"Where are we going?" Shoat clung tightly to Cricket's hand as they walked down the street. "Are we going to your house, Cricket?" The girl peered up at her, eyes wide and anxious.
Cricket squeezed her hand reassuringly. "No, we're going to... to some people I know. Their house is much nicer than mine." She caught Kestrel's raised eyebrow in the corner of her vision, and cleared her throat. "I'm sure that they'll be able to take care of you for... until we can find a place for you to live. I'm sure you'll like it! Kestrel will be staying there, too. He can look after you. You like Kestrel, don't you?"
The pale girl huddled closer to Cricket's legs. "I like you more. I want to go to your house."
Cricket stopped walking and knelt on the cobblestones, reaching out with her free hand to smooth Shoat's tangled hair back. "Oh, Shoat, I like you, too, and I'd love to bring you home with me, but I can't take you back to my house. It, uh, something happened to it, and we can't go back there. So you'll need to stay with these people, okay? I promise you'll be all right."
Shoat's big green eyes looked worriedly into Cricket's. Apparently reassured by the seamstress' kindly smile, she nodded. "Okay."
"All right, then." Cricket stood, brushing dust from the front of her skirt. She smiled down at the ragged orphan, who was still holding her hand. "Don't worry, Shoat. You can trust me. You're safe, now that I've found you."
Cricket and Kestrel
Kestrel stood with his arms folded, regarding the building before him. His eyes swept up from the marble steps, across the whitewashed facade, to the fanciful gargoyles decorating the gutterspouts, to the slate-shingled roof, and back down again. While nothing remarkable in comparison to the other townhouses they'd passed on the way here, its opulence far surpassed any found in Cricket's neighbourhood. He glanced over to where Cricket stood nearby, the little girl still clinging to her hand.
"So, this is the home of your 'important friend'?" he asked. "Are you well enough known to his servants that they'll let us in when we knock?" His tone was carefully neutral, betraying none of the skepticism he felt.
"I'm sure they will once I explain what's going on," Cricket replied. "I've made a few deliveries here. They'll probably recognize me, I think." Although her voice was firm, Kestrel could tell that she was only putting on a brave front for the benefit of him and the orphan girl. Over the course of their journey here, he'd watched her initial confidence grow more and more uncertain; here in the middle of the rich quarter, where even casual passers-by were accompanied by servants and bedecked in somber finery, she was obviously feeling uncomfortably out-of-place.
"Good, then we have nothing to worry about." While Cricket was plainly nervous, Kestrel was nothing of the sort. While this place might be impressive by mortal standards, it would be little better than a slum if transplanted to Yu-Shan. He didn't have to feign confidence as he mounted the broad steps, took hold of the silver-plated knocker, and rapped it smartly. Glancing back over his shoulder, he beckoned Cricket and her young charge to follow him onto the stoop.
Cricket squared her shoulders and joined him, Shoat trailing behind. Laying a hand on his arm, she gently pushed him to the side, and placed herself directly in front of the door. "They'll know me," she said, probably more for her own benefit than his. "I'll just ask to speak to the master of the house. He owes me a favor; I'm sure he'll be willing to take you two in."
Kestrel nodded and stepped aside, a faint smile touching his face. Seconds dragged out into a minute, then two; finally, there came the clicking of latches, and the door swung open.
"Can I help you?" The tall, dour-faced doorman looked the trio up and down with dispassionate gray eyes. He was obviously unimpressed by their somewhat ragged appearance, but then again, he looked like the kind of person who would have been unimpressed if he'd opened the door and found one of the Celestial Gods, in full regalia and with a complete entourage, waiting on the stoop.
"Uh, yes, I, ah..." Cricket drew herself up and met the man's cool eyes. "That is, my name is Pale Cricket, and I've business with your master. Could you please inform him I have arrived?"
"Pale Cricket. The seamstress, from the Road of Chrystanthemums, in the Ward of Flowers?" It was difficult to tell if the man's tone was one of haughty contempt or polite inquiry. Kestrel suppressed a smirk; the servant's manner reminded him of his own butler.
Cricket nodded politely. "Yes, your master has commissioned my work, on occasion."
"I recall," agreed the doorman. "What shall I tell him is your business here today?"
Kestrel could see Cricket's shoulders relax as she let out a soft breath of relief. "Please tell him that I only wish to inquire after his wife's health."
