Burning the Midnight Oil
Between the drunken wet-nurse, the spider incident, and no less than four complaints about public nudity, Amatra was not having a good morning. She had been hiring out her crew for close to thirty years, with a reputation as one of the best sources for servants in the city of Ellipha, but there were days when she felt she was supervising an unending brawl.
When the waterstone lit, she manhandled bristly fawn hair into some semblance of order and laid her thumb in the indent on the stone. The image of Razemil, the king’s Second Understeward, swirled on the surface. Waterstones were a luxury, brought back by the Royal Watercaster from an Academy in Merothe.
“Morning, Ama,” he said, forcing a smile. “I need your services. The king has a new Firecaster.”
“Again? I can send a few servants who are between jobs.” For two years, the king of Omaneleth had been unable to find a Firecaster who suited him. It wouldn’t change now.
“It would be best if you spoke to him about his needs–he’s particular. You don’t mind, do you?”
Amatra restrained a sigh. She had neither time nor inclination to pamper anyone who thought it was crucial his servants matched the curtains, but Razemil was run more ragged than she, and it showed. He looked old–she tried to forget he had only a few years on her. “No, that’s fine. Same place?”
“Yes. He’s from Sadria, so he may have peculiar notions…thank you, Ama.” The image faded.
Two maids trundled up the corridor with a laundry cart. Amatra intercepted them and whipped away the top pillowcase. “I can always tell when you’ve snuck in,” she said. “You’re too gangly to hide under sheets.”
The girl flopped amongst the wash grinned. She had cornflower blue eyes and straw hair chopped into a boyish bob, her body thin as a wire-tree despite the passage of puberty. “They all know,” she pointed out. “No one minds.”
“Princess, you can’t just--” Amatra paused as the girl swung out of the cart. Her shirt was water-splotched: tears. “Devariss?”
“He kept shouting at me,” she said. “Like it was my fault.”
When the southern islands of Issalmede were an independent kingdom, Devariss had been daughter-heir. Now, with the islands in Omanelen hands, she was a convenient prize and the royal son’s betrothed. Controlling his temper was not one of the royal son's talents.
Amatra put her arm around the girl’s shoulder. “Let’s get you some tea,” she said. “You can stay as long as you need.”
They entered the cluttered office. Amatra didn’t believe in tidiness: if she had, she would have gone mad years ago. “Can we play a game of Lions and Eagles?” Devariss asked.
“I’m afraid not. I have a meeting to attend.” She examined the princess. They first met when Devariss tried to escape two years back and chose the royal laundry carts. Amatra had convinced her the outside world was too dangerous, there was no practical way to make the journey home, and in any case, Omaneleth would only demand her return–and get it. She had offered her home as sanctuary.
Devariss perked up. “I could come with you! Take notes.”
“I don’t think that would be wise,” Amatra said. “The Firecaster might recognize--”
“I’ll cover my hair, keep my head down.” She offered the final bait. “I wouldn’t even talk.”
Amatra had known Devariss long enough to realize the likelihood of that. “Why do you want to come? This is a routine visit.”
“It means I can go somewhere. Not be a princess.” She cocked her head. “They say he comes from beyond the Wilds. Do you suppose he dresses in only a loincloth?”
“Not in this weather.” Amatra couldn’t suppress a chuckle. Pity: the sight of a man in a loincloth would have done her worlds of good. “Very well. But not a word.”
The manor of the Royal Firecaster had not changed from without, save for the complex knot of blood-red cord above the door. Amatra frowned. Sadrian custom: it symbolized the dwelling was occupied and that none with ill intent should cross the threshold.
Devariss followed her with a tablet, face obscured under a sun-hat. She wiggled with anticipation.
Inside, the manor was stripped, the windows blank faces of light; plain wood furniture stood sentinel in a vain attempt to break up the emptiness. They found the Firecaster in the parlor.
Amatra initially assumed the figure at the window was female: the body was fluid and spare, with delicate, spider-jointed fingers. Downy copper hair fell to the base of the neck, and the attire floated loose, midway between robe and gown in gaudy aquamarine. An intricate spiral of silver and glass beads drizzled down the left ear into a collar.
He turned; eyes of smoked glass regarded her. “You must be the servant mistress,” he said, voice as milky as his skin.
“I am,” she said. “My name is--”
He shook his head and advanced, dropping to one knee. “Inevar, Firecaster to the Omanelen court, your servant under open skies.”
“Amatra,” she finished brusquely. “I understand you need a household appointed?”
“Why wouldn’t you let her finish?” Devariss asked.
Amatra shot her a warning look; Inevar didn’t notice. “Meeting ritual dictates that the man--the spiritual inferior--introduce himself first,” he said. “It is even more important to keep the familiar in strange lands. It reminds us who we are.”
She nodded. She could comprehend that, though the key traditions weren't the small ones, but rather the bounds of propriety and position that kept society in order. Had she insisted her servants perform each task just so, there would be nothing left of her frazzled mind.
