The activity around the bier room had attracted the attention of several people in the great hall. When Correy drew back the curtain, Aralorn saw that Falhart was standing near the opening with a slender woman who could only be his wife, Jenna. Nevyn and Freya were there, too.
Correy glanced around the room with an assessing eye. Impatiently, he grabbed a pewter pitcher from a surprised servant and dumped the liquid it contained onto the floor. With a boyish grin, he took the empty vessel and flung it against a nearby stone pillar. The resultant clamor had the effect of silencing the room momentarily.
“Good people,” bellowed Correy, though the effect was somewhat marred by the silly grin on his face. “I am here to announce that my father’s interment has been indefinitely postponed because of a slight misconception on our part. It seems that the Lyon lives.” He had to wait a moment before the noise level dropped to where he could be heard. “My sister, Aralorn, has determined that it is some ensorcellment that holds Father in thrall. I will send to the ae’Magi at once for his aid. Until he arrives, I would ask that no one enter the chamber.”
“You say the shapeshifter wishes no one to enter?” Nevyn’s face was pale. Freya touched his arm, but he shook himself free of her hand.
say no one enters,” snapped Correy.
“There is a trap of some sort,” said Aralorn before matters between the two men worsened. “I have neither the skill nor the knowledge to deal with it. I fear that anyone without safeguards would be in danger of ending up in the same state as my father.” She bowed her head formally at Nevyn. “As you are far better trained than I, you are free to enter or not as you wish.”
Nevyn gave a shallow nod but didn’t move his eyes from Correy. “I would like to verify her opinion.”
“Fine,” said Correy.
“Have a care,” murmured Aralorn, as Nevyn brushed past her to enter the smaller room.
Aralorn looked at Wolf and gestured after Nevyn. He sighed loudly and ducked through the curtain behind the human mage.
While Irrenna dealt with the questions thrown at her, Falhart picked up the dented pitcher and handed it to Correy with a brotherly grin. “Never thought to see the day that my courtly brother dumped good ale on the floor in a formal gathering.”
Correy took the pitcher with a sheepish smile and shrugged. “It seemed . . . appropriate.”
Falhart turned to Aralorn. “Well, Featherweight, you did it again.”
She raised her brows. “Did what?”
“Managed to put the whole household in an uproar. You even turned Correy into a barbarian like ourselves. Look at all the work you caused the servants: This room will smell like a brewery for a se’night.”
Aralorn drew in her breath and puffed out her chest and prepared to defend herself. Before she could open her mouth, she was engulfed in Falhart’s arms.
“Thanks,” he said.
When Falhart set her down, Correy picked her up in a similar fashion, then gave her to an older man she recognized as one of the Lyon’s fighting comrades—and she wasn’t the only woman passed from one embrace to the next. From there the gathering took on the festiveness of Springfair.
Out of the corner of her eye, Aralorn saw Wolf find a place under one of the food-laden tables. Knowing from his actions that Nevyn was safely out of the curtained alcove, she relaxed and enjoyed herself.
Nevyn had no intention of working magic while under the watchful eye of Aralorn’s companion, who had inexplicably followed him.
He usually loved four-footed beasts of all kinds, but the cold yellow eyes of the wolf gave him chills. Would it have followed him if it were only a pet wolf as she claimed? Was it some relative of hers? He couldn’t tell the shapeshifters from any of the other creatures of the forest.
After completing a brief inspection of the room, Nevyn rejoined the guests. He would return to the Lyon when everyone was gone.
The tenor of the evening had changed during the short time he’d been gone. The quiet, hushed crowd had grown boisterous and loud, forgetting, in their joy at Aralorn’s news, that the Lyon still was in danger.
Nevyn watched his wife dance with Correy for a moment, but he was uncomfortable with the noisy crowd. He disliked strangers and gatherings of people. Not even eleven years in Lambshold had managed to change that. Without so much as a touch of envy, he watched the others celebrate: He liked knowing that so many people cared for the man who’d been a much better father to him than his own.
Smiling faintly, he turned and left the room, taking care to leave unseen. If Freya knew he’d gone, she would follow him—not understanding that he wanted her to enjoy herself. He loved her more because they were different, and had no desire to change her.
The smile grew more comfortable on his face as he took the servants’ stairs to reach the suite he shared with his wife. He felt better than he had for a long time. Aralorn’s discovery took a large portion of the weight of responsibility off his shoulders. He’d dreaded the thought that he would have to stop the burial himself despite the assurances he’d received to the contrary.
He felt guilty for what had been done to the man he loved as a father. But that would soon be over as well. He also hadn’t wanted to hurt Aralorn, and she would be hurt when she realized that she was responsible for her father’s condition: She was too smart not to make the connection. At least she wasn’t in any danger, not now.
He truly believed that she was something unnatural—even evil—but part of him still had a tender spot for the funny, teasing girl who had welcomed him to Lambshold. For that child’s sake, he hoped this would soon be over. He’d hurt her tonight. He hadn’t meant to, but he had to remind himself what she was lest he begin to forget the terrible things that magic could do no matter how good the man wielding it.
He entered his bedroom with a sigh of relief. One of his cats jumped down from the chair it had been sitting on to strop itself against his leg.
Nevyn stripped off his formal dress, leaving it where it fell. The cat mewed imperatively, and he picked it up before lying down in the bed he shared with Freya.
