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Chapter One

Damon Am’Troff, master sorcerer to the king, flung his slippers at the door. “Go away, you pesky owl! You foul, feathered fiend, or is that fowl-feathered? I’ll not listen to your whinesome admonitions again! Off with you to seek someone who cares, or I’ll cook you into a chicken soup!”

The owl on the other side of the door ducked his head at the sorcerer’s tirade. He spread his wings and flapped them once, as though shaking off the insults the way a duck shakes water off its back. He tucked his wings and took the door handle in his beak again. This time he managed to open the leaver and get a foot inside. Since both the slippers had already been flung, the sorcerer wasted precious moments looking for another object to fire at the door. Liegro made good use of the reprieve. He flew inside and resumed his perch.

“Tsk, tsk, Damon. It is a sorry state to which you have sunk.”

The sorcerer sunk even further in his chair. He slung a leg over one of the padded armrests, aiming a vicious scowl at his mentor and friend. He tossed a pebble at the bird but had not the heart to make his target. The pebble clattered to the floor a few feet short. “You’d be better off if you left me,” Damon whispered. “Everyone does eventually.”

“I know you still grieve for the girl,” Liegro began. “What I wish to know, is what are you going to do about it?”

“There is nothing to do! She returned to her father after First-month! Her decision is final. I cannot force her now, it is against the law!”

“No, you cannot force her to recant her decision. But you could visit her in her dreams, you could cast a spell upon her, drying up her appetite for any save yourself. You could fill her mind, body and soul with naught but thoughts of you. You could drive her into your waiting arms…”

“I do not want a woman who does not want me,” Damon said solemnly. “Drop it, Liegro. This book is closed.”

“Damon, have I not taught you…”

“I said drop it!”

Liegro closed his beak and shut his eyes. He drew his head down into his body, assuming the position of sleep. There was a time his protégé would not have spoken to him so disrespectfully. He was still the master sorcerer, more powerful than Damon, but not by much. Damon had mastered all the spells he had taught him, and many of the techniques of the craft as well. Damon posessed an innate skill, a magic by birth that had cost him dearly. He had lost his family and friends, the only home he had ever known when his power manifested. As a result, he considered his power as something of a curse. A duty he was bound to conquer and control, rather than a natural extension of himself. If he ever fully embraced his power, he might very well become the greatest sorcerer the world had ever known.

Liegro blinked, then settled down once more. There wasn’t much chance of that happening. Not in his lifetime. And being a magical creature himself, his lifetime was already three times that of the sorcerer’s. He would live on to tutor the next generation long after Damon’s bones were laid to rest.

“Have you at least looked for her in the crystal waters?” Liegro asked at length.

Damon shook his head, shredding the hem of his sleeve.

“You might find her suffering as you suffer. Would that appease your ego, to know that she was not dilly-dallying with hired servants and paid consorts?”

“I will not invade her privacy, and neither will you, Master Owl. You are not to bother the girl again, do you hear?”

The owl stared at Damon unblinkingly. He was not afraid of Damon’s threats, but only of losing a valued friend. In the end, he nodded once, closing his eyes again. “As you wish.”

“Please, Gregory. I must visit my sister. I have not seen her much since our wedding, and I miss her sorely!” Tippi pleaded, clasping her hands beneath her chin and batting her long lashes at her husband with a coquettish grin.

The young baron cupped her chin in his hand and placed a tender kiss upon her willing lips. “It is not my intention to keep you from your family, my darling. Only to protect you with my life, if necessary.”

“I could not be in any danger at my sister’s home!”

“True. But you were unwell this morning. I think it best if you rested this day and the next.”

“But I feel fine now, my husband. I do not think it is an illness that settled upon my stomach, but perhaps a spoiled bit of meat. After I lost what little was in my belly, I felt much relieved.”

“You are too thin already.”

“Perhaps I will be round and full with your child soon, Gregory,” Tippi whispered, grinning at him again. In truth, she believed that was the cause of her morning’s illness although she had not yet shared that thought with him. They had not been married over-long, and true, the duty of a wife was to provide her husband with many offspring, but children so soon after marriage were not always welcomed. There could be no hint of scandal when the child stood to inherit, as the heir of a baron would. She had come to her husband a virgin and he well knew it, but the villagers tongues would wag just the same.

“I pray not, my darling,” he said ruefully.

“Why not?” Tippi was shocked, ice running in her veins as she feared her husband’s reaction when he learned the truth.

“These are dangerous times. The kingdom may be at the brink of war. I may be called into service, and I would not be here with you in your time of need. No, it is better that we not rush into a family just yet. I shall ask the sorcerer for a potion to prevent my seed from bearing fruit.”

