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Chapter Fourteen.
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crossheart_hall


Chapter Fourteen
by Teresa and Matt Doyle


To Mavignel's chagrin, it was actually Tresselion who suggested that the most fitting prank would be to enchant Inarios's door. “It's obvious now that you've said it,” Corialuna said as they slipped back into the library to work on the enchantment, the dry twist of her lips expressing some of the same rankled vexation Mav was feeling.

“It wouldn't be proper revenge if it wasn't,” Tress said, flushing with mingled pleasure and embarrassment. “I mean, we don't want to do anything too obvious –”

“We're not disintegrating his door or anything,” Mavignel cut in firmly, “but it can't be completely unnoticeable. We're defending our honor, remember.”

Twenty minutes later, Mav was torn between pleasure and irritation at the thought that he and his new siblings could obviously discuss ideas for pranks for hours. A tenative plan had been settled upon, but they had yet to solve their initial difficulty – finding Inarios's room. Jura had, early in the afternoon, breezily informed them that “the family” all lived on the second floor's west wing. The Countess's rooms took up the entire end of the wing, and apparently extended down to the first floor. Mavignel approved: certainly if this was his home, he'd make certain to have chambers four times as large as anyone else's.

They made their way across the manor without incident, despite Cori's tendency to dramatically fling herself across the intersections of corridors, to lurk dramatically in corners at the slightest sound, and to slow them all by the creeping pace with which she tip-toed the rest of the time.

Mav was content to let her lead the way, walking side by side with Tress, who grew more nervous and distraught with every theatrical plunge or freeze of Cori's, trying to stare everywhere at once while walking with his shoulders hunched in in awkward defensiveness. Gallantly, Mavignel tried to set a proper example by strolling nonchalantly through the halls as though he belonged there. Which, he reasoned, he did. Until the rules of the house were made clear tomorrow, he could tresspass blithely with an innocent heart.

They made their way about halfway down the quiet west wing, from long stretches of shadow to better-lit hallways, flcikering candles ensconced in artistic twists of frosted glass at every corner, before Mav tapped Cori on the shoulder and held up his finger, a silent halt. For a moment she looked irritated but, her eyes lit up as he slid to the center of the corridor and lifted his hands to his face, letting his thumbs touch his cheeks, his fingers unfurling backwards until the tips touched his ears. He closed his eyes and focused.

The rush of magic swallowed his awareness with a bright rush of sensation; he could hear himself swallowing, the raw grate of his teeth clicking together, a sharp puff as he inhaled. He let himself dwell for a moment on the steady, familiar sounds of his own body, then pushed outwards to hear the click of Tress's long fingernails against his spectacles and a shuffle of feet (away from him, towards the wall, then two steps back towards him), the soft slip of Cori's palms against one another, her sleeve shifting as she (he could see it clearly although his eyes were closed) lifted her left hand quickly towards Tress, a husky inhale through her nose as she shook her head.

He kept his eyes closed, opened his mouth, and exhaled, pushing out further. The rooms to his left and right were soundless – no creaking floorboards, no grainy crackle of fire, no snuffling breath, not even a draft. He let his palms curve outwards so that his hands cupped around his ears, sifted through the silences and the small-but-near noises of Tresselion's quickened breath and Corialuna's teeth worrying the skin of her lower lip, and inhaled.

Farther out. Farther out. Silent room after silent room. He could hear the wind pressing against the windowpanes, cold air stilling to shiver in a huddled mass against the glass. There was a fly humming obnoxiously on the far side of a room four doors down on their right. Just as he neared his limit, all other senses wavering for a moment in the comfortable black behind his eyelids, the unmistakable sound of a fourth body, this one with the young deep breaths of sleep, added itself to his shivering consciousness. The kiss of wintry air through an infinitesimally-opened window brought the whole room to life; cuts of velvet whispering against each other in a cabinet, the body shifting slightly against silk sheets.

His eyes flew open; his head lifted out of the cradle of his hands on his ears, and Tress followed through with his movement, taking the last step forward to settle a hand on Mavignel's shoulder. “Found him,” Mav said, his voice quiet and smooth to his suddenly-quite-normal hearing, and strode forward almost to the end of the hall, his siblings close in his wake.

