copyright © 2009 Stephen Leigh
A MAGIC OF NIGHTFALL
(Book 2 of the Nessantico Cycle)
If a city can have a gender, Nessantico was female...
Once, she had been young and vital: the city, the woman. During her ascension, she had transformed herself into the most famous, the most beautiful, the most powerful of her kind.
She looked at herself now and wondered--as someone might who glimpses herself all unexpected in a mirror and is startled and disturbed by the image staring back--if those attributes still held true.
Oh, she knew that youth was fleeting and ephemeral. After all, the people dwelling within her walls led lives that were short and harsh. For them, the mirrored face changed relentlessly with each passing day until that morning when they realized that the reflection in the silvered glass was lined and tired, that the gray at the temples had spread and whitened. They might feel their joints protesting at a movement that had once required no effort or thought at all, or discover that injuries now required weeks rather than days to heal, or that illnesses lingered like unwelcome guests--or worse, transitioned from 'lingering' to 'chronic.'
The chill of mortality seeped into their mortal bones like slow ice.
Mortality: Nessantico felt it too. Those within her disguised her lines and folds with the cosmetics of architecture. Look, she could say: there is cu'Brunelli's grand dome for the Old Temple--fifteen years under construction now--which when finished will be the largest free-standing dome in the known world. There: that's ca'Casseli's ornate and beautiful Theatre a'Kralji on the Isle, capable of holding an audience of two thousand, with acoustics so fine that everyone can hear the slightest whisper on the stage; there, the Grande Libreria on the South Bank, begun under Kraljiki Justi's reign and containing all the greatest intellectual works of humankind. Listen: that is the sweet music of ce'Miella, whose compositions rival the lush melodies of the master Darkmavis. Gaze on the symbol-laden paintings and murals of ce'Vaggio, whose ability to paint figures is often compared to that of the tragic master ci'Recroix. There is so much vibrant life here within Nessantico: all the plays and the dances, the celebrations and gaiety.
All is the same here as it has always been; no, all is better.
Yet she had changed, and she knew it. There were signs and portents. In Oldtown, not long ago, there was a woman born with the legs of a tarantula who (it was whispered) could kill with a single glance from her faceted eyes. There had been the affliction of thousands of green toads from the Fens two springs ago, so thick that they had covered the nearby lanes in a writhing mass a hand's span deep. In the sewers of the North Bank, a creature with the head of a dragon, the body of a bull, and the hands and feet of a human was said to prowl, eating rats that had grown to the size of wolves.
There were the real, inarguable signs, too. The Holdings had been broken, that strong alliance of countries forged slowly over centuries. After an ill-fated attack on Nessantico in the wake of Kraljica Marguerite's assassination, the city Brezno had become her rival as Firenzcia gathered around itself several of its neighboring lands: a Coalition under the direction of Hďrzg Jan ca'Vörl.
The Concénzia Faith, too, had been sundered, and it was not what it had been. Archigos Ana sat in the temple on the South Bank, yes, but another called himself Archigos in Brezno. Within Nessantico, the heretical Numetodo took on new adherents, and it was not uncommon to see someone casting a spell who was not wearing green robes or calling first on Cénzi.
Signs and portents. Change. The older Nessantico grew, the more change became difficult for her.
Caught in her own unwelcome autumn, Nessantico--the city, the woman--stared at her reflection in the dark waters of the River A'Sele and wondered...
And, like many in her position, she denied what she saw.
The White Stone
Her vatarh had been the sun around which she had orbited for as long as she could remember. Now that sun, at long last, was setting.
The message had arrived from Brezno by fast-rider, and she stared at the words scrawled by a hasty, fair hand. "Your vatarh is dying. If you want to see him, hurry." That was the entire message. It was signed by Archigos Semini of Brezno and sealed with his signet.
Vatarh is dying... The great Hďrzg Jan of Firenzcia, after whom she had named her only child, was passing. The words set alight a sour fire in her belly; the words swam on the page with the salt tears that welled unbidden in her eyes. She sat there -- at her fine desk, in her opulent offices near the Gyula's palais in Malacki -- and she saw a droplet hit the paper to smudge the inked words.
