a face which seemed too 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. 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 impulse that had touched him just a moment before would rear up and clamor in his mind.

This girl will be your Lady!

Rainald knew he was being, at best, less than polite with the visitors. Social niceties, learned or instinctive, appeared to have slipped entirely from his grasp; he could barely manage a few gruff words of welcome to the new fosterling, greeting her companions in a manner which might have been interpreted by someone who did not know him as a cold and indifferent dismissal. Mirella, who did know him, frowned as she stared at her brother, so uncharacteristically at a loss, and finally offered him an escape by pretending to remind him about some meeting he had forgotten he had to attend. He snatched at the spar, giving her a long and grateful look, and made his awkward farewells before leaving with an almost insulting haste.

Mirella apologized for him with all the grace that Rainald had lacked, murmuring something about his first Full Council as the Clan’s leader and pressure of work. Liara inclined her head, accepting the apology, and, gathering up her young sister, departed.

Aleta, on her way out of the Avigor chambers, turned briefly as she paused in the doorway and gave Mirella a brilliant and disconcerting smile – as though she was perfectly aware of all the undercurrents that had been going on, and was merely keeping silent by way of being an unspoken accomplice.

Rainald had gone out into the corridors of Colgarma Keep without a plan or a destination in mind. He had needed to get out of the room which had Aleta in it, and he had done so, but then he found himself wandering down the less frequented corridors of the Keep with the overwhelming impulse having been to escape and to hide. But after a little while his common sense reasserted itself and he began to be wryly amused at his own reactions – and, also, to think that it might be time to go back and reclaim his own chambers.

He had tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in pushing that disconcerting knowledge of Aleta and their shared future from his mind – but even though he was thinking about anything but the girl it took less than the blink of an eye between his suddenly noticing a slight figure wrapped in a dark cloak tucked back into a shadow and knowing precisely who it was that waited there.

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.

“I saw it,” she said haltingly, her hands twisted into a tight knot before her. “I saw it in your face, when we walked in. You knew, too.”

“I knew what?” Rainald said.

“The precog,” Aleta said. “I could tell when it crossed your mind…”

Precog? But I am not – is that what it – ” Rainald shook his head, as though to clear it. “Was that what it was?”

Aleta was looking at him with her head tilted a little to the side. “You’ve never had one before?”

Rainald shook his head, running a hand through his hair. “No,” he said. “My sister is a precog. I never have been. It feels… almost like…”

She smiled. “I’ve been one,” she said. “All my life.”

“How do you live with it…?” Rainald muttered.

“It’s still the same journey if you know exactly how you are going to be getting to where you’re going,” Aleta said. “I’m used to it. To knowing.”

“Maybe mine was a fluke,” Rainald said. “I don’t know that I can get used to it.”

“I’ll help,” she said serenely.

Rainald had accepted this situation, unlikely as it was, without giving it a second thought – it was natural, inevitable, that Aleta should be in his world. But now he suddenly woke up to the real circumstances of the matter – a lonely corridor in the Keep but one which anyone could be coming down at any minute, the lateness of the hour, the complete ludicrousness that she had managed to be in the precise place where she could waylay him on his way back to his quarters…

“Your sister must be wondering where you are,” he said, suddenly awkward again. “I’d better make sure you get back safely.”

She laughed, a bright, joyous sound; Rainald could not help an answering grin spreading across his own features.

“No need,” she said. “I can find my way.” She paused for a long moment, and then dropped her gaze, veiling her eyes with her long lashes. “Are you…?”

Rainald dreached out, took one of her hands in his own, kissed it lightly, and then pulled the cloak closer around her. “I’ll speak to your Guardian tomorrow,” he said softly. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

They walked side by side, decorously, not touching, and bade one another good night at her door; Rainald waited until it opened to her knock, watched her slip inside, and waited until the door was closed again before he moved.

All this was going to make one interesting Council over the next few days… assuming Aleta was right and his instinct had been a true precog.

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 and 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. 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. But 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 – if all things fell into place quickly enough for it to be announced here – was going to be the talk of the Council. 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, might well do his part to aggravate it further over the next few days.

He would have liked to have talked to her about the whole unexpected chain of events – perhaps even ask her advice – 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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