“I’ll do my best to select servants who’ll meet your needs,” she said briskly. “If you need someone to help you furnish this place, I can recommend--"
“Thank you, but I need nothing more.” He rose, and his gaze came to hers–came and held, for they were of a height. His eyes seemed translucent, and she felt drawn through the grey into half-seen impressions beyond. “I must tell you I’m not wholly comfortable having servants.”
His voice, faintly apologetic, pulled her from his face. “There’s no reason for that,” she said. “Do you feel self-conscious about buying bread, wearing cloth, living under this roof? You avail yourself of the services of those with special skills every day and think nothing of it.”
Inevar smiled, lips twitching. “You’re very practiced with that speech. Do you give it often?”
“If you’re going to be difficult -”
An outraged roar carried from the hall, stunning them to silence. Devariss scuttled for the door. Amatra blocked the way with her not-inconsiderable frame. “We don’t know what that was,” she cautioned her charge.
“Someone could be hurt!”
“Yes and no,” Inevar said. “The king asked me to question a captive soldier from the war front–whatever country you’re conquering now. Fire can cloud the mind as smoke clouds the eye.” His face flinched, but his voice tried for soothing. “If I can reach him, he might not be hurt.”
That condition lay heavily on the air. Devariss turned away. Amatra soothed her with a hand on her back. “Fortunes of war,” she said briskly, trying to dispell the tension.
The Firecaster’s chin jerked up. “How can you accept what is done to men in conflict?”
Amatra felt his disapproval like a blow. It was irrational that she could care for his opinion when it was bound up with so much nonsense, but she did. “I have no power to make those decisions,” she said. “I live in Omaneleth and accept its bounties. It’s not my place to question its ruler.”
“So you don’t think about anything you can’t change?” He studied her like some novelty, eyes intent.
“I have enough to worry about among the things I can change. Part of which,” her voice grew defensive without her intending it, “involves seeing to your needs.”
“My needs are in the hands of the gods,” he said.
And pious! Amatra reined in her temper. “Gods,” she said brusquely, “are notoriously bad about dusting.”
He laughed, a musical sound. “If I thought you had gods for hire, Amatra, I would find you even more intimidating.”
She narrowed her eyes, searching his face for mockery, but found none. Devariss spoke before she could reply. “Oh, don’t worry. She wouldn't hurt a fly–unless it landed on the wash, that is.”
“I fear being a fly in her demesne,” Inevar said.
Amatra crossed her arms. “Your favorite cuisine?” she inquired. “Do you typically wear such fabrics? Do you have any needs that might require attendance at night?”
He bowed to her interrogation like a truant child, and Devariss took notes. “Do you need provisions for female companionship?” she asked at length.
He looked blank. “What?”
She refused to be embarrassed. “Male companionship, if you prefer. I have a standing arrangement with the nearest brothel--”
Inevar swayed, his paleness not helped by muffled giggling from Devariss. “I–don’t think that will be necessary.”
Amatra felt sorry for him and quashed the sensation. “There’s no shame in it, but your choice. Is there anything else?”
“I would very much like…” His hands twined, his manner that of a boy too timid to look a beauty in the eye. “That is, I understand you keep busy, but it strikes me…”
She put her hands on her hips. “Will you out with it?”
He breathed a long sigh. “Never mind. Thank you for your help.”
“That’s my job,” she said, and saw herself out. She turned to her young companion. “I distinctly remember asking you not to talk.”
Devariss squirmed her shoulders in a way that might be taken for apology. “I couldn’t help myself. He seemed so nice!”
“Nice can be an illusion,” Amatra dismissed it.
“Do you really think he’s pretending?”
She ignored the question. “You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t recognize you when he’s introduced to the court.”
Devariss looked thoughtful. “I don’t think he would say anything.” She perked up as they crossed into the willow-shaded avenue. “Conjure me something?”
“Not today.” Normally, Amatra would indulge her, summoning a rose or ivy. Since she couldn’t control where a conjured item came from, she never called for something man made–she was no thief. “In any case, it isn’t safe. The Firecaster could sense it.” Easy for Devariss to forget, from a kingdom without Talents, but to anyone in Omanaleth, they were dark, forbidden powers.
“Did he disturb you?”
What was with the girl and her questions? “Why should he? I won’t be seeing him again.”
A few days passed. The prince was out hunting, so Amatra had fewer concerns for Devariss. Outwardly, she dismissed Inevar and his peculiarities. Inwardly, they gnawed at her as a personal affront. Every trait he possessed seemed designed to annoy her–but why let it? They didn’t even move in the same sphere.
When the waterstone lit, she knew who it was. “Is there a problem, Firecaster?”
“Could you see your way clear to coming here? I need to discuss something with you.”
“We can discuss it over the stone,” she said briskly. “I can deal with the problem from here.”
“I…would prefer not.” His voice wavered with unease. “It is possible for a Watercaster to eavesdrop, is it not?”
What did he want? Curiosity condemned her, and she agreed. She crossed Ellipha’s cobbled streets at a brisk pace, and was unprepared when Devariss bounded into her flank. The young woman tumbled backwards.
