*For the previous chapters, please go here. These are posted first draft, as the brain dictates to the fingers which are remarkably stupid. Also there will be inconsistencies because until September or so, the timing on these is wonky, and I’ll forget stuff between posts. Eventually it will be cleaned up and fixed just before page is made secret/taken down and the book is published. At that time I will take lists of typos or volunteers to proof read. For now, it’s written in a hurry, usually an hour before it goes up. And, let me remind you, it’s free – SAH*
Al was relieved that the bedrooms they were escorted to were reasonably clean. After all, you never knew when what Mama called “mere males” set up housing together. Not that she liked agreeing with Mama, of course, but she had had opportunity — before the boys disappeared — to realize they simply didn’t see dust or think of laundry as something that needed to be done. And living here without servants, they were bound to forget household chores, even if they had magic to do them.
But other than smelling a little musty, the room she was escorted to under the eaves of the house was perfectly clean. Someone, or perhaps Papa’s spell had cleaned and repaired the beautiful dress she’d been given at Darkwater house, and it was hanging in front of the wardrobe.
That gave her a momentary pang, since she both appreciated the thought, felt that this was the most beautiful dress she’d ever owned, and was more than a little doubtful that she should undertake the voyage through the magical road, whatever that was, in a dress. Wouldn’t boy’s clothes be more practical? After all, even in getting here, she and Michael seemed to have made a practice of being dropped from heights suddenly, and often upside down.
But she supposed one couldn’t tell one’s brother and father that one had decided to eschew petticoats.
So immersed was she in her thoughts that she — momentarily — forgot to lock the door, a lapse remedied when she heard a blood curdling howl coming from downstairs.
She’d no more turned the heavy key in the sturdy lock, than she heard a heavy clomping of oversized paws — definitely a four-pawed gait — up the stairs, and then the howl was in the hallways outside her door. The walls and ceiling seemed to shake with it.
Al backed till her back was against the door, while she hoped that Michael had been more diligent about locking his door than she had.
The howl was followed by heavy snuffling under the door. And then heavy paws scrabbling at the wood work. Al gave the sturdy-seeming door the weather eye. She stood ready to send another fireball at the wolf’s nose. And spied by the side of her eye a cane leaning against the wall.She’d use that too, if she had to, even if it seemed rather heartless to attack one’s Papa. But really, if he were in wolf form he should expect it, shouldn’t he?
Presently the scrabbling started, and she heard the snuffling further way, from what she thought was Michael’s door. Then scrabbling at that. She listened, tense. If the door went down, then she would rush out and … do what she could. Between the two of them, perhaps they could keep Michael from being devoured.
She had a distant suspicion that Mama would be very upset at her for letting a duke’s son be devoured. Particularly devoured by papa. No matter if Mama had caused Papa to become a werewolf — she didn’t know if that was true, but it sounded within Mama’s possible repertoire of tricks — she would disapprove of his eating the quality. It would quite cut up her plans to climb the social ladder.
When Al found herself laughing at that thought, she realized that she might be hysterical. Fortunately, for her piece of mind, an authoritative voice, sounding much like Papa’s, spoke in some arcane language. The wolf whined.
At length, she heard it descend the stairs, and relaxed muscles she wasn’t aware of clenching.
She poured water into the basin on the dresser and washed her face and hands and most of her upper body. Then she took the quite new tooth brush and a tube of patent tooth powder that Papa must have either magicked here, or copied from memory, and brushed her teeth.
She had just bathed before dinner, of course, but the habits that had been ingrained into her as what one did at bed time were not to be gainsaid, even if she knew that rationally her face and hands, arms and neck didn’t need extensive cleaning.
The wardrobe contained, on the left, a neat stack of clean nightshirts. From the size, she guessed William’s, as they were much too long for her, but not overly wide. She solved the length problem by tying a knot near her ankles, pulling up a good deal of the fabric, and making the nightshirt almost a sack.
That was when the knock came at the door, and she tensed. Papa had said not to to open the door to anyone. Could it be there was some magical trap? She heard the wolf howl outside the house, but really, what did she know of this place or how things worked here?
There were new knocks at the door and Geoff’s voice, impatient, “Al, for heaven’s sake, let me in. We need to talk.”
Al frowned so intently her eyes crossed. “Papa said–“
“Well, yes, but you know P-p-papa.”
In fact, she did not. However, rather than argue, she made use of that stock of magical abilities no girl who grew up with mama could have survived without. First, she sent out a magical probe, through the door, and found no spells active anywhere around.
Then, with the expense of a little magic, she called up a true site of the other side, to be regaled with Geoff’s face in deep an frowning concentration, glaring at the door.
“Ow,” Geoff said. And glared at the door. “Did you magic-probe me, you b-b-b-brat?” There was almost approval and a chuckle in his voice.
