Aralorn ignored Wolf’s choked-off laugh and explained blandly, “In most households, the life of a bastard child is miserable at best. I can’t remember not knowing that I was illegitimate, but I never minded it much. As for being half shapeshifter . . . I’ve already told you that my father did his best to make sure that I was aware of my mother’s people. Other than that, it was no more than an unusual talent I had. The people in the Rethian mountains are used to magic—most of them can work at least some of the simpler spells. Since the Wizard Wars, seven ae’Magi have come from these mountains. If anyone had ever felt I was odd, they’d grown used to it by the time I was grown. The worst problem I had was convincing Irrenna that I didn’t want to be a Lady. Falhart taught me swordplay and riding, real riding, and by the time my parents found out, it was too late. Father said I might as well know what I was about and had the weaponsmaster teach me, too.”
“Idiot,” commented Wolf, sounding much more like his normal sardonic self. “He should have beaten you and sent you to bed without supper. Ten years in Sianim, and you still can’t use a sword.”
“Not his fault,” replied Aralorn easily. “A sword never felt right in my hands, not even Ambris, and she’s an enchanted blade. Hmm . . . now that’s a thought.”
“I wonder if it has to do with the iron in the steel. Green magic doesn’t work well with iron, while it has an affinity for wooden things . . . Maybe that’s why I’m so good with the staff. But it doesn’t seem to affect my ability with knives.”
“I have always found modesty becoming in a woman.”
“Best staffsman or -woman in Sianim,” she said, unruffled. “Including longstaff, quarterstaff, or double staves. Now hush, you’ve interrupted.”
“I shall sit quietly and contemplate my misconduct,” he replied.
“That should take a while.” Aralorn sank down until the warm water touched her chin. A benefit of having large people in one’s family was that all of the tubs were big enough to stretch out in. “I guess I can wait that long—but the water will get cold.”
There was a long pause. Aralorn stifled a giggle.
“Finished so soon? I would have thought such a grave task would have taken longer.”
“Aralorn,” he said gently, “please continue. You were telling me of your wonderful childhood and why that meant that you had to stay away from your family for so long.”
“My story,” she continued grandly. “Where was I? It doesn’t matter. When I was eighteen, my oldest legitimate sister, Freya—mind you she’s still younger than I am—was betrothed in one of those complex treaties Reth and Darran spend months drawing up every few years or so and break within hours of the signing. It seems that a rather powerful Darranian noble had a mageborn second son who needed a bride.”
Aralorn took a moment to rub soap into her mouse brown hair, hoping to evict the fleas that had taken up residence during her travels. Despite her joking with Falhart, she didn’t think she had lice. “So Nevyn came to live at Lambshold. He was shy at first, but he and Freya turned out to be soul mates and fell quietly in love several months after they were married.”
She ducked under the water to rinse the soap out of her hair. She didn’t particularly want to continue, but some things would become obvious—and it generally wasn’t a good thing to take Wolf by surprise. As soon as she was above water again, she continued. “I liked him, too. He was quiet and willing to listen to my stories. He had this air of . . . sadness, I suppose, that made us all treat him gently. He was the only one who defied Irrenna’s edict about animals in the castle. He didn’t keep pets, but anyone who found a hurt animal brought it to him. At times his suite looked more like a barnyard than the barnyard did.” Aralorn hesitated, and said in a considering tone, “At the time, I was afraid I liked him too much. In retrospect, being older and wiser now, I think I wanted what Freya and Nevyn had together rather than Nevyn himself.”
She soaped a cloth and began scrubbing at the ingrained dirt in her hands. “Now, I had long since gotten out of the habit of using my shapeshifting abilities at Lambshold. Father was very good at spotting little mice where they didn’t belong. Irrenna was very clear on what was polite and impolite: Turning into animals in public wasn’t polite. It never occurred to me that Nevyn didn’t know what I was.”
She examined her hands and decided they were as good as they were going to get. “I did know that he wouldn’t think it proper for a Lady to fight, so I talked Falhart into practicing with me in the woods. It wasn’t too difficult because he was starting to get teased when I beat him.”
