my stories · The Baker's Wife Excerpt

The Baker’s Wife (part one)(scene six)

Realized I hadn’t posted any story excerpt or short last week at all. So, here (with many mea culpas) is the next scene in part one of The Baker’s Wife. Hopefully, things will calm down enough this week that I’ll be able to get back to a regular blogging schedule.

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Krysilla hugged herself in the chill night air and hoped she hadn’t wrinkled the material of Lily’s dress. The entire day had been nothing but silence between her and Lejer, who’d stayed at the house longer than she’d expected. Terrified she’d end up hiding in her room if she saw her image, she refused to look in a mirror while Lily braided her hair into what she said was a pleasing style, not even when she’d finished and exclaimed how lovely Krysilla looked.

It didn’t matter how she looked. She felt like a wreck. No amount of pretty would improve that.

Before her loomed the great doors of the Felldesh manor. She’d never been here, and was glad of that now that she’d seen it. Even swung wide open, the doors, taller than any man she’d seen and wider than two carriages side by side, seemed ready to shut on anyone deemed unworthy to enter. As she passed them into the enormous manor, she felt undone locks within them.

Her nervousness faded as she took note of the spell. It curls, she realized, and followed the curls as they intersected with each other. She might have stopped to examine them more closely if Lily hadn’t guided her to the center of the room to meet some other women from the village.

I’m not here to make friends, she remembered while she briefly made small talk. “I’m afraid I must go and pay my respects to the hostess,” she demurred when it looked as if the conversation might go on until the musicians showed.

Oh, of course,” Lily said. “We’ll go with you.”

And so, far from being alone, Krysilla found herself with a small crowd as she approached one of the Felldesh servants, dressed in a fine coat of dark blue and a light blue vest that marked him as married. “I wish to thank Lady Felldesh for her invitation,” she said.

Lady Felldesh extends warm wishes for your family,” he replied.

Would you please tell her,” she said, not about to be brushed aside with warm wishes, “that…that the baker’s wife, Krysilla Gillasin, wishes to thank her for her invitation?”

Surrounded by women, all looking at him with expectant eyes, the servant smiled coldly and bowed, then walked down the enormous room to a narrow door that was built to blend into the wall. Around her, the women began to gasp and giggle. “I didn’t know you knew her,” one said.

She doesn’t,” Lily said with a smile. “She’s very polite, that’s all.”

Krysilla tried to return it, but she wasn’t sure what to do. Should she wait for the servant to return? Should she mingle or chat or see where Lejer might be so that she could avoid him?

Before she could decide, the servant was making his way back to them. He bowed once more. “Her ladyship is most glad to hear you have arrived, Goodwife Gillasin. She asks that you join her during the musical interlude tonight.”

It’s just as Parlay said, she thought and yet that made her more nervous than before. “I would be most honored.”

He bowed a third time and left to convey the message.

Around her, the women were amazed. How did you manage that? some said. She’s a wonderful lady, said others. But Lily looked concerned. She announced she and Krysilla were going to get some tea, then quickly maneuvered her away.

How do you know Lady Felldesh?” she asked as they walked.

My husband fills orders for the Felldesh house sometimes.”

Most of the time,” Lily murmured. “Your husband must make very good bread indeed to get all the orders he gets from the Felldesh house.”

He’s a master baker.” Krysilla didn’t understand why her friend seemed so worried so quickly. “More than the Felldesh house eats what he makes.”

Whatever concern Lily felt disappeared in her full-hearted smile. “Yes. He is a very good baker. A master. And I’m glad for you.” Still, remnants of her earlier concern lingered in her eyes.

They got tea and wandered the periphery of the room until they saw Lily’s husband. For the rest of the evening, they went where he went, spoke with whoever he spoke with. It took some effort, but Krysilla remembered how Lejer had described her and decided she would not be that woman tonight. Tonight, she would mingle and discuss whatever others wished to discuss, no matter how tired she felt or how often she wondered when the musicians would come out to play. She could hear the sound of instruments playing bits and pieces of things, much in the same way Parlay did before his performance.

And all the while, she kept an eye out for Lord Parlay. If he is a lord, she couldn’t help thinking.

Last night, she had been so sure she knew his place in society. Now, after thinking a bit more, she’d begun to doubt. Would the king trust a man who spoke so easily of Ornic sins as if they were no sin? Or did he hide it well? Not to mention his ability with a fiddle, done without magic.

The more she learned about him, the more she realized she knew nothing about him.

She felt a hand touch her shoulder and turned. Behind her stood a woman with sparkling makeup and dressed finer than any of the women she’d seen so far. Her dress was only somewhat more delicate than the one Parlay had shown Krysilla earlier, but that was hardly a denigration. And it clung to her trim figure, making her appear unearthly, like a Blessed One from a story. The sleeve’s material was so fine, it floated as the woman lifted one graceful hand in greeting. The feel of magic, only a little, wrapped around her. “Krysilla Gillasin, wife of Lejer Gillasin,” the woman said with a smile too warm to be sincere. And yet, she didn’t seem naturally cold. She’s looking for something from me, Krysilla couldn’t help thinking. Four servants in their dark-blue coats stood just close enough to be called and yet far enough away that they didn’t appear overtly ready to assist her.

Krysilla smiled in return. Of course. “Lady Felldesh.” Taking the lady’s hand, she bent her forehead to it and curtsied.

The music is about to begin. I had hoped you would join my husband and I at the front?”

There would be no refusing her. Krysilla thanked her for the invitation and asked if her friends might join as well. And Lady Felldesh allowed it. Thrilled she could at least give Lily a chance to be so close to someone she obviously admired (her eyes hadn’t left Lady Felldesh since she’d seen her), Krysilla decided that if everything went wrong tonight, at least she’d been able to give back some of what she’d been given.

They made their way out of the entrance hall and into the ballroom. Two long rows of chairs, five wide, with a large aisle down the center, filled the room. Light from chandeliers with hundreds of small King’s Lights filtered through crystals and gemstones of various colors, filling the room with colors of all kinds. The colors bounced off mirrors that lined the walls and made it appear as if an infinite number of people had entered the room. Krysilla frowned before she could stop herself. The doors and windows were covered with scrolled and painted woodwork and trimmed in gold in designs that were far too intricate to be easily cleaned. She had always been told the nobles were the icons of Tothsin beliefs, especially regarding thrift and self-control, and yet here was proof she’d been told a lie.

It’s only the surface, she told herself.

Lady Felldesh raised her hands, and clapped.

The walls split along the sides and the mirrors and wooden facade moved away to reveal polished marble. “From the Ornic days,” Lady Felldesh murmured, just low enough for Krysilla to hear, and Krysilla alone.