She hated that Vatarh could still affect her so strongly; she hated that she cared. She should have hated him, but she couldn't. No matter how hard she'd tried over the years, she couldn't.
One might curse the sun for its scorching heat or its absence, but without the sun there was no life.
"I hate him," she declared to Archigos Ana. It had been two years since Ana had snatched her away from her vatarh to hold her as hostage. Two years, and he still hadn't paid the ransom to bring her back. She was thirteen, on the cusp of her menarche, and he had abandoned her. What had originally been anxiety and disappointment had slowly transformed inside her into anger. At least that's what she believed.
"No, you don't," Ana said quietly, stroking her hair. They were standing on the balcony of her apartments in the Temple complex in Nessantico, staring down to where knots of green-clad téni hurried to their duties. "Not really. If he paid the ransom tomorrow, you would be glowing and ready to run back to him. Look inside yourself, Allesandra. Look honestly. Isn't that true?"
"Well, he must hate me," she retorted, "or he'd have paid."
Ana had hugged her tightly then. "He will," she told Allesandra. "He will. It's just... Allesandra, your vatarh wished to sit on the Sun Throne. He has always been a proud man, and because I took you away, he was never able to realize his dream. You remind him of all he lost... And that's my fault. Not yours. It's not yours at all."
Vatarh hadn't paid. Not for ten long years. It had been Fynn, the new son her matarh Greta had given the Hďrzg, who basked in Vatarh's affections, who was taught the ways of war, who was named as the new A'Hďrzg -- the title that should have been hers.
Instead of her vatarh and her matarh, it was Archigos Ana who become her surrogate parent, shepherding her through puberty and adolescence, comforting Allesandra through her first crushes and infatuations, teaching her the ways of ca'-and-cu' society, escorting her to dances and parties, treating her not as a captive but as a niece it had become her responsibility to raise.
"I love you, Tantzia," Allesandra said to Ana. She'd taken to calling the Archigos 'aunt'. The news had come to Kraljiki Justi that a treaty between the Holdings and the Firenzcian 'Coalition' was to be signed in Passe a'Fiume, and as part of the negotiations, Hďrzg Jan had finally paid the ransom for his daughter. She'd been a decade in Nessantico, nearly half her life. Now, at 21, she was to return to the life she'd lost so long ago and she was frightened by the prospect. Once, this had been all she'd wanted. Now...
Part of her wanted to stay here. Here, where she knew she was loved.
Ana folded her in her arms. Allesandra was taller than the Archigos now, and Ana had to raise up on tiptoes to kiss her forehead. "I love you too, Allesandra. I'll miss you, but it's time for you to go home. Just know that I will always be here for you. Always. You are part of my heart, my dear. Forever...."
Allesandra had hoped that she could bask in the sun of her vatarh's love again. Yes, she'd heard all about how the new A'Hďrzg Fynn was the child Hďrzg Jan had always desired: skilled at riding, at the sword, at diplomacy. She'd heard how he was being groomed already for a career in the Garde Firenzcia. But she had once been the pride of her vatarh, too. Surely she could become so again.
But she knew as soon as he looked at her, across the parley tent there at Passe a'Fiume, that it was not to be. In his hawkish eyes, there had been a smoldering distaste. He'd glanced at her appraisingly, as he might a stranger -- and indeed, she was a stranger to him: a young woman now, no longer the girl he'd lost. He'd taken her hands and accepted her curtsy as he might have any ca'-and-cu' and passed her off to Archigos Semini a moment later.
Fynn had been at his side -- the age now that she'd been when she'd been taken -- and he looked appraisingly at his older sister as he might have some rival.
Allesandra had sought Ana's gaze from across the tent, and the woman had smiled sadly toward her and raised her hand in farewell. There had been tears in the Ana's eyes, sparkling in the sun that beat through the thin canvas of the tent. Ana, at least, had been true to her word. She had written Allesandra regularly. She had negotiated with her vatarh to be allowed to attend Allesandra's marriage to Pauli ca'Xielt, the son of the Gyula of West Magyaria and thus a politically-advantageous marriage for the Hďrzg, and a loveless one for Allesandra.
