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One Land, One Duke
Night-Threads: Book Three
By Ru Emerson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Ru Emerson
All rights reserved.
There was fog this second day out of Bezjeriad; everything was damp, the air still, thick with the smells of salt, washed-up weed and small, very dead fish left by the last high tide. Enardi, who was familiar with spring fogs along the northern shores of the Sea of Rhadaz, suggested an early halt, so that the tent could be set up and the horses staked to a loose line before it became too dark to see anything. He had no arguments: His companions were one and all wet and chilled right to the bone.
An hour later, with the sun a mere haze of deep orange in thick gray, eight people huddled inside dark canvas walls over mugs of hot tea. "We can set a watch later, if you like," Enardi said finally. It was the first thing anyone had said in some time. "But I know this kind of night; there won't be any wind, the fog will double and with no stars or moon you can't see your thumb when it's rubbing at your nose. As still as it is, we'll hear any approach. But no one would be fool enough to attempt to ride through that, would they?" He gestured, a wave of his hand taking in the road, the rock-strewn land to both sides of it, the sea a half-mile of slope away, the fog that hid it all.
"You might be surprised," Jennifer said mildly. "We've some determined people after us just now; you'd do well to keep that in mind, since you've chosen to come with us." Enardi, his young face suddenly quite grave, nodded. "I tend to agree with you, though: We'll hear anyone trying to ride along the road long before we could possibly see them. Since we'll be able to hear just as well from inside the tent, I can't think why anyone should court pneumonia by walking around outside it."
"We'll hear anyone provided they come by horse," Robyn said. She shook her head. "I'm sorry I said that. God, I didn't need to think about that!"
"Well, don't then," Jennifer replied. "Think about what you're going to feed us instead, why don't you? But don't scare yourself conjuring up ugly scenes, either. If you're thinking about someone using magic to find us, well, think it through, Birdy, we can deal with that. We've done it enough times already, haven't we?" Robyn nodded rather reluctantly, but she looked considerably less unhappy as she drew the largest of the food bags across her shins and began rummaging inside. "I for one," Jennifer finished firmly, "am not going back outside until I thaw." She shivered down into her leather jacket. "And that may not be until tomorrow." She glanced over at Dahven, who sat cross-legged next to her, silently sipping his tea. He looked absolutely dreadful, damp hair plastered to his forehead, a drop of water formed on the end of his nose. She resisted the urge to remove the water drop and kept concerned remarks resolutely to herself; he wouldn't want to hear it, and he certainly didn't want anyone else to hear it, either. If he hadn't insisted on riding all day, she thought sourly. Getting angry wouldn't help, either; it only upset her stomach. Dahven could outargue her, anyway, and he was at least as stubborn as she.
She didn't agree with him, but she could understand his problem; he didn't want anyone finding out where he had really been this past month. Didn't want them knowing that he'd been chained to the oar of a Lasanachi merchant ship, mistreated and beaten, until circumstances and luck had come together in Bez and frightened his owners into releasing him. By purest chance, Edrith had located the desperately ill and injured man and with Jennifer's help they'd gotten him into hiding before his brothers' men could take him.
Once she would have dismissed his attitude as macho posturing, but that wasn't all of it. Why? she asked herself. Because you wouldn't ever fall for a macho posturer, or because you'd dump him if you found out that's what he was? Or because she could sense the same reaction somewhere deep in her own guts? I might do the same, if it were me. I'd want to bury it, pretend it never happened, just go on.
She still felt vaguely guilty, somehow responsible for his enslavement. I didn't want him to give us all his protective charms, even if I didn't have a reason for that. If he'd come with us—Instead, they'd left Sikkre heading south across rough country for Bezjeriad, while Dahven went home all unaware to find his father awaiting him—with Lasanachi slavebuyers, and a bag of coin. Robyn would probably say I'd had an Awful Warning that night. Good old Robyn, with her Tarots, Wicca, tea leaves, I Ching—anything to give her a grip on the future. Birdy had always been so certain she had a sixth sense. Jennifer knew darned well she wasn't prescient, and even with all she'd seen lately, she still didn't believe in Sight, or Awful Warnings. It had been the desperation of new love and pure selfishness. Well, don't be so hard on yourself, Cray, she told herself. After all, having a first schoolgirl crush at twenty-eight, and that after being torn from everything you'd struggled for in L.A., trading a law career for magic and two obnoxious young nobles—you did all right, girl. Hell, she might have burst into tears or fainted; she considered this, considered Dahven's reaction to either, and grinned briefly. Fortunately for both of them, she'd been very calm and collected about the whole thing.
