Leaning against the rail, Guinvar closed her eyes, basking in the late afternoon sun before it disappeared below the horizon. Golden light spilled through leaves dappled with shadows as they rustled against each other, speckling her with filtered tinges of russet, an occasional one drifting, lazy as a moth, to the ground. Warmth tickled her bare arms, even though the wind had bite when it came from the north. Soon she would leave, and this was the last moment to enjoy her stay. She wished she didn't have to but work called to her, and she couldn't keep putting it off now she'd got what she wanted.
“Come in child, you will get cold.”
The gruff voice startled her at first, but she threw a glance back over her shoulder at the tall male standing in the doorway, which was wide open behind him, allowing the wind to puff leaves into the room. Head cocked to the side, a question lay clear on his sharp-angled features, so Guinver smiled a non-committal response and turned back to the view. She wasn't quite ready to go in yet.
Taking another deep breath of the clear air, she pulled at a stray twig, still with most of its leaves intact. They crackled under her fingers, crisp, already the colour of that world's autumn. Across the valley, purples, violet and lavender spiked with golds and reds painted the sides of the hills in swathes.
Folding her arms, she rested against them and took in a deep breath. There was frost in the air, she could smell it, taste it. “It's so lovely.”
“Yes.” The whisper of robes and a heavy presence told her he'd joined her. “It is.”
The silence was companionable, and he made no move to push her into returning to the warmth of the house but, even so, there was undeniable pressure to comply. Subtle, but there, a tickle in her hind brain. She slid a look at his fierce visage. “Stop that.”
“So, you are then your mother's daughter?”
“Hah,” she said, and gave him the look she'd seen that worthy give him. “Did you doubt it?”
He didn't bother to answer, the corner of his mouth turned up in appreciation. “Time moves on apace, child, and we have to finish packing your things.”
A slight shrug indicated he didn't care about such niceties, and he placed his hands on the rail. Guinvar contrasted them with her own. Long, strong hands, each finger equipped with pewter painted claws, heavy rings on the three middle fingers, each with a different inscription. A scientist, a mage, a leader. These were the things he claimed – not without some justification - and she called him uncle. It never ceased to entertain her.
“You then,” he said, and glanced down at her, amusement in golden lion-eyes. “Or I will be on the receiving end of your mother's sharp tongue if you are not delivered in a timely fashion.”
“Or dad's,” she said, and stood on tip-toe so she could reach his cheek and plant a kiss there.
“You father will tell me he'll kill me.”
“It never gets old for him,” he said, and the deep voice carried affection in its depths. “I think he likes to keep me on my toes, as you are want to say.”
A sudden sharp gust caught her, bouncing leaves into frantic motion, and Guinvar shivered. “Okay” she said, relenting, “let's go in.”
“Your aunt will be pleased you've decided to stay for tonight. She's prepared a special meal for you.”
“Has she? Great. Can't wait.” Ella's food was always good so she couldn't help the child-like glee with which she greeted the news. If she was lucky there would be some kind of fragrant pie and soup with fresh baked bread covered in golden yellow butter.
Chuckling, Atiron swung the doors shut behind them and followed her out of the room down the curving stairs to the open plan living area with its sunken chairs. From the kitchen came more homely sounds. Pans being moved, oven doors opened and slammed shut. Hurrying across the floor, Guinvar ran up the steps to the dining room in time to see her aunt disappear through the door to the kitchen. She picked up speed and nearly ran into her on the way back out.
“Ooops, sorry.” A hasty bit of sidestepping allowed Ella to get to the table without spilling a drop, and, right behind her, Atiron reached past her to take the plates, setting the table in exactly the way Ella insisted on every night.
Guinvar followed him round, laying the napkins at the side of each setting, lining up the cutlery exactly so it lay in serried rank, neat and tidy. Satisfied, they both sat, waiting for Ella to reappear, which she did carrying another plate of goodies.
“Looks great,” Guinvar said, and surveyed the dishes in front of her, sniffing with appreciation, fragrant steam rising from the bowls, while her aunt set the dish on the table. It held one of the local vegetables, a brownish tuber with the taste of parsnip and sweet potato. Roasted, like these, they were one of Ella's personal favourites.
Even Atiron's meal looked mouth-watering, though Guinvar didn't quite know how Ella managed to make raw fish look quite so attractive. All those fins and eyes didn't do a thing for her appetite but he seemed pleased with the effort and his gaze fixed on Ella, shining with something that made Guinvar shiver. In all the years she'd spent in this house she never grew tired of seeing the deep attachment they had for each other. That they could never acknowledge it openly, or display it except here where no one would make comment, hurt her immeasurably. 'You are too feeling, my daughter', her mother told her when she wept for them, head in her lap, sadness crushing her tender heart while her face grew hot and puffy. 'Despite it all,' her father said one day, when she'd asked why two people she idolised couldn't have what her parents had, 'they are happy.' And they were. Guinvar saw it in the little gestures they made to each other, and the way they spoke to each other when when they thought no one heard.