Ana had even, surreptitiously, been present at the birth of Allesandra's son, nearly sixteen years ago now. Archigos Ana -- the heretical and false Archigos according to Firenzcia, whom Allesandra was obliged to hate as a good citizen of the Coalition -- had blessed the child and pronounced the name that Allesandra had given him: Jan. She'd done so without rebuke and without comment. She'd done so with a gentle smile and a kiss.
Even naming her child for her vatarh had changed nothing. It had not brought him closer to Allesandra -- Hďrzg Jan had mostly ignored his great-son and namesake. Jan was in the company of Hďrzg Jan perhaps twice a year, when he and Allesandra visited for state occasions, and only rarely did the Hďrzg speak directly to his great-son.
Now... Now her vatarh was dying and she couldn't help crying for him. Or perhaps it was that she couldn't help crying for herself. Angrily, she tore at the dampness on her cheeks with her sleeve. "Aeri!" she called to her secretary. "Come in here! I have to go to Brezno..."
Allesandra strode into the Hďrzg's bedchamber tossing aside her travel-stained cloak, her hair wind-tossed and the smell of horse on her clothes. She pushed past the servants who tried to assist her and went to the bed. The chevarittai and various relatives gathered there moved aside to let her approach; she could feel their appraising stares on her back. She stared at the wizened, dried-apple face on the pillow and barely recognized him.
"Is he...?" she asked brusquely, but then she heard the phlegm-wracked rattle of his breath and saw the slow movement of his chest under the blankets. The room stank of sickness despite the perfumed candles. "Out!" she told them all, gesturing. "Tell Fynn I've come, but leave me alone with my vatarh. Out!"
They scattered, as she knew they would. None of them attempted to protest, though the Healers frowned at her from under carefully-lowered brows, and she could hear the whispers even as they fled. "It's no wonder her husband stays away from her... A goat has better manners... She has the arrogance of Nessantico..."
She slammed the door in their faces.
Then, finally, staring down at her vatarh's gray, sunken face, she finally allowed herself to cry, kneeling alongside his bed and holding his cold, withered hands. "I loved you, Vatarh," she told him. Alone with him, there could be truth. "I did. Even after you abandoned me, even after you gave Fynn all the affection I wanted, I still loved you. I could have been the heir you deserved. I will still be that, if I have the chance."
She heard the scrape of bootsteps at the door and rose to her feet, wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her tashta, and sniffing once as Fynn pushed the door open. He strode into the chamber--Fynn never simply walked into a room. "Sister," he said. "I see the news reached you."
Allesandra stood, arms folded. She would not let him realize how deeply seeing her vatarh on his deathbed had affected her. She shrugged. "I still have sources here in Brezno, even when my brother fails to send a messenger."
"It slipped my mind," he said. "But I figured you would hear anyway." The smile he gave her was more sneer, twisted by the long, puckered scar that ran from the corner of his right eye and across his lip to the chin: the mark of a Tennshah scimitar. Fynn, at twenty-four, had the hard, lean body of a professional soldier, a figure that suited the loose pants and shirt that he wore. Such Tennshah clothing had become fashionable in Firenzcia since the border wars six years before, where Fynn had engaged the T'Sha's forces and pushed Firenzcia's borders nearly a thirty leagues eastward, and where he had acquired the long scar that marred his handsome face.
It was during that war that Fynn had won their vatarh's affection entirely and ended any lingering hope of Allesandra's that she might become Hďrzgin.
"The Healers say the end will come sometime today, or possibly tonight if he continues to fight--Vatarh never did give up easily, did he? But the soul shredders will come for him this time. There's no longer any doubt of that." Fynn glanced down at the figure on the bed as the Hďrzg took another long, shuddering breath. The young man's gaze was affectionate and sad, and yet somehow appraising at the same time, as if he were gauging how long it might be before he could slip the signet ring from the folded hands and put it on his own finger; how soon he could place the golden crown-band of the Hďrzg on the curls of his own head. "There's nothing you or I can do, Sister," he said, "other than pray that Cénzi receives Vatarh's soul kindly. Beyond that..." He shrugged. "How is my nephew Jan?" he asked.
