Unguilded, p.14

Unguilded, page 14

 

Unguilded
 



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  “But not more important than the fact that this is your child.” She looked up and smiled again. And it was important that she was carrying the Secundus’ child. Now that she had tasted the power of being a Councillor, she knew it wasn’t enough.

  “I’m flattered,” Valerio said. “But it might also make you a target. I have enemies.”

  “I understand,” Arabella said. “I will not disclose our relationship. Not yet.” She’d already told Rorik, hoping that a secret between them would tie them closer. And perhaps make him feel safe enough to tell her a secret of his own, one that she and Valerio could use to remove the old man. Then she could be Secundus to Valerio’s Primus.

  “No, you will not,” Valerio replied. “Your immediate usefulness depends on council seeing you as unaligned.” He drained his wine and stood up, reaching a hand out to her. “Come, I have work to do later, but would enjoy the company of the mother of my child.”

  Arabella took his hand and followed him towards his bed chamber. There was no subtext to his invitation, no ulterior motive—he was simply a man who wanted to enjoy a beautiful—and willing—woman.

  Valerio opened the door to his room and stepped aside, allowing her to enter first.

  A woman stood in the outer sitting area, her hands knotted into the rough wool of the skirt she wore. Arabella stopped.

  “What is she doing here?” Arabella asked. It was Noula, her husband’s woman.

  Valerio walked over to Noula and traced a hand down her face. The woman closed her eyes, trembling.

  “She came to me for help,” he said. “It seems your former husband didn’t want to marry her after all, and the rest of the people in the villa made her leave.” He smiled thinly. “The Villa Primus arranged for her to come to Rillidi.”

  “But why is she here?” Arabella asked. “In your home?”

  “Noula contacted me,” Valerio said. “Begged me, really, for help for her and her son. She said she would do anything.” He paused. “And since you so badly wanted the girl dead, I thought it prudent to investigate a little more.”

  “What did you find?” Arabella asked softly. He’d done this all without her knowledge, when she thought he trusted her.

  Valerio laughed. “Nothing. The girl truly had no magic.” He stood in front of Arabella. “She was a failure—your failure—and you wanted her gone.” He shrugged and walked away. “But now I know.”

  “What will you do with me?” Noula asked. “Will you bed me? I’ve proven that I can bear boys.”

  “Oh please,” Valerio said. “I already have one of Fonti’s cast offs—I certainly don’t need another.” He traced a finger along her cheek. “Not even enough power to bother to extract,” he murmured. He shrugged and turned to Arabella.

  “I’ve already sent her son out to be fostered,” Valerio said. “What do you think I should do with her?”

  “Why would I care?” she replied, making sure her voice stayed low and calm. How dare he group her with this creature? “Although . . . she has no magic, yet she is Mage Guild—is there a particular house you would like to know more about? Servers are notoriously closed-lipped, but a minor Guildsman who owes you a debt could be very useful.”

  “Could you arrange it?” Valerio asked. “No one would suspect you—especially not with the existing connection you two have.”

  “Of course,” Arabella said. “I will say that she is a distant relative from my home villa.” And she would make sure that Noula understood who she owed her loyalty to.

  “Excellent,” Valerio waved a hand at Noula. “Find one of my Servers. Tell them to feed you and give you a place to sit while you wait for your new benefactor.”

  Noula hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her. Arabella fixed a smile on her face as Valerio caressed it. She would not let him see her anger over being called Banio Fonti’s cast-off—but she would never forget that he’d said it.

  She lifted a hand to the ties on his shirt and gently undid one.

  “Come to bed,” she said as she slid a hand through his shirt and rested it on his chest.

  KARA HADN’T BEEN outside the fence since the night Vook brought her home. Home. The docks had felt as much like a home as any she’d ever had. Here she’d been accepted for who she was and not scorned because she didn’t have magic.

  Pilo re-locked the gate while Vook scouted ahead. Lowel and Harb had left an hour ago, and now the sun was low in the sky. Harb had promised to look for a new place to live, but Kara didn’t trust him. He still didn’t believe the clammers were dangerous.

