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Chapter Six.
rowan tree
Chapter Six

When Corialuna woke up in the morning, her face was still as hot with embarrassment as it had been the night before, the moment she'd managed to get out of sight. Of all the first impressions to leave, she couldn't imagine one much worse. She lifted her head and then drove it back against the pillow – which was really still too soft to give the kind of good, chastising thump she was looking for. She'd been sure when she saw two boys trying to break in the back door that they must be part of some dark scheme, some plot against Countess Shadowcross and her new wards – not the wards themselves!

“They looked like a clerk and a brigand!” she complained to the hand mirror on the bedside table.

She wasn't sure if the worst part of it was that she had to spend two or three days in a carriage with them, or that she had to spend the rest of her foreseeable future in a manor house with them. The prospects were equally horrifying at the moment, and she lay prone for a moment, flexing her fingers atop the coverlet and wondering if she could convincingly feign sleep for the journey. Not so long ago she wouldn't have even had to feign, after the scant handful of hours sleep she'd gathered, but the past year she'd grown accustomed to keeping a late hour and rising earlier than she should, working late-night magic and mischief. Last night was a keen example of the kinds of misadventures that inevitably resulted.

Knowing that if she wallowed in her delicious humiliation any longer she wouldn't be able to find virtue in getting up, Corialuna heaved herself out of the bed and towards the oak cabinet built into the wall. The room was small – practically a closet next to the one that the boys shared, which she'd glimpsed only in passing – but then, she wouldn't relish having to share the space with either of them. Having a little distance, a little privacy, was much better.

Then again, she thought cheerfully, that bit of wind magic had been pretty interesting. And they'd been out adventuring in the middle of the night, in any case, which was a more promising portent for her future.

Cheered somewhat, she glanced in the hand mirror again and sighed. It wasn't that it was a difficult or lengthy process, fixing her hair, just that she would rather not do it. She knelt so that the mirror was face-level, then, with her hands a span of a few inches from her head, undid the hairpins, smoothed the remembrances of wind and sleep from her ashy hair, and rebraided rapidly, her fingers moving automatically. The pins seemed to insert themselves at the end, lifting the two braids at the sides of her head and twisting them together with the third at the rear into a complicated – but sophisticated – knot. It would, she was relatively sure, pretty effectively eliminate any chances of comfortable sleep in the carriage, but perhaps that wasn't quite a bad thing.

She dressed quickly, then raised her arms and let her split-hooded cloak spring to her left hand and her small but heavy satchel to her right. Then she mussed up the bedcovers as much as she could, delighted not to be the one to have to make them up, and knocked over the single scrubbed wooden chair. Throwing the cloak about her, briefly resentful that the hood would no longer serve its function, she sauntered to the door and flung it open without touching the handle.

The moment she was out, it shut without her prompting. Surprised, she looked up to find a familiar face, eyebrows quirked – a face it appeared she had come within an inch or two of crushing with the door.

“Lord Marshal Valexius,” she said calmly, cursing silently at the blood that was disobediently filling her cheeks.

“Corialuna,” he responded, only the faintest hint of amusement in his voice.

“Have I missed breakfast?”

“Hardly,” he responded, sweeping past her and motioning for her to follow. She hurried to keep pace with him down the stairs and to the second floor. Tresselion was halfway down the hall, arms crossed, leaning against the wall across from the open door to the room he shared with Mavignel.

“Is he still not finished?” Valexius asked, sounding truly amused now, if slightly impatient.

“If he takes three more minutes, I claim his food,” Tress said

“I refute your claim!” Mavignel's voice sounded from within.

“If you'd prefer a double portion -” Valexius began.

“No!” Mavignel called.

“It can be arranged without depriving Master Foster of his sustenance,” the Lord Marshal continued with slightly increased volume, moving in front of Corialuna to look inside the boys' room. He snorted. “Or his vanity. Mavignel, my boy, you may meet us downstairs when you are satisfied.” Before Corialuna could edge around them enough to see what was going on inside, Valexius had shut the door and they were crossing to the main stairs that led to the dining hall.

