Radenth 7, 1013
George sat in the inmost ring of the stone circle, breathing in the heavy, late-spring air. The smell of the flowers had grown all-pervasive in these last days of spring, cloying, even. The light from the sun was swiftly approaching the point of discomfort. In a few months, they’d all be sweating and fanning themselves nonstop.
He wondered if it would be the same here in the circle. It was just a hunch, but George would have bet his wand that the normal rules of weather and the seasons … didn’t apply here. When he had been here last winter, he remembered seeing grass, fresh and strong, poking out above the snow line. The trees were in full leaf. You got the sense that the only reason there was snow was because it was allowed to be there, because someone was relaxing “the rules” enough to let it stick around, not because there had been a blizzard and the snow had gotten everywhere.
He wished, now, that he’d spent more time at the circle during his schooling years. This place was … different. Somebody needed to be studying it. Sometimes he could sense the otherworld, “Underhill” as it was called, as if only a thin veil of magic separated here from there, as if all he had to do was poke in the right place and he would be allowed in …
He shifted, and he felt parchment crinkle in his pocket. The letter from his mother. She wanted him to come home for the weekend, so she could take final measurements and get his Camford wardrobe sorted out. They were having a birthday party for Colin, too.
George sighed. Not about the birthday party — sure, birthday parties for toddlers weren’t exactly his thing, but Colin was becoming a fun little chap these days. And it was hilarious to see Freddy — Freddy! — as a father. If the birthday party was all it was …
And it wasn’t the wardrobe, either, though someone who didn’t know George well might have expected it would be. But he was the son of the best dressmaker in the kingdom — in any kingdom, as far as George was concerned. Wherever he went, he wanted to look good, and he knew those sorts of results didn’t happen by not paying attention to things like measurements and good fit. Besides, George sensed that his mother would let him get away with a lot more than many other young men’s mothers might let them get away with, if it was done in the name of fashion.
No. It was Camford that was bothering George. And that was stupid. And he knew it.
That was why he had come here, really. He had gotten the letter this morning. He had read it over breakfast. And he’d had an unsettled feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with the fact that the eggs were slightly runny for his taste. So, as soon as lessons were over, he had come out here, to the stone circle, where he could be alone and he could … deal with it.
The Emryses didn’t come here. Neither did anybody else. Well, except for one person. And he wouldn’t mind if she …
Were those footsteps he heard?
“I was just thinking about you,” he called over his shoulder.
“Uh oh,” giggled Ravenna. “Good things, I hope?”
“Could it be anything else?”
He saw Ravenna stop, put a hand on her hip, and stare him down with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. He knew what that look meant. It meant, Sappy doesn’t suit you.
But he wasn’t trying to be sappy. He was trying to be flirty … and he saw, now, that Ravenna was blushing. George grinned. She could give him all the mocking looks she wanted, as long as she was blushing when she gave them.
She circled around the last of the standing stones and plopped onto the rock beside George. George wrapped an arm around her waist and ducked in for a quick kiss, then he let her go. “How do you always know when I’m out here?”
“I don’t come find you all the time …” Ravenna murmured. She wasn’t wearing a pretty, fetching blush now. It was an embarrassed one.
“No. You don’t,” George agreed. “But you always know when I’m out here. I’m curious. How do you know?”
She could have replied with any number of things, starting with, Well, I start by looking out the window, dummy. But her reply was more subtle than that. “Whenever you go anywhere else, you usually ask me to come with you.”
… That was something that George had not considered. But it made perfect sense. What was the point of running errands if you couldn’t work in a chance to snog your girlfriend away from the watchful eyes of the Emryses while you were out?
And that made him think … he fished the parchment out of his pocket. “Speaking of coming with me places … my nephew’s birthday party is this weekend, at my parents’ house. Want to come? It might even be fun. And I think you and Clarice would get along well.”
“Lady Clarice? I’ve met her. With Princess Lynn.” Ravenna smiled. “She seems very nice.”
“Aye, she is. She and Freddy deserve each other; it’s disgusting …”
“There’s nothing wrong with being nice.”
George snorted. “You haven’t seen the extremes Freddy and Clarice take it to. I swear, they were both doormats in a previous life.”
“George!” Ravenna repeated, but it was hard to keep up the exasperated yell when you were giggling. “You’d better watch those comments.” She elbowed him playfully. “Can you imagine what would happen if the wrong person at Camford heard that?”
“George?” Ravenna asked, head tilted to one side. “Is–is something the matter?”
The best thing about Ravenna — at least, right now, George might have a different opinion in an hour or so — was that George could say anything with her. He’d spent enough years shocking her with his mouth that she was now essentially unshockable. And she understood the value of asking questions, and searching honestly for the right answer instead of just the socially correct or the convenient answer. So — he asked. “Do … do you ever think that maybe we’re just not … cut out for Camford?”
Ravenna blinked. And — here was another thing — she thought before she responded. Thought long and hard, to guess by her expression.
She finally turned back to him. “Why do you say that?”
“Ravenna. We’re wizards. Camford’s against everything we bloody well stand for.”
“Is that all?” Ravenna asked.
