Life within House Davanar was a hectic one, filled with subtle drama and danger. Maids and gentleladies hurried about, their skirts pulled up. Men yelled across vast chambers, turning and strutting away with an air of self-importance. Terra swept through the throngs of people, each step quick and precise. She didn’t need to raise her voice for her orders to be carried out, didn’t have to run, mindless with panic, to make it clear she was too busy to be disturbed.
The habitants of the estate knew only by the look on her face. Terra gestured to the servants, directing the men where to lay the tables and the chairs. She appointed various women as overseers of decorating, knowing the upcoming celebration had to be flawless in presentation. The advancing army, a day off, maybe two, and its notorious leader, were to be feted by the staff and all they had to offer.
With that very thought in mind, Terra’s gaze swept across the room. She spotted Cia was off to the side, a whirlwind of fluttering skirts and sweet, girlish laughter. Bran was leading her through a modest two-step, graceful on his feet and warm of heart. Terra folded her hands in her skirts, taking a moment to watch as her friends danced and laughed as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
When the two swept a wide, flourished circle around her, Terra couldn’t stop the tender smile that spread across her face. When Cia was spun to another guard Bran knew, and trusted, she laughed when the guard offered his hand to her. Bran bowed at the waist, voice rich and edged with laughter.
“May I have this dance, milady?”
A few catcalls spread across the hall and, after a moment of consideration, Terra said, “It’s in everyone’s interest if I test your skills. Can’t have you accidently maiming someone on the dance floor.”
“Should I be insulted?” Terra laid her hand upon Bran’s, body flowing forward until their torsos ghosted together. He took a step to the right and Terra followed his lead, light and graceful as they begun the swift, twirling dance. Bran grinned. “You’re right, though. I do have two left feet, sometimes. It’d be a nightmare to accidently step on a warlord’s feet when I’m dancing by him. Can’t imagine how that’d go!”
“Horridly, I’d say,” Terra deadpanned. Bran laughed, a deep throated sound that echoed and silenced the room as he spun her away from his body before drawing her back in. As they danced by a young serving girl, Terra noticed the color scheme she was setting up didn’t match those in the room. Her eyes narrowed as she said, “A word will need to be spoke to the help, it seems. The girls can’t seem to understand simple orders, these days. Spilling wine on Lord Davanar is one thing. Giving the oncoming army any impression other than perfection will not be permitted.”
“Do you ever stop working?”
“No, I do not,” Terra spun out again, skirts whirling around her body. They were in the middle of the floor, their arms arched up and their palms touching. A new song began, slower than before. They moved with it, slow and steady, as she continued, “You know how much rests on the first appearances. Any news from your end, Bran? Or perhaps you’ve been too caught up in the color of my skirts to do your job?”
His jaw was slack, eyes comically wide. “No! I mean, I like the color– God, Terra, you can’t just…”
A light smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and he huffed in response. “God, you’re a mean lady.”
They moved in a perfect, box-like step. One to the right, one to the left, spin. They didn’t touch, this time. The dance was for younger ladies, the separation between partners a part of the lure. Terra and Bran swept passed Cia and her guardsman, the two laughing lightly. “I prefer practical, if I’m to be honest.”
“Practical and mean, then,” Bran corrected, a grin in place. Terra would have rolled her eyes, if she wasn’t in a public settling. Instead she settled for a mirthless smile, eyes gleaming as they spun away from one another once again. She stopped, back-to-back, with Cia as Bran said, “As beautiful as the rarest gem and as hard as one, too. A terrifying combo, really, for a woman.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Terra smoothed her skirts out, flipping a long, thick coil of hair over her shoulder as she turned to Cia. The young lady peered up at her, eyes large and happy. Terra flicked a stray bang behind her charge’s ear as she asked, “Do they pass, milady? Or shall we have them serve food at this celebration of yours?”
Cia rocked on her heels. “It’s be a shame for them to not be available to dance. They both know how to hold me just right, you know? What if these strangers step on my feet? I’ll need someone to rub them!”
Terra blinked at the young girl in front of her before shaking her head. “You’re hopeless, Cia.”
“What?” Cia grabbed onto her arm, eyes wide as she asked, “What do you mean? How am I hopeless?”
Bran laughed, always in a good mood. He guided them away from the dance floor, voice carefree as he said, “Ladies, ladies! Perhaps you should go out into the city? A walk would do you both some good.”
Once they were leaving the chamber, he murmured, “My contact’s ready. You have until tonight.”
Terra didn’t question him, only turned and made her way towards her chambers. Cia walked beside her, hands folded before her. Neither spoke until they were, once again, secure in Terra’s quarters. The older girl riffled through her closet, plucking a deep, midnight robe to go over her navy-blue dress. She turned, handing Cia a similar cloak wordlessly.
As they dressed, Terra concentrated on her breath. The feel of air entering her body, the way her chest expanded and burned before she exhaled. The way the floor felt, firm and unmoving, under her feet. How the room smelled, rich with flowers and parchment. She turned to see Cia observing herself in a full-length mirror, black cloak resting elegantly over the white and green gown she wore.
“He works fast, doesn’t he?” Cia’s question hung over them for a moment.
Terra considered her words carefully. “Time isn’t on our side. We do what we must with what we have.”
She wasn’t thrilled with the thought of relying on such a shady, unknown stranger. Terra didn’t approve of the use of a possible spell that wasn’t a fake, that was potent and powerful and unpredictable. The entire thought of enchanting a man, warlord or not, didn’t settle well with her. There was little choice, she knew. They didn’t have the time, or the resources, to take a safer route in the brewing bloodbath.
