The knock on Balthasar's door came as the bell tolled sunrise. For Imogene's Darkborn, it was the hour of criminals and suicides, the hour of violence or desperation. In this civilized city of Minhorne, the ancient law of succor was half forgotten, and many might not have opened the door to an unknown's knock at the brink of dawn.
Balthasar Hearne was not one of those; he hurried to the door and pulled it open, heavy as it was. On the step stood a lone woman muffled in a heavy traveling cloak. He sonned no carriage at her back, no living movement within his range except two cats and a small indistinct fluttering of birds. This close to sunrise the street was quite deserted. "For mercy's sake, "the woman begged breathlessly, "let me in."
He could already feel the sting of imminent daylight on his skin. He stepped back and she stumbled heavily over the threshold, pulling away from his steadying hand and fetching up against the little hall table. "Oh, sweet Imogene." She panted, leaning hard on it with both hands. "I thought I would never reach here in time. I thought I must surely burn."
He shut and locked the door against the day. There was nothing else to do. Left outside, she would burn to ash in an instant at sunrise, as would he. That was the Darkborn's legacy of Archmage Imogene's Curse.
Her heavy cloak had snagged and was dragging one of the ornaments on the table, and Bal reached out and freed it before it fell. It was one of his wife's favorites, a horse with its foal pressed to its flank. He held it cradled in his hands as the woman straightened with an effort and turned to face him. He felt her sonn sweep over him, shaping him for her perception: a plain, slender man a little below average height, decently but not fashionably dressed. Certainly not as befitted the husband of a duke's daughter, if she knew whom she faced. He returned the sonn, delicately, as one must, to respect the modesty of a lady. Her small face was puffy above the fur trimming of her cloak. Her little gloved hand reinforced the clasp. She was still breathing hard. Like most women of the aristocracy, she was unfit for walking any distance, though she seemed unusually distressed. He wondered what had brought her here unaccompanied. It augured not well, for either of them. Her reputation would suffer, and his marriage, if gossip placed them together through the day.
The bell fell silent. In a few minutes, the sun would rise. They were trapped here, together, until nightfall. In the meantime his manners reasserted themselves. "The sitting room is in here." He gestured her toward it.
She did not move. "Don't you remember me, Balthasar?" she said in a clear, sweet voice. "Am I really so much changed?"
He sonned her again, but the voice had already told him, that musical inflection. "Tercelle Amberley," he said flatly.
"Yes," she said, smiling. "Tercelle Amberley. It has been a very long time."
The echoes of his sonn faded, leaving him in the grainy haze of all the reflections of random vibrations around them. He was ashamed of himself for feeling as he did. It was not her fault that he had tried ten years or more to forget his brother and everyone associated with him.
She directed her next splash of sonn at the hallway, a lady gracefully sidestepping awkwardness. "Your home has not changed at all," she said. "Yet you married well."
"My wife and I have a family home elsewhere," he said, trying not to sound curt. His domestic arrangements were none of her business.
She heard the curtness; he heard her take a heavy step forward. "Balthasar ... Balthasar, I would not have imposed on you were I not in desperate need. I truly believe you are the only one who can help me."
The last he had heard of Tercelle Amberley was the announcement of her betrothal a year ago to Ferdenzil Mycene, heir to one of the four major dukedoms, and the hero in the campaign to subdue piracy in the Scallon Isles. Quite a coup for the daughter of a family that had scrambled their way into the nobility a scant three generations ago. The Amberleys had major interests in armaments and shipbuilding, which would attract the heir to the most expansionist of the four major dukedoms even more than the lady's sweet face and social polish. The betrothal, Bal's contemporaries said, was one of the many signs that boded ill for the independence of the Scallon Isles. Bal could hardly imagine how Tercelle would come to need to throw herself on the mercy of an obscure physician-scholar, even one married to the archduke's cousin. Or rather, he could hardly imagine any good reason for her to do so.
Years of training in courtesy prevailed. "Please"—he extended his arm toward the receiving room— "do sit down."