“Is — well, what else should there be?”
Ravenna shrugged. “My mother did fine in Camford. So did my cousins. Being a wizard at Camford … well, as long as you’re careful, it’s not hard.”
“I don’t … Ravenna, do you really want to spend the next four years being careful? Always on our best behavior? Reading snore-inducing hagiographies, when we could be …” He threw his hands into the air. “We’re eighteen, Ravenna! We’re adults! We could grab our broomsticks one day, and just — and just go. Have adventures. Test the boundaries of magic! And …”
He could almost see it now. The shimmering veil separating this world from the other. He felt so close. If he just knew where to push …
He could learn so much more Underhill than he ever could in stuffy old Camford.
But Ravenna … Ravenna was looking at him with her head cocked to one side. “You–you don’t think we could learn things at Camford that could help us do that?”
“Ravenna. We. Are. Wizards.”
“And you’re acting no better than a monk.” She nudged him with her elbow. “I don’t see how we could — could possibly push back the boundaries of magic if we don’t have a good, strong foundation to start from. We could learn a lot at Camford, you know. Arithmetic, geometry –”
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake–”
“Ravenna, we’ll only be getting half the story there, and you know it. Those professors — they don’t know what’s really going on. Or if they do have a hint, they’re deliberately shutting their eyes. Don’t you think that makes what they claim to know worse than useless?”
Ravenna raised one eyebrow. “And aren’t you kind of doing the same thing?”
“I — I am not!”
“Yes, you are,” she said with a nod. And when she spoke like that, she was inexorable. Firm. And far too often right.
George sighed. “I just feel like … like … we could do so much more good … here …”
Ravenna looked around. “You–you want to go back. With them.”
“You can’t dance with … them and have it not change you.” He edged closer to her, leaning his head on her shoulder. “But I don’t want to leave you. You know that.”
“They scare me, George.”
“You said that the one you talked to was nice.”
“Seemed nice.” Ravenna shivered. “With–with them–you never know.”
George doubted that. Kindness was harder to fake that Ravenna realized, especially given what she had gone through. After Christopher, she looked on every smile with suspicion, every proffered hand with wariness. If that Gentry man had been faking his kindness, Ravenna would have known.
But try convincing her of that.
“Look,” George said, jumping from the rock, grabbing Ravenna’s hands and pulling her up with him. “Forget I said anything. It’s just — it’s just nerves. It’s a huge change, Camford!”
“And,” George went on, stubbornly swinging her hands from side to side, “you know what Camford means, don’t you? It means I’ll have to be on my best behavior. For four bloody years. Ravenna, if that didn’t make me nervous and grumpy, you’d have to cart me off to the asylum, because I’d’ve lost my mind.”
“That’s not all it is.”
“Well, maybe not …” George shrugged. “But it’s not like I won’t go if you’re going. I’m not going on any adventures without you, you know that.”
Ravenna smiled, blushing again. “You’re too sweet.”
“Nah. I just know what I want.” And what George wanted — and he knew it — was to have his cake and eat it too.
Ravenna knew it, too. That was why she giggled and ducked her head. “Although, you know,” she remarked, “you won’t have to be on your best behavior. Tommy and Kay and their friends got away with a lot, you know.”
“Of course I know. Freddy was one of those friends, remember?”
“Betcha Freddy didn’t tell you everything that Garnet told me,” Ravenna teased.
“Ooooh?” George slipped an arm around Ravenna’s waist and pulled her closer. “Say on.”
“I don’t know if I should,” she giggled. “I don’t want to give you too many ideas too far in advance. I feel like I should dole them out one at a time, so whenever you’re getting bored with Camford, I can feed you another story and you’ll be satisfied for another few months.”
“You are mean.”
“I am not,” replied Ravenna, “and you know it.”
Well … now that she mentioned it … George pulled her a little closer. Or did Ravenna close the distance between them herself? George couldn’t tell.
And with Ravenna blinking up at him, smiling slyly in the shadows left by the brim of her hat … did it really matter?
After all, if there was one thing George had learned in not-quite-a-year of courting Ravenna that he hadn’t figured out when he was with Delyth — there was nothing wrong with letting your love have the last word. If she was willing to seal with it with a kiss, then letting her have the last word put you positively ahead.
Except when you were with a girl like Ravenna … a girl whose parents had taught her that there was nothing wrong, nothing shameful about love and its physical expression, that love was stronger than death, than magic, and certainly stronger than the sterile faith the monks liked to peddle in its place … it was hard to tell just who was winning at any point in time.
It was harder to tell if it mattered.
George almost dropped Ravenna. Almost. But even he, who had a more contemptuous attitude of chivalry and all that nonsense than Freddy and Dannie’s Rob combined, still had some basic instincts. He straightened in a hurry, stepped in front of Ravenna, and stared at … at …
Oh my Lord. It was one of the Gentry.