“What was that?” she hissed at Tresselion.

“Curls,” Tress answered very seriously, “take tending.” He gave a crooked smile, and the events of the night before seemed forgotten. She wanted to talk to him immediately, before the third came and stole his allegiance – he seemed easygoing, easily swayed – but Valexius interrupted her intentions.

“At best pace, with the horses primed and the roads minimally affected by the weather, it's a three-and-a-half day's journey to Crossheart Hall,” he said, finding a secluded round table and pulling out chairs before taking his own seat. He folded his hands, set them on the table, and looked at the two of them. “The horses have been ridden hard for nearly a week, and the latest messengers out of Shadowcross report snow in the peaks. The road ahead of us may be longer than we anticipated. So eat well and heartily, children.”

For anyone under the age of fifty, Corialuna would have objected vocally and unceasingly at being called a child, but Lord Marshal Valexius was well on his way to seventy, and so did not qualify. The simultaneous arrival of large platters of ham, fried eggs and flatcakes, steaming bowls of oat porridge with berries, and a pot of red currant tea might have also dampened her irritation somewhat.

Tress dug in as if he had never eaten before. Corialuna had taken Valexius offer for double portions as indulgence of the boy's mockery of Mavignel, but by the time the darker boy had descended the stairs, the difference in his hair imperceptible from the night before, the Lord Marshal had to summon the maid for an additional portion. She examined the brown-haired boy again, more critically this time. He did not look like a glutton – he was relatively thin – but no one could eat meals of that size with any regularity and maintain a reasonable body weight. Perhaps he had been starved by his past guardians, and that was why he was being adopted out.

The coachmen were waiting for them when they came outside, and Valexius opened the door of the carriage with his hands instead of magic, his gaze perhaps lingering with particular meaning on her as he did so. She refused to flush again.

Mavignel moved to climb in first, but Tress elbowed him and motioned for her to take her choice. She chose the seat closest to the window, but Mavignel didn't seem to resent her choice – he just sprawled across the opposite seat, taking up the entirety of its space. Tresselion seemed unsurprised, and sat next to her, clasping his valise with tightly clenched hands, like a toddler would his favorite toy. The door closed after them, and for a long period – several minutes at least – the carriage did not move. Finally they felt the slight rock that signified the Lord Marshal's ascension to the driver's seat. Before the flick of the reins sounded, Tress made a sudden movement and the noise of the outside stilled to silence. She grinned, in brief appreciation of the trick, then forced her expression to be calm and level again. She was going to be mature and serious, so that they'd forget she was a year or two younger - and so they would forget about last night.

They started forwards, jolted slightly by the sudden movement, and Corialuna let a sigh escape her lips. She wasn't sure she had enough books for a journey of so many days, but she had managed to liberate a few that she hadn't studied yet, and had one in particular that she had saved all week. Before she could reach for it, though, Tress turned to face her and tilted his head, clearly about to ask a question but not sure what it was yet. A mix of consternation and relief overtook her. Perhaps the ride would not be unbearable, after all.

“Any theories on why us?” he asked finally. “I don't know of any common denominator between us, besides the obvious. We're from different counties, different heritages, different circumstances –”

“But isn't the obvious enough?” Mavignel interjected before she could answer. “I mean, we're all adept mages, nobles, and in need of adoption. Why wouldn't she, or anyone, see us as worthy?”

“I want to know more than that, though,” Tress said, looking to Cori for support, which she offered with an enthusiastic nod.

“It's mysterious,” she put in. “Questionable.”

“I don't see what's questionable about it,” Mavignel said, crossing his arms and wedging his way farther into the seat, tipping his head back so that he wasn't meeting their eyes. “I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner.”

“It couldn't have, for me,” Tresselion said, a grim undertone lining his voice. “I'd just woken up yesterday morning.” He looked at her, and explained apologetically, “I was plague-sick. My parents, too, but they –” He made a vague gesture, and she understood exactly what he meant.

“I couldn't have been adopted any sooner, myself,” she said, hoping the hurry in her voice wasn't evident. “The Lord Regent only just passed judgment on the case, after the House of Lords couldn't decide before the Parliament ended its season.”