This finally provoked a reaction from the doorman. "Indeed." One of his carefully-plucked eyebrows arched up; whether in grudging respect or withering disdain, it was difficult to judge. "Please, step inside. I will see if Master Eventide will receive you." He stepped aside, inviting them in with an outstretched hand.
The foyer, like the exterior of the house, failed to greatly impress Kestrel. It was competently enough designed, but he couldn't help thinking that the effect would have been better if the flowers depicted on the floor mosaic were made of jade instead of colored tile, or if there were an actual waterfall flowing down the broad staircase leading to the second floor, instead of just a blue-gray carpet.
"Wait here," said the butler. He glanced down at Shoat, who was still sticking close to Cricket. "Please don't let your child wander off."
"She's not..." Cricket began to protest, but the servant had already turned his back on them. His footfalls measured out ten beats on the tile floor, then fell silent as he stepped onto the carpeted stairs and made his way up to the balcony, where he vanished around the corner.
"Well." Kestrel's voice echoed in the hard-floored room, making him consider his earlier thought. Actual flowers would be preferable to jade ones. "Do you think that butler had his sense of humor eaten by the Fair Folk?"
The comment appeared to have had the desired effect; Cricket put a hand to her mouth, stifling a giggle.
"Or is he just some kind of walking dead? Maybe a cunningly-made automaton?" Kestrel grinned. "Your friend must be powerful indeed, to command such things."
Shoat wrinkled her nose. "He doesn't smell bad enough to be a walking corpse."
Kestrel looked at the girl askance, but any response he might have made to her comment was pre-empted by a voice from the balcony.
"Pale Cricket, what an unexpected pleasure to see you here." The young-looking, blond man's red silk robe whispered against the carpet as he descended the steps. "And your guests, of course." He gave Shoat a smile as he reached the bottom of the stair, then turned to look at Kestrel. "Who have we here? My doorman somehow failed to mention that you were accompanied by a handsome young man, Cricket."
"Summer Kestrel, at your service." Kestrel bowed gracefully, sighing inwardly. The butler forgetting he existed was sure to be the least of the troubles to arise from his decision not to don a Resplendent Destiny. It seemed that he was beginning to stick in Cricket's head -- he hadn't caught her trying to remember his name at all since she'd found the orphan girl -- and he didn't want to jeopardize that. In any case, the only destiny he had handy was the Lovers, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the seamstress might react poorly to the kind of behavior that role would demand.
The man nodded politely. "It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Summer Kestrel. My name is Teirel Eventide, and you are welcome in my house. Tell me, how do you come to know Cricket? Could it be that she has found a new sweetheart?" He smiled disarmingly.
"No, no, nothing like that," Cricket hastily spoke up. "We only met yesterday." She coughed. "Actually... that's why we're here."
"I must admit, I do not exactly follow you," said Teirel, turning back to Cricket. "Could you perhaps explain yourself a bit more fully?"
"Well," Cricket began, "we met last evening after the festival. A bit later in the night, we were back at my house -- with my mother, and some other friends," she hastily added, a slight flush coloring her cheeks as she realized the conclusions which might be drawn from her preceding words, "when someone attacked us with magic. Kestrel managed to defeat him, but... my house burned down."
"I begin to see why you showed up on my doorstep," commented Teirel, not unkindly. "You're always welcome in this house. Dust Moth would have a fit if I turned you away. But I've interrupted your story, just as it was becoming interesting; please continue."
"That's really all there is to it," Cricket said glumly. "My house burned down, we had to spend the night outdoors, and today I found this girl, Shoat, wandering the streets. She's an orphan. I thought that maybe you would be able to give her and Kestrel a place to stay for the next few days."
Teirel waved a hand dismissively. "Of course. I'm sure we can find room to put them up for however long is needed."
Cricket cleared her throat. "There's... something else you should know." She hesitated, then pressed on. "I thought the man who attacked us was after me, but he was actually after Kestrel. It might be dangerous for you to have us here."