But I always have been good at that: Take charge, stay cool when it's blowing up all around me. At least, the insanity of love at first sight hadn't been one-sided; that would have been truly awful. Dahven had been thrown as off-balance by it as she. Maybe moreso, she thought dryly. According to various comments by Aletto, Edrith—Dahven himself—the man hadn't been quite as intent on his career to the exclusion of the opposite sex as she had.
Well, he was with her now, and she couldn't feel selfish about bullying him into coming to Podhru. The promise she'd extracted from him had probably saved his life. The damned idiot actually had thought of going back to Sikkre, alone, to browbeat his brothers into giving him back his Duchy, and here he still couldn't sit a horse for more than a few hours! Is he really that dense, or is brother-love that strong? He has to know they have men out looking for him! Men looking for "the traitor Dahven" probably weren't tracking him down to make certain he was eating right and taking his vitamins, and somehow Jennifer didn't think the twins would simply step aside if Dahven got close enough to ask them. More likely, they'd kill him in hopes it would seem he'd murdered his father and vanished. If they didn't kill him, they'd hand him over to the Emperor, unless they planned an end for their elder brother that was more devious and twisted than anything she could work out. Having met them, she didn't doubt they could devise such an end.
Look at him. What they've done to him. All of them. She could feel the muscles in her jaw tightening; forced herself to leave it, to relax. But before it gave her a headache. It was a no-win situation, at least for her: It made her fighting mad but there was no one to fight, and she couldn't fight with Dahven. She closed her eyes and turned her head slightly away from him. He looked so ill.
Just now, Aletto didn't look much better. None of them looked very good, really. The stay in Bezjeriad had given them a chance to relax. But the good food, warm bathing water, clean clothing, a real roof and real beds—hard to remember it was anything but a dream: Reality was wood smoke, a little warm water from one of Robyn's pots, a cloth to dab into it, soup made with dried vegetables and herbs, biscuits burned on one side. Men pursuing them, and ill will on all sides. Only Enardi was untouched by anything but the adventure of it, but then he knew nothing of privation, fear or pain. The rest of them knew all three only too well.
Aletto sat with his lame leg out straight; the bad shoulder was higher than the other and he rested his head on one hand, the way he did to keep it from being obvious that his head would loll to that side anyway. He spoke seldom just now and only in monosyllables; the slurring was noticeable only to one who knew what to listen for. Nothing could be done, though, about the acnelike scars that marred an otherwise attractive face.
In his case, it was very possibly a literal case of macho that kept him pushing so hard. Jennifer wished at the moment she had one of those magazine articles her secretary had photocopied and set on her chair, though Jan had never had reason to think her boss would need anything on the effect of partial paralysis, lack of male bonding activities and sterility on a man's behavior. Good old Jan. Jennifer swallowed around a sudden lump in her throat. I hope they're taking good care of her, now that I'm gone.
Well, it wasn't really her business anyway—Aletto was Robyn's to deal with, if she married him and had to provide him with heirs. Their problem. All the same, it must contribute to what made Aletto tick.
It was too bad she hadn't paid attention to something else Jan had run by her, a while back, but then, who was to say that information about polio rehab would be useful here? She'd just have to rely on Robyn to slow Aletto down; difficult, since he'd discovered he actually could do things. Fortunately, he admitted now when he ached and wasn't so prickly about asking for help.
Of course, he couldn't be expected to show his weak side, considering all the years he and Lialla had lived with Jadek.
Lialla sat a little apart from the others, staring moodily at her feet. Jennifer considered asking her something—anything—to draw her out of it, then decided to leave it alone. Let Lialla work it out herself; Jennifer couldn't think of anything she could say that she hadn't already said, at some point or other. Lialla had worked so hard, so long, trying her damnedest to become a high-ranking Wielder—only a few days before, in Bez, she'd learned that Merrida had taught her everything wrong. Lialla had wanted a Silver or White sash as badly as Jennifer had wanted to make partner in three years. There didn't have to be a lot of logic on the side of that. And it was easy to say that in Lialla's place she'd be grateful to have the chance to undo the error and fix it; Lialla could only see the wasted years, all that time spent wading laboriously through skills that anyone with talent would have learned easily.
Leave it, she told herself. It is not your problem. Lialla has to learn how to manage these things on her own; she's a grown woman. Lialla wasn't talking about it, but that was her way of dealing with things—not dealing with them at all. Maddening. At least she'd stopped telling people she was going to give up Wielding entirely; apparently she and Aletto had had one of their shouting matches over that the first night out of Bez. It's a good thing I didn't hear her, after everything I've done to encourage her to think about it, to find other ways to work it, I think I'd have killed her. After all, the woman could—and did—use Thread during the day, she listened to it, she was willing to at least talk about the theory behind it. She no longer sounded like Merrida's parrot. She might actually have been starting to grow some backbone. She might yet, if I don't strangle her out of sheer frustration, Jennifer thought grimly.