Before long, the entire room had become, except for the windows, one enormous room of nothing but marble. Only the ceiling remained in it’s painted state.

Once finished, the rest of the room erupted into a deafening round of applause. Is this what it’s like? she couldn’t help wondering as she followed Lady Felldesh to her seat. Never to worry, never to feel concern about your own life? Able to rearrange your world as easily as a person turns on a King’s Light?

Lord Felldesh stood waiting for them as they approached and, for once, Krysilla got a glimpse of what the Disciples talked about in their sermons at the beginning of each New Moon. He seemed like a tree firmly planted, his dark hair slicked back into immobility, his eyes coolly surveying and judging all around him. Those who hold the power of all magics, she could almost hear a Disciple intoning, must have control of themselves at all times and under all circumstances. Because men are weak, only a few, bred to this control, may be able to use this power.

In front of the long rows of seats stretched what was probably a stage, as most of it was set into the wall far enough that it seemed to form it’s own oddly-shaped room. Unlike the stages Lily had described on the way to the manor, made of wood and shaped like a box, the ceiling and wall were one and shaped like a ribbed cavern. The many seats within it were tiered, and just as Lady Felldesh reached the front, there was a sound as if a large group had stood up. Some of the chairs moved, and Krysilla remembered what Parlay (lord or not) had said about the spell.

And then she remembered that he had a lovely voice. One he’d kept hidden.

A door opened to the side of the balcony and the sound of boots thumped along what must be a wooden floor, though Krysilla couldn’t see it from where she stood. The footsteps continued until they reached the center front of the stage.

Lord and Lady Felldesh welcome you,” three voices, two male and one female, said. The sound seemed to be all around her, an echo that lingered. “You who are invited are those who have given much to the support of your village. In appreciation, the Felldesh manor also welcomes, for your pleasure and delight, Zhiv Mikailsin, the King’s own minstrel.”

There was an excited murmur behind her and Krysilla waited on the edge of her seat, though for a different reason than those around her. Parlay didn’t act like a lord, and he had a lovely voice.

Lady Felldesh leaned close and whispered, “I asked for him especially after hearing him sing at the King’s palace. I asked and the King granted it.”

Krysilla’s breath caught, and she tried to act calm. Thankfully, Lady Felldesh beamed. Let her think it’s because I’m impressed, Krysilla decided. But it made too much sense. After all, if the King wanted to know what a noble was doing, and if that nobleman’s wife requested his minstrel…there was no way to be sure, she reminded herself. Parlay could still be a lord or even a lowly fiddler. She’d know when she heard him.

The musicians began to play, soft and low, but with a gently urgency that kept her attention. And then, Zhiv began to sing.

Whatever hopes she’d had of figuring him out by his voice ended with that first note. As he began to sing of a world he’d dreamed, a world so perfect it couldn’t exist, he sang with a voice that didn’t seem human at all. The spell on the music added too many layers, and the sound, though pure and clear, had a quality that blended so perfectly with the instruments behind it that it was as if one of them had been given speech by a Blessed One.

And yet, she was captivated by it. Around her, the swirls in the marble seemed to lift themselves off the rock, forming into the fantastical sights Zhiv had seen in his dream: people who threw away their weapons, families living in peace, rulers who never took more than they gave to those who served them. She could feel her heart swelling with pride as she recognized all the Tothsin ideals come to life around her.

Before she knew it, the song had ended, with hope that the dream would become reality someday.

Each song touched her just as fully, whether it was about the longing of a couple whose parents disapproved the match, or the pain a joyful song about the pleasures of happy family life caused in her heart. And song after song produced images of the story, or, in the case of a simple song about the beauty of a windy day, the image of wind blowing through the branches of a tree. She could almost feel the touch of the breeze herself.

And then, came a song that sounded familiar, though Krysilla hadn’t heard it since her childhood.

She looked to Lily to see if she remembered, but Lily was looking at the stage as if she could see every musician on it. Krysilla turned to Lady Felldesh and saw her looking at the stage with the same intense stare.

Afraid she would appear rude if she looked behind to see if the rest of the party was staring at the stage, she listened as the music built, then seemed to wait. When Zhiv sang the first line, she remembered the name of the song.

The Girl with the Blue Sash. No one sang that song anymore. It supposedly encouraged disorder. She’d never thought so. It was just a silly, little tune about a boy who never tells the girl he wants his true feelings for her. She remembered it as a lighthearted, playful song, the kind you sing to remember not to let opportunities pass by.

But the way Zhiv sang it, it didn’t seem as lighthearted as before. Though every joke was still in place, and the crowd laughed where they should, it felt bittersweet to Krysilla.

Why this song? she wondered. She could almost feel the tension in the room as the song built up to its climax, with the now old man finally getting the courage to tell her how he felt and still feels. She, of course, tells him she’s too old, but, as a final gesture, gives him her blue sash from her previous marriage. That part had always made her giggle as a child. Why give him a reminder of what he didn’t have? Now, she began to wonder if it was so that he could imagine that all those years she wore it for him.

But only because of the images the marble formed, of the sad girl watching the boy who couldn’t share her heart.

She closed her eyes, feeling that there was something else, something hidden inside the song itself. With a shiver, she felt the same connection begin that had happened with Parlay and his fiddle.

Concentrating, she focused on Zhiv’s voice, feeling through the layers and effects of the spell for his true voice. Feeling a tap on her arm, she turned to see Lily glaring at her with wide eyes. Confused, she stopped.

The song was winding up anyway.

When the last note had died away, the audience clapped their approval. But not Krysilla.

Maybe, she thought, staring at the stage, all truly good musicians are able to touch others and I just haven’t heard enough good music. But there was something about the quality of the performance, that, even though they were different instruments and different styles, made her think of Parlay.

Or perhaps you truly have fallen for him, a wicked voice inside whispered.

She felt the blue sash winding around the dress Lily had let her borrow and suppressed a bitter smile. Even if I had, like the girl in the song, there’s nothing I can do about it. Not without consequences I’d rather not face.

Thank you,” the announcers said, their voices filling the emptiness of the hall. “Thank you for attending, and we wish you well as you journey home. Peace to you all, from the Felldesh manor.”

Lady Felldesh stood and so did the rest of the audience. And the musicians, Krysilla realized, hearing them walk across the stage. The side door opened once again and Krysilla made a note of it before Lady Felldesh touched her on the arm.

Would you care to join me in my room?”

I’d be delighted. Thank you.”

It took her only a few steps before she realized Lily wasn’t following. If Lily were jealous at all, she didn’t show it. With a wave and a smile, she made it clear she expected Krysilla to enjoy the honor and that she would be going elsewhere with her husband. Still,…“Wait. May my friends join us?”

