Willamina sat reading on the couch in front of the fireplace in the front parlor. Last night Stian had made it clear that he would be leaving this morning, and so she was now bargaining with herself. She told herself that if he was going to come by before he left, it couldn’t possibly be any later than eleven. Therefore, all she had to do was keep herself occupied until eleven, eleven fifteen at the absolute latest, and then she could wash her hands of the whole thing and go on with the rest of her day.
It was silly, really, that she was even considering it. Or, for that matter, reading the same bloody paragraph for the fourth time in a row. It wasn’t as if he had any reason to come. And really, it wasn’t as if she particularly cared if he did. And in precisely thirty-seven minutes she would be able to prove to herself and the world at large just how little she cared when absolutely nothing happened, and she could send over to see if Sophie was home to callers for the afternoon. Make that thirty-four and a half minutes.
She was so nonchalant about the entire affair that she nearly dropped her book when she heard the knock at the front door. She had a moment to collect herself before Stian was shown in.
“Reading philosophy?” he asked with a smile.
“Nothing so lofty. Poe.” She frowned at the book in her hands. “Although it doesn’t read quite the same anymore, I’m afraid.”
He laughed. “No, I would imagine not.”
“You must be eager to get home,” she said.
“No,” he said. “In fact, I find I am quite reluctant to leave.”
This admission seemed to take all the courage he had. He stood by the door and studied the hat in his hands. He had never actually worn it: he didn’t enjoy wearing them unless the weather made it necessary, and compared to the tundra north of Borø, London was mild. He carried it because everyone did. And now it provided a useful thing to do with his hands.
The long, awkward pause was interrupted by the appearance of Rafe and Edmund.
“Leaving us, then?” Rafe asked.
“Unfortunately, yes. But I wanted to come suggest,” he looked nervously at Edmund before continuing, “that Arseni’s pack will be in need. He is still weakened, and with their losses this year, they will go hungry, and be at risk of another challenge. And Arseni won’t accept direct help. But they would accept work.”
“And we need a few guards on the house,” Edmund finished for him. “Yes, that could work.”
Stian nodded, relief evident on his face for more than one reason: he no more liked leaving this house undefended than he liked the idea of a large pack without strong leadership in an urban area. “Good, then. And Rafe,” he added. “Try to stay out of trouble.”
“Now now, your grace, you know I never take good advice,” Rafe said with a grin.
“Or any other kind, to his mother’s great dismay,” said Rebecca as she joined them in the parlor..
“Mrs. Greyson,” said Stian as he took her hand.
“We’re all sorry to see you go. I hope you will not forget about us,” she said a little anxiously, looking into his face.
Stian laughed heartily. “That, dear lady,” he said as he kissed her hand, “would be impossible.”
Stephen was waiting.
Their mother had asked them all to be dressed and present at seven for dinner at the Ravendales at eight. Predictably, he was the only one ready.
Which, all things considered, suited him just fine. Between the crowded dormitory at school and the usual madhouse around here, these were the few moments he ever got in which he didn’t feel obligated to study, or practice. He could here the bustle upstairs, but he sat back in the large easy chair in the parlor, watching the fire dance.
He wasn’t alone for long; Rafe arrived from the townhouse ten minutes later. He didn’t disrupt Stephen’s reverie but sat down silently while they waited. After a while, Stephen said, “You’re quiet this evening.”
“It has been known to happen.”
Stephen shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Edmund was coming down the stairs, still struggling with his cuff links, when there was a heavy knock at the door.
“Are you at home, sir?” Higgins asked.
“Only if it’s urgent, or important,” he said as he walked past the door and into the parlor.
Higgins followed him in an instant later. “It’s Dr. Casmin, sir.”
“Send him in, then.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, I know you have plans,” Andre began. “But Stian insisted I stop by this evening.”
He was followed by two young men carrying a crate, and a rather severe woman dressed in a black walking suit.
“No trouble, I hope?” Edmund said.
“No,” Casmin said, smiling. “Just the duke’s Christmas gifts. Are your mother and Willamina around?”
They were, in fact, on their way down the stairs and joined the party immediately. Casmin handed the bearers a few coins and sent them on their way. “Most of these will be self-explanatory, but he wanted me to deliver them in person.” He opened the crate, handing a small package to Stephen, two to Rafe, and leaving the rest for Edmund.