"I can try to find someplace else, if you--"
"No, it's quite all right. I and my wife owe you a great favor, and I won't refuse you just because it might put me in the middle of some dangerous, mysterious plot." The way his eyes lit up made it clear that danger and mystery were, for him, the exact opposite of deterrents. "The watch keeps a sharp eye out in the Ward of Coins; they know who pays their salaries. Besides, all the families who live here are as old as they are rich. My ancestors and I aren't on speaking terms at the moment, but I'm sure they'd act to save the house, if not to protect me. Even a Dragon-Blood would think twice about starting trouble here." Cricket looked ready to protest, but he cut her off with a smile and a decisive gesture. "You were the one who wanted me to host you in the first place! I've made up my mind. You can try to talk me out of it later, but I won't hear any of it until you're all freshened up and fed." He clapped; black-clad maidservants appeared as if by magic. "Sparrow and Thistle will show you to the guest rooms."
Cricket bowed deeply. "Thank you so much." Beside her, Shoat did the same -- with surprising grace for one so young, Kestrel noted as he, too, followed suit.
Teirel grimaced. "Please, if you're going to be my guest, stop being so obsequious. You've no need to stand on ceremony with me, Cricket." His face brightened. "It will probably be dark by the time you're bathed and fed, and I'm sure Moth will have something she wants to show you. Now, shoo, and get cleaned up before she arrives."
Kestrel shot Cricket a bemused look as the servants ushered them off in different directions. She smiled back, making his heart jump, and then his minder herded him around the corner and down the hall. Kestrel sighed, hoping that her memories of him wouldn't wash off along with the dirt.
With a quiet gasp, Kamaria Breeze-of-Midnight broke the surface of the pool, the ripples of her emergence shattering the reflected stars. Water streamed across pale skin as she stood up, glistening rivulets tracing the shapely contours of her figure in the dim light; black hair cascaded down her back, its ends spreading out like an ink blot in the hip-deep water. Down the center of her chest, from clavicle to navel, a line of written characters interrupted the smooth pallor of her skin, elegant calligraphy spelling out a verse in some forgotten dialect. The stars sparkling in her dark eyes were more real than the chips of shining adamant above her head, affixed to the chamber's domed ceiling in painstaking imitation of Creation's night sky.
Gathering up her long tresses in one hand, the slim woman stepped from the pool, leaving dark footprints in the dewy moss as she made her way to the low boulder which sat amid the ferns nearby, and upon which her clothes sat in a careless heap. Settling herself in the center of the smooth, lozenge-shaped stone, she wrung the water from her hair, then tossed her head; a wave rippled through her black hair as if it were all of one piece, flipping it up into the air with a snap. Droplets misted in the cool air. Another flip of the head, and Kamaria's sable locks fanned out around her, almost completely covering the stone upon which she sat. She plucked a jade comb from the pile of satin cloth and starmetal jewelry next to her, and began to draw it through her hair.
On the hundredth stroke, a hand which was not hers deftly removed the comb from her grasp; its twin fell softly on her shoulder, following the curve of her collarbone around to caress her neck. The skin which covered it was as dark as Kamaria's was fair, and as soft as the voice which purred in her ear.
"Here, little shadow, let me comb your hair for you." Kamaria could feel the warmth of Sauda's body behind her as the goddess' hand slid around to the back of her neck, lifting up a lock of hair and drawing the comb down its full length in one slow stroke.
"The Sagacious Breath of the Heavens visited my house earlier today," the Queen of Midnight remarked after a time. The comb hissed rhythmically through dark strands, in time with Kamaria's breathing. "He was quite upset. I, too, was distressed to learn what you had done." A tendon in Kamaria's neck tightened as Sauda spoke the words, but her breath remained even.
"Imagine what could have happened if Kestrel had died," Sauda murmured. She gathered up another tress of hair, soft fingers brushing against the other woman's cheek. "The Fivescore Fellowship jealously guards those among its number, even wayward and erring ones, and vengeance comes on swift wings for those who would reduce that number. Surely you have heard what befell Sad Ivory, when she slew her brother in the Maidens' service; if the eldest among the Chosen destroys his own pupil so readily, think how much less mercy he would show a mere half-mortal. Had Summer Kestrel fallen, even I could not have sheltered you from the wrath of Heaven. Even as things stand now, it will be difficult to save you from being punished."
Kamaria tensed, but remained silent. Sauda sighed, her breath warm on the back of the raven-haired woman's neck.
"I suppose I should not judge you too harshly, though. Although you took my angry words too much to heart, I am sure you only thought to serve me better." Kamaria trembled slightly as Sauda's arm snaked around her shoulder, hand lightly skimming across her throat and between her breasts, brushing across the words inked beneath her skin. "It was an easy mistake; after all, he was consorting with a Solar who had been marked for death only days before. You must have thought it would please me to see two birds taken with one stone."
