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Chapter Seven.
rowan tree
crossheart_hall
Chapter Seven

The landscape outside the window flowed by as though it were a river. A snow-covered river, but nonetheless, one bit of countryside melted easily and seamlessly into the next, until even Mavignel was hard-pressed to guess what Barony the road was taking them through at the moment. Corialuna never tired of staring out the window at it, though- even if she couldn't name the place, she could imagine the stories of every stone cottage, the histories that might lie behind each barren, lightning-blacked tree or the rearing promontory of the nearest hill.

They stopped for the first night at a many-chimneyed hostelry in the foothills of the Southcrest mountains, one more used to catering to passing nobility than the inn they'd stayed in the night before. They received their own suite of rooms- a bedroom apiece and a connecting chamber with a glorious fire in its hearth.

However warm it was there, however, winter tightened its grip outside. It took them a full day to thread the mountain passes, sometimes stopping for as much as an hour while the footmen dug out the road ahead of them. Conversation proved little distraction from the cold, so Mavignel turned them to cards- for whatever reason, he was determined to teach Tresselion the niceties of float-hand ruff, a pursuit he took up every cold morning even before they left the chilly inns and half-buried hunting lodges that lay beside the road. The waiting became interminable, and it was seemed like a blessing when Valexius announced, on the fifth morning since they had left Heartscore, that they would reach Crossheart Hall in plenty of time for luncheon. He seemed not in the least bemused when this caused a half an hour's delay in their departure- five minutes for Tresselion to change into his best suit, another five for Corialuna to finish with the laces on her only remaining silk dress, and the remaining twenty while they waited for Mavignel to manage his coiffure.

Corialuna ignored the idle chatter of both boys for the last hour of the trip, not quite pressing her nose to the window-glass and irritably buffing it clear whenever her breath caused it to cloud over and begin constructing a latticework of frost. The road they took narrowed, winding through thicker, older forest, curving around dark, gnarled trees too thick to be cut down, enveloping them in an avenue of overlapping shadows even under the bright morning sun.

She was watching the shadows on the road when she saw the first sign of Crossheart Hall: a thick, solid bar of dense shadow across the mouth of a connecting lane. As the carriage turned towards it, she glanced up and saw the source: an arch of living wood over the road. To either side of the mouth of the lane stood two rowan trees, braided together and slanting inward, until all four met over the center of the road in a woven tangle of winter-bared branches. Even as stark as it was now – perhaps especially as it was now – it was one of the most imaginative and beautiful things she could remember seeing, and she could feel her wonder light her up, like the first rush of warmth from a freshly lit fire. The boys saw that, if nothing else, and crowded to the window beside her as, up the hill, the house came into view.

The center of it rose as an octagon three stories high, its brown-shingled roof sweeping up steeply enough that it was only half-shrouded in snow. It looked as though there was a hollow courtyard in the center, hidden behind the dramatic slant of the roof. From the four broader sides of the octagon came the wings of the house- two stories, the slope of the roof on them more gradual, and so completely hidden in wind-crenellated caps of snow. Between snow and the close-flanking trees, it was difficult to be certain, but it looked as though the whole house was made of the same, dark-stained wood, without any brickwork or masonry save the occasional jutting spire of dark stone chimney.

The nearest wing of the manor touched the horseshoe-bend of the lane at its top; a recessed porch between the broad sweep of the front steps and the tall arch of the house's double doors; lacquered black and dark green and bearing the Shadowcross coat-of-arms, just as the doors of the carriage. From the corner of her eye Corialuna could see that the twist of the lane lead to a small cluster of outbuildings – the stable and such, she guessed – but her gaze was arrested by the boy who stood waiting for them on the steps.

He was Mavignel's height, neither short nor tall; broad-shouldered but slender-waisted, and every bit as dramatic as the tangled trees that had marked the lane. His hair was a deep, rich auburn, hanging loose to his waist, all the more striking against the pine-needle green of his tailored longcoat, trim and tapered until it flared at the waist. His waistcoat was pale, dove-grey, and the shirt beneath that black, ruffled at the neck and exploding into a spray of dark lace at the wrists. Every button of the coat, as well as his cuff-links and the neck-clasp of his shirt, were silver, set with red stones – garnets, rubies, bloodstones – that mimicked yew or rowan berries. His breeches and stockings were a darker hue of grey, his boots black and elegantly heeled, but more notable was the rapier that hung at his left hip, its swirling, elaborate guard glinting in the sunlight. Counterbalancing it on the other side was a smooth, circular length of trimmed, polished yew, two feet long and perhaps twice the thickness of a thumb- a focusing rod, the tool of an elementalist mage and every bit as threatening as any sword might be.

