The knock on Balthasar's door came as the bell tolled sunrise. For Imogene's Darkborn, it was the hour of criminals and suicides, the hour of violence or desperation. In this civilized city of Minhorne, the ancient law of succor was half forgotten, and many might not have opened the door to an unknown's knock at the brink of dawn.
Balthasar Hearne was not one of those; he hurried to the door and pulled it open, heavy as it was. On the step stood a lone woman muffled in a heavy traveling cloak. He sonned no carriage at her back, no living movement within his range except two cats and a small indistinct fluttering of birds. This close to sunrise the street was quite deserted. "For mercy's sake, "the woman begged breathlessly, "let me in."
He could already feel the sting of imminent daylight on his skin. He stepped back and she stumbled heavily over the threshold, pulling away from his steadying hand and fetching up against the little hall table. "Oh, sweet Imogene." She panted, leaning hard on it with both hands. "I thought I would never reach here in time. I thought I must surely burn."
He shut and locked the door against the day. There was nothing else to do. Left outside, she would burn to ash in an instant at sunrise, as would he. That was the Darkborn's legacy of Archmage Imogene's Curse.
Her heavy cloak had snagged and was dragging one of the ornaments on the table, and Bal reached out and freed it before it fell. It was one of his wife's favorites, a horse with its foal pressed to its flank. He held it cradled in his hands as the woman straightened with an effort and turned to face him. He felt her sonn sweep over him, shaping him for her perception: a plain, slender man a little below average height, decently but not fashionably dressed. Certainly not as befitted the husband of a duke's daughter, if she knew whom she faced. He returned the sonn, delicately, as one must, to respect the modesty of a lady. Her small face was puffy above the fur trimming of her cloak. Her little gloved hand reinforced the clasp. She was still breathing hard. Like most women of the aristocracy, she was unfit for walking any distance, though she seemed unusually distressed. He wondered what had brought her here unaccompanied. It augured not well, for either of them. Her reputation would suffer, and his marriage, if gossip placed them together through the day.
The bell fell silent. In a few minutes, the sun would rise. They were trapped here, together, until nightfall. In the meantime his manners reasserted themselves. "The sitting room is in here." He gestured her toward it.
She did not move. "Don't you remember me, Balthasar?" she said in a clear, sweet voice. "Am I really so much changed?"
He sonned her again, but the voice had already told him, that musical inflection. "Tercelle Amberley," he said flatly.
"Yes," she said, smiling. "Tercelle Amberley. It has been a very long time."
The echoes of his sonn faded, leaving him in the grainy haze of all the reflections of random vibrations around them. He was ashamed of himself for feeling as he did. It was not her fault that he had tried ten years or more to forget his brother and everyone associated with him.
She directed her next splash of sonn at the hallway, a lady gracefully sidestepping awkwardness. "Your home has not changed at all," she said. "Yet you married well."
"My wife and I have a family home elsewhere," he said, trying not to sound curt. His domestic arrangements were none of her business.
She heard the curtness; he heard her take a heavy step forward. "Balthasar ... Balthasar, I would not have imposed on you were I not in desperate need. I truly believe you are the only one who can help me."
The last he had heard of Tercelle Amberley was the announcement of her betrothal a year ago to Ferdenzil Mycene, heir to one of the four major dukedoms, and the hero in the campaign to subdue piracy in the Scallon Isles. Quite a coup for the daughter of a family that had scrambled their way into the nobility a scant three generations ago. The Amberleys had major interests in armaments and shipbuilding, which would attract the heir to the most expansionist of the four major dukedoms even more than the lady's sweet face and social polish. The betrothal, Bal's contemporaries said, was one of the many signs that boded ill for the independence of the Scallon Isles. Bal could hardly imagine how Tercelle would come to need to throw herself on the mercy of an obscure physician-scholar, even one married to the archduke's cousin. Or rather, he could hardly imagine any good reason for her to do so.
Years of training in courtesy prevailed. "Please"he extended his arm toward the receiving room "do sit down."