Tresselion stared at her, wide-eyed, the quiet melancholy she'd seen him sliding towards forgotten. She swallowed and went on after a moment's thought. “My father was passed over for the title to Tarrynot End, and – well – I'm the only one in the family that was acquitted, after he was caught plotting. He...” she bowed her head for a moment, and closed her eyes, until the hot pinpricks of tears no longer threatened to spill down her cheeks. “He was seen on the other side of the Wall,” she said, shortly, her voice as solemn as she could manage. “They're not sure what manner of fey spirit he'd pledged service to, but likely it was a Border Dryad- maybe even the Mother Oak herself. I... he was always very distant, growing up, and so we weren't close, but I was still the only one in my family acquitted, and even I was stripped of all my inheritance, everything but the right to call myself 'Lady.' I'm very grateful to be part of a proper family
again – I only wish it was a little further from the Border.”

Tresselion let out a long, slow breath, looking both captivated and sympathetic. “I'm very sorry,” he said quietly. Mavignel said nothing, at first, and she stole a glance across the carriage at him. He was staring at her, eyes narrowed and lips pursed, and after a moment he nodded.

“It must have been awful,” he told her, his voice slow and sober, and she felt her shoulders tremble a moment.

“It's all past now,” she said, forcing a cheery smile onto her face that she was sure fooled neither of them. “I'd much rather talk about something happier – does the Countess really have a mysterious wasting sickness of some kind?”

Mavignel snorted, and sat a little straighter. “She has something mysterious about her, that's for certain,” he said. “I wouldn't think it was an illness, though, no matter what the gossips' chatter is. She's well and social enough by the accounts of any visitor invited to Crossheart Hall, and she entertains all year-round. There's a quieter rumor that she might be under a curse of some kind, which I think is the theory most hold to – but I've another notion, and we're the proof of it.”

He waited a moment with a storyteller's practiced drama while she and Tress exchanged glances and waited for him to continue.

“There's some – mostly her rivals, some of the pettier members of the Centrist party in the House of Lords, who've put it about that the Countess has scarcely the magic to light a candle. They say she stays at home to hide it – Crossheart Hall has been in her family for time out of mind, and might have all manner of clever enchantments and witchings she could call on to look impressive to visitors, and leave them none the wiser. Most folk dismiss that as a bit of slander, and I used to too – but think about it.” He gave them a moment to do so, then pressed on.

“She never married, had children by three different fathers, in all likelihood, and she's sent off the two who came of age to the Royal Guard and the Priesthood – and now, she's adopted us. If the magic in her line's all watered down, might be her children have no more sorcery than she does – and now that the youngest is proving as disappointing as his elder sisters, she's decided she has to bring in fresh blood to keep the title strong. If we live up to our potential – and we're a promising lot, no mistake – it's one of us who will hold the County in another twenty years.”

Excitement made Mavignel's face naked, and she saw the hurt and desire wrapped up together plainly – how much he wanted what he said to be true. It made her heart ache, a little, and it made her like him better, despite how easily he'd seen through her.

“We'll have to be as promising as we can be, then,” she said, sincerely – Stars and Ships, but she was tired of close calls, moving in orbits that let her brush up against the warmth of family and then took it away again. She'd been waiting for this for years, hurting for it. “We might be on our way to Crossheart Hall at the Countess' invitation, but we're not of her household yet. Crown law says she has to sign for us twice – once in the intention papers that brought us this far, and once in an entreaty to the Crown after we've been under her roof for a half-month.” Both Tresselion and Mavignel looked startled by this bit of news, and her eyes drifted to Mavignel's again. If he didn't know, that meant no-one had ever even signed intention for him before.

“It'll be easy,” she promised them, “a trio like us? We were born for titles.” She didn't voice what was on her mind – if the Countess was looking for an heir with sorcery, she only needed one of them. If that was the case...

She turned from the boys to stare out the window. She liked them better than she'd thought she would – but if the Countess only had a place for one of them, it was going to be her.

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