Authors: Sharon Lee,Steve Miller
Tags: #Science Fiction
for "Momma Don't"
for "This House"
IT WAS SPRING AGAIN.
Mil Ton Intassi caught the first hint of it as he strolled through his early-morning garden—a bare flutter of warmth along the chill edge of mountain air, no more than that. Nonetheless, he sighed as he walked, and tucked his hands into the sleeves of his jacket.
At the end of the garden, he paused, looking out across the toothy horizon, dyed orange by the rising sun. Mist boiled up from the valley below him, making the trees into wraiths, obscuring the road and the airport entirely.
Spring, he thought again.
He had come here in the spring, retreating to the house he had built, to the constancy of the mountains.
Turning his back on the roiling fog, he strolled down the pale stone path, passing between banked rows of flowers.
At the center of the garden, the path forked—the left fork became a pleasant meander through the lower gardens, into the perimeter wood. It was cunning, with many delightful vistas, grassy knolls, and shady groves perfect for tête-à-têtes.
The right-hand path led straight to the house, and it was to the house that Mil Ton returned, slipping in through the terrace window, sliding it closed behind him.
He left his jacket on its peg and crossed to the stove, where he poured tea into a lopsided pottery mug before he moved on, his footsteps firm on the scrubbed wooden floor.
At the doorway to the great room, he paused. To his right, the fireplace, the full wall of native stone, which they had gathered and placed themselves. The grate wanted sweeping and new logs needed to be laid. He would see to it later.
Opposite the doorway was a wall of windows through which he could see the orange light unfurling like ribbons through the busy mist, and, nearer, a pleasant lawn, guarded on the far side by a band of cedar trees, their rough bark showing pink against the glossy green needles. Cedar was plentiful on this side of the mountain. So plentiful that he had used native cedar wood for beam, post, and floor.
Mil Ton turned his head, looking down the room to the letterbox. The panel light glowed cheerfully green, which meant there were messages in the bin. It was rare, now, that he received any messages beyond the commonplace—notices of quartershare payments, the occasional query from the clan's man of business. His sister—his delm—had at last given over scolding him, and would not command him; her letters were laconic, non-committal, and increasingly rare. The others—he moved his shoulders and walked forward to stand at the window, sipping tea from the lopsided mug and staring down into the thinning orange mist.
The green light tickled the edge of his vision. What could it be? he wondered—and sighed sharply, irritated with himself. The letterbox existed because his sister—or perhaps it had been his delm—asked that he not make himself entirely unavailable to the clan. Had she not, he would have had neither letterbox, nor telephone, nor newsnet access. Two of those he had managed, and missed neither. Nor would he mourn the letterbox, did it suddenly malfunction and die.
Oh, blast it all—
could it be?
He put the cup on the sill and went down the room, jerking open the drawer and snatching out two flimsies.
The first was, after all, an inquiry from his man of business on the subject of re-investing an unexpected payout of dividend. He set it aside.
The second message was from Master Tereza of Solcintra Healer Hall, and it was rather lengthy, outlining an exceptionally interesting and difficult case currently in the care of the Hall, and wondering if he might bring himself down to the city for a few days to lend his expertise.
Mil Ton made a sound halfway between a growl and a laugh; his fingers tightened, crumpling the sheet into an unreadable mess.
Go to Solcintra Hall, take up his role as a Healer once more. Yes, certainly. Tereza, of all of them, should know that he had no intention of ever—he had told her, quite plainly—and his had never been a true Healing talent, in any case. It was a farce. A bitter joke made at his expense.
He closed his eyes, deliberately initiating a basic relaxation exercise. Slowly, he brought his anger—his panic—under control. Slowly, cool sense returned.
Tereza had been his friend. Caustic, she could certainly be, but to taunt a wounded man for his pain? No. That was not Tereza.
The flimsy was a ruin of mangled fiber and smeared ink. No matter. He crossed the room and dropped it into the fire grate, and stood staring down into the cold ashes.
Return to Solcintra? Not likely.
He moved his shoulders, turned back to the window and picked up the lopsided cup; sipped tepid tea.
He should answer his man of business. He should, for the friendship that had been between them, answer Tereza. He should.
And he would—later. After he had finished his tea and sat for his dry, dutiful hours, trying to recapture that talent which
been his, and which seemed to have deserted him now. One of many desertions, and not the least hurtful.
* * *
SPRING CREPT ONWARD, kissing the flowers in the door garden into dewy wakefulness. Oppressed by cedar walls, Mil Ton escaped down the left-hand path, pacing restlessly past knolls and groves, until at last he came to a certain tree, and beneath the tree, a bench, where he sat down, and sighed, and raised his face to receive the benediction of the breeze.
In the warm sunlight, eventually he dozed. Certainly, the day bid well for dozing, sweet dreams and all manner of pleasant things. That he dozed, that was pleasant. That he did not dream, that was well. That he was awakened by a voice murmuring his name, that was—unexpected.
He straightened from his comfortable slouch against the tree, eyes snapping wide.
Before him, settled casually cross-legged on the new grass, heedless of stains on his town-tailored clothes, was a man somewhat younger than himself, dark of hair, gray of eye. Mil Ton stared, voice gone to dust in his throat.
"The house remembered me," the man in the grass said apologetically. "I hope you don't mind."
Mil Ton turned his face away. "When did it matter, what I minded?"
"Always," the other replied, softly. "Mil Ton. I told you how it was."