Kamaria's jaw clenched even more tightly; a soft whimper sounded in her throat. Sauda appeared not to notice, continuing to comb her hair.
"It will be troublesome for me to keep you from being punished for your mistake," the goddess murmured. "I do not think a simple admission of error will impress the censors, and Breath-of-Heaven will surely use his influence to avenge the wrong you have done to his friend." The comb slid free of the last of Kamaria's hair; casually discarding it, Sauda embraced the other woman loosely from behind, resting her chin in the crook of her neck.
"Fortunately," whispered the Queen of Midnight, "there is a way in which you may be able to atone. This Chosen of the Sun who has lured Kestrel away from me enjoys none of Heaven's favor. The elders of the Bronze Faction wish her dead, as do I. She is in a place where it will not be easy for the Wyld Hunt to simply sweep in and destroy her through force of arms; Sijan does not bow to the Immaculate Order, nor is it a great friend of the Realm. If this daughter of the Twilight were to meet her end at the hands of another, those who pull the Order's strings would doubtless be grateful to the one who had saved them so much trouble." She leaned closer, until Kamaria could feel the moisture of the goddess' ebony lips on her ear. "Nothing would make my heart more glad than to see the whey-faced bitch lying dead in a pool of her own blood. Make this thing happen, and you will once more enjoy my favor. If you fail..." her grip tightened momentarily, fingernails digging painfully into Kamaria's sides, "you shall have nothing to protect you from the censors save your own wits. I will not advocate on the behalf of one who twice shames me with clumsy failure. Do you understand?"
Kamaria swallowed convulsively. "I exist only to serve you," she spoke, voice thick with the pain of a bitten tongue, "...Mother."
Shoat's green eyes watched Cricket in the mirror as she teased the girl's damp, disheveled mane toward a semblance of presentability; the young seamstress had already done her own hair up in a loose braid. The girl flinched as the comb hit an especially bad snag.
"I'm sorry," Cricket murmured, picking at the tangle more carefully. "You look so nice now that you're not all smudged with dirt, Shoat." She squeezed the girl's shoulder softly with her free hand. "And they found a robe for you, too, just your size. You'll look so pretty at dinner." The knot finally yielded the battle; Cricket smoothed it out and began working on another hank of unruly hair. Looking up from her work, she saw Shoat's face reflected in the mirror, wearing an unhappy expression. "Shoat, what's wrong?"
The girl squirmed. "After dinner, can we leave? I don't like it here."
Cricket set aside the comb and knelt beside Shoat's chair, bringing their faces level with one another. "Why don't you like it here, Shoatling?" Smiling gently, she reached out and smoothed a lock of wavy black hair away from the girl's face, tucking it neatly behind an ear. "I'm sure Master Teirel and his wife will be happy to take care of a sweet little girl like you."
Shoat ducked her head. "I don't want them to take care of me," she muttered. "I just don't like this place."
Cricket sighed gently and took Shoat's hand in both of hers. "I know you must be really scared, being all alone in a strange place. I'd be scared, too." She rubbed the girl's small, cool hand comfortingly. "You've been very, very brave -- a lot braver than I could ever be -- but now you're safe. The people here are good people. They'll take care of you. You don't need to be afraid of them, and you don't need to run anymore."
Emerald eyes peered shyly up into Cricket's, through dark lashes. "You're going to stay here, too, right Cricket?" Her fingers tightened anxiously around the young woman's hand. "You lost your home, too, so you're going to stay here with me, right?"
"I..." Cricket looked away. "It's complicated," she stammered. "I mean..." She looked back up, excuses and rationalizations dying in her throat as she met Shoat's wide, guileless eyes, full of desperate apprehension. "Of course I will, Shoat." She leaned forward, hugging the waifish girl close. "Of course I'm staying with you. I won't leave you all alone."
Shoat snuggled into the embrace; Cricket closed her eyes, holding the girl tightly for a minute before drawing back with a sigh. Retrieving the comb from where it rested on top of the dresser, she stood and moved back around to stand behind the chair. She smiled at Shoat in the mirror. "Now, let's see if we can get your hair to behave before they call us to supper."
