Read The Usurper's Crown Online

Authors: Sarah Zettel

The Usurper's Crown (6 page)

Not that the burning of that shawl has driven it off for
more than one night
. Avanasy sucked on the stem of his pipe, noticing only absently that its fire had gone out.

He had not worked any magic since three days after he landed here. He’d woven himself a simple spell of understanding that he might speak with the people who now surrounded him. Or it should have been simple, requiring that he take pains and be precise in his workings, yes, but otherwise it should have been of no great moment. But the effort of it had laid him low for almost a whole day. Among the many strangenesses of this world was this truth — that the magic was buried deep in the fabric of soul and soil and it would be coaxed out only with great reluctance. So, Avanasy had abandoned the work of magic for the work of fishing. It had seemed no great sacrifice. He had believed that exile and Medeoan’s turning away had left him with little desire to continue as a sorcerer.

But then had come that touch of the other world last night, the brush of power, and he’d woken hungry for it. No, ravenous. It could have been anything, any monster, any trickster, anything at all, and if Ingrid and Grace had not been there to bring his other instincts into play, he might have done anything at all to keep it by him, to feel that touch of power that his blood so missed.

“I spent my life telling Medeoan she could not change what she was,” he murmured to the fire. “It seems I did not listen to my own good teachings.”

And I have given my word to help
. He chewed on the stem of the pipe. He did not move to relight it. What did his word mean here? The word of a fisherman? The word of Avan? Nothing. He was no one in this place, with neither reputation nor honor to guard, and better off so. Power, and the revelation of power, could endanger him, forcing him further away into this world.

And the next time a power finds you? How much worse will it be next time?

Avanasy sighed. He removed his pipe from his mouth, knocked it out against the edge of the tin can he kept for the purpose, and stood. In the corner of his shack waited a heavy wooden chest which he kept locked with an iron lock, and which he now opened with an iron key he wore on a thong around his neck.

Inside lay his old clothes and boots, wrapped in oiled brown paper he’d purchased after his arrival, along with some gold stored up against emergency, and three silken scarves, woven with his own hands, each of them tied with three different knots.

Avanasy chose the blue scarf, and tucked it into the pocket of his coat. After locking the chest again, he turned to consider the contents of his cabin. He really should have wine for this, but there was none. He set some fresh coffee on to brew, wrapped up a packet of tobacco and his spare pipe, and set out some bread and smoked fish on the least battered of his tin plates. Rough fare, but the best hospitality he had, and that was what would count.

As the coffee finished, he went outside and laid a fire on the sand, lighting it with kindling of pine needles and splintered driftwood. The night was silent, except for the noises of wind and water. The other huts were dark and the men within them snoring loudly in their sleep. Avanasy laid his offerings out on the far side of the blaze and drew the scarf from his pocket. He spat on the knot and breathed across it, and tossed the scarf into the fire.

For a moment the fire burned bright blue, and a shower of sapphire sparks rose from the flames, then it shone red, and then white, but gradually, the pure white light faded, and the fire glowed golden again, as if it were nothing more than a blaze of driftwood. Avan sat down on a stone, and waited.

The moon had worked its way another inch up the dome of the sky when the rabbit came hopping down the beach. Its round black eyes reflected Avanasy’s firelight as it advanced, hopping tentatively forward a few inches at a time, pausing to sniff the air. At last, it sat up on its haunches, combing its ears and twitching its whiskers.

Avanasy stood, and reverenced in his best courtly manner to the creature.

“I would be honored, sir, on this chill night, if you would join me at my fire, and share my poor fare.”

The rabbit cocked its head to one side, considering. Then it hopped up to the plate bearing the smoked fish and bread. It used its teeth to drag one scrap of bread off the plate, and began to eat. It ate all that bread, and the next piece, and the next, and then all the fish.

Then, it ate the plate.

Avanasy held himself very still. The rabbit advanced on the tobacco, snuffling it eagerly, drew a leaf out and ate that, and the paper it was wrapped in, and the pipe. Still, Avanasy did not blink, although he could not hold back some regret that he was about to lose his coffeepot. The rabbit stuffed its face into the coffee mug and drank it dry, swallowing the cup whole when it was finished. It knocked over the pot with one blow of its paw and crawled halfway inside, guzzling up the hot brew.

