illustrated by beili
Tanas came to the house on the cliff at the end of autumn. He had his clothes in a valise, and all the rest of his life in a little jar of ashes under the usurper king’s seal.
They sent only one guard with him. That was enough, these days, for a gelded mage. The guard was sealed to the king’s service, as Tanas had once been; he would not sleep while the king’s red sigil burned over his heart.
Tanas had spent thirteen years with another king’s seal etched into his flesh. He felt he could sleep for a generation now, if only the nightmares would let him. He dozed on the train from Harusen and in the steamer car the guard hired at Dun Edhin, and he stumbled out of the car at the gate to Cliff House with the strange, oppressive feeling that he was still in the grips of a nightmare. At any moment he would wake, and his King would still hold the throne, and Reeve would still be alive.
The guard opened the gate. His hand passed through the shredding remnants of old spells like cobwebs. The gate creaked badly, and the guard eyed it with dislike. “Ought to get a drop of oil for those hinges,” he said. He looked up at the crumbling house in its overgrown garden, and sighed. “Among other things.”
“House’s been empty nigh on fifteen years now,” the driver informed him helpfully. She was a short, sturdy girl with braided hair pinned up under a flat-brimmed cap, and she dropped Tanas’ valise on the curb and dusted her hands off with the air of someone who’d spent the entirety of the long, winding drive waiting for this moment. “My uncle, down in Bellgrove, he’s a dab hand with a garden, and my aunt’s the best cook this side of the Iver. If you’re fixing to stay on a while, we could get you set up right quick…”
The guard looked at Tanas. Tanas looked up at the house, at the high diamond-paned windows shattered and missing or dulled with fifteen years of grime, and said, “No.”
He went up the path, sinking bricks under his feet, seed-heavy weeds catching at his trouser legs. There had been a fountain, once; it was buried now beneath a tangle of climbing thorns. More thorns sagged heavily over the door. The roses had bloomed and faded, brown petals slowly rotting underfoot.
Once he could have crisped away the thorns with a gesture and a word. Now he waited, slack on his feet, while the guard tore brambles free and swore at a bleeding thumb. The guard would have liked to swear at Tanas too, he sensed.
The guard looked like Reeve’s nephew, or his son. Some quirk of the guard-commander’s malice, or merely an accident of youth, fitness, shared racial heritage? He had Reeve’s polished-oak skin and curling black hair, cropped short under a brimmed cap. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, long legs. Square jaw, mouth a little too thin for beauty, absurdly long lashes framing magnificent dark hazel eyes.
Reeve’s family had a tradition of military service. They’d never sprouted a mage, but they boasted three generals in the family book. A cousin, perhaps…
A cousin of General Reeve Jens, serving the usurper king?
The guard put his shoulder to the door, and it opened. Musty chill breathed out. The guard stepped inside, looking around. After a moment he returned and stared flatly at Tanas from the threshold. “You can’t live here.”
Tanas blinked at him, slowly. “Your king didn’t send me here to live.”
“But you—” The guard’s mouth twisted. He shook his head. He stooped to pick the valise off the ground, and shouldered his own duffle. “Watch your step in here,” he said.
The broken windows had brought wind and rain and worse things: bird droppings coated thickly over parquet floor and ornate balustrades, a crunch of dried feathers and bones underfoot, a thick scent of mold and damp and sickly rot. The chandelier that had hung, glittering, above the curving double stair was now a shattered tangle of copper and crystal at the center of the hall, its dislodged shards treacherous beneath an unwary tread. All the paintings were missing from the paneled walls.
Daylight from the open door carved a long shaft across the floor, almost to the foot of the stairs. A few stray glitters still caught in the edges of the cut crystal. Tanas stood looking down at them until the guard doubled back to take him by the elbow.
They made it to the upper landing. The guard abandoned Tanas and the luggage and loped ahead, throwing open doors, rattling through rooms. He came back with a flush of high temper burning across his warm brown cheekbones. “Not one of them’s fit to sleep in. Barely a stick of furniture left, and half the plaster coming down with the damp.”
“It was never very comfortable,” Tanas said. “Too close to the sea.”
“And the mold—” The guard stopped short, looking narrowly at him. “This was your family’s seat?”
“One of them.” His grandmother’s, until that formidable old woman rose from her sickbed for one last walk over the cliff-edge. Then his father’s, for a few brief and unpleasant years before Tanas left for Harusen, for University and then his king’s service. He hadn’t returned since.
He would not have returned now, except that among all the other properties seized from the former king’s favorites and distributed like Deepwinter gifts to the usurper king’s supporters, no one else wanted Cliff House. It had mouldered at the back end of the hinterlands for the last fifteen years; it was a safe enough place for a gelded mage to die.
He was not, quite, dead yet. And the guard was still staring at him, absurdly young, and just as needful of food and comfort as any other young attendant in Tanas’ employ had been. He’d been known as a kind master, once.
“It may be better belowstairs. The housekeeper’s room, or the butler’s.”
The guard looked dubious, but he took Tanas’ elbow again to guide down the staircase. His hand was very warm.
Behind the green baize-covered door that led to the kitchens and pantries and upper servants’ quarters, the thick scent of mold and rot eased a little. Rats had been at the wainscoting, but there were fewer windows, and the plaster was dry. The housekeeper’s narrow room even had a bed, a bulky iron frame and musty straw mattress someone had evidently thought too cumbersome to move.
The guard installed Tanas in a straight-backed chair in the kitchen, between the long wooden table and the massive iron range, and went foraging. Light crept slowly across the floor from the high, barred windows. The guard came and went with an armful of mouse-chewed linen, a broken-leg chair for wood, a scuttle as full of dust as coal. He managed a fire in the range and filled a chipped enamel bucket with water to heat.
Then, quite unselfconsciously, he stripped off his coal-streaked coat and shirt, and scrubbed down with icy water over the big kitchen sink.
He looked older out of uniform. Dark hair dusted his chest and thickened below his navel. Muscles wrapped heavy over strong bones, bunching and stretching beneath smooth brown skin. He had a scar along his ribs, still pink with healing, and a starburst bullet hole high on his shoulder. The usurper king’s sigil burned red as fire over his heart. There was no white scarring behind it.
“You didn’t rebel,” Tanas said. He hardly knew he’d spoken until the guard looked up, and then he wished he hadn’t.
“No.” The guard touched his chest, just above the dark brown aureole of his nipple, below the red circle-and-sword of the king. “I was a trainee. We hadn’t yet taken the oath when Sandor stepped down.” He added with diffident pride, “I got these scars in the fighting at Duladin.”
The fighting at Duladin had started as riots, students and tradesmen and factory workers, and quickly turned ugly when the city guard refused to swear the new oaths and joined the rioters at the barricades. Tanas hadn’t realized they’d turned out trainees to quell the city, but of course they must have: half the Crownguard was in the dungeons at Harusen, or dead.
He’d been recovering from his own ordeal in Harusen, then. And Reeve was already dead.
“You should have had a mage for those wounds.”
The guard shrugged. “Healer took a look at my shoulder, but it was knitting cleanly. Said there wasn’t much point speeding along when nature had well in hand. And I took the oath then, so it healed faster anyway.” He stepped back from the sink, scrubbed and shining, and reached for his shirt to rub himself dry. “Water’s hot now, if you’d like to wash.”
Tanas levered himself up from the chair. His muscles seemed to have seized, even from that short rest; he creaked like an old man, and his left hand was clumsy on the buttons of his coat. The guard wrangled the steaming bucket off the range, tipped a little cold water in, and stood by with soap and a rag, half-naked and helpful.
Had Tanas ever been that casually unconscious of his own physical perfection? He couldn’t imagine it. He’d been celebrated for his beauty once, sought after and sometimes won. He’d known his effect on men who shared his own inclinations, always. It was its own form of power, gone now with his magic.
The coat dropped to the chair. He was even clumsier on the buttons of his shirt, smaller and more numerous. They weren’t made for a left-handed grip.
He’d made it just past his sternum when the guard made a rough, impatient noise, stepped forward, and set his deft hands to the rest. The shirt fell open. The guard peeled it away from Tanas’ scarred shoulders. His lips thinned, but he did not speak.
His hands were gentler on the cuff of the right sleeve, and as he drew off the glove from the ruin of Tanas’ right hand. He set glove and shirt aside and knelt to unlace Tanas’ boots.
