Chapter Thirteen

Memories and Machinations

Jayen’s car was still parked on the curb, Jayen himself across the street, conferring with the security detail, the man Zan recognized as his second hovering nearby on high alert. Zan paused to watch the Malthusius heir cross to his own car. He gave Zan a brisk look up and down, and Zan could feel the dismissal in his assessment as he turned to Aren instead. “We’re leaving a detail here in case of further trouble. I gave my card to your receptionist.”

“Yeah, thanks for cleaning up the mess you brought to me,” Aren said, rolling his eyes. Jayen gave a disgusted huff and climbed into his car, slamming the door shut.

“Are you going to be okay?” Aren asked, turning back to Zan.

“I’m fine,” he said automatically, looking up from his hands. A faint sensation of disruption still clung to them. “I have to go, I’m going to be late for my first class.”

It occurred to Zan, as he left the clinic, that he had left Adiel alone for an errand that he’d expected to take twenty minutes at the most. Adiel was not keyed to the wards, and would have no way to close them if the Malthusius had chosen to take his lack of cooperation as a challenge. He didn’t think it likely, but remembering McKellen’s behavior the day before gave him an incentive to hurry back.

He was nearly ten minutes late, arriving to find Adiel wrangling four of the five children from the class around the kitchen table, distracting them with juice and crackers. The boy gave a huge sigh of relief when Zan appeared in the doorway, slightly out of breath. “I was starting to worry,” he said. “Where have you been?”

“I’m so sorry, Adiel, there was an emergency at the clinic while I was there. I was pressed into service.”

“Emergency?” Adiel asked.

Zan did not elaborate. He was far more unsettled by the incident than he wanted to admit. In the moment, necessity had drowned it out, but now, in the aftermath, and stirred by the adrenaline of his rush back to Halcyon, the feeling of resistance and pain and blood and disordered magic under his hands had brought up memories that he would have preferred to stay buried. It must have shown, because Adiel was still staring at him, concerned.

Zan composed himself as best he could, glancing over the children. Lee and Keira, Terra and Antony. “Etienne isn’t here?” he asked.

“His mother called a few minutes after you left; he’s not coming today. A cold.”

“Ah, that’s unfortunate. Adiel, why don’t you take the children up to the library and help them with their writing practice for a few minutes. I’ve already got the charms for today’s lesson laid out.”

“Where are you going?” Adiel asked.

“I have something I need to do.” Zan went out the door, through the kitchen garden, taking the path through the back yard to the open area where Halcyon’s elemental spirits were seated. Halcyon’s bond was held in earth and water, so the seat was arranged as a pattern of stone tiles and patches of low growing moss and creeping ivy around the old well in the very center of the property. The elemental spirits that inhabited the stone and soil were old, as old as the city and the clan that had founded it hundreds of years before. They were calm and sedate, reaching out to him to offer acknowledgment as he went through. In contrast, the water elemental the well had borne was comparatively young for an elemental spirit, and far more excitable, its presence lapping at him eagerly and growing upset at the rare emotional imbalance he still wore. He spent a few minutes soothing it, until it retreated back into the well, then he went to the back corner of the property. Amid ancient trees and lush, shaded undergrowth lay the meditation paths. The graveled pathways twisted through the trunks of the trees and around carefully situated stones of various types, etched with sigils and charms; and dangling from branches were glass and wood discs, bright snatches of color flashing in the dappled light. The effect appeared whimsical and unpredictable, but the layout was carefully orchestrated to draw Halcyon’s elemental energy through the settling resonance of the trees and from there to direct it throughout the grounds into clean, unseated lines that were open and easy to access.

There wasn’t time to walk the paths. Zan sat on the bench near the entrance, taking a few minutes to simply feel the place that was his home now, to clear the dissonance of the unsettling encounter and reestablish his center. It was a good way to remind himself of how far away he was from Castiverre, and the tragedies and the loneliness he’d left there. Here, in the comforting resonance of Halcyon, he could think of those things without getting lost in them again, and when he rose a few minutes later and returned to the library, the troubling memories had been once again laid to rest.

“Thank you, Adiel,” he said as he sat down at the table with the students and looked over their work. “And thank you, sweetheart,” he said, smiling at the page Keira held up to him. Her copies of the basic charms were interspersed with scribbles of flowers and small creatures of indeterminate species. In truth, she was a little too young for this class. Children of her age with awakened spiritual magic were rare, and required careful attention. Zan had taken her on as a favor to her parents, who were friends of his, and also because he knew what it was like to grow up in an environment that did not show the proper care for a precocious spiritualist. So while the older students practiced basic written magic, Keira received special lessons on shielding and reading spiritual energy, couched in careful terms for her age. Zan considered watching the sweet, timid little girl blossom under his tutelage the best antidote to the bitter memories of his own childhood.