She finished the now lukewarm tea. Awful stuff; Jennifer never had cared for any kind of tea, and the herbal ones were the absolute rock bottom. She would have to dig out her precious coffee beans, pot and roasting pan as soon as her feet thawed. Until she could actually feel all ten toes, she wasn't pulling them so much as an inch from Robyn's cookfire.
Chris looked fine, but then—other than right after his rescue from the Cholani nomads, he always did. I can't even remember what it feels like to be seventeen and totally resilient. A whole, what, eleven years later? At the moment, Jennifer thought she felt more like a hundred. Chris was off in a huddle under one of the blue-lights with Enardi and Edrith—Ernie and Eddie, as he called them. They owed Enardi to Chris—most of those eager young Bez traders on their way to Podhru were Aletto's because of Chris. He fascinated young Rhadazi, and small wonder: They had never seen anyone with hair spiky on top, falling behind his ears to his collar, blue jeans and high-tops. He walked with a spring that wasn't in their walk, and his style of dancing was both startling and astonishing. He wound the Rhadazi language into an amalgam of Los Angelese, mellow-speak, Val-slang, and—now that he had a better handle on it—something akin to rap. Jennifer had picked up a taste for reggae and rap both from Chris back in L.A. and thoroughly approved of it. Robyn made her laugh: The woman often as not sounded like a hippie in a time warp, and she hassled him constantly for murdering the language. Of course, Jennifer thought, you had to keep in mind that was how she and Chris showed love for each other.
She was glad Chris had made such good friends; he needed them, definitely needed people his own age to help him adjust to such a totally alien culture. Besides, Robyn was of necessity deeply involved in Aletto's well-being—above and beyond her affection for him. It left her son at something of a loose end. And this time, Robyn might well settle down for good and all with Aletto. Well, only look at what she'd gone through so far for him! Not only privation, which she had certainly known well enough between communes, food stamps and generally living at the bottom of the social ladder most of her adult life. But she'd also faced everything from loud arguments to physical danger, things Robyn had always done her best to avoid. She'd even dressed up in Bez to impress the sixty-year-old Zelharri merchants Robyn had called the nearest thing Rhadaz had to upper-middle-class Republicans, to help Aletto get financial backing. Boy, Jennifer thought irreverently, it must be love.
But Aletto must be genuinely fond of her: For a man who'd loathed shapeshifters all his life to accept such a thing in Robyn must have taken courage and love both.
* * *
Robyn was sitting cross-legged on one of the many carpets that lined the large tent—a gift from Enardi's father, together with the carpets, the three blue-lights that illuminated the interior, the pile of fat cushions stacked in one corner at the moment. She coughed, rubbed her nose on the back of her wrist and sniffed discreetly. The fire pit had been set right under the vent in the roof but the fog was so thick the smoke wasn't going even high enough to clear the top of the tent. It was giving her a headache, and the tea—a blend she'd got from Enardi's eldest sister Marseli, who ran a magic charm and herbalist's shop in central Bez—wasn't really helping, though it contained raspberry leaf and rosemary both. Nor was the mantra she'd chosen all those years ago, back in the commune where she'd had Chris.
Face it, she told herself gloomily. It didn't work that well back then, either. Some people have what it takes to meditate and get something out of it. You, on the other hand—Well, fortunately the commune hadn't gone macro at the time she gave birth to Chris. I'm damned lucky the kid didn't come out brain dead, all the weed I smoked during labor. Man, I cannot believe the stupid things I did back then. Obviously, God looks out for idiots and their kids. Smoke. Robyn ran a hand through her long, straight blonde hair and bit back a sigh. Over a month since that horrid old woman had dragged the three of them and Jen's shiny new Honda from the Devil's Punchbowl road and into this place. And me, with a two-plus pack a day habit. God, what a way to quit. She still had three cigarettes left, but no way to ever get more. She'd smoked the last two furtively, half at a time. And then put up with Chris's looks—Darned rotten kid, him and all the rest of them. I mean, there's things in the market that smell twenty times worse than a cigarette! Maybe it was guilt that took the pleasure from smoking them—all of them looking at her, her feeling somehow like a kid who got into grandpa's Camels to sneak out behind the barn. They tasted absolutely rotten. It was too much to hope for that she might be losing her taste for them; it was just too bad she wasn't losing the need as quickly. God. They were something to do with my hands, something to fiddle with or drag on while I thought about what I was going to say—something that went with, oh, Jesus, don't think about a good bottle of California burgundy, either.
Excerpted from One Land, One Duke by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1992 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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