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In the early summer afternoon, Quaeryt paced back and forth across the narrow stone stoop outside the main entrance to the hold house at Nordruil, occasionally blotting the sweat off his forehead, and glancing up at the worn and graying limestone walls and the single square tower that was likely centuries old. The grounds had received indifferent care, and it was clear that the hold house had been cleaned quickly and received new linens just before he had arrived, along with a few rankers and others to assist the hold staff.
Just for Vaelora and me? That was only one of the things that worried Quaeryt about what Bhayar had in mind.
Quaeryt had been waiting for Vaelora for well over a week. He had mostly recovered from the efforts that had changed the battle over Ferravyl from what would have likely been a bloody standoff into an overwhelming victory for Lord Bhayar and Telaryn—but at the uncounted cost of revealing to Bhayar the scope of his imaging abilities … and the other cost he had not even imagined. He shook his head, not wanting to think about it, or about the icy dreams, along with the bruises and strained muscles, that had kept him from sleeping on several nights.
Before all that long, he’d be recalled to duty on the forthcoming campaign into Bovaria … and yet Bhayar had insisted that Quaeryt recover at one of Bhayar’s less imposing estates and wait for the arrival of Vaelora.
Is that to keep me away from the commanders and the imagers? Why? So he and Myskyl or Deucalon can see if they can do without me? Somehow, Quaeryt had strong doubts that Bhayar’s protestations of concern about him were the only reasons why he had been recuperating in the comparative luxury available at Nordruil, even awaiting Vaelora. Especially since he likely would only be able to spend a few days with her.
He paced back across the stones once again. A courier had galloped up less than a glass before, saying that his wife was some three milles away. Since then, every moment of that Mardi afternoon had felt like a quint, every quint like a glass. He’d even asked the kitchen staff to have a light afternoon meal ready; not that he felt like eating, but she might well after the long ride.
What is taking her so long? He glanced toward the long winding drive once again, then stopped as he saw riders. He forced himself to stand still and wait while they rode up the narrow worn and graveled way. When they were more than a hundred yards away, he could see Vaelora, with Captain Eleryt riding beside her, and a full company following them.
Once more, he was amazed at the grace with which she rode and what a striking figure she was in the saddle. But then, you’ve always found her so.
Their eyes held each other’s as soon as she turned her mount around the overgrown garden that the approach drive circled, although neither spoke as she rode toward him and then reined up.
“My thanks to you, Captain.” Quaeryt inclined his head to Eleryt, then stepped down to the mounting block.
“My pleasure, sir.”
Quaeryt was already looking into Vaelora’s light brown eyes, even before she dismounted and stepped into his arms. For several moments he just held her before murmuring, in Bovarian, as they did when alone, “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” Her arms tightened about him.
“I worried about you.”
“Worried about me? When I heard you’d been injured…” Vaelora eased back. “I didn’t hurt you?”
“It wasn’t that kind of injury. I got caught in the ice storm.” He lowered his voice. “I’ll explain later.”
“You’d better,” she whispered as her arms went around him again, if but for a long moment before she stepped back. “It’s been a long ride, and I was so worried.”
“Would you like something to eat?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, dearest.” Her smile was impish. “If it doesn’t take too long to prepare…”
“Those should have been my words,” he replied with a soft laugh.
“I said them for you … but I am hungry.”
“I thought you might be. I asked the kitchen to have a light meal ready.” Quaeryt turned to Eleryt, who remained waiting. “I do apologize, Captain, for my preoccupation. There are refreshments for you and your men and quarters as well. Lord Bhayar has requested that you remain here until further notice. I trust that will not inconvenience you and them.”
Eleryt smiled. “Sir … that is not a problem.”
Quaeryt understood that, since Eleryt’s company would have better quarters and fare. “We will talk later.”
As two of the rankers assigned to Nordruil hurried out to unload Vaelora’s gear, Quaeryt took his wife’s arm and led her through an ancient square arch into the hold house, guiding her toward the shaded rear terrace beside the fountains, far cooler than any chamber inside.
“I’ve never been here before,” said Vaelora, her eyes taking in the stone walls of the main corridor as they passed through the receiving hall.
“Until last week, I don’t think Bhayar had been, either,” replied Quaeryt. The thought that Bhayar had so many properties that he’d never even visited one as large as Nordruil—and that Bhayar thought it small—still amazed Quaeryt, although he understood how that could be as they walked past the matching parlors, and then the main dining hall and the grand salon, and finally into the study, with its single wall of books, and out through the double doors and onto the terrace, where a table for two awaited them.
“What would you like to drink?” asked Quaeryt after he seated her.
“A pale or amber lager, please.” Vaelora looked to the serving woman.
“Two, please,” added Quaeryt.
The one serving woman eased away, and another placed melon slices before each of them, graced on the side with lime wedges. The first returned with two beakers of a pale golden lager.
“Thank you,” said Quaeryt quietly.
Vaelora immediately took a lime wedge and squeezed it over the melon, then began to devour the melon—if gracefully, Quaeryt noted.
He ate his own melon not quite so quickly, but asked as he finished, “How was your journey?”
“I can’t believe I ate that so quickly.” Vaelora blotted her lips with the pale cream linen napkin. “The ride was long and hard. I’m a bit sore in places. I was so worried about you. Yet I had the feeling that you would be all right. Then I worried I was deceiving myself.”
“I worried about you…”
“You need to worry about yourself, dearest.”
“I usually don’t have time for that, and when I do, it doesn’t matter, and I worry about you.”