 

 

“What the hell is wrong with your father?”

Vico managed to wait until they were out of the active range of his newly rekindled bond with Seya before he couldn’t keep the anger to himself anymore. It was not a great distance; they were barely halfway across town. He supposed, darkly, that it was a bit much to assume that he and Seya could simply go back to the level of closeness they’d had before. It was a minor miracle that any traces of their bond had survived the time and distance she had put between them. Remembering that did nothing to help the black feeling trying to force its way out of his chest.

Jayen did not answer, though his bewilderment was clear in his aura even as he stared steadfastly through the windshield.

Vico swore, quietly, viciously. “If he wasn’t your father,” he began, his voice rough with fury, and paused, his jaw taut as he struggled to contain himself, before going on with dangerous, icy calm, “If he were anyone else, I’d have already dragged him into the circle.”

“Don’t say that,” Jayen said, glancing at him warily from the corner of his eye. “He’d revoke you just for the challenge. Look, are you going to be okay? You know he’s going to be at the debriefing.”

“I’m fine,” Vico said shortly. “Sorry.” He was not sorry at all, but as much as he hated Corin Malthusius, the man was still Jayen’s father. It would do him no good to pull at the seam that ran down the middle of Jayen’s loyalties. Vico had spent years tiptoeing around the inevitability of that divide, until he couldn’t stand it anymore, until it had undone him. He turned his gaze back out the window, his breathing deliberately even as he tried to put himself back to center.

“I know how he is,” Jayen said. “I wonder what she did to make him believe—”

“What could she possibly have done?” Vico said, glaring at him. “She was gone.” His brow furrowed as he wondered suddenly whether Corin had known where she was the whole time. He had the resources. It had been in the middle of the war, but that didn’t mean much. Corin was perfectly capable of that sort of single-mindedness.

Vico swallowed the hard, nauseous knot of that idea down. “Let’s not talk about this now.” He couldn’t afford to get angry and do something as stupid as challenging his bondmaster to a duel over this, no matter how badly he wanted to, no matter how justified it would be. It was suicidal, in both the literal and figurative sense. He was not considering it, he told himself. He wasn’t.

He needed something else to think about. Shifting in his seat, he checked the position of the security detail that was following them. “We really ought to have one of them in the car with us,” he said, frowning.

“You’re here, it’s fine,” Jayen said.

“I’m not certain I’d be a lot of good just now,” Vico said. Losing his temper had done nothing to help the residual weariness of giving all his energy to Seya. And she had drained most of his dueling chips, too. It made him feel like a sitting duck.

“It’ll be fine,” Jayen said. “Don’t you start too. I get enough of this from Dad and Micah.”

Vico put his hand over his eyes. “Jayen, I really need you to take this threat seriously. If they got your aural signature somehow—”

“We still don’t know if it was me or Seya they were after,” Jayen said. “She said it was me, but she’s been gone a long time. We don’t know what she’s been into. She could be covering for something.”

“She wouldn’t—” Vico paused, his frown deepening. He did not believe for a moment that she would deliberately involve herself in something illicit, but whether she had or not, trouble had always followed her because of her magic. He remembered the shadow on her aura—she was hiding something. But asking her about that would have to wait, at least until she was able to answer questions without risk of another rebound.

Jayen, however, was right there, and perfectly capable of answering questions. “You were knifed in the street three weeks ago,” Vico pointed out. “It could have happened then.”

“We recovered the weapon,” Jayen said. “I told you I’d get you the report.”

“And I want to read it, but tell me what happened anyway.”

“You could have asked me before, you know,” Jayen said, tossing him a dark look. “Are you only asking now because Seya is involved?”

“No,” Vico said. “Just tell me already.”

Jayen huffed under his breath. “It wasn’t some big, dramatic thing. I was just walking to Dacie’s to meet Micah and Arie, and some guy darted out of the space between two cars parked on the street and tried to stab me. He only managed a shallow cut before I blasted him. He dropped the knife, dove into one of the cars, drove away before I could do anything else. Unmarked car, well-warded, we weren’t able to trace it. That’s it. It wasn’t that big a deal.”

If it had happened to one of his crew, Jayen wouldn’t have been so blasé about it. “He dropped the knife? Did they check to make sure it was the same one?”

“What?” Jayen stared at him.

