[I'm putting this note both here and at the beginning of the 'new' Chapter 4, since I've done something confusing: I've broken the existing chapters into more manageable chunks. There aren't a kazillion new chapters, there's only one, and it's Chapter 10. The rest just got an edit.
Of course, this message will soon become obsolete, and thus confusing in its own right, but them's the breaks. Life is messy. Bring your own mop. :D]
The smoke from the cane field rose straight up, and the Gulf was as smooth as a mirror. The smoke of Tavian's cigar was likewise vertical, and not a breath of a breeze stirred the feathers of his hat where it sat on the broad railing of the porch. His crossed heels rested beside the hat. The toes of his boots made a V. Framed by the V was a slice of sea, and across that slice a chip of white moved.
Let us apply logic to this, he said to the voice that was always present in the back of his mind. It's possible the boat isn't moving by magic. Perhaps there are oars involved. I think it's moving too fast for that, though.
Perhaps it isn't a boat, replied the voice, heavy and hollow. Its weight was comforting and a little painful. Perhaps it's something else. A sea dragon. A whale. The voice always seemed to come from far away. It couldn't see through his eyes. He wouldn't have allowed that.
He was a pale man, and gave the impression of being old, though his brown hair was untouched by gray. People remembered him as tall, thin, and stooped, and were surprised on seeing him again to find that he was sturdily built and of middling height. His face wasn't handsome, but it had dignity and an appealing touch of humor. That humor tugged at his lips as his dark eyes followed the little white anomaly marring his calm blue afternoon.
It's definitely a boat. Generating a breeze would've been the most efficient magic to use, but there's no sail, so it seems our mystery visitor has power to burn. It's smallish; a fishing boat, maybe. It's simply... It vanished behind his left foot, so he took his heels off the rail. His boots thumped on the boards of the porch. He sensed a servant coming to the doorway to see if the sound meant he required something, but when he made no further move, the presence went back into the house. It's simply coasting along as if pulled by a string. Yes, it's leaving a wake. Towed by porpoises? The more I watch, the more I think it really is pure sorcery. Not thaumaturgy. A thaumaturge would use wind, or set the sea boiling behind the boat. Not shamanism either; I'd be able to spot the ghosts from here.
No. Sorcery alone. How... unreasonable.
Someone who knows better than to teleport to you, the voice suggested.
Tavian chuckled. Or someone who tried it and got a dunking. Well, we shall see. He ground out his cigar in the glass dish left at his elbow for the purpose. He stood and collected his hat, gave it a little brush and set it on his head. He took a pair of fine kid gloves from his pocket and drew them on. As he was settling his smoked glass spectacles on his nose, the servant returned and wordlessly handed him his cane.
"We may have a guest for dinner," Tavian said, in the whispery old-man voice he affected for mortals. "Let us assume it's someone important. Tell Cook to impress us."
The servant bowed and left. Tavian trained his servants not to speak to him unless they had information to convey. He referred to them by their positions, or called them 'boy' or 'girl'. This wasn't uncommon among plantation owners, but he suspected the others did it to distance themselves from the working class, perhaps driven by the subconscious fear so many of the new rich had of accidentally descending back into the masses. In Tavian's case, it was simply a matter of mental capacity. The lives of mortals were so very short, he couldn't possibly hope to remember all their names.
He set out for the beach at a slow walk. The light reflecting from the shell paving of the drive hurt his skin, and self-preservation urged him to hurry, but he didn't hurry. He welcomed the small pain, knowing it was temporary.
A man working on the lawn paused his scything to tip his straw hat as Tavian went past. Tavian gave him a cordial nod. It pleased him to see the equatorial sun gleaming on the man's black shoulders. Some plantation owners imported labor from across the Gulf because they disliked the darkness of Morvilans' skin -- resembling, as it did, the color of the Fioradines, who would never take orders from upstart Semnian expatriates -- but Tavian preferred to hire local workers.