Tanas looked down at the broad, muscled shoulders bent beneath him, the knotted scar where the bullet had exited beneath the shoulder blade, the whorl of a cowlick at the crown of the lowered head. He thought of Reeve, six months dead.
Then the guard’s hands lifted to the buttons of Tanas’ trousers. Tanas forced himself to stand still, and to think of nothing at all.
The guard did not flinch at the sight of what had been done to him: the empty space beneath his cock, the seamed skin, the scarring. Perhaps he’d seen worse already, in his short career. Perhaps his commanders had warned him that only castration could truly sever a mage’s power. He washed Tanas with gentle hands, and dried him, and dressed him again. A clean nightshirt, from the valise. It smelled of juniper, and the press of the laundress’s iron.
“I’ll make up the bed,” the guard decided. “You can rest before supper. Tomorrow I’ll go down to Bellgrove to see about groceries and servants. This place’d need a dozen, but we could get by with two or three for now.”
He spoke as if he expected Tanas to answer. Tanas found the words waiting there, already on his tongue. “There’s nothing to pay them with.”
“There’s the king’s draft,” the guard said coolly. “And my pay. Colonel Ney didn’t send me here to starve.” He settled his hand beneath Tanas’ elbow. “Here, this way. I’ll see what’s in the pantry, while you sleep.”
The bed was narrow and lumpy and smelled of mice. Tanas barely felt it. He closed his eyes, and opened them again to a room dim with twilight, and the guard’s hand on his shoulder: “Here. Drink this.”
Soup. Tanas drank without tasting. The guard eased him back down, and he slept again.
In this house of nightmares, he didn’t dream.
He woke in daylight, dust-motes dancing through the air. He lay still on the lumpy mattress. Nothing moved near him. The house was silent, waiting.
He’d awakened on his own. For the first time in weeks, his head felt clear, his stomach hollow. He was thirsty.
He eased out of bed. There was a chipped enamel jug and basin on a chair beneath the window. The water in the jug was cold and clear. He drank from his left hand and then from the jug. He splashed his face with the rest, then went out to the door, barefoot, legs cold under the nightshirt.
The hall was empty. He found his way to the kitchen, and that was empty too. But the heavy wooden table was scrubbed clean of dust and debris, and a fire burned low in the range. There was a folded packet of newsprint on the table. Tanas opened it and found half a loaf of warm bread and three eggs, hard-boiled.
A noise at the door. He looked up. The guard stood framed in sunlight, his back to the wild kitchen garden, a young morning breeze teasing at the loose fabric of his shirt. His sleeves were rolled to the elbow, and his collar open. He looked at Tanas, and he smiled.
“I just woke.” Tanas looked down, at the bread and eggs on the table. “We didn’t bring this.”
“There’s a cottage down the road. They sent a boy down to Bellgrove for me, and the woman’ll be over later this morning when her cheese-making’s done.” He came into the kitchen, a dirty basket in his hands. “Would you believe there’re still potatoes in the garden? Run wild, but they’ll do for now.”
His hands were filthy, black beneath the nails. Tanas said, “You didn’t find a spade?”
The guard shrugged. “I’ll look again later. I was hungry, too.” He set the basket on the floor by the sink. “You can slice the bread, if you like, while I wash up.” One hand dipped into his pocket and came out with a folded clasp-knife.
Tanas’ rasp of laughter startled them both. “You can’t give me that.”
“No?” The guard’s hand had clenched involuntarily around the knife. He opened it again now, broad palm deliberately flat. His level gaze met Tanas’. “Are you going to cut your throat?”
The time for that was past. In Harusen, Tanas’ death might have done some damage, despite all their wards. The usurper knew that, of course. That was why Tanas was here.
Bellgrove might survive the blight, but suicide was more unchancy than murder, and he couldn’t be sure. There would be no hope for the nearer hamlets, the cheese-maker down the road, the guard in his kitchen. The potatoes in the kitchen garden might survive fifteen years of neglect, but not this.
He shook his head.
“My throat, then,” the guard said.
Tanas’ gaze dropped, despite himself. Sweat gleamed in the notch of the guard’s collarbones; there was a streak of dirt across brown skin, as if he’d slapped at a fly. He hadn’t shaved. Dark stubble shadowed the knob of his throat and the hard, square angle of his jaw.
Tanas said quietly, “No.”
“Then you can cut the bread.” The guard reached across the table, caught Tanas’ left wrist in dirty fingers, and pressed the folded knife into his palm. Then he turned away, whistling, to wash at the sink.
Tanas cut the bread.
He ate almost a whole slice, and all of an egg. The guard finished the other two eggs and the rest of the loaf, then threw the crumbs out for the birds. “We shouldn’t need chickens,” he observed. “Mistress Poulin’s hens lay well enough to sell, and she’ll be just as glad not to cart the eggs down to Bellgrove. She’ll be good for cheese and butter, too. Said her mother supplied the Cliff House, in the old days.” He looked at Tanas across the table. “Said it’s good to have the Young Master back again.”
“I’m not,” Tanas said. “Not anymore.”
The guard tilted his head. “They read the papers.” He tapped the newsprint, neatly folded on the edge of the table. “They know what happened in Harusen. Sandor’s out and Nikas crowned. They care more about the price of butter, out here.”
“They’ll care when they realize what a dying mage means,” Tanas said.
“Well,” the guard said. “It’ll be their best interest to keep you from dying, then.”
He went back into the garden, whistling again.
Tanas sat at the table, his bare feet cold on the slate-tiled floor. He should dress, he thought. Mistress Poulin would come when she’d finished her cheese-making. He had no memory of the name, no idea of what she might expect from a Young Master returned, but probably it wasn’t a scarred man in a nightshirt.
His knees creaked when he got up. He smiled, faintly, to himself. Young Master indeed.
The basket of tiny, knobbly potatoes was still by the sink. He knocked the last clumps of earth off them and then washed them, clumsy, one good hand and two working fingers. He left them to dry on the sideboard and went back to the housekeeper’s room with his valise.
He hadn’t brought much. No swallow-tailed morning coats, no formal robes of court, no clothes for lecturing at the University or dining amid Harusen’s glittering social scene. A dark grey suit of sturdy broadcloth. Another in tweed. A quilted dressing gown. Half a dozen shirts. It took a long time for him to button his trousers without looking down.
He couldn’t find the glove for his right hand. The guard must have taken it with his other grey suit, the one he’d worn all the way from Harusen. He wondered if Mistress Poulin would care.
Maybe it was better that she see. The cottage was too close. Bellgrove might be safe if he died of natural causes, but the wards on Cliff House were decayed with the years, and he had no way to reset them. He tried to remember whether the road crossed running water at any point. The guard would know.
The guard did know. “Couple of riverlets, running to the sea. Fingers off the Iver, most likely.” He stood beneath the sunlight in the tangled kitchen garden, still bare-headed and shirt-sleeved, with his arms full of dry dead weeds. He had a pile already, waiting for burning. His dark eyes fastened on Tanas with something like approval. “You managed that suit all right.”
Tanas raised his brows. “Would you have let me spend the day in a nightshirt if I hadn’t?”
“Didn’t know if you were planning to sleep again.” The guard’s eyes hadn’t left him, roaming slowly over shoulders, chest, waist. “You’re too thin.”
“Six months in prison,” Tanas said, somewhat waspishly, “will have that effect.”
The guard’s mouth thinned. “And you were a long time recovering.”
“Yes.” He’d seen the scars last night. There was nothing to hide. There was no point in hiding, anyway. Tanas looked at the weeds in the guard’s arms. “I washed the potatoes. What were you planning on doing with them?”
“Boiling with salt, if we’ve got nothing else. But I’m hoping—” The guard’s head lifted; he looked over Tanas’ shoulder, at the gate in the garden wall. “There she is.”
Mistress Poulin was a square-built blonde a few years older than Tanas, with a skinny teenage son and a tall daughter only a little younger than the guard. The boy had a bicycle, its basket and panniers piled high. The girl had a chicken already plucked and a wax-wrapped cheese. Mistress Poulin had the memory.
“You went off to Harusen,” she said, clasping both his hands between hers, as if she hadn’t even noticed the maiming. “I cried my eyes out to see you go, but we were that glad every time the news came back— First at University, then first mage at court! General Jens’ lover! My mother kept clippings from the papers in a book, she liked to look over the etchings and say there was the boy she’d coddled at her breast—”
“Nurse,” Tanas said, numbly. “Nurse Dery. You’re her daughter? Una.”