There were the rooms designated for the Countess, which had never been in question; then, flanking those on either side, a pair of doors Mavignel assumed were designated for the absent daughters about whom Jura had spoken. Finally, on the left side of the hall, the second door out from the Countess's contained that sleep-breathing body.

For a moment, the three of them stood in an arc around the door, staring at it. Then, “Gentlemen,” Corialuna breathed, “let us take our revenge.”

She lifted up her palms and slowly settled them against the door, adjusting until the planes of her skin were all touching. Then Tress moved in closer behind her, putting one of his hands on the inside of her wrist, the other against the door between her spread hands. Mav felt a dramatic, distinctly Corialuna-styled stir of magic, and then found himself suddenly and peculiarly in the position of presenting a scruple.

“Wait,” he whispered. The magic fluttered and died as the others turned and looked at him, Tress in surprise, Cori in flat disbelief. “What if Inarios isn't the first one to touch it?”

“Who else would –” Cori hissed.

“Sabell tolds me the first thing he does every morning is light Lady Shadowcross's fire,” Mav said. “Maybe he does the same for Inarios. Or, I don't know, sets out His Lordship's most pompous trousers or something.”

Tress stepped back from the door, suddenly looking intensely uncomfortable in his skin once more. “You're right,” he said. “You're right. You guys, we've got to be careful with this. I didn't even think of that – we let ourselves get carried away –”

“Don't worry,” Cori said, finally reluctantly peeling her hands from the wood. “We can do it from the inside –”

“If Sabell's the first one to enter, he'll be the first to leave, too,” Mav snapped as quietly as he could, frustrated to be in the position of moral compass. No, there was no need for that – he was inhabiting the shoes of common sense right now.

Tress almost overlapped him, speaing in a low rush: “I couldn't lock it in just from the inside anyway, not unless I was on the inside, and I don't think we could excuse that away even without having heard the house rules – what are you –?”

Mav lowered himself to the floor, peering in the tiny slit underneath the door. He squinted at the shadows, considered conjuring a spark of witchlight, discarded the notion. He hadn't yet worked out how to bespell his eyes the way he could his ears, but there was still the faint, diffuse glow of moonlight... yes. There, on the other side of the door, was a small woven rug, and beside it, as he had guessed would be – both from his experience as a valet and from the impeccable state of Inarios' boots – was a bootrack.

Mavignel crooked his fingers and beckoned – the mage's hand was a simple, trivial trick, and it took little more than a gesture to pull the rug under the door and out into the hall.

“Put your spell in this,” he murmured, conscious that he had no idea how deep a sleeper Inarios might be. Tress opened his mouth to make some objection – namely, that this didn't solve the problem at all, Sabell was just as likely to step on the rug as he was to open the door – and Mavignel continued. “Cori is already tuning her spell so that it will only touch cloth – can you work yours so that only cloth or bare flesh, not shoe-leather, will trigger its release? Inarios will be barefoot or in slippers...” He left off the end of his sentence, because understanding and affirmation had blossomed in Tresselion's expression while he spoke.

“It'll take longer,” Tress said, and Mavignel shrugged equably.

“How much longer?”

“Five minutes or so – just setting a spell would be half that, or less, but every condition we have to add...” Mavignel waved away the details irritably, as though they were flies, and paced along the hall as Cori and Tresselion bent over the rug with excited whispers. It felt so very wrong for this not to be his plan, his idea, his magic... but the two of them had devised a nearly perfect prank, and he could not wait to see it executed.

The principle was simple – Tresselion had enough skill at enchanting that he could store a spell, his own or someone else's, in any object he touched. It would only last a few hours at most, but that was all the time they needed now – and Cori knew the spell they needed. The same energies she had called upon to disintegrate the door could be managed with more finesse, and Lord Inarios looked like a man who understood the importance of dressing well. In the morning he would rise, put on his clothes, and come over to the door to pick out his shoes... and the moment that his foot brushed the rug, those destructive energies would be released to shred and unravel cloth, destroying both the rug – which was thick and soft, but not overly ornate or expensive – and as much of Lord Inarios' clothing as it could touch before its power was expended. At Corialuna's guess, that would be his stockings, his pants, and the bottom few inches of his coat – not to mention his undergarments.

