Illustrated by Linda Laaksonen and Tricia Danby
The Great Square in Cappor was laid out when the New City was planned by the Panthron Fanuiloth the Great two hundred years ago, with agreeable flower beds and plane trees in neat, shady rows. Stylish avenues radiate in all directions from the Square into the desirable quarters of the nobles and merchants and wizards. The Panthron’s new palace was built on the edge of the old town. Its front faces the tasteful elegance of the great square. The back, though, has a very different feel: it looks towards the teeming dwellings of the old city.
The front is where the citizens gather to watch the mighty come and go. It’s where nursemaids bring the brats of the rich or noble in their perambulators for an airing. There they can flirt with the vendors of trinkets, food, drugs, or love potions; there they can listen to singers, harpists, fiddlers, and story-tellers reading extracts from the latest salacious novels; there the gullible among them may consult soothsayers and hedgerow wizards, dzigan fortune tellers, and Yarsfelder wisewomen.
The front and back of the palace are both excellent venues to pick pockets and cut purses. The front is better if you’re hungry and want to lift a sausage, or slip a pouch of dakh into your pocket; the back if you want to fleece a peasant bringing her geese to the city to be sold. On the whole, I preferred the Great Square. When I wasn’t working, I could sit and watch the passers-by, pretend that I wasn’t a pickpocket with nowhere to live and no future, and imagine a settled life as a baker or cutler or major-domo, with one of the nursemaids smiling at me from the fireside when I came home. But of course nursemaids have dreams and ambitions, too, and pickpockets don’t feature in them.
I was lounging in the late-spring sun on one of the chairs you can hire for an hour for a dolve-denar (not that I ever paid) when I saw the back of a rich young noble. From a distance, he seemed the perfect mark. His attention was focussed on the conversation he was having with a friend, and a fat purse dangled from his right hip. I wondered for a moment or two what it would be like to live this man’s life, to be rich and comfortable — warm even in winter, to wear beautiful clothes and idle my life away. Once … I pushed the thought away, angrily. What use were regrets?
I was hungry. I didn’t feel like sleeping with the pastry cook, old and unattractive, to earn a meat pie for my supper. I wasn’t quite hungry enough for that, yet.
I looked around carefully to see if I was being watched. The noble appeared to have no guards. I felt a momentary prickle of unease and looked again, but there was no one obviously connected to him. Whistling softly to myself, I sauntered away from the row of chairs, making a rude gesture at the chair attendant who had just noticed me, and slipped up behind the young noble in his finery. But as I reached for the purse the noble’s bravo grabbed me.
“You piece of demon’s shit! You’ll swing for this.”
Like a cat, I twisted out of my captor’s hands and fled, bare feet light as leaves on the cobbles. I ducked around the plinth of the statue of the great king, and crouched down panting.
From one side of the plinth the bravo stepped out, his sword at the ready. The noble emerged from the other side, a poniard in his hand, looking every inch a ruthless fighter. I saw his face for the first time, and sucked my breath in sharply. A rich young noble — his chin proclaiming his superiority, his sculpted cheekbones accentuating his beauty, his understated clothing making clear his wealth. His silk pantaloons and tunic, muted by the standards of most young aristocrats, were dazzling compared to what I was used to. His cobalt eyes reflected the light of a late afternoon sky, his hair so raven black it had blue glints in it. His eyes narrowed as he stared at me. I could see the pulse beating on his forehead.
I ignored the bravo. It was the noble whom I had to persuade not to call the Watch. If he did, I would be hanging from a gibbet outside the Great Temple of Mara the next morning. I racked my brains for words to save my life, and found none. I looked up and met the noble’s eyes. He gasped, as people do when they first see me. But he recovered quickly, to do him credit. Many do not. They comment loudly to their friends as if I were deaf as well as scarred, or quiz me in an ill-mannered way.
Shining blue skewered me. I was suspended, unable to speak. The noble’s eyebrows angled sharply, but his eyes continued to bore into mine. I felt that my soul was being examined, and found wanting. Opening my mouth to speak, I shut it again and waited.
“You have a name, boy?”
“I’m not a boy,” said I, lifting my chin. How stupid of me! Why hadn’t I just been silent and humble? Too proud to be silent, too proud to plead for my life. Fool. Always such a fool!
“Ah, sirra, I do most humbly apologise.” The nobleman swept me an ironic bow, but I noticed with despair that the blue eyes never left me. I dropped my own eyes, unable to meet his gaze.
I waited for the inevitable. I was no stranger to Death, Who comes to all eventually. My mother had died when I was sixteen. I had seen other denizens of the street vanish as if they had never been; I knew that when they disappeared it was unlikely that it was into some rich home, with silk hangings and three meals a day. There were always stories about some pickpocket who found love among the rich. I knew that they were just myths. The opposite is more likely — a fall into poverty and hunger. And then there are the tales of slavers from Luus, or flesh-eating cannibals, or worse even than these: necromancers who tortured for pleasure and power.
I looked up again into the penetrating blue.
“If you wish to have me killed, my lord, do so. Do not mock me.” I doubt my bravado fooled him.
The bravo clouted me hard. “Keep a civil tongue in your head, chicken-wits.”
“Fuck off, wobble guts.”
The bravo hit me again, harder.
“Enough, Vyod.” The tone was bored.
I began to suspect that the nobleman wasn’t sparing me out of pity. I looked into the man’s eyes and noticed, inconsequentially, that there were differently coloured flecks spread through the blue — turquoise, mauve, indigo, grey. For a moment I felt dizzy. Time slipped out of the groove ordained by the Weavers, and I was taken back, back to another place, to eyes just like this. No. I will not think on it, I told myself, swallowing to keep the tears from showing. I will not.