“Una Dery that was, Una Poulin now. My daughter’s Annian, and this is Belin— Mind your manners, then, give the Young Master a bow—”
The boy bowed, open-mouthed, blue eyes fixed on Tanas’ hand as he pulled it free. The girl was pretty, blonde like her mother, curvy and milky skinned. She gave Tanas a curtsy, graceful enough, but her smile was for the guard.
Tanas’ bones ached. He didn’t look to see how that smile had been received. If it had been returned.
“Don’t call me Young Master. Tanas will do. Redave if you must. This is—”
He didn’t even know the guard’s name.
“Ivon,” the guard said. “Ivon Corbin.”
Not a Jens at all. Of course he wasn’t. Tanas’s left hand clenched, and released again.
Una Poulin smiled warmly at the guard—at Ivon Corbin. “It’s good of you to come here. We’ve been that worried since the news from the capital. We’d have been by to put the place to rights, Master Redave, if we’d known you were coming! The house’s seen better days, and no mistake, but it’s better you came here than to any of your mother’s estates. You were a boy here, and folk remember you. And we all loved your grandmother.”
“Not my father,” Tanas said.
Una’s lips tightened. “Well,” she said, “we were none of us surprised when you left for Harusen.”
Tanas sighed. “I should have come back, though. Once he was gone.” Though perhaps then Cliff House would not have seemed such a mouldering backwater, a safe place for him to die. Where would Nikas have exiled him, if not here?
“You’re here now,” Una said practically. “And with a good spot of work to do, so—”
“The kitchen’s through here,” Ivon said, beckoning. He showed them through, helping the boy Belin with his bicycle at the threshold. But he paused there, looking back at Tanas.
“Stay out here,” he said, “in the sunshine. You could use it.”
He ducked in before Tanas could protest, and the door closed behind him.
Well. If he wanted to court Una’s pretty daughter, Tanas wouldn’t stand in his way. There was little else here to interest a healthy young man or fill the long hours of a king-sealed guardsman’s sleepless nights.
Tanas turned away. There was a stone bench near the wall, beneath the rotting windfall of espaliered apple trees. The sun lay warm across it.
He found the sickle Ivon had been using to cut the weeds and got slowly to work.
Belin came out in early afternoon, with a napkin-covered tray and a look of careful concentration. He seemed surprised to find Tanas crouching beside the stone bench, sorting through windfalls. “You’re supposed to be resting,” he said, in faint disapproval.
“I spent six months resting. I’m tired of it.” Tanas levered himself slowly straight. “How are things inside?”
“It’s a mess,” Belin said frankly, setting the tray down on the bench. “Ma’s been swearing up a storm. Says she might’ve known Solan Redave’d leave his mother’s house like this.”
Tanas looked down at him. Not far: the boy was skinny, but he bid fair to grow tall. “You must not have been born yet when my father died.”
“Did he really summon spirits?” Belin demanded. “Ride the cliff-road with his horse and his hounds, calling for the Storm-Lord’s daughter? Host debaucheries in the hall?”
“I—suppose it depends on how you define debaucheries,” Tanas said cautiously. “He tried to summon spirits, but he hadn’t the gift for it. My grandmother’s power passed him over.” And left Solan Redave bitter for it, all his days.
If it had come to him, and not to me…
Tanas closed his eyes briefly, and shoved the thought down. He looked at the boy again. “Did they send you with food?”
“Ma made soup. And cheesy scones. Annian’ll have the chicken roasted for your supper.” Belin uncovered the tray with a flourish: the brimming bowl, the plate piled high. “The tableware’s ours, but I put in an order for you at the store down in Bellgrove. They’ll bring up new settings tomorrow. Did you really come with nothing but a valise? What happened to all your things in the capital?”
“They were sold for the king. Or given to other men.”
Belin bristled. “But you weren’t a traitor. You just supported the old king, Sandor. You were sealed to his service anyway, so it wasn’t your fault!”
Tanas crumbled the corner off a scone. “But I served Sandor. That was enough.”
“They didn’t kill you, though,” Belin observed. “Not like the soldiers.”
“Because it’s dangerous to kill a mage?”
“Yes.” Tanas looked at the boy, clear eyes, stubborn jaw, cheeks still round with baby fat: thirteen perhaps, fourteen at the oldest. Had he really been only three years older than this when he’d left for Harusen, for the University and then Sandor’s service? Nineteen years ago… He felt ancient.
And hungry. He tried the soup. Lentils flavored with bacon scraps, strong and salty. He’d forgotten food could taste good.
“What happens when you kill a mage?” Belin asked. “Ma said old Lady Redave walked over the cliff so’s she wouldn’t harm us when she died. And the storms that autumn were fiercer’n anything, anyway.”
Tanas swallowed. He’d forgotten the locals would know about his grandmother and the cliff.
He wondered if Una had told Ivon Corbin, already. Or if her pretty daughter had.
“Mages disrupt the natural order of things. That’s how we—they—exercise their power: order out of chaos, chaos out of order. When a mage dies, that chaos is unleashed. It can blight the land for miles, air and earth and water. Violent death is worst, murder or suicide. Natural death can be warded, controlled. But when there’s a great natural source of chaos nearby, sometimes the mage can channel her death into it. Give herself over, have her death swallowed up. The Storm-lord knows how to manage chaos.”
The boy’s eyes were wide, but not yet frightened.
“Nikas didn’t kill me,” Tanas said, very precisely, “because his mages aren’t strong enough to ward me, and he couldn’t risk Harusen. He sent me here instead, to die slowly. Maybe I’ll leech off enough chaos before then that the blight won’t bother anyone important. I would try the cliff, but I don’t think I’m capable of channeling my death anymore. And suicide’s dangerous. My grandmother had leeched off her chaos for a long time before she risked it.”
“You won’t try it,” a voice said behind him, low and sharp. “You said.”
Tanas turned. Ivon stood behind him, dusty and sweat-damp, a heavy pitcher and two new enamelware mugs in his hands. His eyes were dark with fury.
“Master Corbin!” Belin’s voice cracked. “He was telling me—”
“I heard.” Ivon’s gaze didn’t turn. “Your mother wants you. Go inside.”
Belin tumbled off the bench, hesitated, and fled like a deer for the door.
Ivon sat down on the bench. A muscle clenched in the side of his jaw. “I thought you were going to tell them how to keep you from dying. Not how to kill you.”
“They already knew how my grandmother died.” Tanas met his eyes squarely. “They’d wonder. Better to give them the truth, rather than rumor and speculation.”
“Better for them, or for you?”
Tanas picked up his spoon. “Why does it matter?” He forced his voice to stay level, his hand steady. “The sooner I die, the sooner you can go back to Harusen. To your king.”
Ivon’s dark skin flushed slowly. “I see.” He got up. “Bring that inside when you finish eating. Your skin will burn if you stay out here much longer.” He turned and walked away, his stride quickening as he passed the wild potato patch. The kitchen door shut behind him.
Tanas’ appetite had gone. He ate anyway. He was not, quite, ready to die yet.
When he came back into the kitchen, only Una’s daughter was there.
The long kitchen table had been clean this morning; now it was scrubbed white with salt, and one end was spread with a bleached linen cloth. The trussed chicken sat in a pan on the range, surrounded with small potatoes and quartered onions, waiting for the roasting fire. Bread dough rose in a wooden bowl. Through the larder door, Tanas glimpsed a small pile of carefully organized tins.
Annian was mending sheets, spread out like sails over the other end of the long table. The light from the high kitchen windows fell over her lap and turned her hair to burnished gold. She looked up as he came in, and the ready smile on her lips faded to something more practiced and polite.
Tanas put the tray on the sideboard. He’d only been able to manage one of the cheese-studded scones, after all, and not quite half of the soup.
“You can scrape the rest of the soup into the pot,” Annian said, setting neat stitches. “You should have told Belin you didn’t like it.”
“I liked it,” Tanas said carefully. “I just can’t eat much, lately.”
Even the polite pretense of smile faded. She said flatly, “Belin says you came here to die.”
“Yes,” Tanas said.
“Did they poison you?” She looked directly at his right hand, the missing fingers, the misshapen palm. “Is it infected?”
“No.” They’d tended all his wounds carefully, even when he’d screamed and thrashed and begged them to kill him. They had to cripple him, but they didn’t want him to die.
“You’re not old,” she said, like an accusation. “My grandmother nursed you.”
Something in his chest squeezed what was left of his heart. “Is she—?”