“Devariss! What are you doing here?”
The girl brushed the hair out of her eyes. “I want to come with you.”
Amatra arched a brow. “Why would I let you do that?”
“Because he’ll expect to see me, of course,” she said nonchalantly. “He’ll notice if I’m not there to take notes.”
It was dubious logic, but she had no strength to argue. “Come on, then.”
A servant directed them to the cellar. She knocked briskly.
Inevar opened the door and stood to one side. “Enter this chamber and be welcome.” The formality was hurried as he spun away, an arc of billowing emerald silks. “I’m having a problem…”
If he said more, she didn’t hear it. Her attention was on the massive reptilian body curled in the corner, gold melting into cinnamon into green across a sea of scales. From the waist up, the prisoner was human, spiky alabaster hair matted with dust and grime. A wound slashed his collarbone, the rim old and oozing. “By the gods!” She rounded on Inevar. “I have no business with prisoners of war.”
“Amatra, without care, he won’t live past my questioning. He may not even last that long.” His voice was quiet. “Yet I cannot ask the king to send a healer. He would misinterpret the request.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Devariss gawp. The Cecros were a prominent people, but descended from dragons and not aquatic--ill-suited to the islands of Issalmede. The girl had probably never seen one. The prisoner stared back through a haze of fever.
“Why would you think I could–or would–help you?” Amatra asked.
Inevar faced her, pensive. “From our conversation, you seemed sure of your principles.”
“You think they agree with yours?” She surprised herself with a bittersweet smile. The gods save her from fools and Sadrians!
“No.” He chuckled. “But you are sure of them, and you did not hesitate asserting them to a royal appointee.”
She could have pointed out the royal Firecaster had changed eight times in the past year and defying him was no feat of bravery when it seemed unlikely he would last the season, but she found she liked this opinion of her. Even if she was unconvinced of his virtue, flattery was flattery, and she got precious little of that. “Very well. I know a healer, circumspect, some understanding of earth magic. His rates are reasonable and his work is sound.”
Devariss hadn’t moved, lips parted as she and the half-dragon watched each other. Both seemed hypnotized, his dark eyes–like a slice of obsidian–widened.
By contrast, the relief in Inevar’s eyes made them lighten like the sun through glass. “Thank you. You have doubtless saved his life, and possibly my position.”
“Don’t beat your carpets until you see the carriage rounding the bend.” Amatra frowned. “He looks young.”
“Seventeen. His name is Shiraniv. Joined the army because he has a widowed mother–and two sisters just beginning to learn their sums. Not unlike some of our own.”
“He was trying to play you for sympathy.” Why was she telling him this? He had to know as much.
“I don’t think so.” His tone was thoughtful rather than defensive. “Evading, perhaps. Still, knowing him as an individual helps me decide what incense to burn to cloud his mind. It also keeps me conscious that anyone could be in his position.”
“Doesn’t that make it harder?” she asked. “To think of him as someone you might have been friends with?”
The prisoner moaned. Inevar threw a troubled glance towards his captive. “Few wars are anything more than perspective.”
“Then we choose to stand by our king not for righteousness, but for loyalty.” She narrowed her eyes. “Does that bother you, Firecaster?”
“Yes and no.” The smoke shifted in his eyes. “Both are admirable virtues. The king of Omaneleth would build an empire greater than that of ancient Merothe. This would place us in the lap of luxury.” Now he was laughing, with every feature but his lips. “You wouldn’t say no to that, would you?”
“I have no care,” Amatra said tartly, “for baubles and frivolity.”
“I do,” Inevar countered.
She blinked. “What, you?”
“You deserve silk sheets and amber earrings to match your eyes.” His words were flippant, but then he stumbled over them. “I don’t mean…”
It was on the tip of her tongue to demand what he had meant, but she found herself frightened of the answer. When had the opinion of this peculiar man started to matter to her? “If you want your healer in time to do any good, I should attend your message stone.”
He wrenched himself away. “Yes! This way.” He led her to a chamber barren as the others save for a bookcase populated with leather tomes. The waterstone lay on his desk, flanked by parchment marked with meticulous writing.
She contacted the healer, explained she had an unusual patient, asked him to meet her, then set the waterstone quiet with a pass of her hand. “Done.”
“Thank you -”
“You can thank me by lasting out the month,” she said.
He frowned. “What happened to my predecessors, Amatra? Why can’t the king keep a Firecaster?”
“Four years ago, the old Firecaster died. His successor was a warrior-maid, almost as skilled in arms as in magic.” She leaned against the desk. “Some say she incensed the king to this war. I met her once; I don’t believe it. But she accomplished things with flame and will that have never been rivaled.”
“Sounds like a hard legacy to match. What happened?”
“Treason.” His gaze seemed to draw the words out of her. “She romanced the queen. She was executed and the queen sent to the winter palace. No one ever matched her skill, and the king finds fault by comparison.” Amatra shrugged. “He wants what I can’t have, I suppose. Luxury of being monarch.”