Stephen opened his bundle first. Inside was a single scroll, which, when opened, appeared to be blank. He frowned at it a moment, before saying, “I’m not sure I follow.”
Casmin smiled. “You’ll be grateful for it once you figure it out.”
Stephen stared at it a moment before grinning. He whispered a word, and ink appeared over the surface of the parchment. “One of the maps?”
“Yes,” Casmin said. “And more than that, he left the spellwork unsealed.”
“What does that mean?” Willamina asked.
“It means he’s left it so that I can work out how it’s done,” Stephen said. He settled back into his chair to study it.
Rafe opened the top package first. It was a large, leather-bound codex. There was a note attached: “In the hopes you’ll expand your interests.” He opened the cover, and then laughed. “The Alexipharmaca. He can keep dreaming.”
Edmund looked over his shoulder. “That’s a beautiful manuscript.”
“Seventeenth century,” Casmin said. “Worst comes to worst, Rafe, you can sell it for beer money.”
“I’d never!” he said, laughing. He unwrapped the second package, a much larger wooden box. Inside were a set of throwing spikes, made of silver. They began as thick, square bars, twisted and sharpened to fine points and engraved with runes. “That’s more like it,” he said approvingly. He picked up one and tossed in his hands a few times.
“Your turn, Edmund,” Rafe said as Casmin slid the crate over to him.
Edmund raised an eyebrow, but his skeptical expression quickly melted as he picked up a small volume and read the note tucked into the front cover. “Oh, my…” he said.
“They were his grandfather’s,” Casmin said quietly.
“What are they?” Rafe asked.
Edmund grinned. “He has quite the memory.” He waved the book he held in his hand. “Caesar’s commentaries.”
“With Beorn’s notes. In personal matters he was a disgusting old reprobate,” Casmin said genially. “But he was a tactical genius. And now, the real reason I’m here.” He waved forward the woman who was still hovering by the door.
“Mrs. Greyson, I present Mariana Nikopolou.” She stepped forward and bowed her head crisply. She was a small woman, and of such severe appearance her age was difficult to determine: she could have been anywhere from twenty to forty. She had curly black hair, tightly bound in a bun at the base of her neck, olive skin, and large brown eyes. She carried a black valise which she clutched tightly by its handle. She and Rebecca studied each other carefully.
“You’ll appreciate this as well, Edmund,” Casmin continued. “He’s sent you a cook.”
“A cook?” Edmund asked.
“You kept complaining about about losing yours,” said Casmin, “and Mariana’s talents are considerable.”
“I am also to teach Miss Greyson,” she added. Her accent was thick, yet pleasant. Her voice was low and here words were precise.
Edmund frowned at that. “Teach her…”
“What it is that I do.”
“Which is… cook?” Edmund asked.
“Of course,” Mariana answered, her dark eyes serious.
Willamina opened her mouth to comment, but something in the woman’s glance made her remain silent.
“She’ll begin as soon as you’re ready for her,” Casmin said.
“Is that everything?” Willamina asked in what she hoped was a nonchalant manner.
“It is, and with that, we’ll leave you to your evening. Merry Christmas, everyone.”
Coming back from dinner, Stephen walked arm in arm with his twin. “You’re not quite yourself tonight, Wils.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she answered.
“Yes, I’ve suddenly begun imagining things. That’s why you said all of ten words at dinner. You’re known for your taciturnity. Especially around Sophie,” said Stephen.
Willamina gave a little smile. “I suppose I’m just over-tired.”
“And disappointed,” Rafe added, coming up behind them.
And the wan look gave way to a full scowl. “Well, it’s not exactly fair, is it. You get weaponry, Stephen gets a magical treasure map, and I get cooking lessons.”
“Well, it’s not like he could send anything for you, could he?” Stephen said primly. “There isn’t anything…”
“No, of course not,” she said quickly.
Stephen shrugged. “Well then, there you have it.”
Rafe shot his brother an angry look, but said nothing, and Stephen pretended not to notice.
When they reached home, Willamina quickly said her goodnights and went to her room. She stepped in the door and froze, her dark mood falling away. On the table by her bedside was a small basket, piled high with fresh oranges. She picked one and held it in her hand before inhaling its fragrance.
She could have been mistaken, but she would have sworn it was still warm from the sun.