Beside and behind him were two other men – one older, one younger, both dressed in dark livery, who stepped forward as the coach came to a stop, vanishing from her sight around the front, presumably to start unloading their luggage, or maybe to help see to the stabling of the horses. Without waiting for the footmen to climb down and do things with proper ceremony, Corialuna swept open the door and clambered out, ignoring the boys' murmur behind her.

“Inarios,” Valexius said, slipping easily from his seat. He exchanged a bow of the head with the boy, both a little stiff.

“Lord Valexius,” Inarios returned. “Please – introduce me to our guests.”

“Of course,” Valexius said. “Inarios, this is Corialuna, and Tresselion behind her –” She hadn't even noticed him climb out; he'd been very quiet, and she looked around to find him right behind her, his eyes fixed on Inarios. “And then Mavignel. Children, this is Her Illustriousness' youngest child, Lord Inarios.”

“Kind of you,” Tress said, “to meet us directly, Lord Inarios.”

The boy heard the unspoken question in Tress' voice. “My lady mother is indisposed,” he said, prompting a quick exchange of glances between the wards. “I believe her intention is to join us for dinner. Until then, we take a tour of the manor and you choose your quarters and, ah –” He smiled faintly. “Settle in.”

“We?” Valexius said, sounding surprised. “Will you be officiating the tour, Lord Inarios?”

“Lord Valexius,” Inarios responded with a cluck of his tongue. “You of all people in this household should know I have studies to attend to. I can't simply learn what it takes to fulfill my purpose by giving tours. You understand, I'm sure, that I have responsibilities to keep,” he added, his eyes on Corialuna with no small hint of condescencion. Her blood already boiled just looking at him. She reminded herself quickly of the intermediate period between their arrival and the ratification of the adoption, and decided that she would not beg Tresselion to work mind magics on the young heir-potential until after the paperwork was finished.

“I see,” Valexius said, sounding as though he did. “To whom, then, shall we turn for our tour?”

Inarios blinked his shockingly dark blue eyes in surprise. “Will you be going on the tour? I thought –”

Valexius waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, no,” he said mildly. “Lord Inarios, you of all people in this household should know I have business to attend to. I cannot do what I must to aid your mother while being shown about the Hall. You understand, I'm sure, that I have responsibilities to keep.”

Corialuna bit her lip to hold back the giggles she felt bubble up inside her, watching Inarios silently turn crimson. Mavignel shuffled his feet, distractedly, caught in a similar dilemma, while Tresselion looked as embarrassed as Inarios himself. After a moment, very stiffly, Inarios turned back to the house. “Jura can show them around,” he said, keeping careful rein on his voice. “If you need me, I'll be in the library.”

As Inarios retreated back into the house, Valexius sighed deeply. “That boy,” he said, meditatively. “I should know better than to provoke him so, I suppose, but it's an old tutor's privilege.” He gestured with both hands, chivvying them forward. “In you go, then. Jura will be a most excellent tour guide – when you tire of wandering about the Hall, she can show you about the bedrooms. You're free to take any of the unoccupied suites – which in this season, is nearly all of them.” He smiled thinly. “Should you need me – and you should not – my rooms are on the second floor of the eastern wing. I shall see you all at dinner, in any case.” He moved up the steps quickly, and was gone as well.

“Uh,” Tresselion said, and turned back to the carriage to grab his valise.

“Jura,” Mavignel said slowly. “You s'pose she's oldish, or, you know, our age?”

“I'm sure Valexius will be telling her to look for us,” Tress said, looking to Cori for support. “We won't need to know what she looks like, I mean – she'll come to us.”

“That's not why I'm wondering,” Mavignel said, scornful, running his fingers through his hair and examining his reflection in the window of the still-open carriage door. Tress reached out and closed it, raising his eyebrows at the boy.

“Let's go in,” he suggested. “Where it's warm. She'll find us, and it would be nice not to make her freeze to do it.”