“How terribly reassuring.” Inevar breathed out a sigh. “But can one argue with the heart?”
“One argues with anything that goes against common sense,” she said. “The heart can always find a replacement.”
He looked away. “A cold thought.”
The chamber was parched of comfort, suddenly chill. She refused to be the first to break the silence.
“Where is your young charge?” he wondered.
The change of subject should have relieved her. Instead, she gathered her skirts, ready to charge through the manor like a tiger. “I distinctly told that girl--”
“Sorry,” Devariss said in a rush, scurrying into view. “I took a wrong turn and got lost. I hope you weren’t missing me.” Her eyes brightened with beatific innocence.
Amatra sighed and took a firm grip on the girl’s arm. “We’re getting out of here before you break something.”
“You’re welcome under my roof any time,” Inevar said.
She paid no mind to the pleasantry and hustled her charge out into the street. “You,” she said sharply, “stay by me.”
Devariss didn’t look chastened; if anything, she glowed. “I thought you didn’t like having me underfoot.”
“Or stay put if I send you somewhere,” Amatra amended. She thought that would correct the situation, and gave it no more thought.
The next time Inevar sent her a message, Amatra went over without questions. She would have required Devariss to stay behind, but the prince had been humiliated during the hunt and had taken his temper out on his future bride. The girl needed the distraction, though it was at these times that Amatra worried most about being discovered.
Inevar met them in the front hall. “It’s good to see you, Amatra. The prisoner is recovering well.”
“Has he given you what you need?” she asked.
“He remains stubborn.” A smile slipped onto his lips. “One could admire the young man.”
Hadn’t she made it clear his position was at stake if he couldn’t have answers by yesterday? Amatra consigned him to whatever fate and focused on her job. “What do you need?”
“I’m having trouble with one of the servants,” he said, sounding apologetic. “She continues to clean counter the sun.”
She swallowed her reaction so quickly she could feel her tongue tickle the top of her stomach. He had called her for this? Her instinct was to take his head off for frivolity, but the wide eyes were serious to a painful fault, and she felt herself wavering with the irrational desire to please him. “Have you explained this to her?”
“I’ve tried,” Inevar said, “but she follows the right pattern and then returns to randomness as soon as she thinks I’ve turned away. I’ve been spying on my own servant, yes.” He looked embarrassed.
Devariss peered over her shoulder. “Firecaster, can I go look at your books?”
“Please, be my guest,” Inevar said. “You’re welcome to read if you use the cloth in the right-hand drawer to handle them. This protects the intrinsic spirit in the book…”
“My servants are taught to be respectable of their employers’-” Amatra paused and revised her words “- unusual requests. I apologize.”
“The gods gave us free will so we could bewilder everyone else, I sometimes think.” He smiled faintly.
Truer words were never spoken, in her mind. “Even so. What’s counter the sun?”
“When sunlight enters a room, it follows a specific path,” he explained. “So should a person in harmony with the elements. Counter the sun is the inverse of this path.”
“That sounds simple, except you couldn’t know how the sunlight traveled unless you were there to watch it.” And the fact there was no sane reason to introduce such complications, but in the past decades, she had encountered far more exotic demands.
“Ah, yes. If someone would be willing to stay here…”
In a manor that had been stripped down to do a barracks proud? “I’d need to send someone into the servants’ quarters to make them somewhat liveable -”
“The second guest bedroom is free,” he said.
She glared. “You can’t put a servant up in the visitor chambers!”
Amatra closed her eyes and contemplated the enormity of the explanation before her. She opened them with a sigh.
Inevar arched a brow. “Is it that serious?”
She took his hands and found them cool, slender fingers running over hers like glass. The touch made her shiver. “Do you want to give the king a reason to dismiss you? I would never speak ill of him, but he’s looking for an excuse–and two of your predecessors were executed.”
“I will be who I am. If that does not suit the king, then I will work elsewhere.”
She snorted in disbelief. “You’d give up a royal post?”
“There are other kings.” His hands unfolded in hers, the touch tentative. They breathed at the same tempo. “Are you worried about me?”
His eyes were very clear, searching, hopeful; she could have seen his thoughts through them. She twisted her head, heart knotted. “No,” she said brusquely. “I’m just doing my job.” The falseness of the words filled the room. She retrieved her hands and couldn't figure out what to do with them; she felt the flush on her face. “Explain this further,” she continued with effort. “Is there anything else you need?”
The Firecaster dropped his hands to his sides. “There is no more,” he said. “It’s an art rather than a trade. I’m used to doing it myself, to be honest. My last post--” She tensed, intent on this glimpse into his past, but he shook his head. “You have too much to do to listen to me ramble, I’m sure. My apologies.”
Amatra gritted her teeth, about to snap to the contrary–but she had plenty to do, though she would have lingered for answers. She schooled herself. Answers to what? He wasn’t her pet puzzle. She confirmed what he wanted, promised to send someone to tidy up the servants’ quarters, and escaped a room that seemed to be spinning. Devariss caught up with her in the hall.