“Perhaps I’d like to make you pay, first.” The noble looked away, thinking. I saw his mouth move and his eyes close before he turned the full blaze of his inspection back onto me.
I was silent. I felt sick. He was a cat playing with a mouse. I wondered what would be done to me before I was killed. Something of what I thought must have shown in my face.
The man’s mouth curled in disdain, and his expression softened fractionally. “Those are not my tastes.” He looked as offended as if he was sure I knew that.
“Then do it now. Get it over with.” My voice trembled a little despite my best endeavours.
“No.” The refusal was flat, cool, indifferent. “I have another use for you. Come with me.”
With the bravo’s hand on my collar, and the noble next to me, dagger still drawn, I was led in mortifying parade across the Square, past the maids and their charges, past other pickpockets and cutpurses, past all the bustling activity of an open space in a great city. The walk seemed to last forever. I kept my eyes on the ground, shame making me colour, anxiety making my heart pound.
The noble produced a key to a stout oaken gate in a stone wall and unlocked it. Within was a small courtyard, facing north to catch winter sun, but shaded by vines now greening to provide shelter from summer heat. Near one wall was a small pond with a tinkling fountain. The far side of the courtyard was edged by a four-storey town mansion of pale sandstone. The cool, elegant interior could be seen through floor-to-ceiling windows opened onto the courtyard.
The nobleman negligently seated himself on the stone bench where silken cushions in brilliant Elvish colours had been arranged. I remained standing and glared defiantly. My knife was still in the sheath at my waist. Whatever the man wanted to do to me would be dearly bought.
As if intercepting my thought, the nobleman gestured languidly in Vyod’s direction. “Check him for weapons.”
The bravo still had my collar in his meaty hands. I looked desperately around me for an escape route. I felt Vyod tighten his grip while he removed my knife-belt. His hands moved over me impersonally as he searched.
“Look at me,” said the nobleman. His voice carried the overtones of one accustomed to obedience.
Very reluctantly, I raised my face until my gaze met his. Once again, I was struck by the beauty of the man’s eyes, of his face, of the perfect contrast between the gleaming raven hair, the pale skin and the piercing blue. It was no soft prettiness. There was power, strength, courage in it. All the same, round his mouth and eyes were laughter lines and, though hard and uncompromising, his expression was free of cruelty.
My own colouring is darker. My father was half Roidan. I inherited his sallow skin and dark eyes, though with me they had come out dark chocolate rather than black. Like his, and like my Elvish mother’s, my hair is chestnut. Some wayward strain in my ancestry has given it a copper tinge in certain lights.
Once, I had been vain enough to consider myself handsome. No longer. A cheap oil lamp had exploded and sprayed my face with burning oil. Others said I was lucky to have survived. But when I caught sight of myself in some merchant’s window and saw my melted-wax skin, the sagging folds round my mouth and eyes, I was ashamed. After the accident, I took to hiding my face. I would look away from others’ eyes, unable to accept the disgust or pity I saw there. My hair, once shining with health, shoulder-length and thickly curled — the best part of my looks — was trimmed short against my scalp. If you can’t bathe regularly, it’s best to crop your hair like a soldier’s; otherwise you provide a home to all kinds of insects.
None of the friends from my youth would have recognised me. And what would I have said to them anyway, even if they had? I had been a shallow, selfish fool. I had little in common with the me from long ago.
He let me sweat for a few seconds. Yet I felt as if no time at all had elapsed, I had been so rapt.
“I am Fereg Timothon ys Mikel. You will work for me. If you work well, I will reward you. You will be fed and clothed and housed. If you steal from me, I’ll hand you over to the Watch. Do you understand?” His voice was calm, without animosity or anger. Never have I been more afraid. A Fereg! What chance would I have with someone this important?
I nodded. Vyod’s meaty hand thumped the side of my head. “Say ‘yes, sir’, or ‘yes, my lord’, dogshit!”
I turned to stare at Vyod, my ears burning, my head ringing. “Yes, my lord,” I said addressing Vyod with deliberate insolence. Vyod stared at me, his hard gaze untempered by liking or compassion.
“Take him to Jnetha,” said the Fereg. “She can see he’s bathed and given clean clothing. And ask Harith to bring me my kithara and some wine.”
Vyod nodded. “Sir!” he said. He grabbed hold of my collar again, and marched me off to the kitchen. As we were about to leave the courtyard, Lord Timothon said, “You didn’t answer, before.”
I looked at him, puzzled.
“Fion, my lord.”
“Ah.” His tone was neutral, his eyes unreadable, but I had a very strong impression that he had half expected a different answer.
Jnetha was the major-domo’s wife, in charge of the house, a spare woman with iron-grey hair and a hard face. I gathered from overheard comments that Lord Timothon was unmarried, and that Jnetha bowed to no one except him. She took me into a room next to the kitchens and drew a bath. It had been a long time since I had seen one. When I’d been little, my mother had bathed me in a zinc in front of the fire.
Jnetha clearly didn’t trust me to do the job properly, so she did it herself. I felt as if I was once again five years old. When my mother had bathed me, she had talked to me, and called me ‘maio grephon’, which means ‘my pet’. Jnetha washed me in grim silence. She left my groin and backside till last; then she handed me the washcloth without a word, and watched as I soaped and cleaned myself there. I knew that she watched to make sure I performed my cleansing properly — I was a beggar and a thief from the streets, wasn’t I? — but it felt like a deliberate humiliation. That she did this all with monumental indifference made the experience so much worse.
My mortification was complete when my clothes were taken away by a lad who held them at arm’s length, his lips drawn back in a grimace of distaste.
My new clothes were too big, but they were sweet smelling and carefully mended. Jnetha watched me dress, and nodded. “They’ll do.” She took me up four flights of stairs, and then up a staircase that was little more than a ladder into a room in the attic under the bare slates of the roof and the great oak beams which supported it. My bed was a straw-filled pallet on the floor. There was a tiny casement opening onto the leads, with a view over the rooftops of the nobles’ quarter.