It was clear he had not considered the idea at all, that no one had. “Did they check the blood to make sure it was yours? No, they didn’t, did they. They just burned it,” Vico said. It was standard procedure. “It doesn’t make sense for anyone to attack you like that. One man, a knife, right in the middle of Malthusius territory? No. That’s a crime of passion, he wouldn’t have bolted like that, like he expected to get away so clean. And if they’d been serious, there would have been at least two of them, and they would have tried to disable your defenses first. You are the highest ranked duelist in the county. Behind your mother, anyway.”

Jayen braked the car at a stop sign. “That’s—”

“That’s how I would have done it,” Vico said. “Stick the knife in you, drop a decoy while getting the hell out.”

There was a silence. The road was clear, but Jayen didn’t turn yet. “Sometimes the way your mind works scares me,” he said, finally. The security car behind them honked. Jayen turned onto the road to the Malthusius compound. After a long moment, he said, more cautiously, “This is why I keep telling you to come back to the security division. No one else would have thought of something like that.”

“I’m not coming back to security,” Vico said. “But since I’m already involved, there’s no harm in helping.”

Jayen’s jaw set. “You are only doing this for Seya,” he said. They came to the gate, and were waved in.

“I’m doing this because I don’t want to see anyone else I care about get struck down and almost killed,” Vico said.

Jayen parked the car and looked at him again. “You—”

“And don’t pretend like you aren’t worried about her yourself,” Vico went on, ruthlessly forestalling the question he knew Jayen would ask. “I know why you didn’t leave last night.”

Jayen looked away. “I wasn’t—it just happened. What was I supposed to do, let her die? I never hated her that much.”

“I know that,” Vico said, rolling his eyes. He opened the car door, got out. “She does that to people. If it bothers you that much, just let it fade out naturally. Circumstances and compatibility aside, you can’t keep a bond with someone if you don’t want it.” Privately he thought a natural bond would do Jayen a world of good, make him pay more attention to his spiritual magic, open his perspective up to something outside the clan for once. Plus, if it was with Seya, they might even end up getting along for real, and that would be another tie to keep her in Starling. He didn’t think she could have too many of those.

She’d already proven one was not enough.

That was a bitter thought. Vico ran his fingers through his hair absently, trying to plot his next course of action. She was going to be stuck with him for at least a week now, according to Aren. That was plenty of time. Keeping involved with the investigation would make opportunities to throw the two of them together, too.

Jayen got out of the car, leaning on the roof of the vehicle and rubbing at his eyes.

“What is it?” Vico asked.

“Nothing. I think I’m still a little drained.”

“You need to get checked out by a healer. You should have let Aren do it.”

“Don’t you start,” Jayen said.

“You need to be careful! Stop wandering around by yourself. Let Micah make you a proper bodyguard rotation. And make sure you vet them all through the bond beforehand. It’s not outside the range of possibility that this was an inside job.”

Jayen turned a glare at him over the top of the car, outraged. “Our bonded wouldn’t do that!”

“You have enemies. On the high tier, even.”

“They aren’t enemies. Rivals, maybe. Our bond is stronger than that. They just want what’s best for the clan. You’re just biased against things because of your circumstances.”

Vico sighed and let the matter drop. Micah might listen to him. Hopefully he’d have more pull with Jayen on the issue.

He followed Jayen up to his office. Through the open door, they could see that Corin was already there, sitting in Jayen’s chair, going over the preliminary report Jayen’s crew had put together. Jayen caught Vico’s arm before he opened the door. “Don’t tell him about this bond thing,” he said under his breath.

“Why not?” Vico could think of at least half a dozen reasons to keep it quiet, but he was curious as to why Jayen, who was straightforward to a fault, would want to hide it.

“Just—don’t, okay? Until we know why he went off like that.”

Politics, then, Vico thought. He was learning.

The debriefing went fairly smoothly, as long as Vico ignored the scowls and muttered comments he got from the security personnel who came through the office while it was going on. And the fact that Corin was present. Thankfully, Addison was not which he counted a small favor from whatever fate was smiling vaguely in his direction. Micah, Rena, and Hanna were also there. Vico had already read the first report at the clinic, but he listened anyway while Micah and Rena went over the case out loud, picking out details they had missed before. There was nothing that struck him as significant.

He told his part of the story with a little judicious editing, leaving out the fact that he had suggested the duel, and the bond Jayen had established with Seya. His own bond he did not bother to hide, since his bond-sibling relationship with Seya was a frankly notorious fact, and would probably be assumed anyway. He kept a close eye on Corin when he spoke about it, gauging his reaction. There wasn’t much of one—a slight tightening around his eyes and mouth, which could have signified anything.