They were not related to Fioradines; they were their own people. Slow, deliberate, with deep voices. Neither civilized nor primitive, but something simple and clean in between the two. They wore colorful sarongs and fancifully woven straw hats. They liked to sing while they worked, cheerful earthy songs full of puns and jokes in their native language. So long as they did their work competently and didn't pester him, he paid them well and made no attempt to put them in Semnian clothes or teach them Semnian customs; it would only have diluted their charm.
They were also less likely than imported workers to be suspicious of his elaborate precautions against sunburn. With skin as pale as his, of course he would wear a hat and gloves simply to walk across the lawn.
Half a mile from the house, the lawn ended and the drive branched. To the right, it curved off through the fields to meet a road. Tavian took the left fork, which descended through shady jungle toward his private beach. The clamor of birds and insects enfolded him. He heard a monkey hooting somewhere in the green dark. He closed his eyes and walked by spirit-sight for a while, enjoying the thickly woven web of life. His plantation was like a threadbare spot in a vast plush carpet. From this perspective, he could see the flame of his visitor's spirit out on the water. Nearly at the beach now. They would reach it at the same time. His stomach clenched with reflexive hunger a moment before he put a name to the familiar spirit.
Ah, I recognize that spark, he murmured in his mind. I wonder what he wants with me? I would've liked a little time to prepare.
Who is it?
We have business with him. He's been chasing keys for his goddess. He nearly got one. A god may have intervened.
In lieu of words, the voice sent him a thick dark sense of sarcasm. He ought to know which god. Tavian replied with a rasp of exasperation. Of course the keys belonged to Telar, but that was no guarantee against other divinities getting involved. Astaria's meddling was proof positive of that.
Before his internal conversation could grow into an argument, he emerged from the jungle onto the pale sand of the beach. It reflected the sun even more strongly than the drive. His skin felt tight, and he knew it was reddening fast and would soon blister. He considered waiting in the jungle, but chose to shield himself with a spell instead. It wouldn't do to show weakness in front of Rema.
The Mara reached the beach at the same time Tavian did. Standing up in his boat, blood-red hair flying with the breeze of his passage, Rema ran his boat straight up the sand until he could jump out without getting his feet wet. He leapt lightly down, woolen robes thick with embroidery flapping and swinging. Tavian got a momentary glimpse of bare feet and hairless shins before the cloth settled. Rema's outer clothing was the formal attire of a master mage, but beneath it he wore nothing at all.
Typical; all facade, no foundation, Tavian thought as he smiled and spread his hands in welcome. "What brings you to my little retreat, old friend?"
Rema bounded up the beach grinning. "A boat!" he laughed. "Can't you see it?" His black eyes were bright in his devastatingly pretty face. Crossing the Gulf in an open boat had done no harm to his smooth bronze skin. He seized Tavian around the waist and swung him in a circle, knocking his hat off.
Direct sunlight seared Tavian's face like a branding iron. He gasped and shoved the Mara away, strengthening his shielding spell while he dived for his hat. As he clapped it on his head, its soft inner band felt like sandpaper against the fresh sunburn. "For pity's sake, Rema!" he gasped angrily.
Rema beamed. "Oops!"
Tavian closed his eyes and counted to five, mastering his anger. Once, he wouldn't have needed to count. Rema's thoughtlessness had been a daily hazard, and forgiving it had been a habit. Sometimes he grew lonely and looked back fondly on those days; it was useful to be reminded from time to time just how much trouble the red Mara had really caused him.
When he turned to Rema, he was once again calm and cordial. "Never mind. You're like a puppy. You simply can't help it. Come up to the house; I've left instructions for a feast."
"I could eat," Rema conceded, and took his arm to hurry him. Tavian sighed in relief as they entered the shade of the jungle. Rema laughed. "This is a funny place for a vampire king, Tavian. Why are you here?"
"A vampire king, Rema?" Tavian raised an eyebrow. "As if such things lie about thick on the ground? Like beetles?"