Lady Felldesh sent a servant, who informed them that Lily and her husband wished to get back to their children. “That’s too bad,” Lady Felldesh said, though Krysilla once more felt as if Lady Felldesh were looking for something in Krysilla when she said it. “Come then.”

The private room of Lady Felldesh had no windows. It gave the room a closed feeling that Krysilla didn’t like, and all the people, some she recognized from the village, and some she didn’t, added to that feeling. It didn’t help that one of the people sitting in the room was her husband, Lejer.

Those sitting now stood. “Lady Felldesh,” they all said.

Would you like a seat by your wife, Hon Gillasin?” Lady Felldesh’s question seemed a little too playful.

Of course,” he said, but without any returning teasing. Always proper, Krysilla thought and couldn’t help remembering Parlay. He would have said something witty or flirtatious in return.

She sat down, wondering if she should excuse herself now. The room definitely felt uncomfortable. But Lady Felldesh sat down in a chair across from her and grinned.

Well. Lejer has told me much about you, goodwife. Cake?”

No. Thank you.”

I envy you,” she said, lacing her white, delicate fingers together in her lap. “You must have cake whenever you wish.”

Oh, no,” Krysilla said quickly, hating how the other well-dressed people in the room smiled, as if she were a child who had just misspoken. “I mean, I was tempted when I first married Lejer, but he made it clear that self-control was an admirable trait.”

The eyes of Lady Felldesh glittered and her smile grew. “Oh, that does sound like him. How long have you been married now?”

Seven years.”

Seven. Such a long time. And yet, you seem very used to each other.”

The room had indeed begun to feel too hot. “We are.”

How did you two meet?”

Krysilla tried her best to tell the tale: of how the miller had told Lejer of the poor girl all alone, of how no one would look twice at her because she worked the business instead of focusing on marrying as a way of providing for her family. Lejer interjected now and then, correcting minor details. At the fifth interruption, Lady Felldesh laughed. “Perhaps you should tell us the tale, Hon Gillasin.”

He turned bright red and didn’t interrupt again.

Realizing how intimidated he must be by such a powerful woman, she did her best to put him in a good light as she finished the tale, making his mercy clear in marrying someone with no prospects and only a good sense of business for a dowry. “I’ve tried to do him justice since…though I’m afraid I’ve done a poor job of it.”

She glanced up at him, but he didn’t even look in her direction. Feeling miserable at the prospect of yet another failure, she said, “I’m feeling a little warm. May I?” she gestured toward the door.

Of course, my dear,” Lady Felldesh said. Krysilla thanked her and left.

Once in the cool of the empty ballroom, mirrors once more in place, her head began to clear. Parlay, she thought, is a fool. There was no purpose in her getting near Lady Felldesh, except perhaps to keep Lejer from dragging her home and causing a scene.

And I’ll have to go back. That thought brought a wave of exhaustion that made her wish the servants had left the chairs in the ballroom. Only the ornate ones along the wall remained and she was afraid to touch them.

Staring at the stage, she had no idea how to get from here to where Parlay was. Did he think the stage was on the floor or that she could easily climb it? Or that there wouldn’t be any servants around to watch her?

She walked the across the ballroom toward the enormous windows. Outside, a multitude of stars shone in the night sky. For one insane moment, she wanted to forget that Lejer and Lady Felldesh existed. She wanted to rush outside and race along the manor’s perimeter until she found the entrance the musicians used, then pretend she was madly in love with Zhiv and…she closed her eyes and tried not to laugh.

Of course. She’s in love with Zhiv. Looking around the ballroom, she saw a manservant in a dark coat. “Excuse me,” she said in a soft voice, “I was wondering if I could express my appreciation to the musicians for their performance tonight?”

He stared hard at her. “Lady Felldesh has already done so.”

She didn’t believe him. “Yes, but…some of the songs touched me very deeply and I want to express those sentiments personally.”

I will tell Lady Felldesh—”

No,” she tried to keep her tone calm. “No, I don’t want to trouble her. She’s worked so hard in giving us this wonderful evening.”

A door closed and Lady Felldesh began walking toward them. “I just came out to see how you were doing. Are you feeling better, goodwife?”

Krysilla thought of the stars and felt the need to run once more. “Not entirely. I was thinking of stepping outside.”

She was asking if she could speak with the musicians, milady.” The manservant, by his tone, made it clear what he thought of that notion.

I can give them a note, if you wish,” Lady Felldesh smiled, proving Krysilla right about the manservant’s lie. “I often meet with those who play and thank them personally myself.” Her smile clouded. “Though I shall probably pass over Zhiv tonight. Come, walk with me. I’ve wanted to speak with you for some time now.”

Unsure how to extract herself from the situation without making things worse, she nodded and followed Lady Felldesh further away from the stage. Each step echoed like thunder in her ears.

And for the first time, she realized how badly she wanted to see the Felldesh lock Parlay had told her about.

But she couldn’t think of a way to do this without destroying her honor, and, by extension, her husband’s, in some way.

Hoping she could find a way, she asked, “Is Zhiv Mikailsin leaving early?”

No,” Lady Felldesh sighed. “I wish he would. He’s been nothing but a nuisance this entire time, and that song. As a servant of the King, it might be thought he would understand the disorder such a song encourages.”

The Girl with the Blue Sash?”

It’s a terrible song. The boy should have stopped trying to win the girl’s affections after she was lost to him. And the girl,” Lady Felldesh shook her head, golden curls dancing as she did so, “such a selfish creature. She should be happy with what life has given her.”

Krysilla thought back on the song, and on her life. “I think it’s sweet that someone kept trying to add a little color to her life.”

Lady Felldesh turned at that, eyes wide. Praying she wasn’t making things worse, Krysilla went on. “She obviously wasn’t happy with the man she married. When the choice is a life alone, or a life with someone else you don’t love, but like, then who can be blamed for taking the only good option you can see? I don’t think that she should have broken her promise, or that the boy who secretly loved her should have carried her away or anything foolish like that. But I can’t see how a story about a woman keeping her promise, in spite of her heart, is anything but a silly little love song.”

Krysilla took a deep breath, silently apologizing to Parlay, wherever he was waiting, for possibly ending up in a dungeon somewhere when she should have already figured out a way to excuse herself. Lady Felldesh smiled, cold and weary. “Why do you think the girl chose the husband she did?”

Because she didn’t know the boy loved her.”

Ah, but what if she did? What if she knew all along what the boy felt? Women know when a man wants them. Men can’t hide it nearly as well as they think, especially when the feeling is mutual. The question is not whether he wanted her or not. The question is how badly.”

Lady Felldesh spread her arms wide. “This manor, these spells, this power, all comes through my husband. I didn’t choose him because I love him, and he knows this. However, I keep my promise. I give him comfort, I provide a warm home and do all things required of my station. Now,” she took a step toward Krysilla who watched her with confusion, “this girl’s choice becomes plain. When given the option of a life of power and luxury, or a life of love with nothing, which do you think a girl should choose?”