There are many who would have been resentful of the sloping ceiling and walls, the uneven floor, the dusty corners. I wasn’t. This was far better than my normal bedroom — the doorstep of the baker’s shop just off General Gytha Square, in the older part of the city. I used to feel a little safer under the stern eye of the General’s statue. She looked as if she had been kind as well as tough. I won’t need her protection here, I thought. Then I wondered whether I was right.
I turned to thank Jnetha and found her inspecting me with hostile eyes.
“Don’t take advantage of the master, or you’ll have me to answer to.”
I stared back at her. I wanted to say, I’m not what you think. I’m a decent person. But I swallowed my outburst.
“I did not intend to,” I replied, stiffly, dropping my gaze.
“Keep your room clean and tidy. I’ll inspect it, to see you do.” She climbed down the ladder to the storey below. Just before she turned away she said, “Come down to the kitchen shortly. You’ll be given your tasks.”
I worked continuously from early morning till late at night at the jobs no one else wanted — emptying and cleaning chamber pots, chopping wood, washing dishes, peeling vegetables. I didn’t mind. I had shelter, and for the first time in a long while, a full stomach every day. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, but even if I had been permitted, I would have returned if the hard work had been the only thing that mattered.
But it wasn’t. The staff of the mansion were unfriendly. Jnetha and her husband Harith, the major-domo, were correct but cold. Attempts to joke or make friends with the other staff were ignored, or rebuffed.
As the days turned into weeks, I fell into the routine of a great house. I never left the house and rarely saw its master. And I was lonely. Once, one of the maids said to me, “At least you are prepared to work hard.” But when I looked at her, my eyebrows raised, she shrugged and went back to her tasks. The maids and the lads remained cool and remote. After a while I stopped trying to be friends.
For a few short months on the streets, I had had a nondescript mongrel as companion. One day, he disappeared. I never knew what became of him, though I searched all the places we’d used to go. There are so many different peoples in Cappor, from all across the Empire and beyond, from the ebony of the desert nomads and the Khars, to the pale skin and hair and green eyes of the barbarous Yarsfelders. Some of them regard dog as a delicacy. The mutt had loved me faithfully. He didn’t mind that I was a nothing, in smelly rags. He had been my only true friend. I missed him.
Late one night, I’d sneaked down from my attic to get a snack from the kitchen. I was sitting on the steps to the basement, where the kitchen and the necessaries were, when I felt an intent gaze on my back. I turned.
It was a wolf. I spotted that at once for, when I was a small boy, my mother had taken me to visit my Elvish grandfather. He had a small farm in the long valley that runs north-south between the coast range and the inner plateau of Elfhame east of Cappor. On the first night of the journey, we’d camped next to a river. During the night, I had wakened with the feeling that I was being watched. I’d sat up abruptly from my bedroll and had seen the wolf, its eyes fixed on me. When I was older, I understood that I’d been lucky it was summer, not winter, and that the wolf wasn’t starving and desperate, for I was just the right size to be carried off and eaten. Afterwards, I’d told my mother and she’d explained what the animal was, and the danger I’d been in. Even though I’d been asleep next to my mother when the wolf had appeared, on the way back from Grandpa to Cappor, when we’d camped in that shady dell again, my bedroll was placed between my mother’s and the fire, and the fire was kept blazing all night.
“How didst thou get in?” I said to the wolf.
Without thinking, I spoke Elvish. It had always been the language of intimacy for me, for it was the language my mother had used with me. It was a comfort to talk her language. With a pang, I remembered my mother’s tales as she tucked me into bed. How ungrateful we are for some of our greatest joys, until it is too late!
“Thou surely dost not live in this house, in this city? Who dost thou belong to?” I hadn’t realised just how lonely I’d been till I spoke. I was silent for a moment, then answered my own question, “No one, of course! Thou art a wolf!”
The wolf inspected me for a few seconds, and gave a single wag of his tail.
“Want some?” I offered a piece of the meat pie I was eating.
The wolf was clearly uninterested. He moved down a couple of steps closer to me.
“My lord had guests,” said I. “All rich silks and perfumes. We don’t need that, do we? Thou hast thy fur coat and I have these,” and I gestured to my own garb. The wolf’s coat was black, with an edge of dark brown on his paws and ears. “Thou might’st not think much of my clothes,” I went on, “but they’re the best I’ve ever had. Well, no, not the best. There was a time when I too wore rich silks and expensive perfumes. They mean little, thou knowst, compared to love.”
The wolf moved down another tread of the staircase. I looked into his eyes, classic wolf blue, pale as early morning sky. Very carefully, I raised my hand and let him sniff me. Reassured, the animal lowered his haunches onto the step. He was massive, much bigger I think than the wolf I remembered.
“Anyway, things aren’t too bad here. I’m fed, and clothed. Fair enough, the work is hard, but it’s better than being a pickpocket.”
I sighed a little. I had no right to anything more. I knew it, and was glad for what I had. The wolf put his muzzle on his paws and gave a gusty rumble, as if he agreed.
There was a companionable silence. I reached out a tentative hand and stroked his head, scratching between his ears. He gave a little grunt of pleasure.
At last, reluctant to leave, but knowing I would have to be up very early in the morning to start the day’s toil, I dusted my hands on my breeches and stood up carefully. I reached down slowly and caressed the wolf’s head. He looked up at me. A disconcerting intelligence burned in his eyes. With a last pat, I started up the stairs. At the top, I turned and looked back. The wolf was still watching me. I raised my hand in farewell. For the first time in months, I was happy. Yet I couldn’t shake the conviction that he was unreal, a phantom conjured up by my loneliness. How did he get into the house? Through a basement window? How did he survive in the harsh world of the city?