Terra straightened Cia’s outer robes, smoothing the soft fabric over the younger girl’s shoulders, as the war echoed in the back of her mind. White Mountain was taking more and more damage, the barriers under constant strain. Sir Alphonsine was worried and rightly so. Terra knew White Mountain couldn’t withstand a unified assault for much longer. Something had to be done.
She let those thoughts drift from her thoughts, away from her being, as she and Cia left House Davanar and made their way into the bustling city surrounding it. They used the back entrance, their hoods pulled up as they used the servant’s entrance to enter the streets without prying eyes watching them. Cia stayed at her side, pressed close and hood obscuring her face. Neither spoke, silence drifting lazily around them.
Mornings in the city were a quieter affair, most people not yet out their doors. Terra could, however, smell the ovens burning and the scene of fresh, baked bread wafted through the air. It was a pleasant way to start the day. As she guided her and her ward through the steadily filling streets, Terra kept her eye on their surroundings as. She turned down a side alleyway, skirts billowing around her as her gaze settled on an old, worn building decorated in gently swaying banners.
She smelled incense burning, heard the soft whisper of bells dancing upon a calm breeze. A man sat on the wooden seat along the front of the building, a block of wood in one hand and a knife in the other. On the ground around his feet were thin slices of wood, undoubtedly swiped from the carving he was working on. This man, his gaze rose, and Terra met the hooded, dark-eyed man’s gaze.
He smiled. “You must be Terra Amirian and Cia. My sister and I, we’ve waited for you.”
“And you are?” Terra watched as he stood in one fluid, graceful movement. She noted how one of his ears were pierced, a small silver loop catching the light as wavy, jaw-length hair swayed around his face. The knife vanished. The carving leapt from one hand to the other, each motion smooth, as he said, “I am Romano Delitini, but you, miss, may call me Mano. Come inside. We have much to discuss.”
He entered before them, voice carrying through the smoky foyer in a soft, lilting tongue she had heard only once before. The soft, musical notes of his language jogged a memory of someone else, of a time and place Terra couldn’t quite remember. As Mano continued speaking, a higher, feminine voice answering him in that same language, Terra’s gaze shifted to a nervous, jittery Cia.
She set a hand on the young girl’s shoulder, voice soft as she said, “We are safe here, milady. Bran saw to that. Come, give me your cloak.”
Cia shrugged out of the dark, heavy material and Terra folded it over an arm before Mano stole it from her grasp. He hung it up on a peg attached to the wall and when he turned to her, Terra realized he was waiting for her to remove her own outer robe. She slid out of the dark cloth and handed it over, her gaze sweeping over the massive shop and the foggy, glass counter resting at the middle-back of the room.
There was a door on either side of that counter, both doorways housing a beaded curtain tied to the side. A woman was coming out of the one on the right, thick hair rolling down her back in tight, bouncy ringlets that gleamed in the shadows. Large, silver earrings could be seen hanging on her ears. This, Terra assumed, was Mano’s sister. When she came around the counter, dark eyes expressionless, Terra felt a wave of unease curl through her body.
“I am Celina Delitini, Terra Amirian. Ciana Davanar. Welcome to my shop,” Celina shook their hands, a sort of graveness in her expression. She and Cia were ushered into door behind the counter on the left, into a large room where a low-resting table sat. As Terra moved towards one of the seats, Celina said, “I was surprised when Brannon came to me asking for my assistance. What you ask of me…”
“We need that love potion,” Cia stated the moment she was sitting, her hands resting, palms down, on the table. Terra glanced at the young girl, taking in the stubborn clench of her jaw. Cia pressed on when neither Celina or Mano spoke. “If you know Bran, and he trusts you, then you already know why I need it. You know what’s at stake. What we’re working towards. You know how much depends on this.”
“I am aware of your rebellion, yes,” Celina lowered herself to a seat across from them. Mano vanished through another door, though Terra had a distinct feeling he could hear everything they were saying even if he wasn’t in the room. Celina continued, “The use of magic, in these sort of situations, often end in no one’s favor. Given the dangers of the Siren’s Call, Romano thought it wise to do a reading before we start.”
“A reading?” Terra mused over the words, over their unclear meaning.
Celina offered a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Many a warning can be given, Terra Amirian.”
The unease rose, once again. Terra tried to place where the sensation was coming from, tried to figure out why she felt cold and uneasy. Her head was already starting to hurt, the incense thick and heavy on her senses. Cia took her hand, squeezing tightly. Terra wasn’t sure if it was a means of offering support or asking for it. Perhaps both, as this wasn’t a situation either of them were accustomed to.
Mano entered the room once more, a bowl in hand. He sat that on the table, a sort of serene calm rolling off him in palpable waves. His hair was tied back, thin chains of silver splayed over his skull in delicate loops that drew attention to the gem resting on his forehead and the fresh, silver paint drawn across his face. Terra started when he came to stand behind them, kneeling on the pillow behind their backs.
Terra was silenced when his hand fell upon the space between her shoulder blades, his fingers grazing the bottom of her neck. Cia sat upright, rigid and quivering. Across from them, Celina said, “Relax, Terra Amirian and Cia Davanar. The only way to get that potion is to undergo a reading. Trust in my brother and his Gift. We shall begin…”
When the first note of a bell was struck, Terra felt as if her insides came alive.
Her bones sang, her thoughts rose, and then she was hyperaware of the feeling of the room around her.
She was focused, all her being swirling around the hand on her back. She could feel each finger, could feel the fabric of her clothing against her skin. She could feel the way each thread rubbed her flesh, feel the way Mano’s breath disturbed the hair cascading down her back. Then, when he spoke, it was as if the rest of the world vanished and she was in a dark void and there was only that soft, gentle voice to anchor her.
“Ease your mind and thoughts, open your heart and soul. Sleep, awake, sleep and be safe…”