As the servants began to clear the dishes from the table, Kestrel delicately raised his napkin to his mouth. While the architecture of the mansion had left him unimpressed, he was forced to admit that the repast had been excellent. Teirel Eventide's chef was clearly a master of his trade; the traditional Sijanese dinner had been prepared and served with elegance, dishes of cold fish and vegetables satisfying to eye, palate, and stomach despite their seeming minimalism. The Sidereal idly wondered if it would be possible to entice the chef into working for him, once this was all over.
Across the table, the ethereal, brown-haired woman whom Teirel had introduced as his wife, Dust Moth, turned away from her husband to address Cricket.
"It's been so pleasant to see you, Cricket," she said, her heavy-lidded eyes warm. "I was so hoping you would visit. I was quite disappointed when my husband chose not to attend festival this year; I was going to force him to order new robes from you, just so that we could have you deliver them personally! Of course, it's terrible that you lost your home to the fire, but let me add my voice to Teirel's in saying that you are most welcome to stay here for as long as you need."
In her seat next to Kestrel, Cricket bowed her head politely. "You are too kind."
Moth turned her head to the side, addressing her husband. "My love, if you do not object, may I steal Cricket away for a bit? If that's all right with her, of course." She smiled at the pale seamstress, and the girl sitting next to her. "You can come along, too, little one."
Cricket nodded. "I'm sure we aren't too tired to enjoy your company. It's the least we can do to repay the hospitality you've shown us."
"No thanks are necessary," Moth laughed, rising gracefully from her seat. "As I said, it is I who am grateful to you for your presence. Come, let us retire."
Cricket stood and, after bowing courteously to their host, left the room with Moth, Shoat close behind. After brief hesitation, Kestrel made to follow the women; he was halted by Teirel's touch on his sleeve.
"Would you care to join me in the atrium while the women visit with one another?" Though his voice was casual, the look in his eyes left little doubt that this was not a request it would be wise for Kestrel to refuse. The Chosen of Journeys sighed inwardly -- Cricket had remembered him this time, but every time they were separated was a new chance for his face to slip from her memory. But by the same token, it would be unwise to rely on their host to forget that Kestrel had slighted him.
"Lead the way, good sir." Kestrel managed to avoid casting a longing glance over his shoulder as he followed the blond man through the the sliding doors which separated the dining room from the walled garden.
For a while, the two strolled leisurely about the garden, the only sounds those of chirruping insects and water lapping against the stone-lined banks of the ring-shaped koi pond. Night-blooming flowers were beginning to open, adding their perfume to the cool evening air. They passed over the footbridge, to the tiny island in the middle of the pond; at its center, a large stone fashioned in the likeness of an open hand sat surrounded by flowering plants, all of their blossoms closed for the night.
Teirel sat down on the edge of the hand's palm, turning to face Kestrel as he did so. Resting his elbow on one of the upraised fingers, he regarded the Sidereal with a look of frank scrutiny.
"You are a difficult man to judge, Summer Kestrel," he amiably informed his guest. "You have a way of slipping from the mind's eye the moment one's head is turned. I have the certain feeling that there is more to you than is apparent."
"Today, I'm not trying to hide my nature from anyone." Kestrel chuckled, a bit ruefully. "Little good it does me. I am what you see."
Teirel smiled. "With you, good sir, I am not completely sure what it is I am seeing. But one thing is clear enough to my eyes, and that is the look which enters your eyes when you think Pale Cricket is not watching you. I trust your intentions toward her are honorable?"
"What am I to say to that?" Kestrel shrugged, palms outspread. "Yes, you've caught me out. She is a beautiful young woman, and I would very much like it if she were to look on me as more than a friend, but I've no plans to force myself upon her, or win her heart with pretty lies."
"I certainly hope you speak the truth. It would greatly displease me to learn, a month from now, that you had played her false." He forestalled Kestrel's response with a raised hand. "I can see that you are asking yourself, 'Who is this fellow, that he speaks to me as though he were Cricket's father? What is she to him?'"
Kestrel folded his arms. "Since you put it plainly, yes, I was wondering that very thing."
"Then I will not keep you in the dark." Teirel grinned, his teeth bright in the gathering twilight. "During our supper, you surely cannot have failed to notice that my wife did not partake of our most excellent repast? And, perhaps, that she cast no shadow?"
"It had not escaped my notice," replied Kestrel. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, your wife's bones must lie in one of the city's cemetaries."