All day, as I went about my chores, I thought about him. I imagined us going for walks across the city, or next to the harbour — which had been one of Dog’s favourite places — Wolf by my side, my protector, my friend.
The next night, I waited for him but he didn’t appear. But the night after, as I was about to crawl into my nest of blankets, I heard a small sound from the ladder that ascended into my loft. Clutching my candle, I rose and peered through the open door down the steps to the floor below. The wolf was at the bottom of the steps, one paw on the lowest rung.
“I do not think thou canst climb up safely, Wolf. I will come down to thee.” But before I could move he leapt. He took the stairs in one bound, landing almost on top of me. I lay on the floor, rubbing my head. He looked down at me and I could have sworn he was grinning. His mouth was open, his tongue was lolling out and his blue eyes gleamed with amusement.
“Get off!” I grumped. He gave me a quick lick on my cheek, and clambered off me.
I went back to my pallet, and patted it. “Thou canst lie here, an thou wisht.”
I got under the bedclothes. I didn’t need more than one blanket, now, for it was well into summer. The wolf lay down on the bed.
“I used to have a dog once. Thou probably lookst down on dogs, but thou knowst, their race is related to thine. He attached himself to me. I loved him. I miss him.” I sighed. The wolf licked my hand. I looked at him. “Well, true, I have thee.” I buried my head in his fur. His tail gave a single thump on the mattress. I reached out and started to stroke his head. With my hand still in his thick ruff, I fell asleep. When I woke in the morning he was gone, but I knew he wasn’t a dream, because there were black hairs all over the bed.
He visited every night after that. Sometimes I would be in the basement eating leftovers, but mostly I was in my attic room. He always seemed to know where I was, but then wolves and dogs have a sense of smell stronger than ours. I used to tell him everything about my life. I would hug and stroke him and bury my face in his fur. He always smelled clean and wholesome.
Wolves are supposed to be dangerous to men, yet I was completely unafraid with him. He had a delicacy and tact that were almost human. If I did something to him that he didn’t like, he would growl softly, his tail thumping to show he wasn’t angry with me, or take my hand in his mouth, the light pressure of his teeth against my skin a subtle warning.
I found, now that I had a friend — even if he wasn’t human — that the other servants treated me better. The maids even smiled at me, though when Jnetha saw me making eyes at one of them, she called me into her small office — no more than a cupboard off the pantry — and advised, no, instructed me not to make any pregnant. She coloured as she started to explain to me how I was to make love to a woman and not get her with child. I interrupted her. “I know,” I said. “I won’t cause disruption.” And anyway, my heart was given to another.
We stared at each other for a moment or two. “Do you still think I’m an enemy?” I asked.
“No.” She blushed more deeply. I was fascinated. I had never her seen her so discomfited. “The master says you can be trusted, that you are a friend.” Which was extremely odd, because I seldom saw my lord Timothon. Once or twice he had appeared in the kitchen and, as I worked chopping vegetables or scouring pots, I could feel his gaze upon me. I didn’t want him to notice me. I was afraid of him, of what he’d see in my eyes when I looked at him, of what I’d see in his.
A day or two after my discussion with Jnetha, Harith came into the kitchen. Even though he appeared as reserved and proper as ever, there was an undercurrent of surprise in his voice. “The master wishes to see you. In the study.”
My jaw dropped. Flustered, I nearly removed a finger with the sharp kitchen knife I was using to chop carrots and onions.
“Bathe first,” said Jnetha firmly, as bossy as ever. After that first time, she had let me do it by myself. I’d had my weekly bath the day before. “Run, now. Don’t waste my lord’s time.”
As I left the kitchen, every servant’s eye was on me. While I hurriedly bathed myself, I wondered what the Fereg wanted with me. And why I had to be clean for whatever it was. I considered and dismissed the notion that he was after my body. He’d had plenty of time for that, and anyway, with my face, no one would find me desirable. That didn’t mean I didn’t find him beautiful and desirable. Of course I did. Luckily no one knew what I felt. For someone like me, a misshapen nobody from the streets, to expect to be loved by a great nobleman was a dangerous dream. Such things did not happen. Even thinking them can offend.
“Ah, Fion, come in and sit down.” He motioned towards an exquisite sofa, covered in pale blue damask. I was glad I had washed and put on clean clothes.
“My lord,” I said, my heartbeat thunderous in my ears.
He looked at me. I felt the same dizziness and wonderment that I had felt before, in the Square. I looked down. My cheeks were hot.
“I think it’s time you learnt your letters.”
The words seemed to go on ringing through the silence of the room. I looked directly into his eyes. It was not my place to ask why. I should be grateful. If I could write, and keep accounts, one day I might be major-domo, after Harith retired. I would have the best rooms in the servants’ quarters.
I was so taken aback, my startled question “Why?” slipped out. I bit my lip and coloured.
Fereg Timothon ys Mikel’s eyes were cool as he replied. “Why not?”
If he made advances to me, what was I to do? Almost any response would lead to trouble, even to being thrown out onto the street. If I accepted his overtures, then when he tired of me I would be made to leave, to make way for someone new. And if I rejected him, he might force me to leave at once. Then I laughed bitterly at my folly. With my face? Why would anyone find me attractive? Even the pastry seller, as he’d fucked me, used to avert his eyes.
I stood straighter. Won esbith, esbith. Since I had lost my love, the light had gone out of my life. Even now, I still grieved, Wolf or no. Like my mutt, Wolf loved me regardless of what I was. Apart from him, who cared what became of me? What did it matter? I would do as I was bid. And, if I were to be truthful, even if with myself only, I was glad to spend time with the Fereg.
All these deliberations seemed to take forever, but they can’t have lasted that long. My lord Timothon’s eyes were on me, but he gave no sign that I was taking too long to answer.