"You'll see soon enough," Allesandra told him. "He's on his way to Brezno behind me and should arrive tomorrow."
"And your husband? The dear Pauli?"
Allesandra sniffed. "If you're trying to goad me, Fynn, it won't work. I've suggested to Pauli that he remain in Malacki and attend to state business. What of yourself? Have you found someone to marry yet, or do you still prefer the company of soldiers and horses?"
The smile was slow in coming and uncertain when it appeared. "Now who goads whom?" he asked. "Vatarh and I had made no decisions on that yet, and now it seems that the decision will be mine alone--though I'll certainly listen to any suggestions you might have." He opened his arms, and she reluctantly allowed him to embrace her. Neither one of them tightened their arms but only encircled the other as if hugging a thorn bush, and the gesture ended after a single breath. "Allesandra, I know there's always been a distance between us, but I hope that we can work as one when..." He hesitated, and she watched his chest rise with a long inhalation. "...when I am the Hďrzg. I will need your counsel, Sister."
"And I will give it to you," she told him. She leaned forward and kissed the air a careful finger's width from his scarred cheek. "Little brother."
"I wish we could have truly been little brother and big sister," he answered. "I wish I could have known you then."
"As do I," she told him. And I wish those were more than just empty, polite words we both say because we know they're demanded by etiquette. "Stay here with me now? Let vatarh feel us together for once."
She felt his hesitation and wondered whether he'd refuse. But after a breath, he lifted one shoulder. "For a turn of the glass or so," he said. "We can pray for him. Together."
He pulled two chairs to the side of the bed, placing them an arm's length apart. They sat, they watched the faltering rise and fall of their vatarh's chest, and they said nothing more.
"I have to ride as quickly as I can to Brezno," his matarh had told him. "I've instructed the servants to pack up our rooms for travel. I want you to follow along as soon as they have the carriages ready. And Jan, see if you can convince your vatarh to come with you." She kissed his forehead then, more urgently than she had in years, and pulled him into her. "I love you," she whispered. "I hope you know that."
"I do," he'd told her, pulling away and grinning at her. "And I hope you know that."
She'd smiled, hugging him a final time before she swung herself onto the horse held by the two chevarittai who would accompany her. He watched the trio clatter away down the road of their estate at a gallop.
That had been two days ago. His matarh should have made Brezno yesterday. Jan leaned his head back against the cushions of the carriage, watching the landscape of southern Firenzcia pass by in the green-gold light of late afternoon. The driver had told him that they would be stopping at the next village for the evening, and arrive in Brezno by midday tomorrow. He wondered what he'd find there.
He was alone in his carriage.
He'd asked his vatarh Pauli to come with him, as his matarh had requested. The servants had told him that Pauli was in his apartments at the estate -- in a separate wing from those of Allesandra -- and Pauli's chief aide had gone in to announce Pauli. The aide had returned with arched eyebrows. "Your vatarh says he can spare a few moments," he'd said, escorting Jan to one of the reception rooms off the main corridor.
Jan could hear the muffled giggling of two women from a bedroom leading from the room. The door opened in the middle of a man's coarse laugh. His vatarh was in a robe, his hair was tousled and unkempt, and his beard untrimmed. He smelled of perfume and wine. "A moment," he'd said to Jan, touching a finger to his lips before half-staggering to the door leading to the bedroom and opening it slightly. "Shh!" he said loudly. "I am trying to conduct a conversation about my wife with my son," he said. That was greeted by shrill laughter.
"Tell the boy to join us," Jan heard one of them call out. He felt his face flush at the comment as Pauli waggled his forefinger toward the unseen woman.
"The two of you are delightfully wicked," Pauli told them. Jan imagined the women: rouged, bewigged, half-clothed, or perhaps entirely nude, like one of the portraits of the Moitidi goddesses that adorned the halls. He felt himself responding to the image and forced it out of his mind. "I'll be there in a moment," Pauli continued. "You ladies have more wine."