She paused on the threshold, and in the reflections of her sonn he perceived the salon's shabbiness, the best room in a house of impoverished minor nobility. He had another home, true, a fine home to suit the lady he had married, and even though it had been bought and paid for with her inheritance, not his, when she was there, he felt it home. When she was not, when she and the children went to one of her family's estates, he returned here. And no, this house had not changed; if anything, it had become shabbier than when Tercelle knew it. She had made no secret of her disdain then, during her long flirtation with his brother. Bal wondered if Lysander had known how little chance his suit had had, even then. He wondered what he knew now.
She walked into the center of the room and turned with some small effort of balance. "Have you ever heard from Lysander?"
"No," Balthasar said, suppressing his slight disturbance at having his thoughts echoed so deftly: Of course she would be thinking of Lysander, facing his brother. She was no mage.
She sonned him, a delicate lick of vibration." Are you still angry with him?"
"Leaving," Balthasar said, "was the best thing he could have done. For us, his family, and for you."
"How harsh," she said in her breathless lilt. "I never thought you would become so unforgiving a man. You were always so gentle. And you adored Lysander, as I did."
True, he had, once. "Please, Tercelle, why have you come?"
There was a silence, and then a rustle of movement. "I need your help." His sonn caught her as she shrugged the unhooked cloak from her shoulders and let it slide to the ground.
Somehow he was not entirely surprised to know that she was pregnant, though he was disconcerted by how large and low she was carrying. She must be very near her time.
But her fiancé had been gone over a year, harrying the Scallon pirates and conducting diplomatic forays into the neighboring island kingdoms to advance the dukedom of Mycene's claim on the isles, their territory, and their exports of exotic fruit and spices.
"The child is not your intended's," he said, keeping all tone from his voice.
She scowled that he should say it. She reached back and lowered herself awkwardly into a chair he had not offered. "If he learns of this child, the best that will happen is that he and his family will repudiate me. The worst is that he would kill me." She shifted her belly on her lap with a grimace. "I'd rather be dead than cast aside."
"How is it," Balthasar said, "that no one has told him?"
"When I knew I was with child I sought to lose it. I tried all the means I could discover. I even contrived a fall from a horse." He was silent, remembering the aching devastation of Telmaine's one miscarriage. He and Telmaine had walked around the house like souls in purgatory. "It didn't work. But I had the excuse to go away, to live as an invalid until my time came."
She pressed a fist against her abdomen, grimacing. "I ... lay with him but four times. It was the last ..." She could have given him the date, the hour, he knew. He felt compassion for her in her fond folly, despite his dislike of her and the danger in the situation for himself. Ferdenzil would surely believe she had sought the aid of her lover.
"He would tap on the door to give me warning, and then I would tap back and go into the next room and wait, and he would come in ... Sometimes I wanted to lock the door; once I did and then I unlocked it again ... I could not do otherwise. And it was in the day he came, always in the day."
Bal frowned. Ballads and broadsheets told of Lightborn demon lovers, crossing the sunset to seduce Darkborn girls. The stories were absurd, since the Lightborn could no more abide the darkness than the Darkborn the light; such was the nature of Imogene's Curse. Part of his irregular physician's practice was treating people, usually young women, with a dangerous obsession with the Light: Lightsickness, it was called, a delusion that could end in an impulsive, fatal stepping into sunlight. He wondered why Tercelle would tell him a story they both knew was impossible.
She heard the skepticism in his silence. "He came from the Light, I tell you," she cried out. Sonn showed her pulling herself forward in the chair. "That's why I came to you. You have friends among the Lightborn. You can take the child, whatever it is. And if it cannot go back to the Light, then there are places when yet another bastard will hardly pass notice, places you know."
Ah, there was that, if he set all the rest of it aside. The demimonde, the Rivermarch, where fallen women, mages, and criminals gathered to ply their disgraceful trades. The rejected of society gathered there. He had worked at a demimondaine clinic as a student, and still did when Telmaine's aristocratic family left him, and her, in peace—and the physician in him did not like the appearance of Tercelle. He wondered how far she had come on foot. Coach drivers insisted on being under cover before the sunrise bell began to toll. He stood up. "Tercelle, the rest of it can wait. You are here now, and you have had a hard walk for a lady in your condition. You should rest now."
Lady Anarysinde Stott perched on her sister's bed to observe the last of her toilette. "Why must you wear those long gloves, Tellie? They're so unfashionable."