“Amatra, wait!” The girl tumbled in her wake. “He’s very handsome, isn’t he?”
“He’s far too old for you,” Amatra said, ignoring the ridiculous urge to bristle.
“No, I meant–never mind. He’s also too young for you,” the princess said.
She placed herself and Inevar together in her head and conceded Devariss had a point. She might be as much as two decades older–not that he hadn’t made up for it with accomplishments, with his travels…
Inadequacy wasn't a feeling familiar to Amatra. When problems arose, she handled them. She was the best in her chosen profession and had been so longer than Devariss had been alive. Now this Sadrian had her undone, and the only solution was to face him down until she had deciphered his failings. That wouldn’t take long, surely.
Devariss turned widened eyes on her. “Call me up a flower?”
Amatra concentrated on the space between the air and felt for a known shape. She gave it a gentle tug, and a sun-lily appeared in her hand.
Devariss whisked it out of her hand with a squeal of appreciation and threaded it through her hair. “I only got to read titles,” she said. “The next time you come, please take me?”
Answering Inevar’s summons became habit. There was something about the man and his strange demands that made it impossible to stay away, and business conversations strayed towards politics and principle. It was dangerous ground, arguments that would have had her thrown out of other company, but he met her with preternatural calm as well as intensity.
Devariss came with her to continue investigating his small but apparently intriguing library. Sometimes Amatra felt a twitching unease about her charge’s occupation, but in her limited experience with the written word, no one ever found harm in books.
One afternoon, she found Inevar in the kitchen. His shoulders were hunched, his posture one of weary surrender.
She almost put a hand on his shoulder, then drew back. “Is something wrong?”
“Amatra! I lost track of time–I would not have made you come find me.” He ran a hand through his hair. “The boy is talking. He was messenger to a captain. I’ve found the wax and flame that cloud his mind and draw him to answers.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“I suppose–but when he’s said all he has to say, they mean to execute him. He’s not our enemy, Amatra!” Pale eyes swept her face. “He’s doing his job. When this is over, he should be able to go home…”
Privately, she agreed, but there was no changing the situation. “I’m sure the military considered what had to be done,” she said. “Former soldiers could be the core of rebellion.”
He stiffened, lips thinning. “You believe that?”
“No,” she said, “but someone had to say it. It sounds like military strategy to me.”
Despite himself, he smiled. “From all the wars you’ve fought in? Thank you, Amatra. I feel better just being in your presence.”
She ignored the compliment. “What did you need me for?”
“The cook is mixing his knives--”
“We fixed that last week."
Inevar floundered. “I’d pondered the need for someone with tailoring skills -”
“Yesterday.” Amatra narrowed her eyes, suspicions surfacing.
“Well…perhaps...you have me spoiled,” he said. “I feel as if I can ask for improvement on perfection.”
The idea hit shore. “This was an excuse. It’s been an excuse from the start, to speak with me, to...to what?” She challenged him calmly, but everything inside her ran about like a frightened mob. By his eyes, he felt the same way–but she couldn’t meet them, or she would lose herself. Blast him! She had thought herself past this.
“To learn more about you, spend time in your company.” Inevar drew in a breath. “Since we met, I confess I have--”
A piercing shriek rose through the manor. Amatra recognized Devariss’ voice. She bolted for the door and–led by the sound–towards the basement.
Inevar caught up with her at the iron door. One hand caught her sleeve. “Let me--”
She pushed past him into the chamber. The coils of the soldier–Shiraniv, she remembered–squeezed Devariss from shoulder to knee, a grip that made the girl whimper. Amatra cursed, trying to remain calm. “Let go of her–now.”
“I’m sorry, Amatra,” Devariss whispered, lips trembling. “The door was open and I couldn’t resist going closer for a look…”
Shiraniv shook her hard. “Quiet!”
This would be over very simply, Amatra told herself. She could see Inevar side-stepping towards his workbench, which supported a range of candles and incense. One whiff of the smoke from his candles could bring slumber or blindness.
The chain hissed across the floor as the soldier turned. “Step closer, and I won’t like what I have to do.” His voice was buoyed by bravado, but obsidian eyes held no fear.
Inevar turned, spreading his hands in a graceful flourish. “Be reasonable, young man. I cannot--”
“You have the key for the chains.” Shiraniv grabbed the length with one hindclaw. “Don’t tell me you can’t do it. What you’re saying is you won’t.”
Amatra’s heart spasmed. He must know he was slated for death, he stood nothing to lose by harming his captive–but he had the future queen in his hands.
While his attention was on Inevar, she edged in the other direction. The soldier had no idea she was more than a peasant woman–an old peasant woman, she corrected herself, for everyone over fifty looked the same to the young. If Inevar could keep his attention… she looked over and caught his gaze, doing her best to signal what she wanted.
His lips twitched acknowledgement. He rested his hand on the edge of the workbench. “Very well, I’m not moving,” he said, but let his gaze run to his work.