"The, then," Rema conceded with an amiable shrug. "Still. It's funny." He waved a hand skywards. "Tropics."
"Verdichane is technically tropical too, you know."
"Why do you always have to correct me about everything? Anyway, I'm sure it wasn't when we lived there. It rained all the time."
Tavian shook his head and gave up. He wasn't even sure what Rema thought the word 'tropical' meant. "I like the warmth and the consistent day length. And the political isolation. The Tjindra Peninsula is an independent republic just now. That's convenient for me."
"Oh." Rema waved that off, a sure sign he had no idea what Tavian was talking about. "Do you owe me any favors?"
"What about that woman I killed for you? She was tough. She blew me up!"
Tavian had to pause a moment to search his memory. A woman who blew him up? "Oh yes," he murmured after a pause. "Lashika." She'd been one of his finest progeny for the first few decades of her unlife. Beautiful, strong, intelligent, and extremely talented in magic. But she hadn't been able to change with the times. Her response to the fading of feudalism was to clutch at its last threads with violent stubbornness. She had succeeded in raising a small but brutal revolt in northern Semnia; he'd asked Rema to remove her before it could turn into a civil war. That had been more than a hundred years ago. "I repaid you for that at the time, don't you remember? I had a servant you coveted. Chekhani fellow with a long nose. You wanted to breed a race of warriors from him or something like that. How did that go?"
"Don't remember. I probably killed him. Oh well. I guess I'll have to owe you another favor then."
"We shall see. First dinner, then business."
"I guess I'm not in a huge hurry." Rema raised an arm to point. "Is that field supposed to be on fire?"
"Yes. We burn it before we cut the cane. The fire takes the leaves off. They're sharp enough to hinder the harvesters otherwise."
Rema made a thoughtful noise, studying the fields that weren't burning. Perhaps thinking up bloody uses for cane leaves.
Arm in arm, they crossed the lawn toward the white plantation house. Long and square, built of native limestone, it bore a superficial resemblance to the architecture of Verdichane across the Gulf. Its tile roof was glazed white rather than some fanciful color, though, and there were none of the gaudy little gargoyles and decorations that always adorned Verdichani gutters. Tavian enjoyed simplicity. There was no front door; rather, the whole front of the first floor was made of sliding bamboo screens set with sanded glass panes. During the day they were all opened as far as they would go, so that the dining room was of one piece with the porch. As Tavian and Rema mounted the steps, servants began setting dishes at one end of the long mahogany table.
"This is a lot of house for one man alone," Rema said questioningly. He plunked down thoughtlessly at the head of the table.
Stifling a flash of irritation, Tavian took the other place as if he'd intended to all along. "It's expected. Most of it isn't even furnished. It would look strange to have a hundred workers and live in a little cottage no bigger than theirs."
"You need room for your experiments, I suppose."
Tavian allowed himself to be distracted by approving the wine so he wouldn't be tempted to answer. He loved to talk about his work. Having no one to tell about it was the one drawback of solitude. Not Rema, though. Rema was a gossip, and wouldn't understand most of it anyway.
He gestured for the wine to be poured. "This is illegal wine," he said with a quirk of a smile. "Piratical wine. The Fioradines have bullied some ridiculous trade restrictions out of our little republic, but Fioradine spirits are undrinkable, so we must do business with smugglers if we want anything decent."
Rema sipped thoughtfully. "Calan," he guessed.
"Close. A Calan grape, but grown in central Nestria, near Feignere."
"Isn't the climate there too wet?"
"Not in recent years. And do you know what's funny? The people -- the same people who planted these vines on a crazy whim and were astonished when they thrived -- these people haven't realized the climate's changed. They imagine their ancestors were simply too timid to stick a cutting in the ground and find out. Or they say the ones who tried it before were unlucky. A few uncommonly wet summers." He snorted. "No, the world's weather couldn't change. Sometimes I long to step forward and confess myself, simply so I can point out the trends that are so obvious with a few hundred years' observation."