“Well, get on with it.” Ella waved her hand at the dishes, and had her hand caught deftly by Atiron. Rose stole into her cheeks, and she looked flustered but pleased. “It's just fish, Atiron.”
“You give it such a pleasing aspect, though,” he remarked, and sliced through the flesh. It peeled apart and spilled its contents, slivers of meat and bone marrow, across his plate and he quirked a brow at Ella. “You are an artist.”
“Hardly,” Ella sniffed. “It's not exactly a challenge to make that look more inviting.”
“It was inviting without the effort,” Atiron murmured, and skewered a piece of meat then popped it into his mouth, swallowing without chewing. Guinvar had seen this banter played out many times, and she concentrated on her own food. “You should spend more time on what you do so well, my dear.”
“Cooking, I suppose?” Mock outrage bounced across the table, and Atiron bowed his head gravely in response.
“As I said, your skill is exceptional.”
“Did I have a choice?”
“You always had a choice.”
Guinvar grinned, but hid it behind her napkin as she wiped her mouth. If Ella hadn't learnt to cook, she would have still been eating the same food as Atiron. Which she'd tried, she confessed to Ella one day, but the taste of raw meat, raw fish, raw everything, grew pretty dull after a while. A stance Guinvar could only sympathise with; she reckoned she would get pretty sick of a diet like that too.
“You're an old fool,” Ella added, without much rancour, and Atiron snorted.
“Which you always knew.”
Her aunt lifted her head and grinned at Atiron. “Yes, I did, didn't I?”
“Well,” he said, and shared a long look with the human woman, “if that's settled we should follow Guin's example and eat.”
Packing. Guinvar kicked at a box with some small items in it. They gave the rattle of breakables knocking against each other, and she huffed with annoyance. Something else to go through and see if any of it was needed. She glanced up at a knock on the door, and Ella poked her head round it.
“I see you're busy,” she said, and came into the room to watch her. Clothes lay on her sleeping platform in random heaps, accompanied by the tablets which contained her research into the Maker artefacts, so it wasn't much of a stretch.
“What gave it away?”
“Nothing I can put me finger on.” Ella scanned the piles critically. “You don't mind if I join you?”
“No, carry on.” Ella crossed to the chair and sat in it, looping her legs in a complicated structure Guinvar had seen many times.
Guinvar cast a smile in her direction, and flicked through a sheaf of paper. The smell and feel of it always pleased her, though favouring such an anachronism was sheerest eccentricity these days. Several pale blue Maker objects she'd collected on an expedition to the foothills sat there too, massed together, sleek as the fur on the head of an otter and she paused to run her fingers across their conjoined surface. A faint buzz, as always, greeted her and she wondered at it. She slid a few more items into her case, and then picked up the artefacts. They would do fine as long as she wrapped them.
“Are you any closer to finding out what they are?”
Guinvar lifted her eyes to meet the gaze of the other woman and she shook her head. “Not really.” She turned them over in the palm of her hand for a moment, thoughtful. “I'll need to run some tests when I get back home. Things behave differently back there, and I might get a bit more insight.” taking a step closer to her aunt, she presented them to her. “Take a look for yourself.”
Ella bent her head closer. “Did you show Atiron?”
“Gods, yes. Said he'd not seen anything like them and spent a good day and a half playing with them in the lab.”
“Just the sort of thing he likes to do,” Ella remarked, her expression intensely curious, running her fingers across their glossy surface. They stayed inert on Guinvar's palm, but she got the impression they shrank, somehow. How strange. “Metal?”
“Sort of, but not quite,” Guinvar said, and continued to consider the objects. They'd grown slightly warmer in her hand and felt less solid, the colour deeper. “The best I can make out is they're metallic in certain situations and plasticise in others.” She gave Ella an apologetic shrug. “That's the best I can do at the moment. They are... well... sort of anamorphic.”
“Fascinating,” Ella said, fingertips resting lightly on them, but then withdrew them. The change in the objects texture was almost immediate and Guinvar tightened her mouth, all manner of possibilities beginning to occur. “They feel kind of... “ She paused, brows tightened while she thought it over. “Slick... oily.”
“They did,” Guinvar said, and they both peered, taking a much closer examination.
Ella made a 'hmm' noise. “I really wish I could help but... ” She trailed off and looked round the room, studying it and the disarray before adding, “Well, if there's ever anything you need help with in the medical field, or biological...”