"The Alabaster Lily Necropolis, to be precise." Teirel stood up and paced two steps to the edge of the islet, before turning back to Kestrel. "You've the look of a foreigner, so you may not be aware that the Eventide family is one of some note. I was never quite clear on exactly why -- even the spirits of our ancestors seem to have forgotten -- but the fact remains that my family has never lacked for luxury. When I was younger, I fancied myself a rebel. Dressing in common clothes, sneaking into the poor districts to wager on cockfights and lose at dice, carrying on with lowborn girls, all the usual things.
"To come to the point, one of the lowborn girls I carried on with was Dust Moth, the daughter of a poor gravedigger. I was quite taken with her; needless to say, my parents were not, especially when it was discovered that she was carrying my child. Being the headstrong youth I was, I insisted that I would do the right thing and make her my wife." He smiled ruefully. "This sudden attack of virtue did not impress my parents, either. They were rather obscenely relieved when Moth died in childbirth, and the child with her. They were prepared to sweep the whole thing under the rug, chalk it up as a youthful indiscretion, and marry me off to some girl whose bloodline was just as impeccable as mine." He paused for a long moment, eyes distant, before focusing back on Kestrel.
"She came back. My family, of course, wanted to bring in an exorcist, but how could I turn her away? Moth loved me enough to find her way out of the Underworld and appear at my door. The ancestors had sent me a chance to redeem myself, and I could not ignore it. I once again announced my intent to marry her." He shrugged. "My family disowned me, of course, but it was too late to legally deny me my inheritance, and I hadn't completely wasted my time on foolish adventures; I had investments.
"This is the part of the story where Pale Cricket appears. Sijan is a place of tradition, especially among the aristocracy. It can be little else, when it's peculiar not to have one's ancestors drop in now and then to see how the family line is doing. I'd found a priest willing to perform the wedding, but before it could take place, we needed the proper attire -- it probably seems foolish to a foreigner, but here, a marriage is not valid unless all the proper forms are observed. My family put the word out that any tailor who helped us would be ruined. Cricket was the only one willing to risk it."
Teirel met Kestrel's eyes, his face serious. "So there you have it. The reason I care about your intentions toward Pale Cricket is that she was the only seamstress in all of Sijan brave enough to invite my family's enmity, for the sake of nothing but love. She is a good person, and my wife and I owe her more than money can repay, even if she were willing to take the fortune I offered her. I do not wish to see her heart broken a second time."
The plump young serving woman hastily set down her knitting and rose to her feet as Dust Moth swept into the small sitting room with Cricket and Shoat.
"Good evening, Mistress." She bowed politely.
"Good evening to you, Lily," the lady of the house responded pleasantly. "I'd like you to meet some friends of mine. This is Pale Cricket, and the little one is Shoat; they'll be staying with us for a while." After the three had murmured their greetings, she went on. "Lily, how is Tamsin doing tonight?"
"Oh, quite well." The maid glanced at the room's second door, which stood open just a crack. "I just put her to bed a few minutes ago, but I think she's probably not asleep yet. You know how she is."
Moth smiled. "Could you fetch her, please?" The maid bowed and pushed open the door, vanishing into the darkened room beyond.
A few moments later, she reappeared, cradling a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms. A soft sound began to emanate from the bundle, quickly resolving into the unmistakeable cries of an unhappy infant. Cricket's breath caught in her throat; she took an involuntary step back, nearly tripping over Shoat.
Moth glided to the nursemaid's side, changing as she moved. The dreamlike smoothness of her movements fell away; her body lost its ethereal aspect, the lamplight now seeming to shine on her rather than through her. On the floor, her shadow darkened and sharpened, until it matched that of the three other women in the room. She reached out with delicate but completely solid hands, gently lifting the baby from the servant's arms and cradling it to her breast.
"Hush, hush..." she cooed to the child, softly rocking it. "Don't cry, little Tamsin. There are some people here to meet you." The infant's wailing quickly subsided at the sound of Moth's voice; she turned to face Cricket and Shoat. The baby peered curiously at them, pale eyes wide in a soft, pale face crowned with downy gray hair. Moth beamed. "This is my daughter, Tamsin. She just had her first birthday, three days ago. Look, isn't she beautiful?" Tamsin managed to free a tiny hand from the blanket, and commenced waving it about.
"Yes, she's... very beautiful." Cricket's voice was thick. "I... congratulations, Dust Moth. You must be very happy."