“Thank you, sir.” What else could I say?
During the lesson, he sat next to me, but not too close. He was entirely proper. I, however, was very conscious of the cobalt of his eyes, of the way his raven hair glistened in the light as he moved, of how it fell across his forehead, of the warm curve of his lips, of the sweet muscles of his thighs. It made it very hard to concentrate on my letters. Once or twice, he took my hand in his to guide me as I copied out a word; when he touched me, a tingle ran up my arm and made my hair stand on end.
He began by teaching me simple three- and four-letter words. “You will get the letters eventually,” he said, “but if I start with the letters, you might never get the words. I see you are left-handed. So you must sit on this side, so you can write.”
“Do you not have to write with your right-hand, sir?”
“No, indeed. The Goddess made us as we are. If She had wanted you to be right-handed, She would have made it so. Do you not think that She holds us all in Her folded wings, that She loves us and pities us?”
Quite frankly, sometimes I doubted it myself. I had seen too many horrors to believe. I made some non-committal reply.
We spent an hour together.
“Tomorrow. At the same time,” he said.
“Yes, my lord. Thank you.”
As I was leaving, he said, almost as if he was shy, “You did well, Fion.”
I turned my head away, embarrassed by the rush of colour to my cheeks, by the way my treacherous heart leapt.
That night I relayed the whole episode to Wolf, who listened as always, his head often on one side, his eyes sparkling. Of course, since Wolf was my friend and anyway couldn’t tell anyone what I’d said, I told him all about how beautiful Lord Timothon was, how handsome, how his toughness was leavened by kindness.
“But why did he take me in? He could have easily given me to the Watch. And why teach me my letters? And he sits so far away from me. But I know,” and I started scratching Wolf’s head just below his ears, which he loved, “I know that it would be unwise of me to get involved with him. After all, to him, I am an ugly nobody. When he is sick of me, then I will be back on the streets. And that would be worse, for now I would know what I was missing, and … ”
Wolf licked both my hands and rested his head on his paws. His alert blue eyes, bright with intelligence and filled with love, watched me intently.
Yet as I lay on my straw-filled mattress, with Wolf curled up next to me, I dreamt about Timothon and me as lovers, maybe even lyubontes, about a lyubon-yuzel in the temple of Aliya where the Goddess blesses us and people throw rice and wish us long life. I never discussed these dreams with Wolf. If I did, they would seem real, and it would become obvious that they were just dreams. Dakh pipe-dreams. Impossibilities. I hugged them to myself but as I scrubbed or emptied chamber pots or chopped vegetables, I was sustained by this romantic nonsense.
I went every day to Lord Timothon’s chambers for my lesson. I learned fast, which pleased him. But he never sat any closer, and never gave any sign that he wished me to pay for my lessons in the all too usual way. He was always reserved and correct.
Once, as I was leaving, he said, “Why do you keep your hair so short?”
I explained about living in the streets.
“I’d like you to grow it again.”
“No, my lord.” I was polite. But firm. I would not give way. I hoped he could not see how my heart fluttered in my chest like a captured bird.
His eyebrows angled up into his hairline in the way he had. “And if I order it, Fion?
“I’m not worthy, sir.”
He tilted his head to one side. It reminded me of Wolf.
“I’ve … I’m … Sir, please, I beg you. I don’t deserve it.” I couldn’t explain it to him. I simply could not. The rush of memories and regrets made my heart ache and my eyes sting.
Instead of anger, I saw compassion and sorrow in his eyes. He gave me a lopsided smile, a little cool. “Very well. Until tomorrow, then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I told Wolf about what had happened that night. My heart was filled with sadness and I couldn’t shake off the memory of my lord’s expression. Wolf watched me carefully. He placed his head on my thighs and gave a great gusty sigh. I buried my face in his fur.
Summer drifted into autumn. The vines in the courtyard produced sweet purple grapes, and the streets of the nobles’ quarter were carpeted with plane tree leaves, papery and brittle, which glided silently to the ground, warning of the winter to come. In the still-golden warmth, it didn’t seem real that we’d soon be shivering over our braziers.
Lord Timothon let me read in his library, now. Often he wasn’t there, but he trusted me enough to let me use it by myself. Once while I was there, Harith brought me a little pot of chocolate and small ajwain-flavoured biscuits on a tray. I raised my eyebrows.
“You have made him happy,” he said. I? What had I done? At the look on my face, he went on, very gruffly, avoiding my eyes, “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him like this.” I felt myself redden and cleared my throat. As he left the room, with his back to me, he said, “Don’t break his heart, Fion.”
I pretended not to hear. He’d said it softly enough for us both to maintain that illusion. The words kept running round my head. I didn’t mention the episode to Wolf.
The next day I had the use of the library again. Lord Timothon was away on business in the city. I went from shelf to shelf, in ecstasy that I could now understand the black marks on the pages. There were books on animal husbandry, on politics, on love. There were novels; language primers — Elvish, Luusite, Fnerxan; slim volumes of poetry in Capporean and Elvish; and histories of Cappor and all the countries of the Inner Sea.
At the end of one shelf, I found an Elvish-ware box, lacquered, with fanciful pictures of dragons delicately painted on the top and the sides. Its lid was loose, and half off, and inside was a neat bundle of letters tied with ribbon. I had no idea what they were until I started reading. Then, I am ashamed to confess, I couldn’t stop.
Jaro, my dearling one, I miss you so much. I know the uselessness of writing to you, for even if I sent this letter you would not — could not — read it. And where would I send it? All the same, it gives me some comfort to put these words down.
I think of you always. Weavers, how I miss you! I wonder every day how you fare, whether you are happy.
I love you, dearest one. May the Goddess cup you in Her hands.