Shiraniv glowered. “Wherever you keep the key, go get it.”
“You don’t want to do this,” Inevar said. “You know I don’t want you hurt-”
“You talked about your home to bring my guard down.” The soldier’s coils tightened as his voice did.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Inevar said. Amatra glanced sharply at the Firecaster. There was genuine pain in his eyes. “What I said to you, I believed.”
Amatra slid into the darkness behind Shiraniv, cast about her, and found the flaw in her plan. She had nothing heavy to hit him with–there was nothing in the room save the brazier–and she couldn’t move again without attracting attention.
“But it’s all right to poison my mind until I tell you what you want to know?” The boy was scared, his voice thick. It would have moved her in other circumstances. Devariss clawed at the scales, trying to free herself; he shook her and she went still.
Amatra’s hands itched for some makeshift weapon, and she knew she could summon one–but her eyes darted to Inevar. If she conjured here, he would feel it. She would mark herself as a Talent–as a demon needing removal.
His eyes met hers. The words might have been written in smoke: whatever you mean to do, do it now. She had no business trusting him, not with this, but she felt a rush of curious calm possess her.
“You know I have to do that,” Inevar said. “Don’t hold my job against me.”
Devariss squirmed, head turning towards Amatra. Her eyes widened, and she started to speak. Amatra jerked her head in violent negative and thrust out into the space between, grasping the form of the first cudgel that crossed her palm.
The sudden weight bore her forward; a lighter woman would have crashed into her intended victim. She gripped the wooden club two-handed and swung it at the back of Shiraniv’s head.
It glanced off, but the soldier reeled, his coils releasing by reflex. Inevar darted forward and grabbed Devariss by the arm. He spun the girl across the chamber and out of Shiraniv’s reach.
Devariss dropped to her knees and sobbed. The soldier’s head lifted, his lower body tensing. Amatra scuttled out of the way with undignified haste, the club clattering free of her grasp.
The soldier stretched out his hands as if in plea. “Would it have cost you so much?”
The Firecaster looked at him for long enough that Amatra determined if anyone was going to say anything sensible, it would have to be her. “It could have cost him his head.” She hurried to the princess’ side, avoiding Inevar’s eyes and the inquiries she knew would be there.
“Are you all right, Amatra?” he asked. “Is your charge unharmed?”
Devariss inched upright. “No, I’m not. I want to go home.” Her voice was raspy; she shot a wild look towards the chained man.
Amatra put an arm around her. “We’ll both be in good shape once the shock wears off.”
“I can summon the royal healer,” he said, “if you feel--”
“No!” They spoke in unison. Amatra squeezed her charge’s shoulder in warning. “I’ll see her home,” she said. “Make sure she is seen to.”
Inevar frowned, midway between confusion and disapproval. “I...as you will,” he said. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Nothing,” Amatra cut him off brusquely. “We’re leaving.” She ushered Devariss out.
She went through the questions by rote–had he threatened her, what had he done to her?–and heard few of the answers. She packed her belongings in her head, rearranging them with ruthless efficiency. The enormity of leaving was too much to deal with; hence, she simply accepted it.
The girl seemed calm. “He didn’t hurt me,” she repeated. “He was very apologetic. He had to look tough, you understand? I think he might be a decent person.”
Something about her protestations bothered Amatra, but there was no time to sort it out. “You’re in shock, and it’s made you silly,” she said tartly as they entered by the back door. “Sit down.”
“I can’t stay–I have deportment lessons. The king thinks I’m a savage.” Devariss sounded as amused as ever–almost normal.
“The king wouldn’t know a savage if it sat at his right hand.” She was tired; she was saying things that ordinarily would have scandalized her. “Go home, Devariss.”
The girl, oblivious, pecked her on the cheek and scampered out. Amatra was left with the word “Talent” pounding blood in her ears. She got to work.
Every article of clothing she owned had memories attached, remnants of place. Amatra swayed into a chair, rubbing her brow with her palms. Inevar was a near-revolutionary, but some things went beyond political boundaries. Talents, children of a shadowy goddess–no one suffered them to live.
Someone knocked, a tentative rap. “Solve it yourself,” she said.
“I regret I cannot do this without you.”
Her head jerked up at the silky voice. He stood there in her doorway, as delicate as a doll amidst the tatter and the clutter, something the gods had shaped and forgotten to give imperfections.
“Firecaster,” she said, “about today, I know you felt--”
He held up a hand, closed the door, then dropped it like an executor’s blade. “I have never met a Talent before,” he said softly. “There were rumors about the king’s mistress in Sadria–but I never imagined anyone so forthright and convicted. I cannot picture evil in you, divinely ordained or not.”
Amatra remained silent. She could only wait for the rest.
The smile–that smile-surfaced again. “Intution is the whispering of the gods,” he said. “I trust mine, and I trust you.”
“You’re mad,” she said.
He chuckled. “I am.”
Only then, when she was sure he was serious, did the iron bars around her heart release with a snap she could feel in her ribcage. “Thank you,” she managed, then gathered her courage. “Should we talk about our conversation earlier?”