Tippi felt tears threaten, and turned away from her husband before he could notice. She drew in a deep breath and let it out carefully, hoping to still the quaiver in her voice. “As you wish, my husband. So it will be as you command.”

Gregory watched his wife’s silhouette, worried by her formal use of age-old tradition. He had never enforced his commands upon her, and he prayed he would never have to do so. Husbands by law owned their wives as much as they owned their land or chattel, but it not a law he was cheerful to uphold. He had granted her much independence to date. She retained a small monthly stipend from her grandmother, which he could have appropriated and added to his own coffer, but he allowed her to spend it as she wished. She often spent it on gifts for him, or the staff, or the peasants who drew their living from his fields. She was most generous with her insignificant fortune, and it pleased him greatly.

“When will you ask your sorcerer friend, my husband?” Tippi went to the window and gazed out. If Gregory did not go at once, then he might realize that it was already too late to prevent a pregnancy. But if he did leave, it would be a perfect opportunity to slip out and visit her sister.

“I suppose I should journey at once, or we ought not to practice so vigilantly that which we do not wish to carry to fruition. Shall I ask Mary to come sit with you while I am away?”

Mary was a shrivvled up old widow, who was loyal only to Gregory. She had probably wet-nursed him as a babe, and had not yet loosed him from her apron strings. Tippi wished she could send the old hag to another kingdom far, far away. “Nay, my husband,” she replied sweetly. “Do not trouble her, for I shall just lie here and try to sleep.”

“That’s a good girl,” Gregory said, kissing her upon the forehead. “I vow, when your health is much improved, we shall visit your sister together.”

In a pig’s eye, she thought silently.

Gregory paused at the doorway, perhaps suspecting her of falsehood. “Are you certain you do not wish for company?”

“Only if you yourself would like to stay,” she said hopefully.

He chuckled once, returning swiftly to her side. He caught her into his arms and embraced her. “I love thee, my wife, my heart, my life mate. I shall take my swiftest steed, the noble Charger. I shall not dally a moment longer than I must in the sorcerer’s company, but will return to you as on the wings of eagles.”

Tippi faked a long yawn, adding a stretch of her arms to the charade. “There is no need to hurry quite so fast, my darling, for I do feel the need of rest. Until dinner, then?”

His kissed her once more. “Until dinner.” He closed the door softly behind him, wondering for the briefest of moments if he should also turn the key in the lock. He shook his head then and smiled. His wife had never defied him before, there was no need to doubt her now.

Tippi rushed to the window seat and watched for her husband. As true as his word, he soon appeared riding upon the glorious steed named Charger, a solid black stallion of spirit and breeding. Muscular, yet fleet of foot, the velocious steed carried his mount off towards the sorcerer’s domain. She glanced at the sun, already nearing its zenith. She would have to hurry, to be home before dark.

Her rooms were on the second floor, far from the great hall below where many of the staff would be busily sweeping up rushes or preparing the long table for the evening meal. The older women would be warming themselves by the fireplace, spinning wool into fine yarn. Younger women would be making loaves of bread or plucking chickens or filleting fish. A few knights, younger sons of noble blood who would not inherit, might be sharpening their swords or engaged in swordplay in the courtyard, as they practiced and honed their skills of warfare. The baron’s home was small by many standards, but even so it was bustling with activity.

The many staff were so relieved when his father and older brother had passed, that they showered Gregory with respect. His father had posessed a mean temperament and a vicious streak that cultivated little allegience among those in his employ. They were not as willing to extend that respect to encompass her. They were not disrespectful, at least, not ever in Gregory’s presense. They seemed hesitant to welcome her.

Tippi had done little to improve their oppinion of her. She adored her husband, but she was headstrong, and unwilling to bend to tradition where their marriage was concerned. It was important to her that they begin their union together on the course she hoped to steer down through the years. So she questioned Gregory about every decision he made. She insisted he explain himself to her, and consider her oppinion if it differed from his own. She went riding daily, as was her custom previous to their marriage, although he had asked her to wait for him so they could ride together. He was often too busy restoring his lands after years of abuse and neglect, though, and did not want to ride as long or as far as she was wont to do.

She thought she was establishing her independence, and proving to her husband that she was both intelligent and experienced in the running of an estate. The staff, however, believed her to be only a stubborn, spoiled child, castrating her husband with her constant nagging. Well, the joke would be on them, she thought, as she patted her belly. It was too soon to know, but she was certain a new life grew within.