Telmaine Hearne smoothed the silk of her gloves, which reached almost to her shoulders, and groped on her dressing table for a buttonhook. She could not imagine how she could have brought so many bottles and baubles for four days' stay, even one at the archducal summer palace, even for an occasion when everyone who counted in society would be attending. Two months away from her frugal, tidy Balthasar had produced a sad backsliding.
"Bal says that what becomes a beautiful woman is always in fashion," she told Anarys, retrieving the hook at last. She used it to fasten the last of the pearl buttons and settled the full sleeves over the cuffs of the gloves, ran her fingertips along the lace of the neck, higher than fashion now permitted. She turned to her sister, shaking out and spreading her full skirts. The gown was new, expensive—dear Bal would never know how expensive!—and in the splendid height of fashion. "What do you think?"
Her sister's sonn pinged off her. "You're beautiful, and you always will be." Anarys sighed.
Telmaine rustled over to kiss her lightly on the cheek. She remembered being sixteen, the sheer interminableness of the year before she was presented to society, before she could veil her head as a grown woman, before she could be courted—and poor Anarys seemed to be a late bloomer, still flat chested and growing out of her clothes. The gown that so became Telmaine would have hung on her like a sack.
"Give yourself time, my dear. It will come."
She straightened up with the certainty that Anarys planned to creep downstairs later, before the sunrise-bell, when wits were beginning to blur with fatigue and wine, and when the sonn of matrons and chaperones was wearied. She suppressed a sigh, balancing duty against discretion. "You be careful, Any-any," she said, tilting up her sister's chin with her gloved finger. "Have your fun, but remember that reputations are very easy to lose, and very hard to regain, and not all young men can be trusted."
Anarys sulked. "How do you know these things? You weren't perfect, either. You met Balthasar in secret."
"I was lucky," she said. After all, it was luck that Bal's friends had chosen that particular summer night to scramble over the garden wall of her family's city home and join, uninvited, the masquerade held for her seventeenth birthday. "I was lucky that he really is as special as I thought he was when I met him."
Her sister tucked her knees up beneath her, kneeling in a billow of skirts. "Did he really come to your party dressed as a Lightborn?"
"Oh, yes." Remembering that extraordinary figure by the bookshelf, a slight young man in a densely embroidered tunic and woven hose that, but for the length of the tunic, would have been indecent; odd, narrow, ornate shoes; and a huge, wonderfully absurd hat with a bedraggled plume. "I couldn't decide whether he was lurking by the bookcase because he knew how out of place he seemed, or because he was shy. Of course, now I know the attraction was the books."
"And you asked him to dance." Anarys sighed.
"Yes," said Telmaine a little wryly. Her mother and aunts had garrisoned her with a veritable regiment of suitable suitors. Of these, a couple frightened her; some merely bored her; the rest did and would stifle her. So when the musicians started to play the first of the traditional three ladies'-choice dances, she had bolted to the oddity standing by the bookshelves.
"I scared the life out of him, too," she said, smiling.
When he took her hand uncertainly in his to guide it to his shoulder, according to the new—shocking, to her mama—style, his hand was trembling. She had smiled reassuringly at him and placed his hand, quite deliberately letting it brush the bare skin of her shoulder. He started to apologize, and then she pulled him onto the dance floor, understanding for the first time the girls who flaunted their young men like prizes won. She had touched the sweetest, brightest mind she had ever sensed, and she had found the man she would marry, whether he was duke, servant, musician, or mage.
Anarys sighed again.
"Just you be careful," Telmaine said. "Remember the things I've told you about. They don't just happen in the demimonde. They happen among people like us."
Anarys pouted. "Mama would swoon if she knew what you'd told me."
"Mama," Telmaine said, "is a dear woman, and very sheltered. She cannot tell real dangers from minor social inconveniences." She felt a little guilty saying that; her mother did not have her insight into men's intentions. "I've told you things I think every young girl should know."
"They're not nice."
Telmaine settled her veil on her head, securing it with pins and folding it carefully back from her ears, as today's liberal custom allowed. Bal would not have it any other way. "It is the way things are."