He took a deep breath, imposing calm with an exercise he had learned in Healer Hall, and faced about.
"Fen Ris," he said, low, but not soft. Then, "Yes. You told me how it was."
The gray eyes shadowed. "And in telling you, killed you twice." He raised a ringless and elegant hand, palm turned up. "Would that it were otherwise." The hand reversed, palm toward the grass. "Would that it were not."
Would that he had died of the pain of betrayal, Mil Ton thought, rather than live to endure this. He straightened further on the bench, frowning down at the other.
"Why do you break my peace?"
Fen Ris tipped his head slightly to one side in the old, familiar gesture. "Break?" he murmured, consideringly. "Yes, I suppose I deserve that. Indeed, I know that I deserve it. Did I not first appeal to Master Tereza and the Healers in the Hall at Solcintra, hoping that they might cure what our house Healer could not?" He paused, head bent, then looked up sharply, gray gaze like a blow.
"Master Tereza said she had sent for you," he stated, absolutely neutral. "She said, you would not come."
Mil Ton felt a chill, his fingers twitched, as if crumpling a flimsy into ruin.
"She did not say it was you."
"Ah. Would you have come, if she had said it was me?"
, Mil Ton thought, looking aside so the other would not read it in his eyes.
"No," he said.
There was a small silence, followed by a sigh.
"Just as well, then," Fen Ris murmured. "For it was not I." He paused, and Mil Ton looked back to him, drawn despite his will.
"Who, then?" he asked, shortly.
The gray eyes were infinitely sorrowful, eternally determined.
Fury, pure as flame, seared him. "You dare!"
Fen Ris lifted his chin, defiant. "You, who taught me what it is to truly love—you ask if I
To truly love. Yes, he had taught that lesson—learned that lesson. And then he had learned the next lesson—that even love can betray.
He closed his eyes, groping for the rags of his dignity...
"Her name is Endele," Fen Ris said softly. "By profession, she is a gardener." A pause, a light laugh. "A rare blossom in our house of risk-takers and daredevils."
Eyes closed, Mil Ton said nothing.
"Well." Fen Ris said after a moment. "You live so secluded here that you may not have heard of the accident at the skimmer fields last relumma. Three drivers were killed upon the instant. One walked away unscathed. Two were sealed into crisis units. Of those, one died."
Mil Ton had once followed the skimmer races—how not?—he had seen how easily a miscalculated corner approach could become tragedy.
"You were ever Luck's darling," he whispered, his inner ear filled with the shrieks of torn metal and dying drivers; his inner eye watching carefully as Fen Ris climbed from his battered machine and—
"Aye," Fen Ris said. "That I was allowed to emerge whole and hale from the catastrophe unit—that was luck, indeed."
Abruptly it was cold, his mind's eye providing a different scene, as the emergency crew worked feverishly to cut through the twisted remains of a racing skimmer and extricate the shattered driver, the still face sheathed in blood—two alive, of six. Gods, he had almost lost Fen Ris—
He had already lost Fen Ris.
"I might say," Fen Ris murmured, "that I was the most blessed of men, save for this one thing—that when I emerged from the unit, Endele—my lady, my heart..." His voice faded.
"She does not remember you."
Silence. Mil Ton opened his eyes and met the bleak gray stare.
"So," said Fen Ris, "you did read the file."
"I read the summary Tereza sent, to entice me back to the Hall," he corrected. "The case intrigued her—no physical impediment to the patient's memory, nor even a complete loss of memory. Only one person has been excised entirely from her past."
"Excised," Fen Ris repeated. "We have not so long a shared past, after all. A year—only that."
Mil Ton moved his shoulders. "Court her anew, then," he said, bitterly.
"When I did not court her before?" the other retorted. He sighed. "I have tried. She withdraws. She does not know me; she does not trust me." He paused, then said, so low Mil Ton could scarcely hear—
"She does not want me."
It should have given him pleasure, Mil Ton thought distantly, to see the one who had dealt him such anguish, in agony. And, yet, it was not pleasure he felt, beholding Fen Ris thus, but rather a sort of bleak inevitability.
"Why me?" he asked, which is not what he had meant to say.
Fen Ris lifted his face, allowing Mil Ton to plumb the depths of his eyes, sample the veracity of his face.
"Because you will know how to value my greatest treasure," he murmured. "Who would know better?"
Mil Ton closed his eyes, listening to his own heartbeat, to the breeze playing in the leaves over his head, and, eventually, to his own voice, low and uninflected.
"Bring her here, if she will come. If she will not, there's an end to it, for I will not go into the city."
"Hear me. If she refuses Healing, she is free to go when and where she will. If she accepts Healing, the same terms apply." He opened his eyes, and looked hard into the other's face.
"Bring your treasure here and you may lose it of its own will and desire."
This was warning, proper duty of a Healer, after all, and perhaps it was foretelling as well.
Seated, Fen Ris bowed, acknowledging that he'd heard, then came effortlessly to his feet. "The terms are acceptable. I will bring her tomorrow, if she will come."
Mil Ton stood. "Our business is concluded," he said flatly. "Pray, leave me."
Fen Ris stood, frozen—a heartbeat, no more than that; surely, not long enough to be certain—and thawed abruptly, sweeping a low bow, accepting a debt too deep to repay.
"I have not—" Mil Ton began, but the other turned as if he had not spoken, and went lightly across the grass, up the path, and away.