"Don't do that," Rema laughed. "They'd kill you."
Tavian stifled a sigh. "I don't intend to. But you see it, don't you? The west is drier, the north is colder than when we were young."
"Hm. I think they used to grow wheat on the Lar."
Tavian managed not to roll his eyes. "It's the Sei now. And yes, there used to be cities on the plains. How can you forget? I was born in one! I told you all about it!"
"I was talking about crops, not cities."
"You can't have cities without farms, Rema. Anyway, they still grow crops there, just not enough to support a stationary population. Nomadic herding is more reliable when... the..." Tavian trailed off as he realized Rema was no longer listening. Of course Rema wouldn't be interested in the natural fluctuations of the world's climates. If a thing didn't further or impede his personal goals, it didn't exist as far as Rema was concerned. Tavian sighed. "Try some of the swordfish. Seafood is the cook's specialty." Unless it was the cook before this one. Well, it tastes like I got another seafood-specialty cook, if it was. Tavian ate delicately, just tasting each dish. He had no appetite for food, but made sure to keep a good cook and dine regularly to avert suspicion. He could appreciate the flavors, at least.
They ate in silence for a time. Then Rema suddenly blurted out, "Stiaan killed me last month!"
The girl who was setting out the fruit and cheese course nearly dropped her platter. Tavian glanced at her, then gave Rema a narrow look. "I think serious matters can wait until after dinner."
"But you were talking," Rema said innocently, watching the girl recover and beat a hasty retreat.
"They know I'm a mage. They know I'm very old, and my longevity spells have left me with a sensitive skin and very little appetite. They know I have my reasons to avoid the north. They don't need to know the details of my life or business. Or yours."
"Oh." Rema considered that, then made a conspiratorial face. "Aahhh."
This time, Tavian did roll his eyes. Rema, busy shoving grapes in his mouth four at a time, didn't see it.
Evening was gathering as they finished. Tavian distracted Rema with a tour of the house until the last slanting rays of sun were blocked by the jungle. Then he invited him out to stroll, away from curious ears. Tavian left his hat, gloves, and glasses behind, enjoying the evening breeze on his skin.
"You ought to put something on your face," Rema commented as they made their way across the new-cut grass. "There's blisters."
"They'll heal when I eat."
"You just ate."
"I hope you don't want me to say 'when I feed' as if I'm some sort of parasite."
"I strive to be a symbiote. The ones I drink from are paid well. I've made a number of girls very rich. It's expected for a landowner to take several dusky mistresses. The local women have a reputation for being lusty."
"I have no idea. I only know they're big and healthy. I prefer to avoid... entanglements."
Rema laughed. "You prefer boys, you mean."
"You're inferring too much from too little data. You may as well say I prefer dragons." Only after he'd dryly made his point did Tavian surprise himself with a sharp pang of nostalgia for the lover to whom he'd referred. How strange. It's been... oh hell. It's been two and a half thousand years since then. Am I seriously remembering the Second Dragon War as if it were yesterday? This is a fine time to start getting old.
Don't do it, then, the voice in his head said, as if it were that easy.
Oblivious to Tavian's mental wandering, Rema threw him a smug smile. "You prefer me."
Tavian sniffed coolly. "Believe it or not, Rema, not everyone desires you."
The next moment, he was pinned on his back with Rema sitting astride his hips, grinning down into his face. "You do, though," Rema insisted. "You want to bite me. Admit it."
Struggling for composure, Tavian heard his voice come out tight and flat. "Yes. Of course. Your blood is delicious. Let me up, please."
"And you want to fuck me."
"Let me up. We're within sight of the house."
Rema wasn't listening. He bent closer to breathe his words across Tavian's lips. "You want to beat me and cut me and burn me like you used to."
Tavian's loins stirred with interest while his stomach turned over in disgust, a combination only Rema could inspire. "That's what you want, Rema. I only ever wanted blood and company. Let me up or I'll use a spell."