“She died three years ago. Lung-fever.” She tied a knot, broke the thread. “She told stories about you. She was so proud. Her milk-son, the court mage. The general’s lover. You could have written, you know.”
Tanas closed his eyes. Opened them again, and sat down across from her. “I wanted to forget. Cliff House, my father, everything that happened here.”
She nodded, grudgingly. “I can understand that. At least grandma had the papers.” She began to thread her needle again. “We were glad she didn’t have to read about General Jens.”
Tanas’ hand hurt. He couldn’t unclench it. “What did they say?”
Annian didn’t look at him. “That he was a traitor, supporting Sandor, when Sandor was only the prince-consort who’d murdered Queen Helas and stole the throne. That he should’ve broken his oaths the way the other generals did. That maybe he didn’t because he’d known. He was Sandor’s lieutenant when Helas died.”
It was hard to breathe. Tanas’ throat seemed to be closing, locking around his words. “Helas died in a steamer car accident and left Sandor her rightful heir. Nikas was her half-brother and only a child. The law was clear. And Sandor never tried to push Nikas aside or do away with him. He was Sandor’s heir before Queen Rilya had a child.”
“The papers said General Jens confessed,” Annian said.
“The papers said whatever Nikas told them to say,” Tanas snapped. “Reeve wore Helas’ seal until she died. He’d be no more capable of plotting her murder, or covering it up, than— than your grandmother would’ve been capable of smothering me.”
Annian’s chin set, stubbornly. “The other generals broke their seals.”
“Reeve didn’t. Gods, girl, I knew his body as well as I know my own. There’s no way he’d have been able to hide a broken seal from me. Unless you’d have me a member of the conspiracy, too, when Helas died before I even entered the University?”
“No.” Her gaze darted up, then fell. “I didn’t say that.” The full line of her mouth wavered. “But if General Jens didn’t, then King Nikas…”
Was your lover a traitor, or is my king?
The anger drained, leaving only emptiness in its wake. No words. No answers.
But Annian was still there, waiting, his sheets beneath her needle, her chicken trussed for his supper. Her grandmother had been his nurse. And he hadn’t written, even once, for nineteen years.
“I don’t know.” His voice scraped raw. “I thought I did. I fought for Sandor. Reeve died for him. But Sandor surrendered before they even reached him. He had the abdication already written. And he went quietly into exile, while we… So I don’t know.”
She did not point out that Tanas was in exile, too, while Reeve was dead. She had that much compassion for him.
The light faded. Clouds over the sun, perhaps. Annian looked up, her eyes narrowed, and then put her head down and stitched grimly on. Somewhere in the house above them a door slammed. Feet thumped: Belin, probably, running. Tanas heard the low rumble of Ivon’s voice, not too far distant, but no one came in.
Annian got up, checked the temperature of the range with the back of her hand, added more coal from the refilled scuttle, and put the chicken in to roast. She washed her hands and kneaded the bread, shaped loaves, set them to rise again. She paused once more by the sink.
“Have you had anything to drink?”
He had to think. “No.” Ivon had brought that pitcher to the garden, but he hadn’t stayed.
Annian made an angry little sound at the back of her throat. She filled a mug with plain water and brought it to him, then sat down again with her sheets and stitched furiously.
Tanas sipped the water. It was warm, and soothing on his throat. The mug was one of the new enamelware ones, white with a blue rim. He wondered if it was the same mug Ivon had brought to the garden, and what had been in the pitcher. He wondered what Ivon was doing now.
He said very carefully, “There’s something you should know. Guard Corbin may not think to tell you. If you—”
“The sealed guards’ legendary stamina?” She didn’t look up. “They don’t need to sleep. They can fight through wounds that would kill any three lesser men. They’re godlike in bed.”
Tanas stared. “They put that in the paper?”
“In the serial stories.” She glanced up, finally, her eyes hard and bright. “I’m provincial, but I’m not stupid. Guard Corbin didn’t even look at me.”
There was no reason at all for Tanas’ pulse to quicken.
Reeve, he thought, but Reeve was six months dead, the edges of his memory no longer sharp enough to cut. He tried to think of Reeve alive, the dancing dark eyes, the crooked smile: Finally found yourself a bit on the side, and he’s young enough to be my son? Well, let’s try his paces, see how he suits…
Gods, Reeve would have loved the idea.
Ivon, then. Ivon had sworn his loyalty to Nikas, received the usurper king’s seal over his heart. He was patient and he was kind and he’d given up his future in the Crownsguard to rot away here in exile with a gelded mage whose death would blight every living thing nearby. No wonder he’d been angry to hear Tanas talk of suicide. Ivon probably thought of this as some noble endeavor, keeping Tanas alive long enough to dissipate away the chaos of his magic-working.
It was too bad Tanas hadn’t managed to bring any of his books, or he might have some idea how long that would be.
Not so very long, surely. Tanas was thirty-six. Six months ago he’d looked ten years younger; now, he thought, probably ten years older. He’d been ill for a long time, after his maiming. His grandmother had lived to eighty-three, his father barely fifty. Ivon was, what, twenty-two, twenty-four? He could still have a full life ahead, if Tanas could leech away enough chaos before he died.
If only they’d left Tanas any control over his magic at all, he might have some hope of managing it.
But there was no point in entertaining hope of Ivon himself. The noblest endeavor would never extend that far, and Tanas wouldn’t want it if it did.
He got up, leaning a little on the edge of the table. His muscles had stiffened again while he sat. “Is there anything I can do?”
“How good are you with a needle?”
“Not very,” he admitted. He managed not to look down at his hand.
“Then it’s just as well I’m done.” She whipped the needle over a final time, knotted her thread, and snipped it between her teeth. “We’ll wait for the next clear day to wash and air these. There’s rain coming.”
Tanas looked to the window. The clouds were darker now, and the wind tossed branches in the garden. “I sorted out some windfalls that hadn’t spoiled. I forgot.”
“We can go now.” She paused to set the bread loaves in the oven, then grabbed the basket that had held potatoes. They went out together into the rising wind, her skirts lashing around her legs. The first heavy drops of rain freckled Tanas’ shoulders as they bent together to scoop up the least wormy apples from his careful pile.
“Listen,” Annian said. “You can hear the waves against the cliff.”
Tanas crouched still and heard the hollow booming in the distance, regular as a heartbeat. The wind sighed around them, and the cold raindrops fell closer, harder. Annian put a hand over her head.
“Go back,” Tanas told her. “I’ll carry the basket.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “It’s heavy. You look like the wind could blow you away.”
“Not that bad, surely.”
“Well, you might be all right for some…” She unbent enough to let him share the handle.
The weight pulled painfully at his scarred shoulders, after all; they made a slow progress back, their heads bent against the unleashed rain. Tanas’ coat was soaked through before they reached the door. Annian’s skirts dripped. Their teeth chattered.
Annian put down the basket on the sideboard and made a snorting, amused sound. “Drowned for a basket of windfalls. I hope they’re good.”
He almost grinned at her. “I used to steal these as a boy. They will be.”
“Oh,” she said, looking at him.
He paused, his wet coat half-off. “What?”
She shook her head, flushing. “Nothing. I think I can see— No. Nevermind. Do you have anything dry?”
“Maybe.” They were much of a height, and the breadth of his shoulders might account for her generosity of breast and hip. “Come with me.”
He dropped his coat over a chair and took her to the housekeeper’s room, where the bed had been remade with a quilted coverlet, the water jug refilled and set on a slender table beneath the window. His few clothes were hung, neatly brushed, the valise tucked away. Tanas fetched down the quilted dressing gown and his loosest shirt, and left her with them.
The hall was colder than he’d expected. His shirt clung to his skin. He considered going back to the kitchen, trying to warm up in front of the range, but he wanted the shirt off and he didn’t want any of the Poulins to find him there. He’d shown them too many of his scars already.
The door opened. He looked up. “Did you—”
His voice died. It wasn’t the housekeeper’s door. It was the green baize door at the end of the hall, and Ivon Corbin stood there, his shoulders wet, his jaw tight. His curling hair clung glistening to his temples. His shirt was nearly transparent where rain and sweat had soaked. He had Tanas’ dripping coat in his hands.
“I thought you were in the garden,” Ivon said. His voice was rigid. “Then the boy said you must have come in, with Annian.”
“We went back for the apples.” Tanas realized he was hugging himself, still shivering; he forced his arms down. His scarred hand was hideously purple with cold. “Annian’s changing.”