She paused on the threshold, and in the reflections of her sonn he perceived the salon's shabbiness, the best room in a house of impoverished minor nobility. He had another home, true, a fine home to suit the lady he had married, and even though it had been bought and paid for with her inheritance, not his, when she was there, he felt it home. When she was not, when she and the children went to one of her family's estates, he returned here. And no, this house had not changed; if anything, it had become shabbier than when Tercelle knew it. She had made no secret of her disdain then, during her long flirtation with his brother. Bal wondered if Lysander had known how little chance his suit had had, even then. He wondered what he knew now.
She walked into the center of the room and turned with some small effort of balance. "Have you ever heard from Lysander?"
"No," Balthasar said, suppressing his slight disturbance at having his thoughts echoed so deftly: Of course she would be thinking of Lysander, facing his brother. She was no mage.
She sonned him, a delicate lick of vibration." Are you still angry with him?"
"Leaving," Balthasar said, "was the best thing he could have done. For us, his family, and for you."
"How harsh," she said in her breathless lilt. "I never thought you would become so unforgiving a man. You were always so gentle. And you adored Lysander, as I did."
True, he had, once. "Please, Tercelle, why have you come?"
There was a silence, and then a rustle of movement. "I need your help." His sonn caught her as she shrugged the unhooked cloak from her shoulders and let it slide to the ground.
Somehow he was not entirely surprised to know that she was pregnant, though he was disconcerted by how large and low she was carrying. She must be very near her time.
But her fiancé had been gone over a year, harrying the Scallon pirates and conducting diplomatic forays into the neighboring island kingdoms to advance the dukedom of Mycene's claim on the isles, their territory, and their exports of exotic fruit and spices.
"The child is not your intended's," he said, keeping all tone from his voice.
She scowled that he should say it. She reached back and lowered herself awkwardly into a chair he had not offered. "If he learns of this child, the best that will happen is that he and his family will repudiate me. The worst is that he would kill me." She shifted her belly on her lap with a grimace. "I'd rather be dead than cast aside."
"How is it," Balthasar said, "that no one has told him?"
"When I knew I was with child I sought to lose it. I tried all the means I could discover. I even contrived a fall from a horse." He was silent, remembering the aching devastation of Telmaine's one miscarriage. He and Telmaine had walked around the house like souls in purgatory. "It didn't work. But I had the excuse to go away, to live as an invalid until my time came."
She pressed a fist against her abdomen, grimacing. "I ... lay with him but four times. It was the last ..." She could have given him the date, the hour, he knew. He felt compassion for her in her fond folly, despite his dislike of her and the danger in the situation for himself. Ferdenzil would surely believe she had sought the aid of her lover.
"He would tap on the door to give me warning, and then I would tap back and go into the next room and wait, and he would come in ... Sometimes I wanted to lock the door; once I did and then I unlocked it again ... I could not do otherwise. And it was in the day he came, always in the day."
Bal frowned. Ballads and broadsheets told of Lightborn demon lovers, crossing the sunset to seduce Darkborn girls. The stories were absurd, since the Lightborn could no more abide the darkness than the Darkborn the light; such was the nature of Imogene's Curse. Part of his irregular physician's practice was treating people, usually young women, with a dangerous obsession with the Light: Lightsickness, it was called, a delusion that could end in an impulsive, fatal stepping into sunlight. He wondered why Tercelle would tell him a story they both knew was impossible.
She heard the skepticism in his silence. "He came from the Light, I tell you," she cried out. Sonn showed her pulling herself forward in the chair. "That's why I came to you. You have friends among the Lightborn. You can take the child, whatever it is. And if it cannot go back to the Light, then there are places when yet another bastard will hardly pass notice, places you know."
Ah, there was that, if he set all the rest of it aside. The demimonde, the Rivermarch, where fallen women, mages, and criminals gathered to ply their disgraceful trades. The rejected of society gathered there. He had worked at a demimondaine clinic as a student, and still did when Telmaine's aristocratic family left him, and her, in peaceand the physician in him did not like the appearance of Tercelle. He wondered how far she had come on foot. Coach drivers insisted on being under cover before the sunrise bell began to toll. He stood up. "Tercelle, the rest of it can wait. You are here now, and you have had a hard walk for a lady in your condition. You should rest now."
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