George didn’t remember the faces of any of the Gentry he had danced with — not well, anyway. It had all been a swirl of blue-green bodies, laughter, music, and floating witchlights drenching the area in an even eerier light than the moonlight would have provided. So he might have seen this one. Or he might not have. But a quick look at Ravenna’s pale face showed that she had seen this one. Which could only mean …
Still, there was only one way to deal with the Gentry, at least when you were a wizard who wanted to know more about them: politely. More to the point, George didn’t have any cold iron on him that would make dealing with them impolitely a remotely survivable course of action. So he stepped forward, one hand held out, the biggest grin he could muster plastered on his face. “Good morrow, sir.”
Now George was flushing. Nobody had called him that since … Granny. She had been the only one allowed. Remembering that, he couldn’t even summon up the embarrassment necessary to shoot a humiliated look in Ravenna’s direction.
“I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything important?” asked the fae, a faint frown pulling on the corners of his lips. “But you two were both here! And I wanted to talk to you before you went off to Camford.”
George blinked. “You–you know about Camford? What it’s called? And that we’re going there?”
“Of course we do!” laughed the fae. “Camford is old — but we were ancient when it was just a twinkle in the eye of Robert the Crumpled-Bottom. Besides, Camford is where many of the most brilliant minds of your people go to be stunted and warped. We would be fools not to keep an eye on it.”
George glanced at Ravenna, wondering if she was getting this — all of this. But he didn’t see if she was.
What he saw was that she was very pale, even paler than normal. And she was staring at the fae with impossibly wide eyes. “Ravenna …” George said, stroking her elbow.
The fae saw, too. “Why are you so afraid, child?” he asked. He sounded mournful — almost a little childlike himself.
Ravenna didn’t answer. That is, she made some croaking noises. She licked her lips and she swallowed a couple of times. Her eyes even darted to the butterflies wafting on the breeze by the stone altar …
The fae’s eyes followed hers, and the fae answered. “Ah. So, you think that a child does not mean to hurt a butterfly — but that does not necessarily do much good for the butterfly? But that is not the case here, Ravenna. Sometimes we have been careless and foolish with you mortals in the past — but you must remember, you are stronger than a butterfly. And I am not as heedless as a child.” The fae cast a particular glance at George as he said this.
No. No, he wasn’t like a child at all, George realized with the first twinges of something like fear. He was ancient enough to be approaching innocence and laughter and lightheartedness — all those childish things — from the other end. But that didn’t make him childlike. It made him …
“And for what’s it worth,” the fae went on, as lightly and innocently as before, “I can’t read your mind. But you have a very …” The fae stroked his chin. “Bookish face.”
Ravenna didn’t seem inclined to answer, so George did. It had to be rude to leave a fae hanging. “You mean — you can read it like a book?”
“Yes, exactly!” The fae clapped his hands. “You are very clever, Georgie-Porgie, especially for a mortal. I do not think the monks at Camford will pickle your brain at all!”
“That’s … very kind of you to say,” George replied.
“I say it because it is true,” the fae answered. “We were wise to have caught you early, even though we could not keep you. You now know enough of what is true to whet your appetite for more truth. You will not be fooled by half-baked half-truths and lies that have lain too long in the oven.”
George digested that. Then he glanced at Ravenna. He knew what she wanted, but … Ah, what the hell. He turned back to the fae. “You know, since we already have such a strong acquaintance with the truth … maybe Camford isn’t something we strictly need …”
“What? Don’t be silly!” laughed the fae. “The monks speak much nonsense — but they are wise enough to hire people who have much wisdom, wisdom they want to share. They might try to block off whole sections of knowledge, but real knowledge will always seep through … besides,” the fae added, as if this thought had just occurred to him, “there are always the unblocked sections. They are able to dig deep into those sections — perhaps because the others are locked away from them. No, as long as you keep away from the monks and their silly stories, you will learn much. And you should be glad of it!”
Well, George supposed it had been worth a shot.
“That …” Ravenna spoke for the first time. She slipped her arm through George’s. “That’s what I was trying to tell him.”
“I know.” The fae grinned at Ravenna, then at George. “You should listen to her, you know. You are very clever — but so is she, albeit in different ways. She will guide you truer than any compass.”
“I know,” George replied. He smiled at Ravenna. She smiled back. “Or at least — I try to know.”
“Indeed. You are young, and a mortal — knowing what is best for you is not something mortals are often good at.” The fae grinned. “But your dinner will be soon, and I shouldn’t keep you. I just wanted to wish the two of you good luck.”
Dinner? George wondered. He looked at the sun–yes, it was getting closer to dinner time than George had expected. How long had he been out here?
He looked suspiciously at the fae …
“Don’t look at me,” the fae replied. “You were with your lady-love. Where do you think the time went?”
“He’s right, George — Georgie,” Ravenna giggled.
“But … we barely got to snog …”
“I told you he thinks with his privy parts,” the fae said to Ravenna. “But with that I will wish you good fortune. Good bye! Be sure to visit when you’re in town!”
The fae waved them off as they left the circle. George turned to Ravenna as soon as he thought it was safe. “That was …”
“At least he seems to like us?”
Ravenna’s eyes blinked open. “Ye-es … he does. I think he does. And that …” She frowned, bit her lip, then nodded. “Yes. That’s a good thing. That’s a very good thing.”