It was dated from four or five years before. I read the rest of the letters. I couldn’t help myself. They were a record of the end of a love affair — letters never meant for posting, but written to give an overflowing heart surcease. Every day at first, then every few days, then a couple of times a month. My eyes filled. My lord’s heart had been broken. No one ever deserves that, but this man was so fine, it made the injury much worse.
I started to put the letters back into the lacquered box. Timothon entered the study. Without a word he took the box from my hands. His voice shaking with his attempt to control his anger, he said only, “Go.”
For the first time in months, just when my need was greatest, Wolf didn’t pay his usual visit that night.
The next day, I was depressed and sad. I was unsure whether the lessons were to continue. All the same, hoping for the best, I went up to Timothon’s study, and knocked at the door. “Enter,” he said. Nothing appeared to have changed, but I frequently felt his eyes on me. At the end of the lesson, I stood facing him and, eyes downcast, said, “My lord, I am sorry that I looked in your private papers. That was wrong of me.”
His hand lifted my chin up until I was forced to meet his eyes. “Everybody has something they wish to keep private, Fion. Everybody. Sometimes it can be vital that secrets are kept. Without trust, love and friendship cannot last.”
“Yes, my lord,” I muttered, unable to think straight with those eyes staring into mine. “I’m sorry.” I was intensely conscious of the curve of his strong neck, of the pulse of his heart in the hollow of his throat, and feared that I’d thrown it all away, had lost everything. Again.
“We won’t talk of it further.”
It was the small hours of the night, those hours when, sleeping in my baker’s doorway, I had to be at my wariest, for it is the time when ghosts walk and necromancers wander the streets looking for sacrificial victims. I awoke with a start. For a moment or two, I lay in the warm nest of my blankets, and tried to shake off the deep sleep I’d gotten used to, now that I was safe behind locked doors and no longer vulnerable to the predators that haunt the night streets. I’d been dreaming, or so I thought.
Running, running, panting, terror, my paws slipping on the cobbles, closer, he’s closer.
I pulled on my clothes.
First I went to my lord’s room. He would help me. Whatever had happened between us, he was my lord, and responsible for me, just as I owed my loyalty, my life even, to him. That is the way. He would help me save Wolf.
I knocked at the tall elegant door, with its carved frieze of fruit and flowers.
There was silence. Hesitating only a moment, I reached for the door knob and pushed inside. A soft nightlight burned, its flame clear and unwavering. The bed was empty. I went across and felt the turned back sheets. They were cool. Timothon had been away for a while.
For several moments I stood and thought. Then I went to Jnetha and Harith’s room and banged on the door.
It seemed forever before the door opened. Harith stood in the opening, a huge club in one hand and a candlestick in the other. He lowered the club. “What is it?” Six months ago he’d have been angry. Now he was alarmed. He trusted me. I gave a sigh of relief.
I’d been thinking, making connections. “My lord is in trouble,” I said, knowing only that I was right.
Harith was unceremoniously shoved to one side and Jnetha’s face appeared next to him, strands of her grey hair escaping from under her embroidered night cap, her expression concerned.
I told them of my dream, and why I suspected it was from Timothon. I had to trust them. There was no one else. They turned to look at each other, a long, silent assessing, then Harith turned back to me and said, “Go wake Vyod and Mikel and Fniloth. Tell them I sent you. Then tell them what you told us.”
Sudden doubts assailed me. What if I was wrong? Harith looked at the conflicting emotions in my face and reached out and shook me. “Go!” he growled. “We have no time to waste.” Without waiting for my response, he turned back into the room, and I heard him start to talk to Jnetha as cupboards were flung open and drawers rattled.
I led the group through the dark streets, our torches blazing bright against the silken black of the sky. I knew where Timothon was. I could feel the pull of his khi. I just accepted that it was so. Why and how would come later.
Vyod asked me once, as we ran through the streets, “You sure you know where he is?”
I just looked at him. Couldn’t he feel it? My lord was calling to me.
Wolf was in a house in the slum quarter near the water’s edge. “He’s in here,” I said, gruffly, expecting argument.
“Which floor?” Jnetha asked. She looked right carrying a drawn sword. It came to me that she’d once been a bravo. Perhaps Timothon’s, long ago. It would be exactly like my lord to make sure that no servant of his was turned off into the streets.
There was a grille low in the wall. I got down onto my knees and reached out with my own spirit for the khi of my love. “Yes. In there.” I felt anger and anguish rise in me. Please, I prayed to the Mother, please let him live.
Vyod, Jnetha and Harith tried to use their swords to lever the grille out of the stones of the wall. After a moment or two, panting, they gave up. “We’ll have to go through the front,” Harith said.
“They won’t let us in,” I said. “Let me think for a moment.”
Then I explained my plan.
Afterwards, I would go over that scene again and again, wondering that the scullion and vegetable cutter and chamber-pot emptier could so easily take charge of a great household, of a team of experienced bravos. It amazed me later — but at the time it seemed entirely right.
There was a heap of rubbish on the cobbles in the corner behind the house — old ship’s rope, plane tree leaves, twigs and small branches, vegetable peelings, rags. This I piled against the back door of the house, which opened onto the alley; then I plunged Vyod’s torch into the middle of the heap. I took a small loose cobble from the edge of the path and marched towards the front door.
The noise of the rock against the solid oak of the door was loud enough to wake the spirits of the dead, never mind the householders.
When the door opened a crack, I gasped, with every appearance of panic, trying to look like the lad I no longer was, “Fire, sir! Round the back!” And I waited expectantly for my dolve-denar tip, just as if I was still a street urchin.
The major-domo stepped out into the street, his candlestick raised to see better.
Fniloth’s club felled him soundlessly from behind.
