Al hadn’t been completely forthright with Anla about his fears, but only because he hadn’t been totally forthright with himself. While he had been deeply concerned that his mother or one of his family’s friends was slated to be assassinated, he also had another fear to overcome, one that had been a large root for his hemming and hawing. He was afraid to see his mother.
Amandorlam had not been a cheap place to attend school. It had cost his mother hundreds of gold each year for classes, housing, board, and expenses. He’d had the school bill his mother, but told them not to elaborate on what they were billing her for. He’d scrimped on things he’d considered distractions anyway, rarely going out for drinks or entertainment like the rest of his classmates, and it helped him to save some additional money. He managed to fly through the coursework, all sub rosa, his mother none the wiser until he wrote to her at the end of his fifth year and told her what he’d done.
He’d known she’d be upset. She’d wanted her son to be a lawyer or politician, not a wizard. And, without malice but also without pride, she’d cut him off and told him he’d have to return home if he wanted a copper more. That’s when he’d applied the extra money he’d saved and finished the remaining wizard classes in two years. And he’d only written to her once, to thank her for her support, but to let her know he couldn’t speak with her anymore due to the law.
He’d never received a return letter and had assumed she was angry with him. But, given the choice between facing a wrathful mother or a dead one, Al believed the first was slightly better. Without saying a word, Al got up very early the next morning and left the hotel. He ate a nice breakfast, got a shave, and bought himself a new suit, one that was presentable and not cheap. And then, with a roiling stomach, he made his way to Gystik Heights.
Merry Street was lined with trees that blossomed pink in the spring. Right now the leaves twirled to the ground in vivid golden oranges and scarlets. He brushed his fingertips along the trunk of one, tracing the letters “D.C” carved in the bark. There would be another tree farther down the road with several initials, but that was the only one with only those.
The road curved to the left and went up a short hill. The yards increased in size from a comfortable place to have a few gardens to one where a family could keep horses, raise fish in ponds, or even have a courtyard to connect several buildings. They all shared familiar features that a trained eye would notice: stone facades on the windward side only, thin, twisting columns, and costly glass-infused doors that shone a rainbow of colors on the atrium during a large part of the day.
Al stood at the gate of one of these houses and took a deep breath before entering the yard. He stumbled for a moment as he tried to figure whether he should knock on the servants’ door, the side door for receiving guests, or the front door. He chose the latter and waited.
A short, dark-skinned woman opened the door as if she had intended to walk outside. She stopped cold, her mouth frozen in an “O” shape. “Hi, Glendina,” he said.
“Oh, ma’am,” she began, turning around. “Ma’am, you need to come here.”
Another woman, slightly taller and thinner with a rod-straight back and a streak of white across her left brow, entered the atrium from a side room. Her hands clutched her pants, a deferring sign Br’vani women made to appease who they called abendi, others, those not of their ways. She was focused on Glendina and didn’t see him until she was only a few feet from the door.
She froze and dropped her hands. “Dominek,” she whispered.
“Madra,” he said. “I was…I was in town and I thought I’d stop by to see you. If…if you…”
She closed the distance between them and pulled him into a tight embrace, pulling his head down to her chest. “A ba rino,” she said, rubbing his back. “My baby” was what she had crooned.
“Madra,” he said again.
She stood back, her hands on his arms and tears in her eyes. “Let me look at you. Oh, what is this?” she said, thumbing the hair above his lip. “You look like an abendi. I like your hair style, though. Someone managed to tame your wild locks. You look good, Dominek.”
“Alpine,” he corrected. Glendina pursed her lips, but said nothing.
“Yes, of course,” his mother said with a bit of tartness to her voice. “Well, what brings my wizard son back home? Have you come to ask for money or lavish gifts upon your mother?”
How many times had Aggie regaled Al with some tale about him impressing a woman with an elaborate line? So many times that Al no longer questioned his motives. Aggie lied to women to bed them, but he must also find some excitement in the risk. Why else would he claim to be a nobleman or a rich merchant other than to challenge himself for a thrill?
As Al stood before his mother, thought, he realized that he had dismissed the other reason, maybe the real reason. That was because he’d never been in a situation where there was so much at stake, namely the admiration and appreciation of someone he loved. She wanted him to be happy and successful. It was all she had ever wanted, the reason why she had agreed to spend so much money sending him to Amandorlam. And, with all her hopes and dreams instilled, he had returned nothing to her. He had deceived her, cut off all communication, and removed any chance she had at having him in the family.
She looked up at him, eyes wide with the promise of optimism. He said, “I’m sorry, Madra. It was an oversight. I’ll bring you presents soon.”
Both women relaxed. “It’s okay, rino. How is your job treating you?”