Mavignel found himself smiling at the very thought, and turned to pace back down the hall, when he heard voices in quiet conversation – at first, he kept turning, meaning to glare Cori and Tress down to a subtler volume – but then he realized that the sound was coming from the other direction – from the Countess's own chambers.

His first thought was to pull the hearing spell back, but he'd already spent half the night thinking if I were the Lord of Crossheart Hall, and this time the thought ended with I'd certainly have my chambers warded against intrusive magic.

Instead he pressed a warm, familiar spell to the surface of his consciousness, distilling each movement to the absolutely necessary and moving with enhanced stealth past the absent daughters' doors and down to the Countess's. Yes, the murmur of voices was coming from just beyond. He flexed his hands and pressed first his palms and then his ear against the door.

It took a moment for any of the words to come through clear. It was not the Countess speaking, but a high male voice. The voice was pressing and rhythmic, as though in waves.

“– must see why it would be ideal. He'd be well-suited to the north, don't you think?”

“And the benefit to my house?” the Countess's voice asked. Not unlike the stranger's, it was cold, piercing – sounding significantly less mystical and more dangerous than the woman in grey with whom Mavignel had eaten dinner.

“Don't tell me you can't see the benefit, Envratine. You're steeped in politics, and for all the gossip of your distance, your ineptitude, you can't hide that from me. I know your mind. You know as well as I do that a child of yours, so near to the court for nine months of the year – don't tell me he wouldn't make it worth your while.”

“You presume too much,” she returned. “Perhaps he is of value to me here.”

“You've already sent his sisters away,” the voice said cooly.

“Grown women may choose their own paths freely,” she answered, sounding amused and knowing. “Bide a year, until he has reached his majority and knows his own mind, and you may ask him yourself if you wish.”

“That's a lie,” the voice hissed. “And a useless sop besides. Next year would be too late, and you know it very well. It would be difficult enough already –”

“That's your concern.”

“It should be yours, if your loyalties lie where they should!”

“And where should they lie?” She laughed, and the sound was so chilling that Mavignel had to restrain himself from pulling away from the door; it cut off suddenly with a sharp exhale. When she spoke again, it was muted, somber, but still lyrical. “Where, if not with my son?” Another short laugh, this one humorless. “Goodnight.”

It was fortunate Mavignel had not let his stealth drop; he scrambled away from the door, throwing himself towards Cori and Tress, who were still kneeling but now a few feet back from the rug, looking at it with satisfaction. “Get it back, get it back!” he hissed, throwing himself to his knees beside them and pressing the rug back under the door with an extra curl of magic.

He leapt to his feet, paced several steps away from Inarios's door, and ran through the excuses that had faded in and out of his mind all evening – good even, Countess; we're still searching for a bedchamber for Tresselion; well, we spent time studying in the library after dinner and lost track of the time; a curfew? Oh, we hadn't been told... He inhaled, regained his composure, gestured at his siblings to join him. Calm down. You've done nothing wrong.

Cori and Tress stood slowly and moved towards him as he gestured urgently but with composure, looking at him and then down towards the end of the corridor from which he had come. He shook his head infinitesimally and turned the handle of the door two down from Inarios's.

The Countess's door cracked open. A freezing draft flooded over Mavignel, yanking the knob out of his hands as it pushed the door open. All up and down the hall, the candles guttered and died. He could hear Tress take in a startled breath, but it was dark as sin – he reached out and grabbed for the boy, catching instead a handful of Corialuna's sleeve. He pulled her into the empty room, blinking, trying to make his eyes adjust without drawing attention to himself with magic.

From the corridor, he heard the brisk clatter of steps. He peered desperately out the wide-open doorway, hoping to catch at least a silhouette, but he couldn't see anything at all: it was pitch-black.

After a moment, the sound of footsteps was gone. Cori summoned a spark, cupping it in her palms to keep it as small as possible; Tress was there next to them in the dark room. Both of their eyes were wide, fixed on Mavignel, but he took Cori's hands and drew them to the doorway, looking out, prying her hands open so that the light spread far enough to see.

The Countess's door was already shut tight once more.










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Crossheart Hall by Matt and Teresa Doyle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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