Her hair still felt soapy, so she dipped her head underwater again. She cleared her face with her hands and continued. “Nevyn didn’t like girls who ran around in boys’ clothing and would have been horrified to know that his wife’s sister could best him in a fair fight—even with a sword. If you think I’m bad ...” She let her voice trail off suggestively.
“Swordsman or not, I thought Nevyn was the epitome of what a young hero ought to be.” She smiled to herself. “I admired his manner of seeing things in black and white—which was very different than the way my father saw things.”
Aralorn paused. “About half a year after Nevyn came, Father drew me aside and told me that Freya was concerned with the amount of time her husband spent with me. When you see Freya, you’ll understand why I didn’t take that warning too seriously. Even if I had a crush on Nevyn, I knew he couldn’t possibly look at me when he had Freya. But my younger sister is a wise woman.”
Aralorn waved her hand in the top of the cooling water and watched the swell dash against her knee. “It seems that Freya was not mistaken in her apprehension. Nevyn had been flattered by my worship-from-afar, something that Freya was too pragmatic ever to do. I think he was a little intimidated by Freya, too.”
“He attempted you?”
Aralorn snorted. “You make it sound like I’m a horse. But that’s the general idea. He was teaching me to speak Darranian in Father’s library. I was too stupid—”
“Young,” corrected Wolf softly.
stupid to read his earlier manner correctly. It wasn’t until I examined the incident later that I realized he could have misinterpreted my response to several things he said. He could very well have thought that I was eager for him.”
Wolf growled, and she hurried on. “At any rate, he tried to kiss me. I stepped on his foot and elbowed him in the stomach. About that time, I heard my sister’s voice in the corridor. Knowing that no good could come from Freya’s finding me with Nevyn—even though nothing happened—I turned into a mouse and escaped out the window and into the gardens.”
“And how did your Darranian take that?” asked Wolf.
“Not very well,” admitted Aralorn, smiling wryly. “Obviously, I wasn’t there for the initial shock, but when I came in to dinner, Nevyn left the table. Freya apologized to me for his behavior—all of it. From what she said, I understand that he confessed all to her, which is admirable. He also claimed that it was my evil nature that caused his ‘anomalous’ behavior. She didn’t believe that—although Nevyn probably did—but Freya wasn’t too happy with me anyway.” She smiled wryly. “But Freya wasn’t why I left. I’d seen Nevyn’s face when he saw me: He was afraid of me.”
Wolf walked around the screen. He wore his human form, but the mask was gone, and his scars with it. It could have been illusion—human magic—but Aralorn sometimes thought that it was the green magic that he drew upon when he chose to look as he had before he’d burned himself. Surely a mere illusion would not seem so real; but then, maybe she was prejudiced in favor of green magic.
The unscarred face he wore was almost too beautiful for a man, without being unmasculine in the least. High cheekbones, square jaw, night-dark hair: His father had left his mark upon his son’s face as surely as he had his soul.
She would never let him see the touch of revulsion that she felt for that face, so close to the one his father wore. She knew that he wore it now in an attempt to be vulnerable before her, so that she could read his emotions better, for the scars that usually covered his face were too extensive to allow for much expression.
“It hurt you,” he said. “I am sorry.”
Aralorn shook her head. “I’ve grown up since then and learned a thing or two along the way. I’ve stayed away from Lambshold for my sister’s sake, and, I think, for my father’s as well. He loves—loved—Nevyn like another son. My presence could only have divided this family. And Nevyn . . . Nevyn came to us broken. One of us had to leave, and it was easier for me.” She thought a moment. “Actually, looking back, it’s rather amusing to think that someone thought I was an evil seductress. It’s not a role often taken by folks who look like I do.”
Although his lips never moved, his smile warmed his habitually cold eyes. “Evil, no,” he commented, his gaze drifting from her face.
“Are you implying something?” she asked archly, not at all displeased. She knew she was plain, and her feminine attractions were not enhanced by the muscles and scars of mercenary life—but it didn’t seem to bother Wolf.
“Who, me?” he murmured, kneeling beside the bath. He pressed a soft kiss on her forehead, then allowed his lips to trail a path along her eyebrow and over her cheekbone. Pausing at the corner of her mouth, he nibbled gently.