He closed the door and leaned heavily against it. "Sorry," he told Jan. "I have... company. Now, what did the bitch want? Oh -- you may tell your matarh for me that the a'Gyula of West Magyaria has better things to do than ride to Brezno because someone may or may not be dying. When the old bastard finally does breathe his last, I'll undoubtedly be sent to the funeral as our representative, and that'll be soon enough." His words were slurred. He blinked slowly and belched. "You don't need to go either, boy. Stay here, why don't you? The two of us could have some fun, eh? I'm sure these ladies have friends..."
Jan shook his head. "I promised Matarh that I'd ask you to come, and I have. I'm leaving tonight; the servants have nearly finished packing the carriages."
"Ah, yes," Pauli said. "You're such a good, obedient child, aren't you? Your matarh's pride and joy." He pushed himself from the door and stood unsteadily, pointing at Jan with a fingertip that drifted from one side to another. "You don't want to be like her," he said. "She won't be satisfied until she's running the whole world. She's an ambitious whore with a heart carved from flint."
He'd heard Pauli insult his matarh a thousand times, more with each passing year. He'd always gritted his teeth before, had pretended not to hear or mumbled a protest that Pauli would ignore. This time... The nascent flush in Jan's face went lava-red. He took three swift steps across the carpeted room, drew his hand back, and slapped his vatarh across the face. Pauli reeled, staggering back against the door, which opened and toppled him onto a braided rug there. Jan saw the two women inside -- half-clothed, indeed, and in his vatarh's bed. They covered their breasts with the sheets, screaming. Pauli lifted an unbelieving hand to his face; over the thin beard, Jan could see the imprint of his fingers on his vatarh's cheek.
He wondered for a moment what he'd do if Pauli got up, but his vatarh only blinked again and laughed as if startled.
"Well, you didn't need to do that," he said.
"You may have whatever opinion you want of Matarh," Jan told him. "I don't care. But from now on, Vatarh, keep them to yourself or we will have more than words." With that, before Pauli could rise from the carpet or answer, Jan turned and rushed from the room.
He felt strangely exhilarated. His hand tingled. The rest of the day, he expected to be summoned into his vatarh's presence -- once the wine had passed from the man's head. But when he was told that the carriages were ready and waiting for him, he had heard nothing. He looked up to the windows of his vatarh's wing as he entered the lead carriage and the servants traveling with him piled into the others. Jan thought he glimpsed a form at the window, watching, and he lifted his hand -- the hand that had struck his vatarh.
Another form, a feminine one, approached his vatarh from behind and the curtain closed again. Jan stepped up into the carriage. "Let's go," he told the driver. "We've a long journey ahead."
He looked out from the carriage window again now. For most of the journey, he'd brooded on what had happened. He was nearly sixteen. Nearly a man. He'd even had his first lover -- a ce' girl who had been part of the estate staff, though his matarh had sent her away when she realized that they had become intimate. She'd also given Jan a long lecture on her expectations for him. "But Vatarh-" he'd begun, and she cut off his protest with a sharp slash of her hand.
"Stop there, Jan. Your vatarh is lazy and dissolute, and -- forgive my crudeness -- he too often thinks with what's between his legs, not with his head. You're better than him, Jan. You are going to be important in this world, if you make the choice not to be your vatarh's child. I know this. I promise you."
She hadn't said all that she could have, and they both knew it. Pauli might be Jan's vatarh, but for him that was just another title and not an occupation. It had been his matarh whom Jan saw each day, who had played with him when he was small, who had come to see him each night after his nursemaids had tucked him into bed. His vatarh.... He was a tall figure who sometimes tousled Jan's head or who gave him extravagant presents that seemed more to be a payment for his absence than true gifts.
His vatarh was the A'Gyula of West Magyaria.: the son of the current Gyula, the ruler who Jan saw about as often as he saw his other great-vatarh, the Hďrzg. People bowed in Pauli's presence, they laughed and smiled as they talked with him. But Jan had heard the whispers of the staff, and of their guests when they thought no one was listening.