"Who cares if they watch? Let's do it right here. You can kill them afterwards if you don't want them knowing."
"I'm going to count to three. One... two..."
With a great suffering sigh, Rema stood and strode off, back stiff with offense. Tavian took a bit longer to stand, preserving the impression of frailty for his servants' sake. As he dusted himself off, he saw a handful of his men loping toward him with machetes, ready to rescue him. He waved them off. They turned back reluctantly. Despite himself, Tavian was touched. And freshly determined to conclude Rema's business and send him away before the fool killed someone.
He didn't try to catch up with Rema. As he expected, it wasn't many minutes before the Mara came stomping back, ready to vent his irritation. Before Rema could launch into a tirade, Tavian presented him with a different topic to rant on: "You said Stiaan killed you last month. Did you mean it literally? He can't have done much damage, if you're back already."
"He cut my head off and burned me!" Rema complained. "My goddess put me back together, or I'd be years coming back from it!"
"And what did you do to make him angry?"
"Why does it have to be my fault?"
"Because Stiaan is a serpent. He's subtle, cold-blooded and venomous. He does not, as a rule, lop people's heads off. If he'd taken time to plan a revenge upon you, you wouldn't be here. Ergo, you gave him some sudden offense."
Rema pouted. "I was playing with a mortal. How was I supposed to know he was Stiaan's? Anyway, Stiaan could've let me have this one boy. He could get another."
"Mortals may look interchangeable to you, but I assure you they're not. Clearly Stiaan required that particular one."
"Or else he wanted the key. I don't know what use he has for it, though, and he's had plenty of time to take it."
Tavian felt the voice in the back of his mind stir like an undigested meal. He kept his interest out of his voice and off his face. "What key? You've lost me."
Rema waved a hand airily. "Oh, this key my goddess wants. I don't know what it does. You know gods. They like artifacts. Maybe they chew them like dogs chew bones."
"So you took it from this mortal, and then --"
"No, I didn't get it. It has to be given, see," Rema explained with a sneer of disgust. "I thought it sounded like fun, trying to get the boy to give it up, but he just wouldn't be afraid of me! No matter what I did to him! I know it hurt him, he screamed and screamed, but when he wasn't screaming he looked bored!" The Mara's voice had risen to a frustrated wail. "And he was so pretty and strong, he would've lasted me days, but stupid Stiaan had to come and take him away! I hate him!" Rema stomped his foot in fury; it sank so deep into the soft earth that he lurched and clutched at Tavian for balance. He didn't pause in his ranting, though. "He had spells all ready ahead of time! He pretended to taunt me but he was just walking a circle for his spell, that sneak, I didn't see it until he lit the spell off and then I couldn't do anything, and he beat me up and mocked me and then he killed me!"
Clever, Tavian thought. Remind me to research a damping spell that can be pre-cast.
His voice didn't answer. It wasn't his secretary. It wouldn't remind him. He knew that, but sometimes it comforted him to pretend he commanded the voice, not the other way round.
To Rema, he said sympathetically, "Well, that was very rude of him. But it was rude of you, too, to steal his mortal without finding out the boy was his. You don't mean to try again, do you? Your goddess will just have to chase a different artifact."
"No, she wants this one! And now Stiaan isn't letting it out of his sight! You have to help me, Tavian." Rema clutched his sleeve and looked up into his face, suddenly sweet. "You're the only one who was ever kind to me. My first and only friend. Get me the key, dear Tay, dear Tavi, I want it so much, pretty please?"
Well, this is ironic. Have you anything to say on the topic? But there was no reply. Tavian smiled and stroked Rema's hair soothingly. "Let me consider it a while. Perhaps I'll think of a way."
Rema's pouting turned instantly to a broad smile. "I knew I could count on you. Business done, time to play!" He grasped Tavian's arm and dragged him toward the jungle.
Tavian went along willingly. Painful as some of Rema's pleasures were, they were a sort of pleasure, and even if they weren't they'd be worth it for a taste of Mara blood.