Al turned the key and opened the door, and Geoff came in, locking the door after himself. “You never know when he might decide to double down. He warded this floor against himself, and will drive himself out again, with recorded spells, but it doesn’t mean he can’t come up and do much destruction before the spell activates.
“Then it was Papa’s voice!”
“Well, yes.” Geoff looked embarrassed. “He tries to keep himself under control, you know.”
“I would expect nothing less of a Blackley,” Al said, and noted that for reasons inexplicable, Geoff looked embarrassed.
He was fully dressed too. Well, she supposed that made some sense. Why should he have changed, if he intended to speak to her? Sure, when they’d been much younger, he’d come to Al’s room in his nightshirt to read to her, and tell her stories till she slept. But they’d been such…. babies then. She tried to ignore the pang of nostalgia, and noted that Geoff was wearing a very proper outfit, as though dressed to go out.
And that he looked mortally embarrassed. He stood by the door, with his back to it, “Al, why are you running about the countryside in company with a nobleman.”
“Well, you see, I fell into his boat,” she said. And realizing that explained nothing, she told of her adventures.
Geoff frowned. “Papa wanted him to come, but I don’t think you were involved in that request at all.” He paused. His frown grew thunderous. “Al, are you– are you i–i-involved with him? Was there some reason for him to be there when you fell?”
“No,” Al said, and had to prevent herself from saying n-n-no. Really Geoff was much better than he had been, and she’d long since outgrown that trick of imitating his way of speaking, but his disapproval and suspicions made her nervous. “And you need not be scared, because I have taken every possible precaution to avoid his taking my virtue.”
Geoff’s eyes went wide, his cheeks went bright red, and for a while he imitated a goldfish with remarkable success. Finally, looking a little wild, as if he feared an answer, he asked “Precautions???”
“No more than sensible,” Al said, frostily. Did he think she was a baby when it came to magic? Hadn’t probing him shown she wasn’t? “I made sure that my magic is protected, and that he can’t touch it when I activate a spell.”
Geoff went into goldfish mode again, then cleared his throat and seemed to be having some difficulty speaking, “Al,” he said, at last, in a strangled sort of voice. “What do you think stealing your virtue means?”
“I– I presume it means taking my magic. It happens all the time in novels, and though I don’t understand the process precisely, it always seems to mean that the ah– gentleman–” They were in fact, usually scoundrels in novels. “Ends up in control of the lady’s magic. Geoff if you’re going to open and close your mouth like that, I’m going to cast a spell on you and make you into a goldfish.”
He blinked and laughed nervously. “I suppose it would make a change from being a swan, unless they happened at the same time, in which case it would be…. ah…. interesting.” He sighed. “Al, that’s not what it meant.” And then, blushing to his hair roots, he told her what it meant. Or at least what he thought it meant.
“Geoff, you’re either making up odious lies, or you were grossly misinformed.”
“Al, I assure you!” He was red enough that he seemed to glow and rival the candle by her bedside.
“Well! You misunderstood something, and I’m sure I thought better of your understanding, but for your information, Lord Michael hasn’t even tried to kiss me or…. or touch me in any way, much less that. And let me assure you, if he tried that I would–“
“Probably set his hair on fire with a fireball. Not that Lord Michael would try any of that. He’s not…. He’s not absurd. Other than a tendency to get up on his high horse, which I suppose he drank with his nursemaid’s milk, he’s quite a good sort, sound as a roast.”
For some reason, this wholly failed to reassure Geoff. At least, he didn’t say anything, but she could see from his eyes that he was still worried. “Very well,” he said at last. “But I would feel better if you took two things with you tomorrow morning, and I don’t know if I’ll see you in my human form again, since Papa doubtlessly will want to guide you to the path and give you your instructions.” From an inner pocket of his jacket, he removed a wrapped up bundle of fabric. “Should Lord Michael attempt to…. to lay hands on you, snap this string, and the spell will take care of it. No, don’t argue Al. I’m older than you and I know better.” He also removed a whistle. “And this is should you find yourself in trouble. If you blow it, I’ll know you’re in trouble, and where you are.” It was a small, silver whistle on a chain, which he put over her head. He then looked at her, in embarrassment. “I wish to heaven you wouldn’t go with Darkwater, Al. And that’s the truth. You’re too good a sister to lose.”
And on that, she forgot his boorish behavior and crazed ideas of how men and women related to each other and fell into his arms, hugging him, then kissing his cheek.
This embarrassed him worst of all. He patted her shoulder. “Well, well. You’re a good girl. I’ll go now, and get back to my room before Papa comes back. Mind, lock after me.”
She obeyed him, but sat on her bed for a while thinking, “Brothers!” in some exasperation.
Truth be told she had missed them greatly.
Across the hall Michael was confronted with his own brother problems. He had tensed during the snuffling, ready to go to Al’s rescue, should it become needed. Then he heard Geoff blundering around the hallways.