“I'll be sure to ask you,” Guinvar said, and leaned forward so she could give the older woman a brief hug. “Atiron was the one who pointed out its plasticity.”
At the mention of his name, Ella's mouth curved slightly. “He is brilliant, you know.”
“Yes.” And totally ruthless with anyone outside of those he considered worth his attention, Guinvar wanted to add. She had no illusions about Atiron or his ambitions for his people. Weren't her mother and father both his old adversaries and comrades in arms over many, many years? Not that she could deny he'd ever been anything but benevolent - if occasionally terrifying - to her. Came with the territory, she supposed. “Pity he doesn't want to come back with me.”
Ella looked thoughtful, but shook her head. “No. I think the hospitality he experienced in the brief time we spent there coloured his opinion in a negative way.”
“I don't think it would involve prison bars this time,” Guinvar said, all the stories she'd been told making a return. “Bars perhaps, if dad has his way.”
Somehow Ella didn't look as if that held any appeal either as her face twisted into a pained expression. “Drink and Alkash metabolism aren't the best of friends,” she said, as if that was the final word.
Guinvar gave a gurgle, which she changed to a cough when Ella's squinted look of disapproval. “Sorry.”
The other woman picked up some of Guinvar's clothes, folding them into neat packages that she placed on the others, nimble fingers tidying them into recognisable order. Underwear first, then tops, pants... She proceeded to reduce them to nothing more than multi-coloured easily managed piles in no time flat, something Guinvar failed to do at every turn. It would all fit in her pack now; she didn't know how she did it and expressed that with no small sense of awe.
“That's quite a skill.”
“Along with cooking, call it a need to be efficient, sweetheart, rather than a skill.,” Ella murmured, and with Guinvar's help pushed the last items into the case. A brief struggle ensued as they did it up. “Too many days on the road,” she said, by way of an explanation.
Which made Guinvar recall the argument she'd had with Rabarn just before he set off with Malak. Annoyance and frustration reared up again and she slammed a tablet into one of the bag's side pockets with too much force. It gave a pathetic whine of protest and she snatched it back up to examine it. She gave an inward sigh of relief when a quick scan showed her none of the precious data had been damaged or lost, and she then became acutely aware of Ella's knowing gaze. A slim brow was raised in question, and the glimmer of a smile tugged at the pink mouth.
“Pissed he got all macho on you and wouldn't let you go?”
“My brother is a dick,” Guinvar pronounced, and kicked herself for behaving like the kid he claimed she was, but couldn't stop the kernel of resentment from germinating. “I could help them.”
“I dare say, but I rather think it has to do with Malak rather than his doubt in your abilities.”
“What?” Genuinely startled, Guinvar stared at her aunt, who continued to stare back as though she expected her to realise something. Guinvar racked her brains. What about Malak? They were friends, good friends, and he'd never hurt her, would he?
“Are you being deliberately stupid, Guin?” Ella asked, obviously nonplussed.
“No more than usual. Am I missing something?” She cocked her head, curious, wondering what Ella meant and then it struck her with all the force of an incoming earthquake. “Oh.”
Amusement sparkled in Ella's eyes, and then disappeared behind concern as something occurred to her. “I take it you don't reciprocate, honey?”
Didn't reciprocate? Battered by sudden realisation, Guinvar found she needed to take the weight off her feet and sank into the chair beside her bed. She knew she must look like a fish, so she closed her mouth with an audible snap. So... What. The. Hell. Shit. When the hell had easy camaraderie and nuisance-girl-child turned into something else? Brown hair flopped into her face and she pushed it back behind her ear. To be frank, she didn't know how she felt about Malak, apart from him being like another big brother who'd tugged on her hair when she was little because she'd happened to get in his face too much.
Glancing up, she gave Ella a quizzical look. “Ah...”
Ella blew out a short puff of air in exasperation, and came to perch on the side of the bed. “Well, I'm not really surprised you didn't realise, but that's the reason Rabarn didn't want you along. He thought -”
“Wait,” Guinvar interrupted, beginning to feel more than a little bit put out, “you mean he talked to you about this and not to me?”
Falling silent, the older woman examined her, brown gaze hot as it passed over her. “Considering who Malak is, no one thinks it's a great idea and 'no' he didn't discuss it with me. Malak did because it pissed him off.”
“Politics.” The word fell from Guinvar's mouth like a brick, and she stared at her toes which had grown suddenly very interesting. She wriggled them, red polish catching the light. Something else occurred to her and, annoyed by the faint tremble in her voice, she asked, “Does Atiron know about this... this... whatever?”