Hanna impressed a recording of the proceedings into a memory charm. A faint, reddish spark glowed in the quartz disc where the information was set into it, refracting off the patterns of tiny, complex sigils carved into its surface.. Jayen dropped the charm into his desk drawer with the rest of the traces and reports and locked it.

“Now you will go to the healers’ offices,” Corin said.

“That can wait,” Jayen said. “It’s just some bruising, I’m not going to die of it before I get this all settled.”

“Your eyes are bothering, you aren’t they?” Vico said.

Jayen scowled at him. Corin regarded him with a measured gaze before turning back to his son. “Go,” he said, and added a mild rebuke to the order through the clan bond. Jayen left, muttering a comment under his breath about ginger busybodies as he brushed past Vico.

Corin swung a dark look around the room. Micah and Rena left. Hanna remained at her small corner desk, tensing in expectation of confrontation. Vico stayed where he was, standing by the door Micah had closed on his way out. Corin stood, his face cold, his aura shuttered. “I was given to understand that she will require constant supervision during her recovery,” he said.

If he felt any remorse for having caused her to rebound, he wasn’t showing it. Vico crossed his arms, dropping his gaze to try and hide the anger he knew he wasn’t containing nearly so well. He unclenched his jaw and said, evenly, “For at least three days, according to Healers Halcyon and Alciere. I’ve already agreed to put her up until her treatment is done.”

Corin said nothing for a long moment. Then: “I give you leave to take the next three days off for the purpose, and a bonus to cover the trouble.” His voice was taut with restraint. “If she requires more time, I expect to be notified promptly.”

Vico lifted his eyes, surprise oversetting his anger for a moment. He’d half expected to have to finagle for it. “I would like that in writing,” he said.

Corin flicked his gaze to Hanna. “Write it up and bring it to my secretary to be signed,” he said, getting to his feet. Vico stood aside as he went out, and waited a moment for Corin to get down the hall.

Hanna looked up at him curiously. “It’s been a while since I saw you in here,” she ventured.

“Yeah, it’s downright nostalgic, isn’t it,” he said, tossing her a tight smile as he glanced around the familiar walls of the security offices. Truthfully, he did miss working there, and having a sense of camaraderie with his coworkers. But that camaraderie had been largely conditional on his relationship with Jayen, and Vico wasn’t desperate enough to go back to that yet.

He was musing on yet as he left.

Micah leaned on the wall outside the door, waiting for him. “What are you doing?” he asked, following Vico down the hall toward the stairs.

“Going to L&R to check on that workup for Bretinne,” Vico said.

Micah shot him a hard look. “You know what I mean.”

“I have an inkling, but just for the record, why don’t you tell me,” Vico said.

“If you’re just involving yourself in this for Seya then you need to back off. This isn’t your department anymore, and we have our own priorities, like making sure our heir doesn’t get killed, or shuffled out of the succession.”

“I am perfectly capable of caring about both of their welfare equally,” Vico said.

“So then we can expect you to abandon her without reason or warning as well?”

Vico gave him a cool look. “Well, she already did that to me once.”

“Don’t try to pull that smart mouthed shit with me. I’m telling you right now if you hurt him again, there is nothing in this world that’ll keep me from dragging your ass into the circle.”

“Micah, if you’re still pissed at me for ignoring your challenge last year, I’d be more than happy to hand you your ass, but you’ll have to wait. I’m all booked up until next week, babysitting my darling idiot bond-sister. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go arrange my work docket to accommodate that.”

But Micah would not be put off that easily. “Do you think I haven’t seen through this whole thing?” he said. “This being friends thing?”

“He’s the one who keeps coming to me, pestering me for any scrap of attention.”

“And you’re the one who doesn’t discourage him at all! Admit it, you’re just stringing him along, staying close enough to keep the wolves at bay.”

“That’s right, I’m just that conniving Sancerre bastard,” Vico said sharply. “No way I could possibly care for anything but myself. Really, Micah, why the hell do you think I’m still here? Is it all the opportunities that have been lavished upon me? Or just the fact that I’m so well-loved by everyone around here?”

Micah looked away. “It would help if I knew your intentions.”

“That’s funny, I don’t remember you asking me about my intentions when I came to you with information about the Hemsley last month. Or any of the times you’ve come around asking me to nose into things for you.”

“Well, you’re good at keeping up with shit and getting people to talk. I just don’t know if I trust you any farther than that. You can be damn cold when you’re twisting things around to suit yourself.”