“I’m sorry,” Annian said quickly, coming out of the housekeeper’s room with an armful of wet skirts. “I didn’t realize you were waiting.” She wore the dressing gown loosely belted over his open-collared white shirt, her golden hair toweled damp around her shoulders.
Ivon barely glanced at her. “You’re soaked through,” he said. “Is dying of fever any better than the cliff?”
Annian looked between them, and said quietly, “I’ll take that. And see to supper.” She eased the wet coat out of Ivon’s hands and squeezed him in the narrow passageway. He didn’t step aside.
When the green baize door closed, he moved. One hand closed on Tanas’ left wrist, the other on his shoulder. He pulled Tanas into the housekeeper’s room and kicked the door shut behind them. He was breathing hard, his hand like iron on Tanas’ wrist.
“I thought you were coming back to life,” he said. “Why are you so determined to die?”
Tanas’ heart kicked a slow sidestep against his ribs. “Why do you want me to live?”
He shouldn’t have asked that. He knew. Duty and loyalty and fear, a native kindness bent to the wrong aim— Ivon had probably joined the Crownsguard wanting to save people—
Ivon said, “I love you.”
Tanas stared at him.
Ivon released his wrist, took a step back. He looked like a man stepping off a cliff edge, fear and exultation, falling with nothing below. “You came to the army camp at Moracal,” he said. “Three years ago, with General Jens. He was there for inspection, you were there— For reasons of your own, I don’t know. Because you were his lover. Because you loved him. There wasn’t a man there who didn’t wish to be General Jens, when you looked at him.”
Gods, gods, in his most foolish moments he’d never thought—
Tanas wanted to scream. He wanted to weep. He could barely croak, “Corbin. No. You don’t—”
“I’m not a fool,” Ivon said sharply. “I knew it was hopeless. You were the court’s first mage, you had General Jens, you’d never even look at an army corporal a dozen years your junior. But I wanted to be where Jens was. I wanted to be worthy of someone like you looking at me like that. I worked. I studied. I got my promotion, and when the Crownsguard came looking, I made sure they chose me. The best of the best, I thought. It’s what General Jens did.”
General Jens got where he was by being lucky and reckless and a stubborn, bloody-minded son of a bitch, Tanas thought, and look where it got him in the end. Look where it got you.
His heart ached. He said, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not,” Ivon said. “Because six months ago they told us the King was a murderer and General Jens was a traitor, and Sandor was in exile and Jens was dead, but you were alive because everyone in Harusen would die if they killed you. And you hadn’t had anything to do with Queen Helas’ death, and Nikas was sorry to lose you, but everyone knew you’d never break your oath to Sandor so there was no point even trying you. They were going to put you in a boat and tow you out to sea, until your death wouldn’t blight anybody.”
“Gods,” Tanas said, numbly. “Yes. That might work. If I cooperated.” He thought of those early months after Reeve’s death, after his own gelding; the daze of drugs and fear and grief, the pain that came in waves, the despair in its wake. The exhaustion that, finally, dragged him under. “It would have worked.”
“Well, it didn’t work. You’re alive. Because you still had friends who argued for you, and because—” He faltered for the first time, his hands working, clenching and opening at his sides. “Because I volunteered. And I don’t want you to die.”
“Corbin,” Tanas said, as gently as he could. “Ivon. You saw me, last night. You know what they did to me.”
“What does that matter?” Ivon demanded. “I’m not asking you to love me back. I just want you to know why I’m not going to let you die.” He jerked his chin up, a man recognizing the challenge and accepting it. “Starting with getting you dry.”
Tanas said, helplessly, “People don’t actually die of getting caught in the rain.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you,” Ivon said. “Do you need help with the buttons?”
He did. His hand was still clumsy, slow. He was, he realized suddenly, shaking with fatigue as well as cold; he hadn’t realized how quickly strength would run out of him, like water from a broken vessel. He managed the first two buttons and then Ivon took over again, as firm and gentle as if he’d trained to tend invalids instead of guarding kings.
There was nothing of desire in his hands, or in his eyes.
Of course there wasn’t. He’d desired that golden icon beside General Jens, the court’s darling, the University’s bright star. This scarred wreck could stir only pity, not arousal.
Ivon said quietly, “You’re thinking. Don’t.” He peeled the quilted coverlet off the bed and wrapped it around Tanas’ shoulders. “I told you, I’m not asking for anything.”
Just as well. I have nothing left to give.
Except for that traitorous flicker of disappointment, like an ember in the ashes: Why not?
Tanas looked down, away. He fingered the bright patchworked cloth of the quilt beneath his chin. “Where did you find this?”
“We didn’t,” Ivon said, pushing Tanas back to sit on the denuded bed. There were still sheets, soft with age; the set Annian had patched in the kitchen must have been a more recent discovery. Ivon said, “Mistress Poulin lent us a few things, til the delivery van can come up from Bellgrove. Tomorrow, or the day after. Her mother was your wet-nurse?”
“It was more common then.” Tanas was uncomfortably aware that he sounded like some doddering antique, holding forth on the habits of the past generation. He tried adding, “My mother had little interest in children.” That sounded worse, a plea for pity, or intimacy.
But Ivon said, “Your mother was the count Anci’s daughter? I’m not surprised, from what I heard of her.”
“From what you heard?”
Ivon twisted the wet shirt between his hands, wringing it out over the washbasin, and then shook it out and draped it over the ladder back of the chair. Color burned high across his brown cheeks. “I asked a lot of questions.”
And there would have been plenty of gossips brimming with old scandals to share, three years or six months ago. Tanas said, “And none of the answers drove you off?”
“Well,” Ivon said, “I wanted to know exactly what kind of debaucheries old Solan Redave held in the hall.”
He met Tanas’ eyes with the barest suggestion of a smile tugging at the edge of his mouth, hopeful but unsure of its welcome. Tanas looked back, and felt the tentative crook of his own mouth answering.
“Help me dress,” he said. “I can’t talk about my father’s whores when I’m naked.”
Ivon laughed. The sound curled between Tanas’ ribs and settled there, unexpectedly warm. Ivon said, “By all means,” and offered Tanas his nightshirt.
They ate supper in the kitchen. Roast chicken and potatoes, warm bread, new cheese. Sweet apples baked in honey, and a nutty brown ale of local brew. Una Poulin hovered to serve, and then to wash up. She’d sent Annian and Belin home as soon as the storm broke; she told Tanas severely that he ought not to have lent his own clothes to Annian, that the girl could have dried off before the kitchen range well enough, or gone home damp: “A little wet never hurt anyone!”
Tanas cast Ivon a significant look. Ivon said, “No one with any sense, maybe. Tell me, Mistress Poulin, do you think we can get the upstairs bedrooms cleared tomorrow?”
“Well, the ones with the windows still glazed, maybe…” Her gaze sharpened. “You’ll need a sight more than a few afternoons of neighborly help if you’re planning to reopen the house.”
“Five afternoons a week,” Ivon said, “and Annian and Belin when you can spare them.” He reached for his pocket. “We’ll pay the first week in advance.”
“Well now, I wasn’t—” But she was clearly too pleased to protest, and the banknotes swept away into a pocket of her skirt. Tanas wondered how well those eggs and cheese sold at market in Bellgrove, and how lean the years had been while the Cliff House lay empty.
Una left soon after, with her shawl wrapped around her head and a promise to return tomorrow. Ivon escorted her as far as the garden gate and then came back, walking briskly through the drawing dusk, whistling.
He told Tanas, “Tomorrow will be clear. We can walk out to the cliffs.”
“There may be fog,” Tanas warned. “You won’t be able to see anything.”
Ivon shrugged. “We’ll still hear the waves on the rocks. You can hear them here, did you notice? From the upper floor, through the broken windows… Is there a glazier in Bellgrove, do you think?”
“You’re enjoying this,” Tanas accused.
“A mysterious house, friendly neighbors, a job to do, a beautiful man to save… Of course I am.”
His voice was light, but his gaze met Tanas’, perfectly level.
Tanas wet his lips. The thought came back, veined with hope instead of disappointment: Why not?
A cruel hope. There were too many reasons. Tanas said, “Not so beautiful anymore.”
“Well,” Ivon said, “sleep will help.” He swept the empty tea mugs off the table and into the sink. “Tomorrow we’ll have lamps. And books, maybe, for the long evenings. There must be a bookshop in Bellgrove.”
“There may still be some books here.” Tanas levered himself out of his chair, swaying a little. He reached for the back of the chair with his good hand and found Ivon’s arm there instead.