His right hand throbbed, as if with the memory of the slap to his vatarh's face. He looked at the hand in the dying light of the day: an adult's hand now. The slap to his vatarh's face had severed him from his childhood forever.
He would not be his vatarh. That much, he promised himself. He would be his own self. Independent.
Varina stood alongside Karl in the Archigos' plush reception room, but -- as was nearly always the case when Ana was in the same room -- she seemed invisible to him. All his attention was on the Archigos. Varina wanted to lean over to Karl and slap him. "Can't you see what's in front of your face? Are you that oblivious?"
It seemed he was. He always was, and he always would be where Ana was concerned. Over the years, Varina had come to that conclusion. It would perhaps have been different if Varina didn't like and admire the Archigos herself, if she didn't consider the woman a friend. Still...
"You're sure of this?" Karl asked Ana. He was glancing at a parchment that Ana had handed him, a forefinger tapping the words written there. "He's dead?" There was no trace of sadness in his voice at all; he was, in fact, smiling as he handed the paper back to her.
Ana frowned. If Karl found the news pleasant, it was obvious to Varina that Ana's own feelings were more conflicted. "Hďrzg Jan's dying," Ana said. "And likely dead by this point, I suspect, if this information is accurate. The téni who sent has the healer's touch; he should know if the man's beyond saving."
"About time the old buzzard passed on," Karl said. He glanced around the room thoughtfully, but not at Varina. "Have you talked to Allesandra? Will she contest Fynn's claim to the throne?"
"I don't know." Ana seemed to sigh. Ana had never been beautiful; at best, as a young woman, she'd been plain. Even she would have admitted that. Now, approaching her middle years, she'd settled into a matronly figure, but there was something striking and solid and compelling about her. Varina could understand Karl's attraction and devotion to the woman, even as part of her resented it. Ana's reputation had only grown over the years. Kraljiki Justi had been mocked behind his back, and his son Audric seemed to be faring no better, and there were those in the Faith who felt Ana's tolerance and openness were heretical, but the common people of Nessantico and the Holdings seemed to adore their Archigos and had taken her to their hearts. Varina had seen the crowds around the temple whenever Ana was to give an Admonition, and she'd heard the cheers when the Archigos' carriage passed by on the Avi a'Parete.
"If Allesandra were on the throne of Firenzcia, I'd feel better about everything," Ana continued. "I'd feel there was some hope that the Holdings could be restored. If Ana were Hďrzgin..." Another sigh. She looked over her shoulder at the huge, ornamental cracked globe that dominated the far corner of the room: gilded and bejeweled, with carvings of the Moitidi -- the demigods who were the sons and daughters of Cénzi -- writhing in agony around its base. Her voice was a half-whisper, as if she were afraid someone might overhear her. "Then I might consider opening negotiations with Semini ca'Cellibrecca, to see if the Faith could also be reunited."
Varina sucked in her breath and Ana glanced at her sympathetically. "I know, Varina," she said. "I assure you that the safety of the Numetodo would be a non-negotiable point, even if I were willing to step aside as Archigos for Semini. I wouldn't tolerate a repeat of the persecutions."
"You couldn't trust ca'Cellibrecca to keep those promises," Varina told her. "He's his marriage-vatarh's son, all the way through."
"Ca'Cellibrecca would be bound to keep a public pledge, as well as his vows to Cénzi."
"You have more more faith in him than I do," Varina answered. That caused Ana to smile.
"Strange to hear a Numetodo speak of faith," she said, her hand reaching out to touch Varina's shoulder through her tashta. She laughed pleasantly. "But I understand your concern and your skepticism. I ask you to trust me -- if it came to that, I will make certain you, Karl and all your people are protected."
"Will it come to that?" Karl interjected. He'd watched Ana's hand as if wishing she were touching him. "You think there's a chance, Ana?"