Then, to Avanasy’s mild surprise, it withdrew its head, and sat up again on its haunches. And it was no longer a rabbit. Instead, it was a fat little man with copper skin and black hair bound in thongs hanging down past his shoulders. His ears were as long as his hair, and the lobes dangled down to his chest. His face was merry, and he smelled of sweat, tobacco, and coffee.

He belched loudly, the force of it shaking his long earlobes and making his round belly bounce. “You’re a long way from home, I think, magician,” he said.

Avanasy bowed his head in acknowledgment. “I am, sir.”

“And why have you come so far to set out such a feast for Nanabush, eh?” He leaned forward. “Must want something, eh?”

Again, Avanasy bowed. “I have heard it said it is ever the way with us.”

“Ha! Too true. Now, let me see if I can guess what ails you.” Nanabush tugged at one pendulous earlobe. “There’s a ghost, and there’s a girl, and she’s a fool and he’s a bigger one, and you’re the biggest fool of three.”

Avanasy said nothing.

Nanabush spat in the fire. “Knots and bindings, nets and weavings, that’s your business, and you want Nanabush to tell how to get yourself untangled.”

“Is there a way within my power to remove the haunting from the Loftfield family?”

“Nets and knots with you,” said Nanabush, picking up the coffeepot and squinting inside with one round eye to inspect the bottom for more liquid. “Always nets and knots. Poor tangled magician.”

Avanasy reminded himself of the absolute need for patience. “I believe I have had dealings with a relation of yours. She is queen of the
lokai
, the fox spirits, in my homeland.”

“The Vixen. Yes.” Nanabush held the spout of the coffeepot over his wide open mouth and let the last drop of liquid fall in. “She speaks of you.” He smacked his lips loudly and belched again.

“Of your courtesy, tender her my best respect.”

Nanabush stuffed his fist into the coffeepot, running one fat finger down along the bottom. “She says if you stay here you will live longer.”

“I thank you for that news.”

“Poor tangled magician.” Nanabush sucked on his finger thoughtfully. “You fish. I’ve seen you.”

Avanasy bowed. “It allows me to earn my keep.”

“And it is not that different from shore to shore?”

“No, but one must know the waters.”

Nanabush raised his finger to make his point. “And the fish themselves.”

He was getting close to an answer. Avanasy could feel it, but he must not appear too eager. “I have heard, sir, that you know the waters and the fish better than any.”

“Ha! It’s true, it’s true.” Nanabush tapped his finger on the edge of the coffeepot. “These waters are deep, and they’re dark. Many a soul is lost down there looking for the fish.”

“So I have heard,” said Avanasy gravely.

“But it’s not just the soul that one must find.” Nanabush shook his head, his earlobes flapping and flopping against his chest. “No. It’s the bones. The bones of the fish that must be found and warmed. Bones bind as tight as any net.”

“There is great wisdom in what you say.”

“Ha! You will profit from listening to Nanabush.” He shook his ears, tossing his lobes over his shoulders. “But others listen too. And others know things. The fish know that the dark of the moon is the time for fishermen, and they know that is the time for catching little fish, as well as big fish.”

“Things do not so much differ from shore to shore.”

“Not as much as some might think.” Nanabush contemplated the coffeepot one more time, then dropped it onto the sand and kicked it across to Avanasy. “Nets and knots. Stay clear of the bindings and you’ll live longer.” His eyes twinkled. “Unless, of course, it is the bindings and their undoing that save your life.”

Then there was only the rabbit, hieing itself fast across the sand and disappearing into the brush. Then, there was only Avanasy and his fire, and his empty coffeepot.

Avanasy picked up the pot. Well now he knew. Perhaps he knew too much. That was the risk of calling upon the spirits. He knew he could save Grace Loftfield. He had to raise the bones of the ghost at the dark of the moon, the very night the ghost would call Grace to him for the final, fatal time.

But, he also knew that should he ever return to Isavalta he would die. Unless, of course, he would live.

Nets and knots. Poor tangled magician.