“Keep saying things like that.” Vaelora took a sip of the lager. “This isn’t bad.”
“For the south, you mean?” Quaeryt grinned.
Vaelora returned the expression.
In the momentary silence he could hear the raucous call of a bird, most likely a redjay, coming from the gardens to beyond the lawn behind the terrace.
The first serving woman removed the melon platters, and the second replaced them with strips of chilled seasoned fowl, accompanied by sliced early peaches drizzled with thick cream.
Quaeryt was surprised to find that he was actually hungry, and neither of them spoke for a time.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” asked Vaelora. After a moment she went on. “Bhayar met me in Ferravyl. He told me about the ice storm, and how the imagers exploded the Bovarian barges.”
Quaeryt couldn’t help but frown.
“Dearest … he is my brother, and we spoke for less than a glass. He was very earnest in not wanting to delay my reaching you.”
“I’m certain he was earnest about that.”
“We can talk about him later. I want to know about you.”
Quaeryt glanced to the side of the terrace where the two servers stood, then back to Vaelora.
She nodded in understanding. “Just what happened, although they may not speak Bovarian that well.”
“The ice came down in sheets. Most of it covered the Bovarians. Bhayar said that we lost almost a battalion. They lost close to eight regiments. It was truly awful.” He paused. “Yet … we were so evenly matched that … without the storm … we both might have lost even more.” He shook his head.
“What about you? When I heard … That was why I rode from first light into the night every day.”
“I was caught close to the ice. They told me I didn’t wake for three days, and they weren’t sure I would. They piled quilts over me…” He shook his head wryly. “I finally woke up sweating.”
“You did too much.”
“Anything less wouldn’t have worked.” His eyes again flicked toward the serving women.
“You can tell me more … later.” Vaelora took a last swallow from her beaker. As she set it down, her eyes met his again.
“Would you mind … dearest … if I bathed?”
“Of course not.”
“You could … keep me company…” Her smile and eyes were more than inviting as she glanced to the upper levels of the hold house and then back to Quaeryt.
As he rose and guided her from her chair, Quaeryt doubted he would recall what he ate.
* * *
Later—much later, in the orangish glow of twilight—Vaelora sat up in the ancient goldenwood bed. “You’re looking at me as if you’ve never seen me this way before.”
I haven’t … not exactly like this … not understanding what I might have lost. “I told you. I missed you. There were times when I didn’t know if I’d see you again.”
“You got my letters?”
“I got the note you left in my saddlebag, and the one you wrote about the warm rain … that was what made it all possible. I don’t know that I would have thought it out without your letter.”
“I’m glad. I think you would have, but I wanted to make sure … or try to.” After a moment she went on. “I told you that Bhayar did not wish to delay my reaching you. After seeing your bruises and … everything … I can see why.” She reached out and let her fingers run down the side of his face, along his jawline, before leaning forward and kissing him. Then she straightened, slightly disentangling herself from his arms. “I’m not going anywhere. Nor are you. Not in the next few days, anyway.”
Quaeryt couldn’t help but frown. “He told you that?”
“He told me more than that. He was proud of what you did. He won’t tell you.” She paused. “How did you do it?”
“I told you—”
“Dearest … it had to be more than warm rain, did it not?”
“It was mostly warm rain…” He paused, yet … who else could he tell? “Imaging takes heat … or something like it. Everyone thinks that the rain froze the Bovarians.” He shook his head slowly. “I’m not certain, but I think the imaging froze them first, and the ice rain coated them afterward.”
“The imaging … it sucked the warmth out of them?”
He nodded. “I fear so.”
“Have you told Bhayar?”
“I’ve told no one but you.”
“Good. Never tell anyone else.”
“I dare not tell Bhayar. Not the way he is playing us both.”
“Of course he is. What else would you expect? You’ve proved to be a great weapon, and you love me, and I love you. He’ll use both of us to become the ruler of all Lydar … or destroy us all in trying.”
Quaeryt was still astounded at the matter-of-fact way in which she regarded her brother and how she could balance sisterly affection with cold calculation in assessing Bhayar. Then again, it could just be that women are better at that than men. Quaeryt didn’t know. He only knew that Vaelora was adept at seeing the undercurrents between people, but he’d never really known another woman, except in a casual sense, and he’d never talked as honestly to anyone as he did to her. “I don’t see destroying him, first or later, as a good idea, either.”
“No, someone has to unite Lydar, and we’ll all be better off under him … especially with you at his side.”
“That’s not exactly a foregone conclusion,” Quaeryt pointed out.
“It’s anything but,” Vaelora replied, “except the alternatives would be less happy for both of us.”
Quaeryt nodded slowly. History indicated that the relatives of unsuccessful conquerors seldom survived, and an imager who served such a ruler certainly wouldn’t—unless they fled in obscurity, and that wasn’t a path Quaeryt wanted to take … and doubted Vaelora did, either.
He laughed, not quite bitterly. “That appears to be settled.”
“There’s another complication, dearest.” Vaelora smiled.
“It’s early … but women in our family know almost immediately.”
Women in your family? Quaeryt swallowed. “You’re not…”
She nodded. “I feel that she’ll be a girl.”
“Does Bhayar know?”
“No. And he won’t, not until long after you and he leave Ferravyl.”
Quaeryt didn’t know what to say.
“I … decided … on those last days in Tresrives. I knew you’d be safe. But … I still couldn’t let you go … not without … I just couldn’t.” Her eyes were bright.
Quaeryt leaned forward and folded his arms around her. “I love you. I love you both…” He could feel his own eyes tearing up.
Copyright © 2013 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.