“Leave it.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t impose–I would never impose.”
“And why not?” she countered, stung. “Is it what I am?”
“No! I can’t just make advances…” He blushed, a jarring contrast with copper hair. “I have no right to complicate your life.”
“No right!” she exclaimed. The words ignited days of irritation and confusion. “Blast your Sadrian rituals. You can talk about sympathy for enemy warriors, criticize the king, make your own politics, but you can’t talk to me? You’re hiding behind those rituals–am I that frightening?”
“Yes!” He stepped forward, his hand hovering over her heart. “I want to know you better, but you have everything mapped out and assured, and I’m afraid of doing you harm if I push myself in.”
“You think too much,” she said, and the only practical way to quiet him was to kiss him. After two seconds of shock, he leaned into her.
His manner was tentative, youthful, and the taste was sweet. She had indulged in the occasional fling and the sensation should have been familiar, but it was somehow as foreign as he. She released the tension with unexpected relief and found she could have fallen into the kiss forever.
Then it was over. Inevar took her hands. His were like lightning, current running between them. “Amatra,” he said, “I...I beg leave to court you.”
She could feel the force of her laughter echoed back to her in his tremorous hands. “I think I just gave it,” she pointed out. “But if you want me to repeat myself…”
He pressed closer. “I don’t think I can hear it enough.”
As far as Amatra’s servants were concerned, nothing changed. She responded to the requests of the meticulous Sadrian every time she could. Devariss didn’t join her; the girl seemed mournful, curling up in blankets and drowsing like a child.
On the fifth day, Inevar looked worn thin, and this time, she could guess why. “You’ve learned what you need from your soldier?”
“Yes.” He smiled wearily. “It was painless. Better than torturing him, I suppose. Better than the war continuing for years more.”
She tightened her hand on his shoulder. “Yes. Nothing else you could have done and stay in Ellipha.”
“Nothing else, indeed.”
The parlor door banged open, and Devariss strode in–but it was Devariss the future queen, violet skirts swirling, gold circlet on her brow and matching bracelets. The bodice reminded a viewer she had no curves, but she looked every inch a queen.
“Firecaster, we need to talk,” she said.
“Highness.” He bowed; Amatra curtsied until her knees cracked. “Here to peruse my library again?”
Amatra stared. Devariss gasped in surprise. “How did you know?” she demanded.
“Watching your behavior and some deductions,” he said. “What I know about Amatra helped me, I confess.”
“I’m not sure whether to take that as compliment.” Amatra felt more calm than she had expected.
Devariss tried to look regal even with fingers twittering over the skirt folds. “This is about Shiraniv. You’re done questioning him, right? You learned what you wanted?”
Inevar raised a brow. “Yes.”
“Please let him go,” the girl said in a rush. “You can’t let them kill him. I promise I’ll pay you whatever you want–somehow–but I can’t stand this.”
“What do you have to do with a foreign soldier?” Amatra asked.
“I’m in love with him.” Devariss sucked in a breath so deep her chest and back should have joined. “We’ve been meeting, every time I went to see the library. Just talking to each other, about life and how we’re both trapped and…I feel safe with him.”
Those last words confirmed her suspicions. “The other day,” Amatra said, “that was planned to allow you two to escape.”
Devariss flushed, but kept her eyes high. “Yes. He was going to hold me until we were out of the city and then we’d run away. I thought it would take a while for the king to realize I was missing.”
“You told him who you were?”
“Easy, Amatra,” Inevar murmured. “No need to shout.”
“There’s every need to shout!”
Devariss winced. “Yes, but he wouldn’t abuse it. We just wanted to escape and…it could happen, couldn’t it? An accident with the keys, he grabs a hostage…”
“If this is about the royal son,” Amatra said, “I know he isn’t the most...” she sought for a tactful word “...tender of men, but time will--”
Devariss looked at her sharply. “Do I have to hate him to want a common soldier?” It was forthright, no bitterness. “In ten words, I can tell he’s a better man than the prince will ever be.”
“You want to go with him,” the Firecaster said softly.
“You ought to know that’s not possible,” Amatra said. She meant to sound soothing; instead her voice came out brusque and harried. “These things can’t work out, Devariss.”
“We can make it happen,” Inevar said.
“What!” Amatra rounded on him, using temper to hide panic. “How can you possibly–a word alone, please?” She pulled him aside. “He’s using her,” she snapped, “or this is nothing more than young lust. Or both.”
“To reach a mind that strong, I had to know him well. No.” Inevar didn’t waver. “And does that sound like your Devariss?” Amatra opened her mouth to speak, then stopped. He was right–the girl she knew was impulsive, but not shallow. “They’re two brave, resourceful young people. They can handle themselves.”
“The king will tear the countryside apart looking for them,” Amatra countered, “and Shiraniv can’t go home. They’d accuse him of betraying his country.”