She looked at the paper in her hand as if searching for an answer there, then turned to drop drop the scroll on a nearby table. It made little sound -- a strange thing, Varina thought, for something so heavy with import. "I don't know," Ana said. "There's no love lost between Allesandra and her brother -- given how long Allesandra was here with me while both of them were growing up, they're more strangers rather than siblings, and the way Hďrzg Jan treated Allesandra when he did ransom her..." Ana shook her head. "But I don't know what Allesandra wants anymore, or what her desires and aspirations might be. I thought I knew once, but..."
"You were a matarh to her," Karl said, and Ana laughed again.
"No, I wasn't that. Maybe an older sister or a tantzia. I tried to be someone she could be safe with, because the poor child was all alone here for far too long. I can't imagine how much that hurt her."
"You were wonderful to her," Karl persisted. Varina watched Karl's hand reach out to take Ana's. It hurt to watch the gesture. "You were."
"Thank you, but I always wonder if I could have done more, or better," Ana said. She moved her hands slowly away from his. "I did what I could. That's all Cénzi can ask, I suppose." She smiled. "We'll see what happens, won't we? I'll keep you informed if I hear any more news."
"You're still available for dinner tomorrow?" Karl asked her.
Ana's gaze slid from Karl to Varina and back. "Yes," she said. "After Third Call. Would you like to join us, Varina?"
She could feel Karl staring at her. "No," Varina said hurriedly. "I can't, Archigos. I have a meeting with Mika, and a class to teach..." Too many excuses, but Karl was nodding. His satisfaction at her answer was like the cut of a small blade.
"Tomorrow night, then," he said. "I'm looking forward to it. We should probably go, Varina. I'm sure the Archigos has other business..." He inclined his head toward Ana and started toward the door. Varina turned to follow him, but Ana's voice called out behind them.
"Varina, a moment? Karl, I'll send her along directly, I promise." Karl glanced back, puzzled, but he bowed again and went to the doors. The two massive panels were carved with bas-reliefs of the Moitidi in battle, with swords clashing and overlapping at the join. Karl pulled and the combatants separated. Varina waited until the polished, dark wood had closed behind him and the Moitidi were once again at war.
"I wanted a moment with you, Varina, because I'm worried," Ana said. "You look so tired and so drawn. Thin. I know how caught up you've become in your... research. Are you remembering to eat?"
Varina touched her face. She knew what Ana was saying. She'd seen her face in the small mirror she kept on her dressing table. Her fingertips traced the new lines that had emerged in the past several months, felt the coarseness of the gray hairs at her temple. She was afraid to look in the mirror most mornings -- the face that looked back at her was an older stranger she barely recognized. "I'm fine," she said reflexively.
"Are you?" Ana asked again. "These 'experiments' Karl says you're doing, attempting to recreate what Mahri could do..." She shook her head. "I worry about you, Varina. So does Karl."
"So does Karl..." She wished she could believe those words. "I'm fine," she repeated.
"I could use the Ilmodo if you'd like -- it might help. If you're in pain."
"You'd disobey the Divolonte and heal me? An unbeliever? Archigos!" Varina smiled at Ana, who laughed in return.
"I can trust you to keep my secrets," Ana said. "And the offer stands, if you ever feel the need."
"Thank you, Archigos. I'll keep that in mind." She nodded her head toward the silent, battling Moitidi. "I should catch up with Karl."
"Yes, you should." Ana started to give the sign of Cénzi to Varina, then stopped herself. "I could tell him," she said.
"I have eyes. When I see you with him..."
Varina laughed. "You're the only one he sees, Archigos."
"And I'm bound to Cénzi," Ana said. "No one else. I'm not destined for that kind of relationship in this life. I've told him that. I treasure his friendship and all he's done for me and Nessantico. I love Karl dearly, more than I ever loved anyone else. But what he wants..." Her head moved slowly from side to side as her lips pressed together. "You should tell him how you feel."
"If I need to tell him, then it's obvious that the feeling isn't shared," Varina answered. She managed to force her lips into an upward curve. "And I'm bound to my work, as you're bound to Cénzi."
Ana stepped forward and gave Varina a quick hug. "Then Karl's a fool, for not seeing how alike we are."
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