"Thank you, Cricket." Moth knelt smoothly, holding the baby out for Shoat's inspection. The girl looked at the infant curiously, a wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. She hestitantly extended a hand, glancing up for permission and receiving a smile and nod. The child's hand closed around Shoat's outrstretched finger. Shoat peered into the baby's eyes intently, as though working out a difficult puzzle in her head. Tamsin looked back, gurgling softly.
"She likes you," said Moth. Shoat nodded distractedly, moving her finger in small circles; the baby maintained her grip, her arm following the girl's movements. Cricket kept her eyes focused on Shoat's face, glad that the girl's almost comically solemn reaction to the infant was providing her with an excuse not to exclaim over little Tamsin herself.
"I am so lucky to have her." Moth's voice was filled with quiet joy. "She is everything I ever dreamed of. I can never thank Lily enough." She looked up, an expression of serene happiness on her face. "Or you, Pale Cricket."
Holding his sleeve neatly out of the way, Liuwen Mortwright set his brush to the strip of rice-paper. His hand glided smoothly downward, trailing a word behind it in reddish, coppery-smelling ink. Setting the brush aside, he took up a smaller one, and dipped it in another, much larger pot of ink; the words of an arcane formula, written in black ink, joined the first word, running alongside and beneath it. The sharp-faced young man carefully blotted the paper, then held it up to the lamplight to inspect it. Satisfied that it conformed to the proper standards and forms, he reached across his workbench and placed it in a lacquered box. As he closed the box, a quiet rustle sounded from behind him; he turned from the desk, heart quickening.
His unvoiced prayer was answered; across the small room, a pale-skinned woman sat on the edge of his bed, her dress of dappled satin concealing just enough of her impossibly perfect figure to make it all the more tantalizing; the sheer garment's neckline plunged nearly to her slim waist, revealing a column of words written down the center of her chest. Jet-black hair spilled over her shoulders and pooled around her on the bed, blending with the shadows that fell across her.
Brown, star-flecked eyes critically surveyed the tiny, unadorned room. "You've come down in the world since I last visited you, Liuwen. Living in the Wardens' Guild dormitories?"
A smile played at the edges of Liuwen's mouth as his eyes drank in Kamaria's body. "Fennel raised his prices. I wasn't using all that extra space, anyway." Reaching behind him, he pulled open the the desk drawer and fumbled through it until his fingers touched glass. Drawing out a small phial of clear liquid, he held it up between thumb and forefinger. "Losing it was a small price to pay, to be worthy of your embrace."
Rising from his chair, he unbelted his robe and shrugged out of it, carelessly tossing the garment into the corner; his shirt followed it. Standing before Kamaria, clad in only his loose pants, he unstoppered the phial and raised it to his lips. He sucked in a sharp breath, throwing his head back; the glass cracked in his hand. As the potion raced through his blood, color rose in his sallow skin; his back straightened; the muscles of his chest and arms gained firmness and definition, tensing beneath his skin. Letting his head fall forward, he gazed into Kamaria's face, dark eyes full of exultant hunger. He flicked his hand; glass shards tinkled on the stone floor as he stepped toward her, his movements fluid and sure. He reached out and cupped her smooth cheek, running his fingers through her hair. "My sweet, sweet shadow..."
He moved to embrace her, but she slipped out of his grasp, retreating to the opposite corner of the room.
"What's the matter?" Liuwen asked, his voice low and smooth. "Does something displease you?" He grinned slyly. "Perhaps you wish me to put out the lamp?"
"I'm disappointed to find you in this tiny cell," said Kamaria. Her hair rustled in a nonexistent wind, sighing against her skirt. "It ill becomes you."
Liuwen stepped to the desk and blew out the lamp, casting the room into shadow. "The walls are thick enough for privacy," he purred, "and in the dark..."
"In the dark," she interrupted, "it is still a hovel. When I see you next, will you be sleeping in the street? Am I a common whore, to lie with you in the gutter, simply because alchemist's philtres can make you a godly lover for a night?" Her hair drew together like a curtain, wrapping her in a cocoon of black tresses; only her face was left exposed, fair skin shining like the moon in the night sky.
"You are my goddess," Liuwen said simply. "I desire nothing more in this world than your presence, your voice, the touch of your skin against mine."
"Pretty words. But words any man will say, when he wants a woman to go to bed with him."
Liuwen spread his hands helplessly. "What would you hear me say, then?"