I darted through the door, with the others at my heels and we raced for the cellar. Stupid. If our bashing on the door had awakened the major-domo, it was very likely that it had also awakened the master of the house.
“What is the meaning of this outrage?” The voice was sharp and young, as was the face, but the eyes were cold and hard and very old. I could feel him beginning to make his spell to sap our wills, to capture us as he had Timothon. But I was Elf-kindred, no mere human. I had lived on the streets. And my love was in the hands of this pervert. I would not succumb easily.
I drew Harith’s dagger. He was on my left, and his sheath was on his right hip. But I was left handed. I just hoped the dagger was balanced and would fly true. With a one-word prayer on my lips, fighting the lassitude that was creeping over my bones and my mind, I threw. Time seemed to slow. I watched the spinning gleam of the knife as it moved through the air. There seemed to be enough time to pray again, but of course, as all know, thoughts and prayers are quicker than the wind.
The knife entered the necromancer’s throat, just to one side of his windpipe.
The spell stopped. The world speeded up. Vyod’s sword flashed, and a second smile appeared under the wizard’s mouth. This one had a certain forthright honesty. He toppled to the ground.
“Good work!” said Vyod gruffly, as he wiped his sword on his pants, nodding in my direction. Jnetha nodded too.
“I used to earn a bit that way,” I said, trying not to show how pleased I was with the praise.
My lord was lying on filthy bloodstained rags in a corner, chained to the wall. I knelt next to him on the cold flagstones. “Bolkaion,” I said. ‘Little wolf’, a singularly inappropriate epithet. But I didn’t care. I loved him in both his forms, more than I could say. It was time he knew.
He reached up a trembling hand. “Fee.” He needed to say no more.
“Let’s go home.”
I went back to the necromancer’s corpse upstairs. His body had already shrivelled into a ghastly ebony bundle, his lips drawn back in a grimace, his hair snow white and frizzed as if it had been singed, his hands and feet clawlike. With a hiss of disgust I removed the necromancer’s key-ring from his belt and went back to the cellar to unlock Wolf’s chains. Vyod picked Timothon up, as gently as only a big man can.
The maids and lads watched us through the landing railings, in silence. The major-domo was sitting on the bottom step, his head in his hands. No one tried to stop us. I knew what awaited them. No references, no job, no hope. I was going to be happy, and they were going to be destitute.
“Can’t we help them?”
Harith shook his head. “No,” he said gruffly. His tone showed what he felt.
“Why not?” I knew what it was like to be poor. I knew Timothon would help them if he could.
“We can’t trust them.” Regret — and determination — coloured his voice.
I knew that was true. The head of our house was a werewolf. All the same, it took the shine off my happiness. I knew what it was like to fall and to end up with nothing. I had learned compassion, if nothing else, over the years.
We carried Timothon into the drawing room, and arranged him on a sofa with cushions and warm coverings. Jnetha brought a bowl of warm water, some cloths and a jar of unguent. She dipped a cloth in the water and reached towards him.
“No,” I said, and took the cloth from her. “I’ll do it.” She raised her eyebrows at me, then smiled. She had a lovely smile. I felt myself colour in response, and her smile deepened. She stood up and left the room, still smiling slightly.
I began by cleaning his face. Halfway through, his eyes opened and fixed on mine.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, doggedly avoiding his gaze as I began to wipe his bloody fingers and hands.
I gently wiped the bleeding welts where he’d rubbed his ankles against the chains, my eyes anywhere but on his face. In the end, unable to withstand the silence and impotent against the need to look at him, I looked up. Our eyes locked. “You know. Coming to my room as Wolf. Listening to me prattle on about how I loved you.” I had to find out how much he knew. I had to.
“I was … afraid … You saw the letters. You know why. With Jaro, I …”
My heart turned over. Thud. I felt sick. “So you came as Wolf. And when I told Wolf what I felt about you?”
“I was shy,” he muttered.
“I was too,” I admitted. I leaned in and kissed him gently. He need never know the truth. He must never know it. I met his eyes and we both smiled. I was filled with such love I wanted to crush him in my arms. For a moment, I was unable to look away from the cobalt of his eyes. It felt as if I was falling into the sky.
When the healer arrived she shooed me out of the room, saying she only trusted herself and her lad, and didn’t want me exclaiming and gasping and interfering. “Lyubontes are the worst!” she said. “Fuss, fuss, fuss! Out, now, if you please!” I heard her ordering the lad about as the door closed behind me.
At bedtime I helped him climb the stairs to his room. As I was leaving he pulled me to him and kissed me. “Stay.” We didn’t make love — he was too tired and sore — but we slept side by side, our bodies fitting easily to each other, as if we were in fact old lyubontes. I tended him all the next day, and that night, as he extinguished the lamp next to the bed, again he pulled me to him. This time he took me into his arms and kissed me.
“What, with thy wounds?” I asked, teasing, but half serious. I knew how bad his injuries had been.
“What a thing to ask a man!” he exclaimed, indignantly. His eyes gleamed in the thin silver light of the moons. “Of course I am. Allow me to prove it.”
It had been so long since I had made love. It’s not the same as fucking. How good it was to love again, to fulfil that urge to unite our souls through uniting our bodies, as The Mother wills. He rode me slowly, surely, consummately. I climaxed before he did, feeling only ecstasy and satisfaction and a deep, deep overwhelming love. He speeded up his thrusts and then slowed abruptly as he climaxed inside me. He threw his head back. I thought he would howl, like a wolf at the moons. Instead, he cried out in passion: “Jaro! Oh Jaro!”
Not that name! My skin went cold with terror, and I pulled away. I had misheard surely? I had misheard.
He lay utterly still next to me, his breathing ragged. At last he spoke. “I meant never to let thee know, Fion. That I knew. Never, my love.” He spoke Elvish as we had always done in bed, in our most intimate moments.