“Not much escapes him,” Ella said, dryly, and patted Guinvar on the arm in sympathy. “Even if his grandson chose not to mention it to him, he already knew. Besides -” she said, and raised her slim shoulders in an eloquent shrug - “it isn't as if he can have any worthwhile opinion on the matter.”
Somehow Guinvar doubted that. Atiron's opinions on most matters were not taken lightly , and as a Council Elder he held a great deal of power. Power which he wasn't above wielding to further his own end. How he'd weaselled his way to a position at the top, and with him his daughter and son, was legend on both sides of the door. Using humans, namely her father and mother, to manoeuvre and influence the other clans into doing precisely what he wanted... well... that was both outrageous and brilliant. And he was. Only one other person matched him for intelligence and that person had disappeared some time ago into one of the other universes. Something they all regretted, Guinvar knew. He'd been an integral part of their friendship group, though it had taken a long time for it to finalise into that tight bond.
“Atiron would not choose this for Malak, or for you,” Ella said, and she turned her head to the door to gaze out into the darker space of the corridor beyond. “It can be lonely.”
How true. The world they lived in had neither civilisation nor anything other than a few far neighbours. A few others like them who decided to remove themselves from mainstream existence to live less complicated lives, untrammelled by the troubles of either Hegemony or Alliance. Mostly it worked. But only mostly, as it seemed Atiron had no choice but to rejoin the Alliance in order to push an agenda that had started to flag.
“Isn't that his, or mine to make?” Guinvar couldn't help the challenge, and waited for an answer, a rising sense of pissed off sitting in her guts.
Ella closed her eyes, a sweep of dark lashes on her skin and nodded. “I thought so, and said as much, but have been shouted down on this occasion.”
That she could imagine. On the few occasions she'd seen Atiron and Ella quarrel, it had been pretty spectacular and unforgettable, even – if she were to admit it – a little on the scary side. In his bare, high-arched, clawed feet, Atiron towered over Ella by at least thirty centimetres and didn't hold back from using it to intimidate anyone who didn't have the guts to meet him as an equal. Except Ella never got intimidated and muscled up to him, a tiny spitfire, full of piss and vinegar. Invariably they reached consensus despite much roaring and shouting, and the unpredictable throwing of stuff. That was one of the reasons, Guinvar supposed, why they'd been together so long and why he treated her like she was the most precious jewel in all the universes.
“Must have been quite the row,” she observed, mildly, and earned a raised brow and a snort.
“Lasted for a few days,” Ella confided, and then sighed. Leaning across again, she said, “Be careful, eh, whatever you decide?”
By all the gods of six vaulted heavens, Guinvar thought, how, and what, would she decide when she still didn't know what to think of this bolt from the great blue yonder? Instead she made the right noises. “Don't worry. Of course I'll be careful.”
Atiron looked up when he heard Ella cross the threshold of his lab, and recognised the expression on her face straight away. “You told her?”
Dragging a chair round to face him, Ella threw herself in it and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Yes. Unavoidable, so before you start just shut up.”
The inscriptions on his rings held no real fascination for him as he'd read them many times, but they served to focus his temper, which today felt as taut as wire between two clamps. In some respects, the whole business was unavoidable as the children had mixed with each other from early childhood, building friendships and connections that escaped most Alkash and human. Oh, there were a few willing to challenge the status quo, but not many. He'd hoped for better, but it appeared old prejudices were harder to surmount than he'd supposed.
The brief touch of
Ella's mind on his made him glance up at her. Taking out his bad mood
on her would get him precisely nowhere, even if the resulting fight
would provide a reasonable amount of distraction.
He gave a soft grunt, and returned to the examination of one of the objects Guin had given to him. Whatever function the Maker's gave this oval of blue inertness had yet to make itself obvious, and beyond a certain amount of malleability he'd not been able to get it to respond to anything he'd subjected it to.
“Have I told you that I love you and that you are a miserable old bastard?”
Amused, he shot her a look, and shook his head. “Not today.”
“Well, you are, and I do,” she said, and he placed the stone back on the bench, so he could cross to her. Gently, he bent down and placed a kiss on her mouth, savouring the sweet taste of her lips.
“That's just as well, because I will need you to accompany me when I go back to face the Council.”
“Not part of the deal.”
Atiron grinned. “I think you'll find it quite enlightening.”
A suspicious expression flashed across Ella's face, and she slanted her head to scrutinise him more closely. “Oh?”
“Indeed.” A spark of understanding entered into her brown eyes, and she shook her head. “Most enlightening,” he repeated, and took her hand, stroking her palm with his thumb.
“Oh gods,” she murmured, “what the hell have you done now?”