  “It’s clear,” Vook whispered from the shadows. “This way.” He started down a path at a trot.

  Kara followed with Pilo close behind. They traveled for half an hour before Vook waved them to a stop. The three of them huddled behind a fallen willow tree. A giant wedge of mushroom grew beside her knee, and Kara broke a piece off and slipped it into her pack. Vook glared at her, and she shrugged. She’d brought her pack anyway—she didn’t trust Harb not to steal from her, and this mushroom could be used in a compress to reduce swelling.

  “There’s one of them trees Harb was on about,” Vook said. “I know it wasn’t like this a month ago.”

  A tree, probably at one time a willow, swayed in the gentle breeze. Now, instead of long strands of leaves, white feathers fluttered in the wind. A light green mage mist circled the ground underneath the branches and twisted around the trunk. The wind picked up, and a feather drifted towards them. There was a bright flash of light, and a small, brown leaf dropped to the ground.

  “The mad mage did this?” Kara asked.

  “Don’t know who else would have,” Pilo replied. “Harb said one day the tree was just changed.”

  “The mad mage comes this far,” Kara said. “We should look around here for a place to live. Maybe even under that tree?” It might scare the clammers off, but would it really be safe? “I’m going to get a closer look.”

  Kara steadied her pack on her shoulders and headed towards the feathered willow. Up close it was even more beautiful. In the glow of mage mist, the feathers cast eerie shadows on the ground. She stopped just outside the range of the mist and stared at the ghostly tree. Another feather floated towards her, and she caught it. She pulled her hand in to get a better look, and a flash of heat and light startled her. She dropped the feather, and by the time it hit the ground it was a leaf.

  Tentatively she stepped closer to the tree. One step, then another—the green mist eddied away from her. Finally she reached out and touched the tree.

  The bark was rough. She leaned in. It looked and smelled like a normal tree. But was it as safe as a normal tree? She concentrated and let the mist settle against her. Soon she was enveloped in mist so thick that she couldn’t see the tree in front of her. She must have taken a step because she no longer felt rough bark beneath her hand. She turned to call out to Pilo and Vook, and suddenly the mist was gone.

  She was in a clearing—there was no tree, no mage mist, and no Pilo and Vook. Where were they?

  She spun around in confusion. There, that way—she took a step.

  “Pilo, Vook,” she called. There was no answer. The fallen tree they’d hidden behind should have been right here, but now there was nothing but sparse, dry grass. She looked behind her. There was no sign of the feathered willow. What had happened? Where was she?

  She tried to retrace her path, but the sun had set and in the shadows nothing looked familiar. Had she come through birch trees? She must have, because here they were. She parted some bushes and edged around a huge oak, only to come up against a stone wall. Covered in moss, the rough stone was cool to her touch, and the top of the wall was a foot higher than her outstretched hands. She peered along the wall—it extended as far left and right as she could see.

  How to get back to Pilo and Vook?

  A few steps along the wall in each direction, and overgrown bushes and brambles blocked her path. She stepped out onto a grassy area. There must be a gate so
mewhere, a way to get to the other side of this wall. She felt like she needed to be on the other side of the wall—that the docks were outside of wherever she was.

  She sniffed the air hoping for the salty tang of the bay, but all she smelled was dry grass and wild flowers. Water splashed off to her left so she headed towards the sound. A shadow loomed in the darkness, and she slowed. A fountain. Moonlight sparkled off the water as it trickled from an upper bowl into a wide basin. She sat down on the edge of the basin and dipped a cupped hand into the water. It tasted cool and fresh. She took another sip. She’d been drinking water hauled by Harb and Lowel for so long that she’d forgotten how lovely cool, fresh water could be. For a moment she longed for the mountain stream that ran near Mika and Allon’s cabin.

  She circled the fountain, peering outward, trying to decide which way led to the docks. By the time the sky started to lighten she still she had no idea which direction to go. She perched on the edge of the fountain to wait until true daylight. If she could find the coast of the island she could follow it to the docks. As long as she went in the right direction.