For a moment he forgot he’d been speaking. Ivon’s forearm was hard and brown beneath Tanas’ pale thin fingers, lightly furred in dark hair, the white sleeve rolled up above the tensed muscle. His hand settled at Tanas’ waist, thumb over the hipbone, fingers spread wide.
“We haven’t found the library yet.” Ivon didn’t move his hand.
Tanas swallowed. “No, you wouldn’t. My grandmother—”
He stopped. Ivon’s thumb had slipped down, rubbing against his hip, just a little.
And Tanas’ cock stirred in answer.
He pulled away. His knees nearly buckled; he caught himself on the chair. Right hand this time, his mangled hand. He barely noticed.
Ivon opened his mouth. Tanas said, desperately, “Tomorrow. I’ll be fine. I’m going to bed.”
He fled, stumbling a little in the darkness, but Ivon didn’t follow.
The housekeeper’s room was dark and cold, only a glimmer of moon visible beyond the high barred window. Tanas curled beneath sheet and quilt without washing. He was shivering again. He didn’t think that was the cold. He was still half-hard, beneath nightshirt and sheet.
Slowly, barely breathing, he slid his left hand across his hip. The thin linen nightshirt rucked up beneath his fingers. He gathered it, one cautious tug after another. He didn’t look down. He could hear his own heart thundering.
His right hand touched warm flesh and shied away. No, of course, he could barely grip, it was all wrong— But he held the bunched shirt with the two remaining fingers of his right hand, and touched himself with his left, awkward and unfamiliar beneath the sheet.
His cock was hot and a little damp, skin beginning to slip back. He hadn’t thought, he hadn’t dared hope—
He tried not to hope, not to think. He circled thumb and fingers and stroked, hesitantly at first, then finding a rhythm. He rubbed his thumb over the head of his cock, pressed down on the slit, spat in his palm and tried again.
He hardened a little more. It was almost enough.
He thought of Reeve, and it hurt like an open wound. He scrabbled for a memory from before Reeve: a nervous young earl; a wicked-eyed colonel; two Crownsguard officers at once, when he was new-come to court and heady with opportunity. One of them had been dark-haired, brown-skinned. Plenty of men in Harusen were.
He hadn’t meant to think of Ivon, and now he couldn’t pull away. Ivon’s skin, shining wet with water as he washed; the whorl of short hair at the crown of his head, the slow beat of his long lashes, the pebbled points of his nipples in the cold. The sure, steady touch of his hands.
Ivon hadn’t flinched. He’d said I’m not asking but not I don’t want, and maybe he wouldn’t mind so much— Tanas still had one good hand and his mouth and his ass—
He came at last, not the familiar lightning spike up his spine, but a wave cresting, breaking over him. Diffused, but not dulled. His hand was wet with a little clear liquid.
At least there wasn’t much mess to clean.
But his tense muscles were slackening, his breath catching. He dropped his head back onto the flat pillow and stared blindly into the darkness. His chest lifted and fell over his thumping heart.
Possibilities grew, thin and weedy, where there had been only parched soil before.
That night he dreamed of his grandmother.
He was a boy again, standing in her workroom: small, slight, easily overlooked. The windows were open and the saltwrack scent of the sea thick and strong. There was a storm coming.
His grandmother said, without looking around, “Seal the door if you’re coming in.”
He lifted his hand for the familiar glyph, and his fingers were gone. The shape of his hand was unbalanced, ugly, entirely inadequate. Magic sparked in his bones and burned away. He grasped after it and found nothing but ash.
His grandmother said, “Well, you won’t need it anymore, anyway.” She stood, small and formidable in her neat black dress, with its old-fashioned bustle and high cameo collar. She held out one narrow, elegant hand to him.
She wouldn’t want to touch his maimed hand. He hesitated, but she made an impatient noise and grabbed him. Her grip ground the shattered bones together. He cried out, and his voice was a gull’s cry, harsh and wordless.
They stood on the cliff over the sea. The house brooded at their backs, behind its sheltering garden wall. Below them waves crashed and broke against the rocks. The cliffs were fifty paces high here, but spray wet his face like tears. Gulls screamed on the wind.
His grandmother said, “Come on, then.” She tugged at his hand, pulling him toward the cliff edge.
He hung back. Tried to ask “Why?” But they’d taken his tongue too, and left only a blackened stump like a bird’s. His grandmother frowned at him for dawdling.
“There’s no use anymore,” she said severely. “You’d better come quietly with me. It’s much better this way.” She squeezed his hand and stepped over the brink of the cliff.
Stone and earth crumbled away beneath his feet and were swallowed up by the waves below. He stood at the very edge, his bare feet curling into the wiry cliff grass, and she stood on air just beyond. Of course: she was a mage. She wouldn’t fall until he did.
If he were still a mage, he could walk out with her and choose the moment he fell. But that choice was gone from him with the dark blood steaming on the grass, his magic ebbing away with it, and his misshapen hand was slippery in hers.
And he had lost his tongue, and couldn’t tell her. Couldn’t even say No. I don’t want to go.
Someone said behind him, “Tanas.”
He knew that voice. He looked back—
“Tanas!” A hand on his shoulder this time, shaking him, and the voice was tight with worry. “Wake up.”
He opened his eyes. He lay panting, sticky with sweat, his nightshirt and the bedsheets twisted around him, and Ivon sagged with relief.
“You were yelling,” Ivon said. He sat on the edge of the bed, in trousers and shirtsleeves, his face grey in the dim light of early dawn. “I just meant to check on you, but you looked like you were in pain— Was it Harusen?”
Your maiming, he meant, maybe, or General Jens’ death, and Tanas shook his head. His cheek felt wet on the pillow, his eyes gritty. His voice was a gull’s croak. “The cliff.”
Ivon’s eyes tightened again. His hand dropped from Tanas’ shoulder. He looked at the tangled sheets then, and reached out to pull an edge over Tanas’ bared leg. “You didn’t want to.”
“No.” His throat was so raw it hurt. He looked instinctively across the room, to the pitcher on the washstand.
Ivon got up, silently, and brought the pitcher back. He cupped a broad hand behind Tanas’ head. A little water spilled, but Tanas drank most of it, too thirsty for shame and intensely conscious of the pressure of Ivon’s fingers in his hair.
The pain eased in his throat. He drew away from the pitcher, pushing back against Ivon’s supporting hand. Ivon’s fingers curled a little against his skull, ready to pull away.
Tanas said, “Don’t go. Please.”
Ivon stilled. His lips parted, then pressed together again. He looked down at Tanas for a long moment, his eyes wide and dark in the faint light. Then he bent awkwardly, not moving his hand from beneath Tanas’ head, to place the pitcher on the floor. He straightened again and sat still, his empty hand loose on his thigh.
Tanas closed his eyes and breathed slowly out. In again. Out.
Ivon’s fingers carded gently through his hair, timed to the flex of his breath. In. Out. The pillow dried beneath Tanas’ head. His bad hand cramped.
His eyes opened. The morning light streamed full through the barred glass window, gilding the dark stubble on Ivon’s jaw and the small hairs at his temple. His eyes had slitted against the blinding light, and his lashes lay long and thick against his cheek. His hand still moved in Tanas’ hair, as patient as the tide.
He didn’t look much at all like Reeve, in this light.
Tanas moved his cramping hand, and touched Ivon’s thigh.
Ivon turned his head. He looked down, lashes still low against the light, his lips half parted on a question. His breath drew in with the question unasked.
Tanas pushed up on his good elbow and kissed him.
He caught the corner of Ivon’s mouth, a glancing blow. He had a bad angle, and he was unbalanced, undermined by a fear as sudden as the impulse: if he was wrong, if Ivon pulled away in embarrassment or anger—
Ivon’s hand tightened. His mouth tilted to fit Tanas’. His lips parted. He drank Tanas in like wine, like clear water, like something worth the savor. His other hand came up to brace Tanas’ shoulder, and his teeth caught gently at Tanas’ lower lip. Tanas shuddered, and sucked Ivon’s tongue into his mouth.
Lips, tongues, teeth: he had loved this dance, with Reeve and before. The steps weren’t easy to forget. His injuries almost were. He lost himself in the taste of Ivon’s mouth, the nibble and suck and tease, the rhythm of breath and bite.