There was a crisp rap on the door, and their elder sister bustled in without waiting for permission. Merivan was a tall, perpetually discontented woman of thirty-one who sought an outlet for her abundant energies in childbearing; after six children, she was again with child, though not yet so conspicuously as to have to retire from society.
"Good evening, Merivan," Telmaine said pleasantly. "I trust your digestion has settled?"
Merivan raised a hand. Telmaine braced herself for one of Merivan's pat-slaps, but all her sister did was reach up and tug Telmaine's veil forward. "You sonn like a demimondaine in that dress," Merivan said sharply, while Telmaine sensed her usual mixture of envy and censoriousness through the brush of fingertips. "And your conversation is vulgar."
"I am twice a mother myself, Merivan," Telmaine said peaceably. "I know the way of it."
"And these absurd gloves of yours. Really, Telmaine, if your husband is so expert with disorders of thought, why can he not do something about your phobia about diseases?"
Telmaine's teeth set, but she kept her tone light. "Because it troubles neither myself nor him if I wear unfashionable gloves, and our family has always enjoyed excellent health, perhaps because I am so careful."
"I cannot understand how you can tolerate him working in that clinic. Surely he's in contact with all kinds of disease."
She suffered Merivan to take her arm and steer her from the room, where her sister promptly revealed her real intent. "What have you been saying to Anarys? Some of the things her maid overheard, I scarcely credit."
"She needs to know these things. There are men even in society who will take advantage of innocent girls."
"Oh, Telmaine. You have gone coarse. This is precisely what we feared would happen when you married that—"
Telmaine jerked her arm away. Merivan could say whatever she pleased about Telmaine, but she would not criticize Bal. "I am going to say good night to my little ones."
"You spoil them," Merivan complained. "You should have more; then you would not cling—" She stopped, stifled a burp, and pressed her hand to her stomach.
Telmaine pitied her. Merivan had a fine mind; she could argue Balthasar to a standstill on the need for social rules, conventions, the stifling of individual urges for the common good. As Balthasar said, she had sacrificed herself to her ideals, denied herself any intellectual outlet but marriage, childbearing, and the cultivation of her children's minds and morals. She did not cling to her offspring; she marshaled them like a diminutive army in training.
"Meri," she said mildly but firmly. "Bal and I will raise our children in our own way."
When she entered the nursery, her daughters scrambled away from the muddle of little ones in the ornate playhouse and scampered to her. Six-year-old Florilinde chattered in one ear about the horseless carriages that some of the guests had arrived in—she was fascinated by all things mechanical—and five-year-old Amerdale babbled in the other ear about the birds in the aviary. Telmaine kept one arm loosely around each supple, squirming child while they clutched at her with their little hands, and with each touch on skin, their thoughts ran like clear streams through her mind. Amerdale's were like Balthasar's, open, endlessly curious. Florilinde's were muddied by traces of jealousy, like puffs of mud cast up from the river bottom.
The only time Telmaine had said to her nurse that she knew what people were thinking when she touched them, she had been reduced to tears by the woman's dismay, horror, and fear. Those had made a far more indelible impression on her than Nurse's shocked, "Please, Lady Telmaine, don't ever say something like that. It's not proper. It's ... magic." Magic, she had understood even at Amerdale's age, was wicked. Magic was what had happened eight hundred years ago, when the Darkborn were made unable to live in sunlight. Magic was what happened in the part of the city where girls like her did not go. Magic was what the Lightborn did on the other side of sunrise. Later, from an ill-punched pamphlet of her brother's called "Profane and Ekstatic Magiks"—which she had no business reading or he having—she had learned what she was: a touch-reader, as even the least powerful mageborn were, and learned what men thought a touch-reader could do. And later than that, she had realized that most men thought any woman should be a touch-reader, able to know and satisfy their every whim before they uttered it.
That had embittered her, once. Now it only saddened her. No wonder men held it as an ideal—women too, in their way. They were all so locked up in the prisons of their own thoughts, doomed never to know one another's truths. And at the same time, they were terrified of having their secrets known and revealed, so terrified that magic must be denigrated, denounced, enclosed within the demimonde. Above all, it must never, ever enter the receiving rooms and dance halls of society. Even at five years old, she had understood that no one must know about her.