  She’d been staring numbly at the fountain for half an hour before she realized that softly glowing words wrapped around the upper bowl. Mage light, very faint, the faintest she’d ever seen, traced the letters.

  “The waters in this fountain will run fresh and clear while an heir of the First Guildsman holds this island,” Kara read aloud as she walked around the fountain. “So pledges Numa Nimali, Master Mage, heir to Paolo Santonini.” A mage named Nimali. He must be related to the Mage Primus who wrote her book.

  “You really can read.”

  Kara whirled at the sound of the voice. Harb stood in front of her, his arms crossed over his chest and an angry look on his face.

  “What are you doing here, whore?” he asked.

  “I got lost,” Kara said. “Pilo, Vook, and I were out looking for a new place to live. It was near the feather tree.” Harb at least would know the way to the docks. “Is Lowel here too?” She peered past him in the dawn light.

  “No,” Harb said. He smiled a dangerous, predatory smile. “We’re all alone.”

  “But you know the way home,” Kara said. If Lowel had been with him she would have felt relieved to see them, but with just Harb . . . “I can help carry the water.” She gestured to the two jugs he held in his hands.

  “I’m not going to the docks with this water,” Harb replied.

  “You said you’d stop visiting the clammers,” Kara said. “It’s dangerous.”

  “No,” Harb shouted. “You said I’d stop visiting the clammers. You said it was dangerous.” He dropped the jugs on the grass and took a step towards her. “I’m in charge, I say what happens, not some pathetic runaway from the backside of nowhere.”

  “At least I’ve seen some of the world,” she replied. “You’re a runaway from right here on Old Rillidi, you’ve only seen what’s here on this island.”

  Harb took two steps towards her. “I may not have seen much of the world but I know what to do with a whore.”

  Angry and frightened, Kara backed away from Harb and circled the fountain, keeping it between them. Harb was madder than she’d ever seen him. She couldn’t go to the docks even if she could find her way there. Harb wouldn’t leave her alone, not after this. She’d never feel safe—not to sleep, not to eat, not to do chores. But neither should Harb feel safe. In her pack she had half a dozen items that could be made into poison.

  “Stay away from me. You know I’m mage trained. I know a curse or two.”

  “You don’t have any magic,” Harb sneered. “That’s why you’re here.”

  “Mage Guild doesn’t just teach magic.”

  He hesitated, and she stepped backwards, increasing the distance between them. Slowly she reached into her pack. Her hand closed around the chunk of woody mushroom, and she crushed some of it in her fist before pulling her hand out.

  “Are you going to bet your life that I don’t have something that can hurt you?” Kara asked.

  Harb’s eyes narrowed, and he took two quick steps towards her. She flung the bits of mushroom—the wind caught them and blew them into his face. Harb sputtered and lurched to his knees, cursing.

  Kara ran as fast as she could, away from the fountain, away from the wall, away from Harb. Anywhere was safer than there. She risked a peek over her shoulder. Harb was only a few steps behind her.

  “I’ll kill you, whore!” he shouted.

  Kara shivered and kept running. It was not just a threat—Harb would kill her if he caught her.

  She ran past the overgrown symmetry of a formal garden and onto a rutted path lined with tall oaks. She rounded a bend in the road and stopped. A dilapidated manor house, one half drooping and crumpled, sat beside the curved road. Another fountain, bigger and more ornate than the one she’d just run from, was centered in front of the house. And on the ground, surrounding the fountain, filling up all of the drive between it and the house, light green mage mist writhed and twisted. Nervously she peeked behind her. Harb slowed to a trot, then to a walk, a tight smile on his face.

  “I’ve got you now,” he said. “It’s me or the mad mage.”

  “I’ll take the mad mage.” She took a few steps forward, toward the house. The mist parted for her. She turned to look behind—her path had already filled in.

  Harb scowled and stepped forward, one step, two steps, then he disappeared.