“Problems, Nevyn?” whispered an accentless voice in Darranian from the shadow-laden window alcove.
Nevyn jumped, still unused to the way the mage could appear out of nowhere. “My lord,” he greeted him. “I was just thinking. It happened as you said it would. Aralorn discovered the spell, though she managed to stay out of the trap as you feared she might.” He was glad of it, he thought with unusual defiance.
The sorcerer emerged from the alcove and stood in the light of the single candle Nevyn had left burning. He was taller than Nevyn and moved like a warrior despite the wizard’s robes he wore. His hair was the same color as the black cat that rested on Nevyn’s lap. His eyes were cobalt blue.
“Don’t fret,” he said, his voice matching the perfection of his face. “She could only escape because
Nevyn shook his head. “I saw no one enter the room but Aralorn, Irrenna, and Correy.”
“Nonetheless,” said the other man again, “it was
magic that stopped the
from completing its work. That you did not see him enter is hardly surprising. My son is capable of great magics. There is a door into the bier room—a lock would be no barrier to a mage of his caliber.” He paused, then snapped his fingers. “Of course,” he said softly. “I should have thought . . . The girl, Aralorn, has been known to travel quite often with a large black wolf. Was he there?”
“Yes,” answered Nevyn. “What does that have to do with her escape from the trap, my lord ae’Magi?”
The other man looked thoughtfully at Nevyn. Then he smiled. “Since my son’s attempt on my life, I no longer hold that title—it belongs to Lord Kisrah, who holds the Master Spells. You may address me as Geoffrey, if you like.”
“Thank you,” said Nevyn.
“My son is the wolf,” said Geoffrey. “It is some effect of the combination of my magic and his mother’s that allows him to take that shape as if it were his own. Be careful when he is about.”
Nevyn nodded. “I’ll do that.”
“Thank you.” Geoffrey smiled. “You look tired now. Why don’t you sleep. Nothing more will happen tonight.”
Nevyn found that he was more tired than he remembered. He was asleep before Geoffrey left the room.
In her bedchamber, Aralorn stepped behind the screen to remove the torn dress and the shoes as well. Pulling her toes up to stretch her protesting calf muscles, she listened to the sounds of Wolf stirring the coals in the grate.
“Did you get a good enough feel for the spelling to tell if it was a human mage who attacked my father?” she asked, pulling a bedrobe off the screen and examining it, curious. It was the shade of old gold embroidered with red, and the needlework was far finer than any she had ever done. “I couldn’t get close enough to tell.”
“I don’t know,” replied Wolf after a moment. “The magic in that room didn’t feel like human magic—at least not always. Nor did it feel the way green magic does.” There was a pause, then he continued in a softer voice. “There’s black magic aplenty, though. It might be some effect of the corruption that makes it difficult to say whether it is a human or one of your kinsmen responsible.”
“Most everyone here is a kinsman of mine,” she said, and wrapped the robe around herself.
She sighed. The robe was unfamiliar because it quite obviously belonged to one of her sisters. The sleeves drooped several inches past her hands, and the silk pooled untidily at her feet. She felt like a child playing dress-up.
“If it is human magic, Nevyn is the most obvious culprit.”
Reading her tone, Wolf said, “You find that so far-fetched?”
“Let’s just say that I’d suspect the shapeshifters—I’d suspect
—before I’d believe that Nevyn harmed my father,” she said, standing on her toes without appreciably affecting the length of fabric left on the ground. “Me, yes—but not my father. When Nevyn came here . . . something in him was broken. My father accepted him as one of us. He bellowed at him and hugged him, and Nevyn didn’t know what to make of him.” Aralorn smiled, remembering the bewildered young man who’d waited to be rejected by the Lyon as he’d been rejected by everyone else. “Nevyn wouldn’t hurt my father.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Tomorrow,” she said, “I’d like to find my mother’s brother and see what he has to say. If he did this, he’ll tell me so—my uncle is like that. If not, I’d like him to take a look at the shadow-thing. He’s familiar with most of the uncanny things that live here in the mountains.”
She tried rolling up the sleeves. “By the way, did you ward the alcove to keep curiosity seekers out, or are we relying on Irrenna’s guards?” The soft fabric slid out of the roll as easily as water flowed down a hillside.
“I set wards.”
Deciding there was nothing to be done about the robe, Aralorn stepped around the screen. Unmasked and scarred, Wolf set the poker aside and turned to face her. He stopped and raised an eyebrow at her, his eyes glinting with unholy amusement.
“You look about ten years old,” he said, then paused and looked at her chest. “Except, of course, for certain attributes seldom found in ten-year-olds.”
“Very funny,” replied Aralorn with all the dignity she could muster. “Some of us can’t magically zap our clothing from wherever we put it last. Some of us have to make do with what clothing is offered us.”
“Some of us can do nothing but complain,” added Wolf, waving his hand at her.
Aralorn felt the familiar tingle of human magic, and her robe shrank to manageable size. “Thanks, Wolf. I knew there was a good reason to keep you around.”
He bowed with a courtier’s flair, his teeth white in the dim light of the room. “Proper lady’s maid.”
Aralorn snorted. “Somehow,” she said dryly, “I don’t think you convey the right air. Any Lady worthy of her title would not let you close enough to tie her laces . . . untie perhaps, but not tie.”