It was obviously more of an appeal to Mav than it was to her – she was already shivering, even with the cloak about her, and hardly about to argue that they should freeze to death instead. The footmen took the coach away with the last of the horses, and they crossed the last of the space to the front door.

The waiting was strange. Here they were. Home, finally, forever - she hoped – and yet they were still not taking their places, still not ready – still strangers in unfamiliar places. Corialuna looked around and imagined what this entrance hall might look like to her once she'd been settled here a week, or a year, or twenty. How different it might be to look at it as something familiar. She tried to imagine, now, that this had always been her home. That she had never had parents, that it had always been like this. That these walls were nothing unusual – on the contrary, that she was wrapped safe and comfortable in this house, knowing every inch of it.

It was impossible. She could see that it might be home to someone, and could imagine that Inarios or the Lord Marshal would be comforted by the beautiful knots in the wooden walls. That the paintings she couldn't look away from might be so easily dismissed by those who had seen it every day for years. As much as she wanted a home here, she wanted Crossheart Hall to always be as much of a mystery to her as it was now. To be as secret, as warm, as strange and beautiful. She didn't ever want this to be an ordinary, taken-for-granted part of her life.

Yet that was always how it happened. Every house that she had entered, low nobles' and commoners' alike, had held some sense of strangeness when she first arrived. By the time two weeks were up she'd grown sick of it – weary of the mundanity of thing that at first had seemed to be full of magic and stories.

The boys were silent, and over the sound of her heart and her breathing she could hear footsteps clattering towards them, growing louder and nearer and more frantic. She trapped all the air she could in her lungs, drew herself to her full height, and prepared to make a powerful – and positive – first impression – a task that as yet had proven somewhat difficult.

Then the figure sprinted around the corner and skidded to a stop, panting, before an astonished Tresselion. “I'm sorry to keep you waiting!” the girl cried. “Lord Marshal Valexius said I was to –”

You're Jura?” Mavignel interrupted, pressing two fingers to his temple, as though he needed to shore up the supports for his brain.

“Yes, Master Foster,” the girl said, and bowed, her form pretty but clumsily quick.

“It's nice to meet you, Jura,” Corialuna said, stepping forward.

“Oh, yes!” she said. “We've been waiting for you for an awfully long time, I think. My papa – that's the groundskeeper – has been telling me all the preparations Countess Shadowcross has ordered for you. And Zhent – that's the cook –” She giggled, hiding her mouth in her small hands. “He's talked about nothing else. You'll see at the feast you're having tonight.” She beamed up at Cori, who smiled back once before shooting a fierce glare at Mavignel, who made no attempt to amend his wide-eyed, slightly horrified stare.

“So you're to be our tour guide?” Tress asked, stepping towards the girls.

“Mm-huh,” the girl said. “I know all the good places. And I can fit into nooks the grown-ups can't.”

That was certainly true. The girl came about elbow-high on Cori, the tallest of the three, and was round-faced with brown hair up near her ears – a commoner's cut – and light brown eyes. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, her fingers tugging impatiently at the frayed hem of her light purple tunic.

“Are there lots of secret little crannies and such?” Corialuna asked, excited. She bent down to the girl's level, exchanging a genuine grin. What had gotten into the boys? Well, Tress looked as though he'd recovered from the surprise of being assigned a ten-year-old to show them around, but Mavignel was just now managing to hide his horror.

“There are so many!” the girl said, her feet actually leaving the ground in a bounce. “I won't be able to show you all of them right away. Well. I don't even know all of them. But Crossheart Hall is, mmm...” She thought about it for a moment. “Three hundred fifty years old, so some of the secrets are just lost.” She gave them a delighted peal of laughter, and then, with a, “Follow me!” skittered off down the long hallway.

“What is wrong with you?” Cori hissed at Mavignel.

“Is it some kind of joke?” he asked, seeming more uncertain than angry now. “That boy – Inarios – sending us a ten-year-old? I mean, who does he think he is?”

“The heir,” Tress responded dryly. “At least, for now. Look, she seems like a good kid. And it sounds like she knows her way around. Joke's on him, if that was his plan – right, Cori?”

“Absolutely,” she said, but her mind was racing. Jura would be an exceptional tour guide in her opinion, much preferable to the woman in her mid-fifties she'd originally been envisioning. As the cogs in Cori's head began to turn, as Inarios' cold face shivered on the surface of her mind, the sense of mystery grew darker and deeper.

Just the way she liked it.








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