“Then they’ll go some place else. If the king has no idea where that is. How is he going to begin the search?” Inevar was calm, as if this was the only sensible thing to do.
“By the gods, Inevar!” She suppressed the urge to shake him. “They can’t even sleep together, their parts don’t fit.”
“I don’t think that matters,” he said, “but if they want, I’ve heard rumors of a Talent who can shape flesh.”
“What about you?” she demanded. “Even if you pretend this was an accident, this will end your career. There are too many risks for too little chance of gain. Devariss is young. She’ll recover, she’ll find peace in the life she has to live–that will do her more good than dangerous dreams like this.”
“We are nothing more than our dreams.” Inevar clasped her arms. “I can burn candles that will ease the king’s thoughts, make him uninterested in the search. That will buy them enough time to travel wherever they wish. She deserves the world, Amatra.”
The words echoed what she had thought but never been able to fix. Despite herself, she began to believe. “Can you also make him indifferent to your actions?”
“I can handle one,” he said. “Both carries too much chance of detection. I said I was ready to move on.”
She felt the words like a slap, but thought of Devariss, trapped, fearful...hopeful. “What can I do to help?”
“You can come with me.” He met her eyes.
That any man would ask this was dizzying; that it was Inevar, mysterious, addictive, overwhelmed her. But the impulses of youth that would have made her swear to follow him anywhere were put in their place by common sense.
“You know I can’t do that,” she said. “I have too much here to leave.”
The smoked glass of his eyes seemed to shatter under those words. “Days ago, you were prepared to do just that.”
“That was different. That was necessity.”
His hands dropped away. He stepped back, turning on his heel. It was only when he spoke to Devariss, explaining the plan in a cool voice, that she realized how she had insulted him. Grimly, she put down the urge to explain herself. Nothing she could say would repair the damage, short of agreeing to go with him, and that she wouldn’t do.
Amatra awoke the morning after the couple fled and thought it strange that everything felt the same. Her world did not spin as she had expected, despite the lightness in her body. She moved like a feather, and recognized it as absence: Devariss...and Inevar.
She couldn’t regret the girl had gone, but he was another story. At her age, there was no luxury of starting again. She wouldn’t meet another like him.
She joined Razemil in his office under the palace hill, three stories down. On the wall was a life-sized portrait of his wife and sons. It had been done years ago; the boy in her lap was expecting his first child now.
“…autumn feast, and my superior is abed with a chill or a courtesan,” he said, massaging his brow. “The king wants to make a public announcement about the military campaign, says he won’t interview other Firecasters until he has this one’s head.”
Amatra, who had fallen into the habit of nodding and sounds of commiseration, jerked on the last. “What?”
“The king has demanded Inevar’s head.” Razemil sighed. “I have to draft a notice as soon as you’ve left. Surely you knew that was coming, considering it was his job to hold the prisoner?”
This time, she had no words. Before day’s end, the king’s best would be pursuing Inevar. Her world shrank, and the shell around that emptiness inside her crumpled.
She knew how to fix it, but it meant no going back. She pushed out of her chair. “If I ask you to do something in the name of our friendship, Razemil, would you?”
“What’s on your mind, Ama?” he wondered, puzzled.
“I can give you a head that could be taken for the Firecaster, if you will swear it to be his,” she said. “Then I don’t expect you to have anything more to do with me.”
“Ama…? You’ve cut off someone’s head? No, I don’t believe that.” He regarded her seriously. “But if you’re truly fond of this man... You’ve never asked me anything. I’ll swear.”
She closed her eyes and felt the space between, knowing she touched the end of her current life as she did. There were savages in the Wilds, she knew, who took heads when...
“Dear gods!” Razemil exclaimed.
She dropped the bloody appendage on the desk and recoiled. The features were battered, bruised beyond recognition. But Amatra looked past the blood and discerned the important thing, that a random redheaded human from the Wilds could pass for Inevar.
Razemil’s face was ashen. “You’re a Talent. You...”
Amatra nodded to the head, her heart running like thunder. “This is Inevar. Are we agreed?”
“Inevar,” he said numbly. “Amatra…”
“For our friendship, give me a day to run.” She turned and strode out of the office. Where she had expected the clamor of her panic, her head sung a single note of triumph. This time, she didn’t return home to pack.
Once outside the city, she pulled out the private waterstone Inevar had given her-just in case-and rubbed the surface. His image swirled, bright-eyed, luminous, more cheerful than any man who had just lost a royal position had any right to be.
He smiled tenuously when he saw her. “Amatra?”
“Tell me where you are.” There was no way to say it but to be direct. “I’m coming to join you.”
The look on his face made everything worth it. The last clouds did not lift–she had given up too much–but she could look forward to the journey. “We’re headed north, but will circle to the Village of Tallis to meet you.”
We? Waterstones were never distinct, but with squinting, she could make out two shapes behind him, a small blonde head cradled against a well-tanned shoulder. She might have known he would never leave the fugitives to fend for themselves.
Clearly, keeping the three out of trouble would be a full-time job.
“I’ll meet you there,” she said.