“I’m… a vizier. I travel with my employer wherever he wants and make sure he is comfortable and cared for. He’s a good man and he pays well. He decided he wanted to visit Baradan and gave me a little time off, so I am here.”
“Ah,” she said, smiling. “So, you’ll be here for some time, then?”
“It is up to my lord’s wishes.”
“Do you think you could come to dinner? I can write to Ashven and have him come over tonight. And your sister was just affianced, so we can celebrate that as well as your career.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It would be if I could get the night off.”
His mother snorted. “No son of mine can’t argue for what he wants. You work hard! Tell him that, your lord. Tell him that you wish to visit your family that you haven’t seen in ten years. Push him and return to us with your wife.”
“Wife?” he asked.
“Yes, that abendi you married. What was her name?”
“Burdet, ma’am,” Glendina offered.
“Yes, Burdet. I assume she must travel with you. I’ll finally get to meet her. Do you have children? Does she make you happy?”
This was already getting too deep for his tastes, but he was committed. “Yes. She makes me happy, but we have no children. My lord assures me he plans on retiring soon, and though he’ll still retain me, he’ll stay more or less in one place. It will be better for our family then.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me all about this tonight. Right now Glendina and I are running a little behind. I have a council meeting in an hour and I want to check in at the store before I go. We’ll see you around five o’clock, a ba rino.”
Glendina and his mother left the house in a hansom and Al was left to make his way back to his hotel. The only reason he even challenged the propriety of them not sharing the carriage was due to his years away in abendi culture; with the Br’vani, men walked unless they had the level of respect sometimes brought by having a well-paying career above their station. It was neither as it should be nor wrong. It was Br’vanese.
He walked as fast as he could back to the quaint inn they were staying at, hoping Anla was still there. She was in the two-table dining room downstairs, eating breakfast with Raulin. Al stood in the doorway, catching his breath.
“Al. You’re up early,” she remarked.
“Perhaps he visited the winery without us,” Raulin posited.
“Anla. May I speak with you for a moment? Alone?”
Raulin began to stand when Al motioned for him to remain seated. Anla sighed and stood, following Al to his bedroom. “What’s wrong, Al?”
“I need some help. Can you be my wife for a day or two?”
“I already thought I was your wife.”
“I mean, not Mrs. Auslen. I need you to be Alpine Gray’s wife.”
She raised an eyebrow at this. “Sure, but I think you should tell me what’s going on before I actually escort you anywhere.”
He sat on the bed. “I saw my mother this morning.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding her head slowly. “That’s good, Al.”
“And she wants to meet my wife.”
“Hmm. It doesn’t seem like you to lie.”
“I know. It’s not good, Anla. I know that.”
“It’s fine, just a little surprising. Yes, I will help you, but you need to coach me. What’s my name?”
“Burdet,” he said.
“Burdet. So, I’m Arvonnese, then?”
“Yes. Her grandfather was from there.”
She paused at this. “Al, are you married?”
“It’s…no. Yes. Sort of. We’re divorced. Or, technically separated, but I’m not returning to her. I gave her my ring and I assume she knows my decision is final.”
Anla pressed her lips together. “And your mother knows this?”
“No. The last time I wrote to her was to tell her that I was settling in Whitney and that Burdet and I had just married…and that I wasn’t allowed to correspond to my family anymore, since I was licensed. Really, I shouldn’t have even written her at that point, but I wanted to say I was doing well and goodbye.”
“It’s the law,” he answered quickly. “Wizards pledge their allegiance to the king and the royal family and leave behind their own familial ties. That way, no other family could grow too powerful and take control of the throne with the fear of a wizard army.”
“I thought you said a god-blooded person has to be in charge of the country in order for it to thrive.”
“They don’t need to kill the royal family, just hold them hostage and sedated. Any hard wizard is worth five men on a battlefield, and an additional small team of soft wizards would be able to keep a family in a fugue state. That’s actually the plot to several Arvonnese alley novels, that one of the princes is being held against their will…”
“So, it was the threat that spurred you to see her?” she said, interrupting.
“That and I was told that it’s more of lex vellat situation, something people use only if they’ve noted a problem. And the more I think about it, the more I believe it. I don’t they wouldn’t arrest me on charges of conspiracy against the king, which is what my professors assured us students would happen, unless I was deep in an actual conspiracy. I don’t forsee anyone kicking up a fuss because I visited my mother.”
“Al,” she said softly. “You gave up your family and you didn’t need to?”
“I guess not.”
“Let’s make up for it, then. Tell me what you want me to do.”
“Just be nice and act like a wife. Oh, and please don’t tell Raulin about this.”
“Raulin? Oh, I thought he was going to play your employer,” she said with a smirk.
“Oh, trust me, I will not let this go that far.”