Krysilla didn’t hesitate. “Love.”

Lady Felldesh chuckled, though there was something close to compassion in it. “I will tell your husband you are well.” She leaned in close enough that no one but Krysilla could hear her words. “Go to your musician then.”

Stunned, Krysilla nodded, then turned away, hoping Lady Felldesh would keep this a secret, as she implied, even though it made her feel sick that anyone would think she was meeting a lover. Still, she saw no other option. She’d only gone a few steps when she said, “Wait.” Lady Felldesh stopped. “If you pardon the question, how was Zhiv difficult?”

The lady rolled her eyes. “No one has seen him. I thought bringing him here would draw him out of his shell and yet he either hides in his room or goes for very long walks. He’s most unsociable and I’ll be glad when he leaves. The Disciples applaud him as a model of humility but he seems to get even more attention through invisibility than if he paraded around the room.”

Heart pounding, Krysilla curtsied. “Thank you, milady.” She waited until Lady Felldesh had gone back into the room, before turning toward the stage again. Glancing at the stars, she briefly wondered if something awful would send her and Parlay running for their lives into the dark night.

Because she was almost certain now he was no lord. She was almost certain he was Zhiv Mikailsin. All she needed was proof. And the only way to get it was to meet him.

On the side of the stage was a small gate. On the other side of the gate was a small ladder that dropped down once the gate was opened. It didn’t take long for Krysilla to open the gate and climb the ladder, and soon she was through the door the musicians used and walking down the long hall. Laughter and bits of conversation, some of it yelled, drifted from the rooms along the side. A door opened and two men, one blond and one with red hair, stumbled out, laughing hard at something someone in the room had done or said. They saw her, and stopped.

I’m looking for Zhiv?”

They looked at each other, confused, then back at her. “Any reason?”

She hesitated.

A head popped out of the doorway. “Something wrong? I asked for mead.”

She’s looking for Zhiv?”

Yeah, well, she’ll keep looking. He left as soon as the performance was done.”

The two men standing in the hall gestured for her to wait and they went back into the room. She could hear the conversation die down, the laughter quiet, and soon almost the entire room had stuck their heads out to look at her.

He’s gone,” one of the original two men said. “Left after the performance.”

The attention she was getting made Krysilla nervous. She could hardly remember what she was supposed to say. They’re looking at me, Parlay, but not, perhaps, the way you thought. Or perhaps it was just more flattery.

Oh!” one slightly drunk fiddler said, eyes nearly popping out of his head. “She’s the one! The one he said left something?”

I didn’t hear that.”

Oh yeah. Distant relative, I think.”

Krysilla thought of Parlay and blushed. He’d actually tried to keep her honor somewhat intact.

Pretty one, too.”

Go inside and finish your drink.” The red-haired one said. “Come on. I’ll show you his room.”

Thank you.” That only made her blush deepen.

Everyone else went back inside the room, murmurs that she knew were about her fading away as she walked with the red-haired musician.

Don’t mind them,” he said in a low voice. “It’s just we’d heard a lot of things and Zhiv seemed focused on work when he was here.”

And he wasn’t here often.”

Exactly.”

If Parlay was Zhiv, it would explain his absences. Though it wasn’t for the reason he thought, she said, “I’m sorry I took him away from you.”

The red-haired musician smiled in a way that showed he liked her. “’Sall right.”

They stopped in front of a door at the end of the hall, which turned and continued behind them. The red-haired musician tried the knob. It opened easily.

There you go,” he said, and, with a small bow, left.

This is worse than when I was going to walk into the meadow, she thought, and went inside.

It was a small room, and the scent of exotic spices surrounded her, rich scents that made her think of the market and the traders and music drifting over the crowd. And a fevered minstrel who had slept in a room in her house and played his fiddle in her yard. But that was the only sign “Parlay” had been here. A small table had been pushed against the wall. A low-backed chair was tucked under it. The room was empty, otherwise. He really is gone, she thought, and found herself sad, almost to the point of tears.

She walked forward and rested her palms on the table. Staring into the mirror, she saw a woman with a gaunt face, haggard eyes, dressed in finery that seemed ill-fitted to her class. This was a dream, she decided and straightened. A silly dream from a silly, bored, ungrateful wife who should be back home, preparing for her husband’s return. Still, she lingered, inhaling the scent of his cologne, running her fingers along the wood of the table. “They didn’t give you a very good room, did they, Zhiv?” She chuckled. The King’s own minstrel, and they put him here. “It’s a rather large mirror, though. Did they think you were vain?”

And then, she noticed what looked like the edge of a letter, poking out from behind the mirror. Gently taking it from its place, she pulled out the letter and opened it. The feel of magic curled around her fingers as the words on the letter glowed. Youre late, it read. Open the door.

The writing swirled until it reformed into an apology from Zhiv for the young woman who had begged him to stay. Folding it with a shake of her head, she stuffed it into the folds of her sash. Barely believing she hadn’t missed this chance, after all, she opened the door and looked down the long hall.

At the end, stood the man she was now certain must be Zhiv Mikailsin, his sparkling aquamarine eyes hidden in the depths of his hooded cloak. He tapped his boot, and she took off her shoes. Holding them by the heel, she padded over to where he stood. Zhiv reached in his vest pocket by his hip and took out a pendant with an opal. Handing it to her, he pulled out a second, this one gold and inscribed with the Felldesh crest. He slipped it over his head and disappeared.

Unsure how they would find each other if they couldn’t see each other, she slipped the gold chain that held her pendant over her head as well. The world slid into a scene of black and white, with white dominating. She nearly asked how a person could function like this, but then she saw Zhiv’s outline, black lines marking him like a rough drawing in charcoal. He raised a finger to his lips, and took her by the hand.

Krysilla’s heart began to pound as he led her along the rest of the corridor. Perhaps, she thought, minstrels are raised differently? Perhaps they don’t realize the folly of grabbing a married woman by the hand as if she were a sister or cousin? Lejer had hardly touched her the past few years, and the feel of Zhiv’s strong, warm hand wrapped around hers made her face hot.

She got lost in all the twists and turns of what she now realized was a series of cellars. Then, he paused. Looking to his left, then ahead, he frowned. He let go of her and took off his pendant. She did the same.

Something was wrong.

Glancing both ways, he put his hand on the wall. He closed his eyes and lightly trailed his fingers along the stone, raising it high above his head one minute, then almost to the floor the next. Nervous, she looked both ways herself. He stood and backed away from the wall until he was next to her. Leaning in, he whispered, “Three doors. First is an illusion. He’ll know someone’s entered when we walk through.” He took the pendant with the Felldesh crest off and disappeared.