Chapter Two

Medeoan stood at her mother’s bedside and willed her to keep breathing.

The empress’s private chamber was dark except for the light from the two braziers burning their pungent mixtures of charcoal and cleansing herbs which the physicians had prescribed as an attempt to clear the mucus from the empress’s lungs.

Without daylight, the rich apartment seemed as robbed of its vitality as the woman lying still and sallow under the layers of goose down and royal blue velvet. The skin sagged around her throat and jowls, hanging in folds like the heavy curtains around her bed.

At least her eyes were still open, thought Medeoan as she reached out to try to smooth her mother’s burning brow. At least some small sound still escaped her throat. Father lay in his own fever as if already dead. None of Medeoan’s tears or pleading could rouse in him any sign of life.

The waiting ladies had all retreated to give Medeoan and Kacha a moment in relative privacy with her mother, and now those ladies stood in the shadows like ghosts waiting to come out and lay claim to the dying empress. Medeoan remembered as a little girl being brought by her nurse before those five ladies, and not being sure which one she was supposed to reverence to and call Mother. She had burst into tears at her confusion. The closest, tallest lady, this lady who lay so slack in her bed, had come forward and taken her hand.

“There, there,” she’d said, smoothing Medeoan’s fingers. “Don’t cry. A great prince never cries where others can see, and you, my daughter, will be a great prince.”

But not yet. Not yet
. Medeoan’s throat tightened, even as she forced herself to gently cradle her mother’s hand.
I will save you. I promise
.

Normally, Medeoan’s sorceries were kept out of sight. She was well trained, yes, and well read and she knew her own strength. But her actions were to be those of the mortal world whenever possible. No one, Father had said in a particularly blunt moment, wanted a ruler who appeared to strive for more than mortal greatness. But all that was laid aside for this. The court sorcerers had proven themselves useless in this matter. If there was to be magical aid for her languishing parents, the task fell to Medeoan. Already she had worn her fingers to the nub from two days of preparations while the others milled about trying to trap the life that spilled from the imperial vessels.

You cannot die yet. I’m not ready. I will not permit it
.

As Medeoan straightened up, Kacha pressed close behind her, reminding her of his warm presence, and trying to ease her shivering.

Medeoan kissed her mother’s hand. The skin was far too hot against her dry lips. “You must bear with this for a little while longer, Mother.” She tried to keep her voice steady. Mother’s eyes were wide and shining with their fever. The empress let her head fall sideways so that she could look at her daughter, but the only sound she could make was a rasping cough. The physics said that the fever had swollen her tongue so that speech was impossible.

Medeoan sighed as Kacha pulled her close, not caring about the eyes of the ladies who surely watched them from their places in the shadows. He lifted her hand from her mother’s, and she saw how his thoughts, as ever, were all for her.

“You have cut yourself,” he said, looking at the delicate red lines that spread across her fingertips.

Medeoan only shook her head. “The threads for the weaving. They wear on the skin after a while.”

But Kacha would not let the subject be dismissed. “You should rest before you go, beloved. You are exhausted.” He touched her forehead, perhaps searching for some trace of the fever that wracked her parents. As ever, the knowledge of his love sent a small thrill of delight through her heart.

Despite that, Medeoan shook her head. “They are too ill. An hour could make all the difference.”

“Then do it here,” Kacha urged. “Surely their home is a stronger place for them than the woodlands.”

“And if I draw out the sickness here, it stays here. I have to take it away from this house.” She smiled weakly and pressed her husband’s hand. “On these matters, I must ask you to trust me. I know how the magic must be worked.”

Kacha frowned down at their hands.

“What is it?” asked Medeoan.

He ran his thumb across her knuckles. “You know what magic Avanasy thought best to teach you. I wish you had some other advisor for this part of your life.”

Medeoan sighed. Kacha could not forgive. She would have been well pleased never to hear her old teacher’s name again, but Kacha could not bring himself to cease worrying about the wrongs Avanasy had committed, no matter how many assurances Medeoan gave him. “It was not only Avanasy who taught me,” she assured him. “Beloved, I ask you again, trust me in this. I will save them.”

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