Tippi opened her window and slipped over the edge. A narrow ledge ran beneath the window all along the side, built to make it easier to clean and repair the windows, but too narrow to make a safe passage without a tether rope. Tippi knew she was in no danger. She had long ago learned to tippie-toe along the narrow projection, for that was how she had earned her nickname. Of course, her father had also spanked her most thorougly once when he’d caught her using a similar ledge outside her window when she was yet a child, but that had not detered her from using the means of escape whenver she had a need to do so.

She walked along the ledge, ducking when she passed a window that shed light into the great hall below. Then she straightened and continued on, until the ledge widened out at a balcony. She stepped over the rail, then raced across the tile to the large branches of a hickory tree that brought much shade to the area. She leaped into the branches, scrambling down the rough bark until her toes were upon solid ground below. Her shins were chafed and her hair a mess, but she grinned widely as she gloried in her freedom.

From there it was a simple thing to slip over the narrow garden wall and sneek into the stable. The stable hands were about, but they would not know that she had not procured permission to ride. They were simple fellows, beneath the house staff, yet above the peasants in station, and seemed content to wallow in animal manure for a living. “Saddle the paint for me today, Jerry,” she ordered, flashing him a dimpled grin.

He nodded once, chewing on a stem of ripe oats. He hefted the saddle and blanket, tossing both upon the back of a waiting spotted pony as though neither weighed more than a feather. The small horse was not as spirited a mount as she prefered to ride, but other than her husband’s Charger, it was the most spirited animal in the stable. Her own beloved mare remained at her father’s estate, for Gregory did not want such an undisciplined animal breeding with his stock.

The stable hand helped her into the saddle, then led the horse outside before passing her the reins. He tipped his hat in her direction as he returned to his mucking chores. Tippi guided the paint away from the keep, away from the prying eyes of any who might be watching. Then she turned the animal towards her sister’s home on the southern edge of the capitol city. Putting her heels to the paint’s sides, horse and rider sailed into the air to clear the perimeter fence by little more than a hair’s bredth. Tippi let out a shriek of joy as her hair came loose and fluttered in the wind like a sovereign’s standard. The run was too short, for she had to rein back the paint into a trot to maneuver the narrow streets of the city. Washer women and dogs scurried out of her way. An old man shook his cane in her direction. Little boys whistled, and young men whistled, although they might have been admiring the rider rather than the horse. Tippi ignored them all.

Once she had pretended not to care for men, as she didn’t want to be trapped into a marriage of servitude, an attitude she’d learned from her older sister. But when Tippi met Gregory, it was love from the start, and she still loved him deeply. It was wrong of him to keep her from her sister, she justified herself, feeling a bit naughty for her escape. And then her sister’s home appeared around the corner, and all other thoughts were banished.

Gayle had purchased a modest estate, with a dozen or so rooms, a small stable, and several hectars of land. Her neighbors were not so close that they could peer inside her windows, and the wall that encircled her property was tall enough to prevent any peeping except from the tallest of men. The entire estate had been white-washed, and little brown boxes of bright red flowers adorned it in the traditional style. If the outside was conventional and uninspired, it was not by the design of its inhabitant. Gayle was the most unconventional of women, and Tippi admired her as much as she loved her.

Tippi rode through the main gate, tossing the reins to a stable boy who hurried out to greet her. She leaped from saddle and raced up the stairs. She took the heavy brass knocker and banged it against the door before she thrust it open and barged inside. “Gay? Gay, it’s me! Where are you, Gay?”

Only silence answered her. Tippi put her hands on her hips, tapping her foot upon the tile impatiently. She and Gregory had been invited to dine here twice before, so she knew her way about. The mixing room was off to the left, a small area for entertaining personal guests. The great hall was to the right, where larger, more informal gatherings were held. The kitchens and dining halls were in the rear, closer to the gardens and the woodsheds where many lengths of split wood was stacked to provide fuel for the stoves. Upstairs were the bedchambers and solariums and many small nooks and crannies. The uppermost floor was reserved for servants quarters and storage.

Tippi bounded up the stairs and headed towards her sister’s bedchamber, uncaring if she caught her sister in the midst of a dalliance. “Gay! Gay, do not ignore your most beloved little sister,” she teased, forcing the heavy door open.

Alas, there was no man in Gay’s bed, but Gay herself was there. She lay across the quilt at an awkward angle, half the sheets and coverlets spilling upon the floor. Her lovely hair was unclean, her face a pallid color, and her eyes appeared glazed over. Tippi gasped, rushing to her sister’s side in a frenzy.

“Oh, my dear Gay! What is the matter? Shall I send for a healer at once!”