Krysilla was about to do the same with the pendant he’d given her, when she felt his hand around her wrist, stopping her. His hand moved to capture hers again, and once more he led her, this time toward the stone wall.

Trusting him, she walked forward with him, closing her eyes as they approached. He paused at one point, then continued leading her forward. She didn’t open her eyes. Not yet. All around her, she could feel magic, a vibration that hummed along her skin. What if she opened her eyes and the illusion was still in place? She’d think she was trapped inside a stone wall and panic.

His voice low, Zhiv said, “Don’t touch the walls.” Then, he laughed softly. “You can open your eyes, goodwife.”

She did, and, to her great relief, found they were in a plain, stone corridor. Taking off the opal pendant, she found herself and Zhiv in darkness. The only light shone from Zhiv’s upraised hand and she saw he had a small King’s Light attached to a chain. “Where did you find something so small?” she asked.

Questions, always questions.” But he didn’t seem annoyed. He held the light higher and she saw why they had stopped. Another wall blocked their way.

The second door?”

Yes. And this one feels locked. Care to try?”

Reaching out with one hand, she felt, without touching, expecting the magic that had been in the front door. She didn’t find that here. Instead, she could feel a very straight device, with pins. Each lock, the book had said, is a puzzle. In order to unlock the door, you have to solve the puzzle. Inside the lock each of the pins were of different lengths, and held in place by springs. Feeling the way the pins were set, she asked, “Do you have the key?”

I wouldn’t need you if I did.”

Ha. I think you would have brought me along, even if you did.”

Focus.”

She tried to glare at him, but unfortunately, it came out playful. Or must have. His smile in the dim light grew.

Giving a frustrated sigh, she closed her eyes and waved her hand over the place where the pins were set. The closer she looked, the easier relief came. It was a simple lock, far more simple than she expected. Her relief vanished. The lock was too simple. With a wave of her hand, she checked for any sign of a trap. Nothing.

Still wary, she gestured to lift the pins, concentrating on the feel of them as they did so, one by one, until she felt them align with the shear line, enabling the cylinder to turn and pull back the bolt that she knew stretched into the rock wall, holding the door in place.

No trap sprang as the door opened for them. “That’s two,” she whispered.

One more to go.”

But neither one moved. Zhiv stared down the dark passage, and Krysilla stared as well, hoping she could see a trap if it existed.

Something wrong?” she finally asked.

I was hoping we wouldn’t get this far.”

What?” Her momentary surprise was replaced with a surety that he’d expected Lord Felldesh to have already surrounded them.

He took a deep breath and stepped forward. His frown had deepened when he turned back to her. “Nothing yet. Stay close.” He held out his hand and she took it, her mouth dry.

Magic coursed along the walls and floor. She didn’t know what kind of spell this was or what it might do. At times, Zhiv stepped a little right of center, and sometimes to the left. She tried to follow him as best she could. Zhiv paused. She saw why.

From here, they could see the door.

It looked old, and out of place. Symbols similar to the ones on the rocks in the meadow covered it. Focusing on stepping where Zhiv did, she didn’t get another good glimpse until they were in front of it.

Well,” he said, “this is an unforeseen development.”

You didn’t know about the door?”

I knew it was an Ornic relic. That was all. I spoke with the son of the locksmith who installed it.”

You should have brought him.”

I tried. He wouldn’t budge. Had other work to do and so on.”

Staring at the door, she shook her head. “I can’t open this—Parlay.” She almost called him Zhiv.

It’s all right,” he murmured. “Just tell me what kind of lock it is and we’ll go from there.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a hexagonal crystal pendant, set into a plain iron chain long enough to be a necklace.

Unsure of all this, most of all herself, Krysilla reached out. The power that coursed through the door felt old and strong. It vibrated deep into her fingers, like the call of a low horn. Her eyes closed, and she lingered, knowing it was wrong to touch magic that had been formed by Ornic hands. Or words, she thought. They could cast spells simply by speaking, if the stories are true.

And if the stories were true, the lock might be more difficult than she had first seen it. It certainly had no pins. Inside the door, she could feel sets of gears interlocked, and connected by rods at some points. Feeling along the connections, she found the puzzle: a series of small gears, each connected to an indentation, but not through any mechanism. Thin, crystal rods ran from the center of the gearshaft to the indentation, and she realized something had to be put there first. “That pendant you have, is it part of unlocking this door?”

Yes. What have you found, so far?”

She told him. He nodded. “Any traps?”

None that I see. But the pendant is only one-half of this lock.”

He may have assumed no one would bother once they saw the door.”

Krysilla continued to examine the lock. Below the indentation, she could make out a pattern among the Ornic characters written there. “Can you read this?” she asked.

Not well.”

Because I think some of the symbols are part of opening the lock.”

All of them might be. Or some could have been added so that those who didn’t know what to look for wouldn’t find it.” He leaned in, holding the King’s Light closer. Then, he smiled. “Most of these are new.”

Lord Felldesh made them?”

Very likely. Either way, some of them are definitely nonsense. The question is, what kind of answer would Felldesh give.” He searched for the indentation, then placed the pendant in it.

The crystal glowed and Krysilla could feel magic running along the crystal rods. The small cylinders turned, and the rest of the gears turned with them. The characters on the door’s face began to move in slow circles, as if they were gears themselves.

I think,” she said, unsure if she should say anything at all, “you’re supposed to put them in the correct order.”

Zhiv watched them turn. “It reminds me of some drawings I saw once. Wandering worlds spinning around a center, but some don’t move in a circle.”

Something changed within the spell. A thin line of magic ran from the gears down the door and into the ground. “Parlay, you might want to hurry.” And she told him what she’d felt.

He barely nodded, his attention completely on the characters in front of him. Then, he began touching them in turn. “Okya,” he whispered as he pressed them. “For the path that creates and destroys.”

The characters he touched spun and locked into place.

What did you say?”

The Ornic word for ‘sun’. Did that do anything?”

I don’t know.” Inside, she could feel only some of the gears had stopped. Others continued to turn, though more slowly now.

He tapped his fingers against his thigh, then touched more characters. “And then it would be, ’mozh’, to remind him of the village he protects.”

More gears locked into place.

And so it went. Ayapor, for the river that brings the market. Yeevavorn for the market itself. And finally, husa for home.

As he touched the last character, the gears, instead of locking into place, spun wildly before resetting. “It didn’t work,” she said.

She felt magic snake through the floor around their feet. “Parlay—”

I feel it.” He stared at the characters. “I’m missing something,” he murmured.

The magic pooled underneath and seeped over her toes. Pain sharp as needles pricked her. Wincing, she said, “Maybe the village doesn’t mean as much to him as you think.”