“You could seduce a glacier,” commented Aralorn, somewhat unsteadily. She shivered when the puff of air released by his hushed laugh brushed her passion-sensitive lips.
“Why, thank you,” he replied. “But I’ve never tried that.”
“I missed you,” she said softly.
He touched her forehead with his own and closed his eyes. Under her hand, his neck knotted with tension that had nothing, she thought, to do with the passion of a moment before.
“Help me here, love,” she said, scooting up in the tub until she was sitting upright. “What’s wrong?”
He pulled back, his eyes twin golden jewels that sparkled with the lights of the candles that lit the room. She couldn’t read the emotion that roiled behind the glittering amber, and she doubted Wolf could tell her what it was if he wanted to. He reacted to the unknown the same way a wild animal would—safety lay in knowledge and control; the unknown held only destruction. Falling in love had been much harder on him than it had been on her.
“I wasn’t going to ask you again,” she said. “But I think I had better. Why did you leave?”
Wolf drew in a breath and looked at the privacy screen as if it were a detailed work of art rather than the mundane piece of furniture it was. One of his hands was still on Aralorn’s shoulder, but he seemed to have forgotten about it.
“It’s all right,” said Aralorn finally, sitting up and pulling her legs until she could link her arms around them. “You don’t—”
“It is not
,” he bit out hoarsely, tightening his grip on her shoulder with bruising force. He twisted back to face her, and his kneeling posture became the crouch of a cornered beast. “I . . .
Aralorn scarcely had time to realize that her cooling bathwater had become scalding hot before Wolf pulled her out dripping like a fish onto the cold stone floor. She took the time to snatch the bath sheet and wrap it around her twice before joining Wolf near the tub, watching as the water erupted into clouds of billowing steam. After a moment, she opened the window shutters to disperse the fog in the room.
“I could have burned you,” he said, looking away from the empty tub, his voice too quiet.
“So you could have.” Aralorn pursed her lips, and wondered how to handle this new twist in their relationship.
She knew him well enough to know that heating the water hadn’t been a bizarre practical joke: He had a sense of humor, but it didn’t lend itself to endangering people. It meant that his magic was acting without his knowledge—sternly, she repressed the tingle of fear that trickled over her. Unlike Aralorn, his magic, human or green, was
better than the average hedgewitch’s: But her fear would hurt him more surely than a knife in his throat.
“I should have told you before,” he said without looking at her. “I thought it was just my imagination when things first started happening around me. They were little things. A vase falling off a table or a candle lighting itself.” He stopped speaking and drew in his breath.
When he spoke again, his ruined voice crackled with the effort of his suppressed emotion. “I wish I had never discovered I could work green magic as well as the human variety. It was bad enough before, when I was some sort of freak who couldn’t control the power of the magic I could summon. At least then it only came when I called. Ever since I started using green magic, I’ve been losing control. It tugs me around as if I were a dog, and it held my leash. It would be better for you if I left and never came back.”
As he spoke the last words, he made a swift gesture, and the steam clouds disappeared from the room. Aralorn stepped in front of him, so he had to look at her.
Smiling sweetly, she reached up to touch his face with both hands. “You leave, and I’ll follow you to Deathsgate and back,” she said pleasantly. “Don’t think I can’t.”
His hands covered hers rather fiercely.
“Gods,” he said, closing his eyes. Aralorn couldn’t tell if it was a curse or a prayer.
“Green magic has a personality of its own,” she said softly. “One of the elders who taught me likened it to a willful child. It responds better to coaxing than force.”
Yellow eyes slitted open. “Do you not have to call your magic? Just as any human mage would do?”
“Yes,” agreed Aralorn, though reluctantly. She hated it when he shot down her attempts to make him feel better.
Wolf grunted. “A human mage is limited by the amount of pure, unformed magic he can summon and the time he can hold it to his spell. The magic you call is already a part of the pattern of the world, so you have to respect that limit. I tell you that this
”—he spat the word out—“comes when it wills. If you are not frightened by that, you should be. Remember that
magic is not limited except by my will. This does not heed my will at all. I cannot control it, I cannot stop it.”