  There was a shout from off to her left, on the far side of the fountain. Harb was on his knees, on the lawn. Kara walked up to the fountain. A marble figure of Gyda tipped clear water from a ewer into the basin.

  With an oath, Harb charged directly into the mage mist. This time his yell was from further away. He shook a fist and shouted, but his words were lost to the wind. Finally he turned and stalked, back to the other fountain and his water jugs.

  Relieved and puzzled, Kara sat down on the lip of the fountain. The same thing that had happened to her at the feathered willow had just happened to Harb. They’d been . . . misdirected. By a spell? She’d let the mage mist envelop her, and then she’d been somewhere else.

  Mist swirled around her feet, but didn’t touch her. If she let it touch her, would it send her somewhere else? She didn’t dare try it. Right now she was safe from Harb—she should stay here until she was sure he wasn’t going to return.

  She had water at least. And Vook had said that Mage Guild left food for the mad mage. She glanced up to the front door of the manor house. It would probably be left inside. Was she willing to risk meeting the mad mage for something to eat?

  Kara studied the front of the house. Although mage mist filled the space between the fountain and the house and lapped at the walls, it thinned to nothing before it reached any of the windows.

  Despite the disrepair, the house was still impressive. A wide stone staircase led up to double doors that were twice her height. The wood of the doors was weathered to silver, but they were still solid Grey field stone soared above the entrance, and two rows of windows ran across the length of the entranceway. To the left and right, red-tiled roofs sloped over stone extensions that curved out along the drive. To the left, the far side of the house had been reduced to rubble and a section of the roof was missing, but the wing on the right side looked intact, right down to the white curtains that hung in each window.

  She settled her pack on her shoulders. The house was big—she should be able to steer clear of the mad mage. She’d stay to the ruined part of the house; surely he never went there.

  When she ascended the stone steps, mage mist twisted away from every footfall. She pushed one door, and silently it swung inward, revealing a cracked tile floor. She stepped in and closed the door, pausing to let her eyes adjust to the gloomy interior.

  The entrance hall was about twenty feet across. On each side there was a set of double doors, one opening to the left and one to the right. Directly opposite from where she stood was the bottom step of a grand marble staircase
ornate iron bannisters lined stairs that swept out and up in a curve.

  The doors of the ruined wing opened onto a long hallway. Tall windows that faced the curved drive cast rectangles of light that guided Kara down the marble-floored hall. She’d passed a few closed doors when, at the fifth window, a breeze teased her hair. Up ahead the wall had fallen inward, and rubble and stone blocks lay tumbled across the floor. She looked up. The roof was intact for a few more steps, but beyond that she could see the lightening sky.

  Kara opened the next door, the sixth along the corridor. Windows that lined the far wall let in just enough light to allow her to navigate around two tables and a long settee. She pulled aside a dusty curtain and peered out the grime-streaked window. Scrubby bushes partially blocked her view, but out beyond them was a stretch of overgrown lawn, and past that, she saw the waters of the bay. If she could get out to the rear of the house, she could follow the shoreline to the docks.

  Except for the damage to the house there was no sign of the mad mage. This destruction happened a long time ago. If the mad mage didn’t come in here anymore, could they stay here for a day or two? It had to be better than waiting for the clammers to arrive. She would look around a little more before getting the rest of them. Not Harb, though, she didn’t want Harb here. And Lowel would stay with Harb.

  Kara drew the curtains open on all the windows in the room and opened a few casements to air the room out. She dropped her pack on a wooden bench and sat down beside it. She pulled out her almost empty waterskin and took a small sip. She should have refilled it when she was at one of the fountains, but she’d been too distracted by Harb. She’d have to retrace her steps and fill her waterskin before she returned to the docks.

  She poked around the room, opening any drawers or cupboards she came across. There were a couple of spoons and a cloth that looked reasonably clean, but that was all.

  She finished searching the room and went back into the hall. She’d investigate a few more rooms before looking for a way out of the house and into the garden.

 

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