Why do you say that?” His focus remained on the door, though he also winced, and she knew the magic was doing the same to him that it was to her.

Did you see the way the room was before the musicians entered? Maybe he’s using the Ornic word for power or glory.” Burning pain seeped through her feet and crawled up to her ankles.

He blinked. “It would be something he’d want to remember.”

This time, he didn’t stop to think. His hands flew as he touched each of the characters. “First, the sun,” he said as he worked, “then, his wife, then the village and the river and the market and finally the Next Home, husanokya.”

The magic that had been steadily creeping stopped and slid away. The gears remained locked briefly, then turned, and Krysilla felt rods pull bolts out of the wall. “You did it,” she whispered.

It helps to have someone who knows locks,” he grinned. Taking hold of the pendant, he pushed and the door swung open.

Inside, gold bars glittered in the light Zhiv held up. Pointy objects wrapped up in bags and occasional gem-studded artifacts with uses foreign to Krysilla all gleamed in the light until it fell on a small bookshelf and a desk with a chair pulled out beside it. “Ah,” he said. “Here is the reason for all the drama.” He turned back to Krysilla, away from the bookshelf. “I had hoped for the presence of Lord Felldesh, though. He’s much better at explaining things than I.”

Am I?” a deep voice said from the chair by the desk. “Or are you trying to be funny?”

At the sound of the voice, Zhiv’s head had whipped around. By the time Lord Felldesh had finished speaking, Zhiv seemed once again sure of what was to come. Good thing, Krysilla thought as Lord Felldesh removed a cloak that made him as invisible as the pendants. Wadding it up, he tossed it onto the pile of gold bars.

Zhiv shook his head. “And I thought you respected magic.”

And I thought you respected authority.” Lord Felldesh stood and Krysilla felt more fear than when she had been waiting for Zhiv to enter the combination for the door.

I give respect where respect is deserved, not to men who use their position to hide their sins.”

Lord Felldesh chuckled. He clapped his hands and the room filled with light from the lamps along the walls, their King’s Lights burning brighter than the ones in the manor above. And then he saw Krysilla. “What is she doing here? An audience for you to play to?”

It’s not much good, playing without one.”

Lord Felldesh’s eyes burned bright with anger. Before he could say or do anything, Zhiv said, “Lord Felldesh, may I introduce Krysilla Gillasin, the baker’s wife.”

All the color left the face of Lord Felldesh. The man who had, at first, appeared so immovable, stumbled backward.

Back to our original topic,” Zhiv began but Lord Felldesh interrupted.

You’re cruel, Zhiv. Far too cruel.” The proof she’d wanted barely registered in her confusion at the reaction of Lord Felldesh to her name.

She’s part of this, and you know it.”

Lord Felldesh’s eyes glittered. “And what will she do when she knows? How will you comfort her?” To Krysilla, he said, “You must have heard his reputation by now, Goodwife Gillasin. White or blue sash, doesn’t matter. Or have you rationalized it by saying you’ll always treasure the memory?”

Her cheeks burning from the shame of what he implied, she said, “He hasn’t touched me.”

It’s true,” Zhiv shrugged. “Couldn’t have slammed that door harder if she tried.”

The lord’s eyes narrowed. “Then what did he promise you?”

The truth,” Zhiv said, before Krysilla could think up a lie.

It can’t be that simple. No one wants to know their spouse is less than the person they thought they married. Or do you feel, in your strange way, that she’ll be better off for knowing?”

At the least,” Zhiv said, his eyes glittering this time, “she’ll know why he leaves her alone so often.”

Lord Felldesh studied Zhiv with a steadiness that made Krysilla nervous. The words that had passed between them made her feel cold, and she was trying desperately to unlock the meaning before the implied pain began.

One thing was certain. Lord Felldesh was wrong. She did want to know. Maybe, if she knew, if she could understand why her husband did what he did, or where she went wrong, she could keep the happiness she’d discovered and still manage to be the wife everyone said she should be. The locks would be a problem, but if they understood each other, that could be resolved, too. Even if she had to give up using this magic, she would if she knew love waited for her at the end. But all of this hinged on knowing.

Striding to the small bookshelf, Lord Felldesh grabbed one of the books, bound closed with leather. “Here.” He tossed it to Zhiv, who easily caught it. “You have the information the King paid you to find. I’ll pay you even more if you leave now.”

A bribe?” Zhiv’s eyes narrowed.

Please,” Lord Felldesh said in a low voice and she realized he was begging. “The King wants to know and I’ve confessed. Let that be the end of it.”

This time, it was Krysilla who spoke. “No. It’s not the end. He says I’m involved and you haven’t denied it. If you won’t tell me, I’ll ask my husband directly.”

At that, Lord Felldesh laughed. “If your husband knew you were here, he would have already left, running for the river like a frightened doe.”

What is it?” she demanded. “I can assure you, I’ll forgive my husband, no matter what he’s done. I won’t be weakened by anything you tell me.”

Stunned, Lord Felldesh stared at her. “Anything. Are you sure of that?”

Remembering the words of the Disciples, she quoted her favorite sermon. “‘Love does not turn away when it finds the object of its affection marred. It is faithful, even when that faithfulness is not returned.’” Next to her, Zhiv stood still, his gaze fixed on the floor. Lord Felldesh regarded her. “There is nothing he has done that I will not forgive him for.”

Lord Felldesh slowly nodded. He looked at a point beyond her, his eyes full of sorrow. “I feel the same. But, no matter how much one may wish it, there are some times when forgiveness is…difficult. You won’t find your part in that book. It’s a ledger of all the taxes I’ve kept for myself. It doesn’t say why, or who receives them.”

Zhiv said, “Lejer Gillasin, I assume.”

Shocked, Krysilla stared at Zhiv. Lord Felldesh’s smile was empty. He closed his eyes, and tilted his head, as if deep in thought. “What is the saying, Zhiv? ‘There are lies that are not spoken. There are words that are not said. There are truths that are but tokens. There are girls you should not bed.’ Your truth, my poor goodwife, is currently in a room with no windows, though it does have a secret door. I’m sure, given how much you’ve said, Zhiv, that you know the exit. Take the goodwife there, and may the Judging Path forgive you for the pain you’re about to cause.”

With that, Lord Felldesh left.

How?” Krysilla demanded.

I’ll explain as we walk.”

My husband doesn’t steal.”

They entered the corridor. No magic hummed around them. Zhiv’s pace was quick and it was difficult for Krysilla to keep up with him. “Technically, only Lord Felldesh has stolen. Women aren’t considered property.”

Krysilla stopped, all the words about her involvement making a terrible sense. “He wouldn’t have an affair.”