His elbow gave, or he let it slip. Ivon followed him down, laughing breathlessly into Tanas’ mouth. “I thought I gave up dreaming…”
Tanas stole the words from his mouth before he could say more. He drew Ivon’s lip between his teeth, shaped his good hand to Ivon’s side, his belly, his chest. He found the buttons of Ivon’s shirt, and then the sparse hair curling over his chest and the rigid brown pebble of his nipple. Ivon shivered at the graze of fingertips, mumbling indistinct protest, but arched into Tanas’ hand when he converted to a broad-palm sweep.
Then Ivon stopped, drew away. He braced himself on his elbows over Tanas, breathing heavily. His mouth was red and wet, his lower lip beginning to swell. His pupils were blown black, rimmed by only a thin ring of hazel iris.
He said, low and husky, “This isn’t gratitude, is it? Because I don’t— You don’t have to—”
“No. Gods, no.” Tanas reached for him. His crippled hand still had enough strength to cup Ivon’s face, enough sensation to feel the stubble scratch his palm. “This is selfishness.”
The strain eased in Ivon’s face. He turned his head a little. Before Tanas could pull away, Ivon pressed his mouth to Tanas’ scarred palm.
Tanas lost his breath.
Ivon worked his way deliberately to the mangled edge, where the last two fingers had been cut away and the stumps sealed raggedly over. He kissed the scars. He kissed the knots in Tanas’ palm and on the back of his hand, the grotesque lumps of bones shattered and left unset, the adhesions that pulled Tanas’ palm awry. Then he reached Tanas’ remaining two fingers and sucked them into his mouth.
He was hot and wet and his tongue swirled like a promise. Tanas made a rough sound low in his throat. He dropped his good hand to Ivon’s hips and pulled at his belt. He managed the buckle and the first button beneath before Ivon noticed.
“Not yet.” Ivon was unmistakably hard already, trousers tented over his erection. But he caught Tanas’ hand and moved it back to Tanas’ own thigh, to the sheet pulled over his twisted nightshirt. “You first.”
“It won’t be the same.”
“I don’t care.” Ivon pushed the sheet back, very gently. His hand curved over Tanas’ thigh and slid up. The nightshirt bunched above it, past Tanas’ hips, above his waist.
Ivon sat still a moment, looking down. Then he bent and took Tanas’ cock into his mouth.
He didn’t seem to mind that Tanas was only half-hard. His tongue fluttered at the underside of the head, then lapped around the shaft in long, spine-sparking licks. He dipped lower between Tanas’ legs and kissed his way down the straight scar seam. His tongue flicked against Tanas’ hole. Then he returned, and swallowed Tanas’ cock down.
Self-control burned away in the heat of his throat and the skillful curl of his tongue. Then he hummed, his throat vibrating deep and shattering. Tanas heard himself whimper.
Warm delight lit Ivon’s eyes. He pushed at the crumpled fabric of Tanas’ nightshirt, shoving it further up. Tanas managed, barely, to gather himself together enough to strip it off. He lay back, panting.
Ivon rearranged himself more comfortably between Tanas’ thighs, hands skimming greedily up Tanas’ narrow hips. There was the hunger he’d missed last night. Ivon devoured him, and Tanas gave himself up, carried on a rising wave. Writhing, moaning, his good hand on Ivon’s shoulder, the maimed hand in his crisp curling hair, and then Ivon’s bent finger breached him and Tanas’ throat ripped on a cry.
Ivon drew off, anxious. “Too much?”
“No, no.” Tanas tried to tug him down, but his hand lost its grip, and Ivon’s frown deepened.
“You’re still healing.”
“I thought you heard the stories. Don’t the Crownsguard talk?”
“Two men at once, after they named you the third mage at court?” Ivon’s dark skin burned, a flush that spread down his cheeks to throat and chest: lust, Tanas hoped, and not embarrassment. He tried coaxing Ivon down again, pressing his remaining fingers against Ivon’s jaw. Ivon dipped his chin and kissed his fingertips. “I thought it was slander, at first. Then I wished one of them had been me…”
“So you know I won’t shatter.” Tanas twisted his wrist. His palm cramped but curled, pulling Ivon’s head down. “Don’t stop.”
Ivon’s gaze lifted, beneath long lashes: met his, held, and heated. His hand slipped between Tanas’ thighs again. “I don’t have balm.” The calluses on his fingertips dragged over sensitized skin, and Tanas shivered and gasped. “Not even oil.” His thumb worked soft, agonizing circles over Tanas’ quivering hole. “Next time,” he breathed, and his lips closed over Tanas’ cock again.
It was almost enough. Ivon’s talented mouth did the rest. The wave broke and pulled Tanas under.
He surfaced at last, blinking hard against the brilliant light, to find Ivon still lying between his thighs, watching with a soft smile stretching his swollen mouth. Tanas reached for him. Ivon came up eagerly, as if he’d hoped but not dared expect the invitation: as if, Tanas thought, he still saw that golden icon rising out of burned-over ash. He tasted of salt, without the bitter edge Tanas remembered.
Tanas offered, “Your turn.”
“Give me this first.” Ivon stretched out beside him, lazy with satisfaction. The narrow bed fit them together hip to hip, Ivon on his side against the wall, one broad hand roaming over Tanas’ chest in long soothing sweeps. Petting him, Tanas realized, in some amusement. Well, better than counting his ribs.
He reached across his own body to touch in turn: the stubbled plane of Ivon’s jaw, the strong brown column of his throat, down to the flare of collarbone and the solid lift of pectoral muscle under the open white shirt. Ivon shivered and pressed closer, which put paid to one more indistinct fear. Tanas slipped his hand inside the shirt. He curled his fingers through the sparse short hair, circled his fingernails around the nipple. Ivon’s breath, barely caught, quickened again.
Somewhere off in the depths of the house, a door slammed.
“Damn,” Ivon said briefly, and got up. His erection still pressed against his unbelted trousers. Golden light dazzled on his white shirt and on the brown skin beneath. He hesitated a moment, looking down at Tanas.
Tanas stretched out in the bed, gazing back.
“Gods,” Ivon said. He flipped the last two buttons of his trousers open, pulled out his blood-dark cock, and stroked it with an almost-angry hand. His eyes didn’t leave Tanas’ body, hungry-hot. He came quickly, in thick white spurts, and reached for the pitcher to wash his hand.
“No,” Tanas said. “Here.” He sat up, naked in the bed, and reached out.
Silently, Ivon held out his hand. Broad, callused, sticky-shining. Tanas’ good hand barely spanned the muscled wrist. Ivon’s skin tasted salty and acrid, sweat and spunk: a harsh wild flavor that could make a man drunk…
A voice echoed in the corridor: young Belin, calling. “Guard Corbin?”
“I have to go,” Ivon said. He touched his fingertips to Tanas’ jaw, then pulled his clean-licked hand away. “Stay here and rest.” He tucked himself away, buttoned his shirt, buckled his belt. “I’ll bring you something to eat.”
“I’ll get up,” Tanas said, amused. “Go collar Belin before he bursts in here looking for you.”
“He’d better not,” Ivon said darkly, and went out. His raised voice came back through the closed door: “Stop shouting, you young fool, you’ll have the rest of the house down—”
Tanas stretched out in the wrinkled sheets and laughed to himself. He felt giddy, brimful of life. Selfish, indulgent, desired and desiring. One hand and his mouth had been enough, after all…
Even that thought came without the accustomed sting. He lay still a while longer, savoring.
Then he pushed himself up, washed, dressed in flannel trousers and tweed waistcoat over a round-collared shirt. It was easier to dress when he let himself look down.
He found bread, cheese, and boiled eggs in the kitchen. The bread was only a little stale, and the eggs were fresh. He drank clear water from the tap, faintly metallic, not too cold. Then he wrapped up the bread again, swept crumbs from the table, and went out into the house to see what work there was to be done.
He wasn’t much help, that afternoon. He tired easily. Ripping at plaster gone rotten with damp and mold left him coughing, and Una Poulin insisted he sit on a three-legged stool rescued from the old nursery and direct operations, instead. That empty portrait frame to be chopped up for burning; this dogeared old book to be set aside for salvage. Annian found a rusted tin box full of some seamstress’ prized button collection, horn and bone and brass, carved or cast. Her blue eyes lit when Tanas told her to keep them. Belin went charging through piles of old trash for some treasure he, too, might claim.
In late afternoon the delivery van chuffed up the drive from the store down in Bellgrove. A brief frenzy of activity ensued, as Ivon and the Poulins joined the driver and shopboy in carting in crates, boxes, packages, and sacks. A load of coal would come tomorrow, the driver promised; in the meantime there were two dusty bags to see them through, along with candles, oil, glass-chimneyed storm lamps, enamelware, linens, quilts, groceries, and beer. Ivon paid with a series of large, folded banknotes: the last of the king’s draft that had paid for their journey by train and steamer car from Harusen.