The silence lengthened until I had to ask, fear making my voice tremble. “How long hast thou known?” Oh, may it please you, Great Goddess Mother, who holds us all her hands, oh, Dear Goddess, please let this be right. Why had I ever thought that I might fool my Timo? Or my fate? For surely my thread was woven into the Tapestry of Life, like all others, men, and elves, and were-creatures, Panthrons and Khedhes and Fereges, all of us?
“In the Square, I knew it was thee. In spite of this.” He stroked my scarred lumpy hideous misshapen face, my shame, my just punishment from The Mother for my own selfishness and thoughtlessness and cruelty; he stroked it with love and affection. With tenderness. “Then Vyod came to me after thou’dst been here a few days. He recognised thy voice. He wanted to warn me. After …” He stopped for a moment. The sound of his swallow was loud in the otherwise quite silent room. “I thanked him for his loyalty.”
“Who else knoweth?” My cheeks were hot.
“Harith came to me also, oh, a week or so after the first day. We had a moot, Vyod, Harith and Jnetha, and me. I asked them to give thee a chance.” His smile in the tender light of the moons was wry. “They know about me. They are my people, just as I am theirs. I can trust them with secrets. Including thine. Thou canst even remain ‘Fion’, if thou want’st.” His smile was shy, tentative.
“I thought … I had … Oh, Goddess! I thought I had changed … so much. I looked … I felt … so different.”
He shook his head. “I would have known thee anywhere. It was my dream, to find thee again. When I saw thy face …” He kissed my forehead.
“My ruined face?” I could barely speak past the lump in my throat.
“Oh, Fee — Jaro — I love thee, not thy face. For me it is always, it always will be, beautiful.”
I tried to shake my head. I knew quite well what I looked like. “I did not know it was thee,” I said, “until I saw thy face. I would not have tried to steal thy purse if I had.”
He smiled. “I’m glad thou didst.” He turned over onto his stomach, resting on his elbows. At last he said, “I’m sorry I forced thee to come home with me like that.” He was still. Then, “All I could think was that I simply could not lose thee again. I could not.”
I couldn’t see through my tears. I had hurt my lord so much, so needlessly. Again, I could merely shake my head. His hand stroked my ridiculous bristly scalp. Big, strong, manly, that hand; yet his tenderness was unqualified. I’d missed that so much.
“Thou knowst, later, thou didst seem very different.” His voice was soft in the late night house, as if we were the only people in the world. “Then, I was no longer sure it was the same Jaro.” I could hear the sly grin in his voice. “The tiresome selfish brat I knew had gone. And the old lazy Jaro would never have toiled so hard for so long, let alone without a word of complaint. I thought then that thou wert indeed someone other.” The love and affection in his voice took any sting out of the words, yet shame washed my skin with heat.
“I learned much in the years I was away,” I mumbled. He must have felt my guilt. He pulled me close to his body, until my head rested in the safe corner between his shoulder and his neck.
“I would have taken you back even if you had remained that spoilt brat.” He tilted my head back from his shoulder. His eyes were full of love. “Don’t weep, dear one.” He wiped my eyes with a corner of his sheet, affectionate strokes that spoke more eloquently than words of his feelings.
“Just as well for thee I didn’t know about thy changeling nature,” I said, taking hold of his hands, and caressing them. I didn’t resent his not telling me before. Who would have trusted a flighty, childish, silly boy with such a truth? He had trusted Vyod and Harith and the others, but not me. Wisely. Before, I had never stayed in the house night after night as I had done over the last few months. I hadn’t wanted to be tied down. Oh folly! I had been away on the nights he had gone out as Wolf, I assumed. Had he followed me to see who I was sleeping with; where I was? The thought made me cringe. Yet — such is the way of the Great Spirit Mother — this too had helped us get together again. It was as Wolf that my lord had learned to believe in me once more. I had been able to tell the truth to Wolf, without being shy. And Timo would not have believed me, in his heart. But Wolf had.
“I couldn’t stay away, after all. I simply had to spend each night with thee, even if it was as Wolf at the end of thy bed!”
I kissed him. His lips were better than I remembered. “I never stopped loving thee,” I said. “And I never will. I used to go past this house, hoping to catch a glimpse of thee. Only … after the fire, I stopped. I was …”
“Why didst thou not come to me then? Why didst thou not come back? Why, Jaro?” The pain in his voice made me wince.
“I was a fool. I was too proud — too stupid — to come home. I’m sorry. I’ve done so much harm, so much … ” Then something he’d said struck me. “You mean you’d have taken me back even then?”
“Oh, Timo! What a fool I am!” He kissed my shoulder in answer.
“What happened to … Krion?” he asked. “Was that his name?”
“He … I loved thee, not him. I hurt him too. I did wrong to both of you.”
“Well. Th’art here now. Maio caron grephon!”
Our lyubon-yuzel took place in mid-winter at the Great Temple of Aliya near the Imperial palace. The Panthron himself attended, as well as half the khedhes of the thirteen duchies and various other worthies and notables, to watch us exchange vows and to throw rice. What a glittering party it was! So many purses, so many jewels! My fingers itched, but I behaved, of course. What did you think?
Later that evening, I went to join the servants in the kitchen where they were having their own party. After I’d been there half an hour or so, Timo came hesitantly down the steps. Everybody cheered. He coloured furiously.
“Take him upstairs, boss,” roared Vyod, who was far gone. “The blessings of Aliya are with you!”
“Yes! Take him to bed!” they shouted, and then burst into an improper song. You know the kind I mean. Timothon went scarlet.
He started to make a speech about their loyalty and his gratitude, but they all cheered so loudly he gave up. I put my mouth right next to his ear. “Take me to bed, my lord,” I said.
And he did.
© Nikolaos Thiwerspoon. All rights reserved.