Why?” Zhiv stopped and turned. “Because he’s such a good Tothsin?” he sneered. “Because every New Moon he goes with you to hear a sermon from the traveling Disciple and makes sure you never touch anything but bread with your magic? He’d turn you over to the Dogs in a heartbeat if he knew what you’d been doing.”

Krysilla wanted to deny it. She wanted to say Lejer loved her enough to try to keep it quiet. To her great disappointment, she couldn’t.

That nobleman,” Zhiv continued, “loves his wife far more than she deserves. He has sacrificed himself to keep her from shame and a life that she has sworn she will not live. I’ve done my duty, and found what I came here to find. But that isn’t justice.”

And what is?”

Zhiv turned and began walking again, faster than before if it was possible. Hurrying after him, Krysilla said, “Lord Felldesh is a good ruler. He treats us all fairly. If what you’re about to do—”

Are you saying I should defy the King?” His voice held the promise of laughter with no mirth.

I’m saying, perhaps Lord Felldesh is right.”

You’re only saying that because you haven’t seen your husband yet.”

What do you mean?”

Follow me.” They entered the corridors with the cellars, with their twists and turns. But he didn’t take the same path as before. “Do you love the ovens so much? Or is it security you’re afraid of losing?”

I’m not afraid of losing anything.”

You’re a terrible liar, goodwife. Or,” he pushed open a door and cold, night air blew inside, “is it that you love him, after all?” He held the door open for her and she passed by him to the Felldesh grounds.

I’m his wife.”

Ah, yes,” he let the door close, “that answers everything.” His pace as they walked the lawn made her breathless. “Why do you destroy your health working in the bakery? ‘Because I’m his wife.’ Why do you stand by him no matter what he might have done? ‘Because I’m his wife.’” He turned suddenly and she stumbled to keep from running into him. His aquamarine eyes looked gray in the starlight, like stone. “Why did you only start prettying yourself when a handsome man offered you freedom? ‘Because I’m his wife,’ doesn’t really cover that, does it?” He whipped around and she struggled to catch up to him.

What do you care? Lord Felldesh is right, you must have something you want out of this. There’s no reason the King’s minstrel would care one fig about me, unless I had something he wanted.”

He stopped, and held a finger to his lips, his eyes serious. Crouching down, he seemed to be counting something along the wall. He moved a few paces further ahead, then away from the manor a few more, before gesturing for her to stand by him.

She did so, strolling to where he stood, with the attitude that he must be wrong. Folding her arms, she waited.

Leaning close by her ear, he whispered, “Was he at home when we arrived, goodwife?”

Glaring at him, she turned her attention back to the wall. Only a few minutes had gone by when she heard something within it creak. A small door, barely big enough to crawl through, opened. Out of it, crawling, came a half-dressed man.

Zhiv held up his King’s Light and it blazed just long enough to blind the man, and reveal him to his wife. Lejer Gillasin covered his eyes. “Burning Fire, what—”

Lejer.” She didn’t mean to say his name. But part of her still couldn’t believe what was in front of her.

He froze. “Krysilla?”

And Parlay,” Zhiv said brightly. “Now that we’re all aware of each other’s names—” but before he could finish, Lejer rushed forward with a roar.

Zhiv gave Krysilla a shove to push her out of Lejer’s way. Magic hummed around Zhiv and then, he wasn’t there.

Lejer grabbed nothing, and fell to his knees. Still furious, he yelled, “Shouldn’t trust a minstrel!”

She thought of the times she tried to reach out to him, and he refused her. She thought of the days when she was so tired, she could hardly think, and he was nowhere to be found. She thought of slights, and insults, and sharp words and a heart that seemed bound in rock whenever she hoped to touch it. This one thing explained so much. “How long?” she said.

Lejer stood. At least he has the decency to look ashamed, she thought, as he avoided her eyes. He didn’t answer.

She thought back through their married life. He’d always been busy. He’d always had connections to keep up. “It started a year after we were married, didn’t it?”

He shook his head. “Three months after she was married.”

She remembered that. The whole village had been given a holiday when Lord and Lady Felldesh married. There had been a general feast. But that would mean…“You knew her before you met me.”

I was trying to forget her. I thought I could.”

That explains that first year, she thought. And as she thought through when things fell apart, her breath came faster. “It was when I finished training, wasn’t it? That’s when you went back.” Lejer opened his mouth to speak, but she wouldn’t let him. Not yet. “But you knew only a couple months afterward. I could tell. You didn’t want me.” She chuckled. “I felt it. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I’d done something, and you never…all the guest rooms. You built them for her, didn’t you? And the finery we have, it was for her. Were you hoping the bakery would kill me?”

Now, you’re getting dramatic,” he said.

I have a right!” Her world had begun to splinter. She laughed. “I have a right to be dramatic. You would have sent me back to my family because I kept a sick man in a spare room. The whole village would have thought I’d failed in my duties as a wife when I was only trying to help someone in need. And you would have let them. You would have let them.” Horrified at what she was seeing, she turned away. She could hear him following after her, but she didn’t slow or turn around. “The money, Lejer. They said you received the taxes Lord Felldesh was supposed to pay to the King.”

Never,” and she could hear he was telling the truth. “Sometimes…sometimes she would laugh about how we would run away together. But she would always say that she was too attached to her money.”

Then that leaves us with a loose end to tie up,” Zhiv said, though he remained unseen. “Because Lord Felldesh says you’re the one who receives the money he’s been taking.”

Krysilla stopped. “Would there be a reason for Lord Felldesh to hide the person who receives it?”

Lejer eyed the grounds, as if waiting for Zhiv to reappear. “I won’t talk to anyone I can’t see.”

Because you’d much rather not talk until I’m covered in my own blood,” Zhiv said. “Sorry. I’m rather partial to this vest.” His voice moved in a circle around them, bouncing from one side to the other so that it was impossible to tell exactly where he was, magic similar to what she’d felt in the door moving with it, though without the depth of power the door contained. “There’s only one explanation, and, therefore, only one person left to speak with.”

Lejer’s face paled. “Stay away from her.”

So she can keep building the wealth that will enable her to leave? It’s done through a third-party, isn’t it? A blackmailer who uses your name, a final nod of affection toward your wife when you finally got the courage to run away with your…well, I guess love, though I doubt love has anything to do with this.”

When Lejer spoke next, each word cutting her worse than if he’d taken a knife to her himself. “I would do anything for her, face any man who dared insult her—”

Throw yourself into a raging fire and forgive all insults,” Zhiv said, unimpressed. “I’ve already heard enough of devotion for one night. So, moving on, you’d ruin a truly good nobleman and the name of an innocent woman, because you were overcome by passion. That makes sense. Consider your secret kept. At least, by me.”

Eyes wide, Krysilla opened her mouth to speak.