The delivery van left at last. The Poulins stayed longer, stocking the pantry, setting rat traps, mopping floors. Tanas intervened only once, as Una and Annian were arguing over which of the upstairs rooms was best suited for use as a bedroom. “The housekeeper’s room will do,” he said.
“But there’s your old room, Master Redave, with only one of the windows broken, and Guard Corbin’s boarded that one up nice and strong—”
“Old Lady Redave’s room is bigger,” Annian put in. “And it has that view of the sea.”
“The housekeeper’s room is warmer,” Tanas said. “And I like the garden view.”
He went up the double curving stair again, though, after they left. There was a pie in the oven, sacks of vegetables in the pantry, flour and salt and tea. Coal and lamplight and comfort, all belowstairs in the servants’ quarters where his grandmother would never go. His bones ached with every step he took away.
Ivon had gone to walk the Poulins home, carrying the quilts and servingware they’d lent. Tanas didn’t have much time. He opened the door to his grandmother’s room and walked quickly across the creaking floor, its boards dry and dull from years without polish.
The furniture was gone, but he remembered it clearly. There had been her bed, there her dressing table, with its little pots of creams and unguents meant to soften skin after exposure to the harsh winds that came off the sea. Nothing like his mother’s dressing table: no jewels, no bottled glamouries, no harsh-voiced lady’s maids ready to strike a small boy’s fingers away. His grandmother had let him play with her pots and brushes, and then she’d taken him into her workroom and showed him real magic.
The ornate scrolled wallpaper had rotted in huge long swathes, which Annian had torn away for burning. Tanas still found the familiar spot between two stretches of mouldering plaster. The print was marred, here, with an inky blur overlaid by years of staining. Tanas laid his crippled right hand over the stain. He closed his eyes.
The long, slow roll of the sea, and the thunderous break against the sharp-worn cliffs. The high, haunted call of the gulls in their eternal dance above the spray. The sharp briny scents of salt and kelp and rotting fish, and the brisk, dry tone of a half-remembered voice:
Come in, then, if you’re coming.
Pain pricked in the heel of his hand. He opened his eyes. An old oak door stood in the wall before him, with a dark red stain lingering in the wood when he pulled his hand away. Blood welled below his thumb, as if drawn by a thorn.
He reached down and opened the door.
His grandmother’s workroom lay just as she’d left it. No dust had settled here, no rats invaded. The wide windows overlooking the sea shone as bright as if the maids had washed them yesterday. The sun was sinking, and the light lay rich and low over land and sea, like a river of gold from the gardens to the cliff to the dark blue horizon. A pair of gulls skirled and swung in the stiff breeze over the cliff-edge.
Within the workroom, the golden-honey light glinted on the copper bellies of the alembic and glowed in the buttery calf-leather bindings that filled the bookshelves. Tanas walked along the long bookwall, letting his fingertips graze their spines: Jabir and Ruska, Adelard and Starkevel and Rasis. Old friends, some of them, or outdated predecessors, noted as much for their errors as for their accuracies. Here, A Practical Treatise of Modern Thaumaturgy. There, Storm-calling. Some of these books had already been discredited when he left for the University, nineteen years ago. Others he’d last seen in the library of his house in Harusen…
He took one book from the shelf. Then he turned and left the workroom without looking back. The door thudded shut in its scabrous wall and, unsealed, refused to fade into wallpaper again. Tanas walked away.
He left the book on the table in the kitchen. He took the pie out of the oven, awkward and unbalanced, and somehow didn’t drop it. He went back to the housekeeper’s room, and he knelt, stiffly, to draw the valise out from under the bed.
Ivon had unpacked it, yesterday. The clothing was all neatly hung on pegs on the wall, the brown paper wrappings folded back into the valise. In the bottom, still wrapped in paper and twine, was the little ceramic jar with the king’s seal stained bloodred across its mouth.
Tanas got awkwardly to his feet, cradling the jar in his good hand, and went out into the garden. The iron gate at the far end of the garden wall was stiff with rust and dirt, but creaked unwillingly open when he threw his weight against it. He stumbled out onto a wild, windswept tangle of dying grass and bramble, the remnants of groomed lawns; his mother had played croquet here one summer, before the wind took the wickets and hurled them away.
The wind was rising as the sun set. He walked down the overgrown path, past saltblasted trees and the vine-crumbled summer arbor. Cold cut through his shirtsleeves. The waves’ hollow crash dampened the air and shook the ground beneath his feet.
The path turned steeply left. Tanas walked straight ahead, over the short rabbit-bitten grass to the edge of the cliff. His city shoes slithered on the wet grass. The cliff trembled beneath him.
Behind him, Ivon said in a terrible voice, “I thought you were willing to live.”
Tanas turned, careful here, on the slick grass at the cliff’s edge. Ivon stood just out of reach, shirt-sleeved, panting. He must have run. He had the book that Tanas had left in the kitchen in one hand, and his fingers left welts on the rich calfskin.
Tanas took one step away from the cliff edge. He held out the wrapped, sealed jar in his left hand. “I came with this.”
Ivon’s harrowed eyes didn’t leave his face. “You left this book. On Dying.“
“I haven’t read it yet. I didn’t have time. I didn’t,” Tanas said, helplessly, “think you’d come back so quickly.”
“You meant to walk over the edge before I came back, and just—”
“No!” He took another step from the edge. The jar was in his left hand; he couldn’t set it down. He reached out with his right, lopsided, crippled, and caught Ivon’s shoulder. Rock hard, beneath the linen sleeve. Ivon looked down at him with a condemned man’s fury, and guilt stabbed Tanas between the ribs.
“I’m not walking over the edge,” he said. “Not now. Maybe not ever, if I can piece out what Taverstock tried to write in that book, if I can understand what my grandmother didn’t— Taverstock died peaceful in bed, three hundred years ago, without wards; his house is a shrine now, no one’s managed it since—”
“I’ve heard,” Ivon said, slowly. The dreadful strain began to ease in his face. Cords of tension softened in his throat. “Saint Taverstock, of Liberum.”
“Yes. I didn’t mean— That wasn’t meant to be a note to you. You were, you asked about the library. About books, for the long evenings. I thought—”
He swallowed. The sword in Ivon’s eyes had begun to sheath. Tanas felt it now somewhere near his heart.
“You called me back,” he said. “From the cliff, in my dream. Not Reeve. You sat with me, you stayed with me. You… You’ve spent these last three days, calling me back. And, well, I’m here.” He looked down at the jar in his hand. “And I need to let Reeve go.”
“So you brought down that book,” Ivon said, with the persistent patience of a man trying to understand the inexplicable. “For us to read together? Light bedtime reading, after supper?”
“I’m sorry,” Tanas said. “I thought— I didn’t think.”
“Maybe not enough,” Ivon said, but his voice was gentler, now. His gaze dropped, finally, to the sealed jar in Tanas’ hand. “Are those General Jens’ ashes? You came to scatter them.”
“Toss them, at least. The wind here would blow them straight back in my face.” Tanas turned, looked out over the cliff edge three steps behind him. Waves crashed endlessly white below. Spray dampened his brow.
He thought, briefly, of the small jar arching out in a weak man’s lefthanded throw. The wind would drive it back. The jar might break on the rocks, on the cliff itself. Reeve would laugh. Reeve would say—
You’re not alone, you know. We learn that in the army. You mages could stand to learn a thing or two.
Tanas turned back. He held the jar out. “Would you throw it for me?”
The fading light cast shadows into Ivon’s eyes and under his cheekbones. His lips half-parted. He looked like the moment before Tanas kissed him, like the moment before his world changed.
He said, huskily, “Yes.”
He took the wrapped jar from Tanas’ hand. With the clasp-knife from his pocket, he cut the string. He peeled back the paper, and the little jar rolled into his hand, glazed midnight black, sealed with the red sword-and-circle. The seal glowed in the dusk, steadier than firelight. Ivon looked down at it for a moment. Then he took one swift step to the edge of the cliff and threw the jar.
Tanas didn’t watch it fall. The sea-spray was wet on his face, salty in his mouth. He turned back to the house, where behind the high garden wall he could see the strengthening yellow glow of one lamp, holding back the dark.
He reached for Ivon’s hand. “Come back with me.”