Truth be told he didn’t think very highly of Geoffrey Blackley’s intelligence. If all his sons were like him, no wonder that Tristan Blackley had sent in for someone wholly unrelated to him. Honestly, the man seemed to have no sense in matrimonial affairs. For him to have produced dumb sons, his first wife must have been a paper skull, and Albinia’s Mama sounded like a dangerous termagant, much too free with witchcraft.
He’d tired of trying to hear what was going on across the hall after Albinia had opened the door — he assumed she’d done some checking, since, as he knew, she was no ninnyhammer — and let her brother in. He heard voices talking, but couldn’t discern the words, and after a while he realized that it was grossly indelicate of him to eavesdrop. Only, of course, in this strange situation, it seemed like self defense.
Grudgingly, he’d changed into a nightshirt. The suit he’d arrived in, perfectly repaired and cleaned — he really would like to know the spells Blackley used — hung in front of the wardrobe, and though the idea of walking magical paths in evening wear was strange, it was also oddly reassuring, since doing it in borrowed clothes was just as strange.
He’d thought he’d stay awake, but no more had he lain his head down than he was asleep.
Asleep and dreaming.
Seraphim was in his study, at Darkwater, which was unlikely, since he’d been in the capital. But in Michael’s dream, he was in his study at Darkwater, and pacing.
This wasn’t the only thing that struck Michael as funny. There was to Seraphim a wild and rumpled look, as though he’d ridden night and day, and put his clothes on every which way.
“Michael,” he yelled. “Where in bloody hell are you?”
It was the first time Michael heard Seraphim swear, too. Much less at himself.
“In a pocket universe, where Tristan Blackley is prisoner.”
Michael explained, and found himself, in dream, between words and images, telling the tale of his adventures.
Though in his dream, Seraphim was in his study, while Michael was in bed in the Blackley house, it seemed to him that Seraphim tried to come through the dream, to come through into Michael’s room. Michael felt himself flinching on the bed, ready for the eruption of his angry brother into the room. But Seraphim seemed to fight an invisible barrier, and made a sound of frustration. “Michael, you are not to walk this path. You are not to expose yourself to the dangers of a challenge path in a made up world for the sake of a stranger. I forbid it.”
“Well, it is too bad you forbid it,” Michael said. Really, Seraphim’s behavior was beyond the pale. His older brother he might be, but he was not his father. “I’ve given my word and you would not wish me foresworn.”
And before Seraphim could answer — if he could answer, considering that his face was purple enough to look like he was dying — the dream shifted.
Now he was in a throne room. It was an odd throne room, built of what seemed to be blown glass, a material too frail to support those tall arches, and those vast ceilings. Stranger still were the courtiers assembled on the edges of the room, because Michael couldn’t see them.
It wasn’t that they were invisible. It was that he couldn’t turn his head to look. He had an impression of sparkle and silks, of feathers and fluttering wings. And he had an idea the wings, butterfly like though they were, were attached to humans. Well. To close to humans.
But he could see the man on the throne. And he knew him very well.
“Gabriel!” he said, in exasperation.
Like Seraphim, Gabriel had curly dark hair and eyes as green as Michael’s. Like Seraphim, Gabriel was Michael’s brother. Well, half brother. Michael had been given to understand that due to his father’s proclivities, there were a lot of half brothers. But Gabriel had been raised with them. And even if, officially, he was Seraphim’s valet, he had always been one of the family.
Becoming king of fairyland, through inheritance on his mother’s side hadn’t changed Gabriel at all. Or at least that was Michael’s first thought. Gabriel wore his hair long and tied back, and though his clothes were now silk and velvet, they were still as dark as they’d been when he was a servant at Darkwater.
But then he realized there was something else, something different. And it wasn’t just the gold crown resting negligently on Gabriel’s dark hair, as he sat on the throne. There was something else, not visible but perceptible, a majesty and a power of magic that overspread the room and which radiated from Gabriel.
And worse, the power and the magic both communicated that here was a man — well, an elf — both anxious and angry.
“Michael, I heard your interview with Seraphim. I am adding my injunction to his. You will not do this thing. You will not risk yourself on a path.”
Michael straightened his back, vaguely aware that he’d knocked his head on the headboard, but without waking. “And to you, your majesty,” he said, deliberately cold, “I say the same I said to Seraphim. I will not be foresworn.”
“You insolent puppy. You made Seraphim miss the birth of his son, and you–“
This is when Michael realized this was a true dream and that his brothers had somehow gotten hold of his sleeping mind.
He made a very rude remark about what both Seraphim and Gabriel could do with their worry, and then he snapped his magic shut, and forced himself to wake up.
He woke up shaking and sweating on his bed, took a deep breath, and wove magic protections over his bed before going back to sleep.
He would not, could not walk the path without a good night’s sleep.
His last conscious thought before falling into deep sleep was “Brothers!”