You wanted justice, didn’t you, goodwife?” Zhiv interrupted. “Besides, how can I condemn a man you so obviously love? Farewell.”

And the magic she felt from him left.

Silence stretched between her and Lejer. What could be said? She’d caught him breaking his promise, and she now knew he didn’t love her enough to keep the Dogs away if he felt she endangered his plans with Lady Felldesh. She sighed. “Let’s go home, Lejer.” And she began to walk.

He didn’t follow.

Krysilla stopped and turned her head almost over her shoulder. She couldn’t look at him. Not yet. “Has anything changed?” she asked.

You know.”

Words had difficulty forming as she thought of their arguments, of when he threatened to send her back for letting “Parlay” into their home and when he told her he had rights as a husband. Rights. She could feel that insane laughter bubbling up again, and stopped thinking altogether. “It’s not like I need to fear an illness.”

I was going to leave you the bakery,” he said.

Yes. I gathered that.”

And I thought if I blackened my name, it might take away some of the taint from you. It wasn’t as if I was going to leave you with nothing.”

But you would have left. And I would have thought I was to blame.”

He said nothing. She turned and looked at him now, shivering in the chill night air, much smaller than she remembered him. “Do what you like. I’m going home.” And she did.

The walk was long and dark. More than once, something frightened her along the way, and yet she didn’t slow, angry enough to smash anything that kept her from a calm night with a warm cup of tea and a soft bed. When she finally arrived home, she felt as if she were walking while asleep. Locking the door behind her, she stared at the cold, dark house in front of her. Nothing was lit, nothing…and then she saw a flicker of light at the back.

Goodwife?” Zhiv called out from the kitchen. He seemed to be messing with the fixture above the table.

Stunned at his audacity, at his arrogance, she stormed down the hall to the kitchen. “This is my home.”

I thought you might appreciate some light when you arrived.”

The King’s Light now hanging in the kitchen above the table looked warmer than the ones Lejer had brought her each year. This glowed with a light that reminded her of when the fire in the oven burned low, and cast amusing shadows on the wall. It felt comforting. And relaxing. And that terrified her. “Why are you here?”

He sat at the table, leaning on one elbow, and shrugged. “I thought you might like to know what I’m going to do with the information we found.”

I thought you’d already decided.”

Nothing’s certain until I speak with him.”

And?”

He gestured toward a chair. “Sit, please.”

I’ll fall asleep if I do.”

And that’s bad?”

Around you, yes.”

He smiled, warm and seductive. “It’s understandable, what those two did. Passion can destroy a man’s sense and a woman’s heart. All the King needs to know, is that his money will be flowing back to him once more.”

Justice.”

What would you have me do? I’ll grant you anything you ask. Ask me to go back on my word to your husband, and I will. Ask me to ignore it all, and I will.”

What will the King say?”

As long as he gets paid and Lord Felldesh continues to rule the kingdom wisely, he won’t care. It’s one of his failings.”

Krysilla nodded, unable to trust him. “What about you?”

He tried to look innocent.

Krysilla made sure the table was between them as she continued. “You were livid in the manor when you talked about this situation. What changed?”

He got up. “I started thinking about you.”

What about me?”

Oh, various things.” She could tell what those might be from the look in his eyes.

You had more than one day to seduce me.” They circled the table, but she wasn’t afraid. “That isn’t what you want.”

How do you know? Everyone has their breaking point. Look at your husband. He tried so very hard to live as a good Tothsin should, keeping all his promises and vows. But time got to him.”

She remembered how she looked in the mirror, and that the minstrels seemed more interested in who she was to Zhiv than in her. “I find it hard to believe you couldn’t find a prettier girl in the village than me.”

But none more interesting. And none who have found out as many of my secrets as you.”

Krysilla tried not to smile. “You want to keep an eye on me.”

And with a look in his eyes that made his meaning clear, he said, “I’d rather make sure nothing’s on you.”

It was the first time any man had been so direct in their intentions. Even Lejer, her own husband, had never said anything close to that. It took a moment for her to notice they’d stopped circling, and that Zhiv remained on the opposite side of the table from her.

It was difficult not to think about what it would be like with him. She could almost feel his hands slipping under her dress, his lips on hers. She was no untouched maiden, and the brief taste she’d had now and then with Lejer of what was possible had left her hungering for more. But it was only now, when something that might satisfy it was so close that she realized just how sharp that hunger was.

As if it were nothing but an appetite, she thought, remembering the dreams she’d had when she was still unmarried. And she knew her answer. “No.”

His eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I’m sorry?”

You don’t love me. And I don’t love you.”

Love,” he scoffed, amused at her response.

I know what it’s like to lie next to a man who is always somewhere else. You say time breaks a person. It’s already broken me, just not in the way you think. You’d leave me for someone else. And by then, it might be more than just lying next to you for me. Better not to even have a taste, than cry over what might have been.” He opened his mouth to speak. Terrified he might talk her out of this and tempt her beyond what she could stand, she said, “I have nothing to offer you. I’m the wife of a baker. I have no money, no connections. I can’t even guarantee you, the great Zhiv Mikailsin, an audience. More than that, if I were to lie with you now, the one thing I can still respect myself for is lost forever, so go. Please. Before my husband comes home.”

Zhiv tapped his thigh twice, then nodded. “And about Lady Felldesh and your husband? What do you wish me to do?”

It’s not for a baker’s wife to judge. As a servant of the King, do whatever you feel is just.”

He chuckled, and studied her through narrowed eyes. “Farewell then, goodwife.”

Farewell.”

He left through the back door and she locked it behind him. Her hands shook as she finished the keyspell, not from fear but from need. She exchanged the warm light he’d brought into her kitchen with one that seemed more like a pale winter light. It must be because the sphere has no golden tint, she thought. Taking the warm light upstairs, she put it in the Blue Room, and stared at the bed where he’d been, remembering what he’d looked like in the morning.

She went back to her room, undressed, and placed her blue sash carefully on the stool. Even though she was tired, she washed her face and brushed her hair. She still didn’t dare look in the mirror.

There’s no reason, she thought, for him to want me. Not for anything I can see. And I can’t possibly be that interesting to him. No, whatever he wanted was something only known to him, something that would benefit whatever plans he had in mind.

That she knew for certain. Far more went on in his head than tunes and spells. And somehow he’d decided she figured into what he truly wanted.

But he didn’t want her. As Lady Felldesh had said, a woman knows. It was with those thoughts that she climbed into bed and tried to sleep.

Lejer didn’t come home that night. 

###

We’re almost to the end of part one. If you’d like to read the last little bit before I post again, you can read it in full, for free, on Wattpad. I also have it for sale at most major ebook retailers. The My Books page has a pretty comprehensive listing.

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