“All I want is to keep the only two people I’ve ever loved from getting hurt. If that makes me cold, then I guess I can be as cold as I need to make it happen.” He stalked down the stairs.

“Past tense?” Micah said.

Vico paused on the landing. “That’s none of your damn business. Just make sure he doesn’t blow off his bodyguards like last time. And vet whoever you assign. If they do have his signature, it opens up the possibility it’s an inside job. I tried to tell him that, but of course he wouldn’t listen to me.”

Micah’s mouth fell open at that, nearly as indignant at the idea as Jayen had been. “You don’t seriously think one of us would have—”

“I don’t know, but better safe than sorry. I know everything has been going more smoothly for him lately, but Seya is back, and she’s already complicating things. A power play wouldn’t be out of place.” He paused, glancing up and down the stairs—there was no one in hearing range. He laid a dampening over the words anyway. “Was it Addison who told Corin about the duel?”

The question made Micah distinctly uncomfortable. “Don’t ask me about things like that. I can’t afford to have my loyalty questioned.”

Vico’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Did you put someone on me?”

Micah gave a long-suffering sigh. “Jayen refused to consider you a threat. I did try to talk him into it, at least for appearance’s sake. But Corin’s got two of his personal retinue ready to monitor you when you’re outside the compound. I’m only telling you that because I’m not supposed to know, so don’t go blowing their cover.”

“What about Addison?”

Micah shook his head. “That I don’t know. I don’t think he would interfere directly.”

“Having me watched is considerably less direct than some of the shit he’s pulled.”

“Yes, but if you and Jayen—” He paused, as if he didn’t quite want to say it.

“If Jayen and I what? I thought I was just using him to cover my ass. Make up your mind: conscientious objector or ally. I can’t do anything on my own. I don’t have any influence, and leverage takes time I don’t have to spare just now.”

They stared at each other. Finally Micah sighed and nodded. “I’ll talk to Jayen about the possibility, but I don’t think he’ll listen to me either. And I’ll make a couple of discreet inquiries about Addison, but I don’t know if that’ll do any good. You know he doesn’t like anyone who allies with Jayen.”

Vico did know, entirely too well. “We can talk later. I’m already three hours late for work.” Micah gave a sharp nod and they parted ways, Micah back to the security office, and Vico to the nearest exit, heading for the L&R department.

The Lines and Resonances building was separate from the main business offices, set well away in deference to the risks of the high level spellwork that was worked there. Vico wanted to check Lejan’s progress on the workup. One of the assistant mages had to go fetch him from the lab, since as a mere working bonded, Vico didn’t have clearance to go that far into the building. While he waited, Vico went over to the dispensary to trade in his depleted dueling chips.

Lejan turned up while he was signing for a fresh set. His eyes fell on the depleted set lying in a tray on the counter, and he gave a low whistle. “That must have been quite a duel,” he said, picking them up and weighing them in his sense.

“It was,” Vico said with a grim smile, “one hell of a duel.”

“Are you okay?” Lejan asked, setting the chips down in the tray and looking him over. “I noticed you didn’t come back to work yesterday. Did something happen with Jayen after all? You’re looking a little washed out.”

“How can you tell?” Arie asked, coming out of the storeroom with a new cord of chips, which she handed to Vico through the dispensary window. “These Talese always look a bit peaked.” She was born Caldi herself, deep gold-brown skin and glossy dark hair.

“That’s cute, Rie,” Vico said, pulling the cord over his head and tucking the new chips under his shirt. “You say that shit to Micah?”

Arie snorted. “He’s not nearly as pale as you.” Then she looked him over more closely. “You didn’t get into a fight with Jayen, did you?” she asked. “Micah said you were shouting at each other in the common room yesterday. I know something happened, but he wouldn’t talk about it.” Her eyes fell to the depleted chips.

“No, I did not, and would not get into a fight with Jayen,” Vico said.

“Or duel him?” Lejan asked.

Apparently the news had not circulated yet. “No,” Vico said. “Not in a public circle, anyway. I have enough problems without people thinking I’d seriously challenge the heir. I’m fine, just tired. It was…a really long morning. And night. And yesterday afternoon.” He rubbed his face. “It’s a long story, as a matter of fact, and I’ll tell you all about it later, though I’m sure you’ll be hearing it long before I have time to. I just came to ask you about that workup.”

“I’m working on it now,” Lejan said. “Went over to the site for the traces first thing this morning. It should be done by lunch. I’ll bring it to you as soon as I’m through.”

“Thanks,” Vico said, and headed off to work.