“Nay, Tippi dear. No healer can mend the sickness in my heart.” Gay’s voice was dull, lacking in emotion. That frightened Tippi even more.

She sat on the edge of the bed and brushed her hand across Gay’s brow, only slightly relieved when she determined that there was no fever. “Tell me what ails you, sister,” she begged.

Gay shrugged her shoulders, too weary to move aught else. “I am a fool, my dearest. A fool and a coward. I have won my freedom, but lost my love. I have my independence, but I am a slave to pain. I fear I will never find joy again.”

“Oh, silly girl. You’ll get over him. You always told me that men are like wars, there is always another one coming.”

“Is that how you feel about your Gregory,” Gay spoke sternly, for the first time showing a bit of feeling.

Tippi flushed, but quickly recovered. She brushed the thought away with a sweep of her hand. “Of course not. Gregory is one in a million, and I was fortunate to find him. But your Damon could not possibly have been anywhere near as perfect as my Gregory, or you could not have spurned him. Therefore, sweet Gay, get up and bathe. Brush your hair, find your smile, and begin that reckless, independent life you so often dreamed of. You can write to your heart’s content! You can have lover upon lover, you can go where you wish, eat when you wish, and do nothing that you do not wish to do. At times I envy you. Do you have any idea what length I had to go to just to come here today?”

Gay rolled over, turning her back to her younger sister. “You should not have come. I am doing just what I wish to do. I am doing nothing. Now leave me alone.”

“Gay, do not say that! Oh, Gay! I need you, now more than ever!”

Gay ignored her, pulling a pillow and placing it over her head.

Tippi shoved her, hard. She grabbed the pillow and tossed it at her, and then she tossed a pitcher of water as well. “Fine,” she spat. “Be that way. But I shall not consider you when it is time to name our baby’s guardians. I will not come to see you again. Fare thee well!” Her tone implied that she did not truly wish well faring upon her sister. And for added emphasis, she slammed the door in her wake.

Tears filled Gay’s eyes and fell upon the bed sheets. She had cried buckets of tears, and yet more came to take their place. She had all that she had fought for. The battle was over, but the war was lost. Gay had won the right to be forever alone.

Tippi sobbed as she accepted the reins from the stable boy. He helped her into the saddle, giving her a knowing look. Tippi wondered briefly how her sister’s servants were managing while she wallowed in her sorry state. The boy did not look hungry, though. Merely resigned. It was not a happy place of employ, and it might never be happy again. How could Gay have been so wrong about everything? Tippi had always looked up to her. Tippi had listened to every word of wisdom to fall from her sister’s lips. She believed rightly, as her sister had taught, that women should be more than chattel. But one look at her sister’s sad existence made a lie of all she believed. Perhaps women had need to be owned and cared for? Perhaps they were indeed the weaker sex?

No! Tippi spat, feeling a rage build inside her that she could not contain. Women were not weak! They were smaller, yes, that could not be argued. But she was intelligent, educated, and independent. She could use her mind where her smaller, weaker muscles might fail her. Her sister was a fraud, but Tippi was genuine, through and through. With a toss of her long, tangled locks, she rode the little paint hard all the way home.

Gregory’s visit with the sorcerer had been short. It was hard to see the man he admired so miserable. If only the elder Landring sister had been as bidable as his sweet Tippi, the couple would be happily wed by now. That they belonged together was as plain as day. No simple house frau would be comfortable in the home of a powerful necromancer. No weak-livered milk toast could hope to control a woman as headstrong as she. For the first time he considered the law of First-month, and wondered if it had outlived its purpose. Without it, all this turmoil would have been avoided.

Damon had given him his potion, although the sorcerer was so distraught, Gregory worried the elixir would do more damage than merely prevent conception. He wasn’t ready for a family, but he did want children some day. It would be a horrific fate if his man-part was to shrivel up and drop off! Damon clutched himself for a moment, but then he shook his head. It was a fool’s thought. The sorcerer was the best at what he did, he could create potions and spells in his sleep.

Gregory tossed his reins to the stable hand, eager to join his sweet wife. “Ye did not meet ‘er whilst riding, m’lord?” the man asked.

“Meet whom?” he asked, a knot of dread lodging in his belly.

“The Baroness, m’lord. She took out upon Painted Lady nigh as soon as ye left. I thought she wished to join ye.”

Good heavens, Gregory fumed. His wife had defied him, and now the entire estate knew that he couldn’t control her! What’s more, she had planned to do so from the start, if she left so promptly. This was no momentary lapse in judgement, but a premeditated act of willful disobedience! Gregory tapped the riding crop against his palm. He had never raised his hand to the youthful baroness… but there was always a first time for everything.

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