Kamaria stalked toward him, hair swirling about her, still concealing. "You say I am your goddess. What would you offer me, to win my favor? Your body?" Her eyes travelled up and down his wiry frame. "By the time daylight comes, the potion's strength will have left you. Your wealth? It has all gone to pay the potion-maker." She drew up only a step away from him, her eyes level with his. "Wards against ghosts and misfortunes? I have no need of such things. What would you do for me, to make me forget my displeasure?" Cloth slithered beneath black strands; she took a last step forward, leaving her dress puddled on the floor behind her. Skin slid against skin as she pressed herself to him, her hair enveloping them both. "What would you do," she whispered in his ear, "if it would mean the chance to worship me in your arms for a night?"
Liuwen's arms wrapped around her, drawing her even closer, the full length of her body flush with his. He drew back his head, gazing into her sparkling eyes from inches away. "Anything." He drew a shuddering breath as her hands and hair moved across his back. "For you, I would do anything."
Kestrel paused in front of the door to Cricket's room, debating whether he should knock. He and Teirel had talked for some time in the garden, after the man had told the story of his dead wife and how Cricket had helped them; it was fully dark by the time he'd excused himself. Cricket was probably asleep by now, and it would be unkind to wake her, after all she'd been through in the last day. On the other hand, if she were still awake, Kestrel wanted his face fresh in her mind when she went to bed; maybe that would help make it stick.
As he stood there, he heard a quiet sound through the door. Listening closely, he heard it again: a soft, choked sob. His heart rose up in his throat; without thinking, he grasped the door's handle and pushed it open.
Cricket sat on the bed, hugging a pillow; snowy hair hung loose around her red, tear-streaked face. She hadn't changed out of the dress she'd worn to dinner. As Kestrel took an involuntary step into the room, she raised her head, puffy eyes focusing on him through the tears.
"Go away," she said, her voice wavering. "I'm okay. I don't... need..." she broke off, burying her face in the damp pillow.
Kestrel slowly walked across the room, and sat down next to her.
"I said go away!" even muffled by cloth and down, her scream was raw and painful. Twisting suddenly, she threw the pillow at him; it thudded into his chest and dropped to the floor. "Just go! Go away go away go away!" She half-heartedly punched him in the side, her words dissolving into more racking sobs.
Silently, Kestrel reached over and drew her into a gentle embrace, resting his cheek against the top of her head, softly stroking her hair as he held her close. Her delicate frame shuddered in his arms; tears soaked the front of his shirt. After a while, her weeping tapered off.
"My house burned down," she said. Her voice quavered. "I lived there all my life."
"I know," Kestrel replied softly.
"I don't know what I'm going to do." Cricket pressed her face into his chest. She drew a long, uneven breath. "It's just not fair. If a dead woman can be so happy, why can't I? Why can't..." she broke off, shoulders shaking noiselessly.
"I don't know." Kestrel hugged her closer. "You have such a good heart, Cricket," he murmured. "Such a beautiful, broken heart. I wish I knew the words that would let it feel joy again." Cricket raised her head from his chest, looking up into his amber eyes.
"Why are you still here?" she asked in a small voice. She was so close. "I told you to..." Her red-rimmed eyes fluttered closed; her face tilted upward, rising slightly. It would be so easy. "...go away..."
Kestrel leaned down, his eyes full of nothing but Cricket's face and... Shoat, standing behind her in the doorway, dressed in a too-large white nightgown. He pulled back, swallowing a frustrated sigh.
"I couldn't sleep," said the black-haired girl. "Are you all right, Cricket? Why is he here?" Cricket gulped audibly and pushed herself away from Kestrel, scooting over on the bed until there was a good yard between them. She swiped at her eyes.
"No, Shoat, I'm okay." To her credit, her voice was steady and calm. "Kestrel was just... saying goodnight."
"Right," said Kestrel, standing up. "And now it's time for me to go to bed myself." He strode to the door. He paused halfway over the threshold, half-turning back into the room. "Goodnight, Cricket." His voice was soft and compassionate.
Shoat watched the door close behind Kestrel with a distrustful look on her face. She turned to Cricket, large eyes accusing. "Are you two getting married?"
Down the hall, Kestrel heard Cricket laughing. He smiled, standing and listening for a moment, then stepped into his room, closed the door behind him, and flopped down onto the bed. He was asleep before his face hit the pillow, and he dreamed of Cricket's laughter.