Kiv tugged absently at the red silk Wizard’s hood around her neck, shifting from foot to foot. Tallas stood beside her, serene as ever, wearing the blue silk of a Master Wizard. There were half a dozen people in the queue in front of them.
“Busy for an Oxday afternoon,” Kiv said.
“There was that enchantment symposium,” Tallas replied. “Probably all going home afterward.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Kiv said, remembering. “I wanted to go, but we had a dozen cases of pillow fever at Healer Hall. How was it?”
“Meh,” Tallas replied. “Sorling is brilliant, but she’s not a good speaker.”
Kiv laughed. Master Sorling was nearsighted and absentminded, so she often forgot her spectacles and lectured to a room full of people she couldn’t see.
“Ready?” Tallas asked when their turn finally came.
“It’s just a telegate,” Kiv replied. She had been through a thousand times before.
“Kiv, it’s been thirty years,” Tallas said. “It’s all right to be nervous.”
“I’m fine,” Kiv said, shoving down the butterflies that were threatening to escape her stomach.
Their turn at the telegate finally came. Tallas dialed in their destination, and they stepped through. In an instant, they traveled halfway across the world.
In the thirty years since they met in battle at Nilling Fields, Kiv and Tallas had lived together all across the known world – five years in the desert city of Thunder, near Kiv’s birthplace; four years on the tropical island of Bandragammo, near Tallas’s; even two and half years in the Vannish kingdom of Barsan, just across the Blackfish Channel from where they now stood – but they had never been back to Escot. Tallas went from time to time – she even spent a year as Court Wizard after Master Fintan died – but she always went alone. In his first official act as King Escot, Bardoc had banished Kiv from the kingdom.
In all her years as a Wizard, Kiv’s one regret was the way she had earned that banishment, serving as Court Wizard to Bardoc’s twin Mardoc. Mardoc was the elder and the lawful heir, but he was an atrocious king, bankrupting the kingdom with lavish spending and incompetent administration. Bardoc killing his brother and usurping his throne was the least bad outcome to a terrible civil war.
But now Bardoc was dead too, and with his death, Kiv’s banishment was lifted. Kiv and Tallas were in Escot to attend the royal funeral and the coronation of the new king. Tallas took Kiv’s hand and led her from the telegate chamber.
“It’s not the same place it was,” she reminded Kiv.
Kiv started to say, “I know,” but the words stuck in her throat. Castle Escot was almost unrecognizable. The chief steward’s hall, once a dark, cobwebbed place hung with beautiful, threadbare tapestries and furnished with decaying luxury was now bright and utilitarian. The walls were hung with plain dyed wool, and the gilded couches and chairs were replaced with a dozen wooden desks. Even more startling was the activity – every desk was occupied by some royal official or other, and a steady stream of uniformed pages flowed in and out with envelopes and packages.
“Wow,” said Kiv. “I bet these people get more work done in a day than Mardoc’s did all year.”
“You would win that bet,” Tallas replied, smiling. “Shall we go to our room and leave our things before the memorial? We have an hour or so.”
“All right,” Kiv replied, butterflies stirring again.
Tallas led the way. When they came to the last turning, Kiv stopped in the middle of the corridor.
“The only room this way is the Court Wizard’s suite,” Kiv said. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Tallas replied. “Ham is leaving for Ashfen Hill this evening, so the room was available. He wanted to give Bardoc’s heir a chance to start fresh. New administration, new Court Wizard.”
“It’s just…” Kiv said. “That was my suite for four months, you know. It’ll be strange to sleep there again.”
“It was my suite too,” Tallas replied, “for a lot longer than it was yours.”
Kiv laughed. “I guess if it’s all right with you, dear Tallas,” Kiv said, “then it’s all right with me too.” She took Tallas’s hand and they walked the rest of the way together.
The suite had been emptied of Ham’s belongings, cleaned, and furnished in blonde wood, white cotton, and silk. Only Tallas could arrange such a beautiful living space in such a short time.
“Does it meet with your approval?” Tallas asked.
“You know it does,” Kiv replied. “It’s beautiful. And we’re only here for a week.”
Tallas pulled Kiv into her arms and kissed her forehead. “Anything for you, love,” she said. Kiv knew from long experience that she meant it. Kiv hugged Tallas tight and let her go.
Both women unpacked and Tallas changed into the red silk dress – the color of mourning – she would wear to the memorial. Kiv smiled – this was only the third or fourth time in all their years together she could remember Tallas wearing a dress. Kiv was not in mourning, officially or otherwise, so she was free to wear her usual cotton blouse and wool skirt. Her wizard’s hood was the same shade of red as Tallas’s dress.
Tallas leaned down to pick up her blue hood, but Kiv snatched it away.
“Let me,” she said as she reached up to lay the blue silk around Tallas’s neck, smoothing it down until it sat just right. “I’m so proud of you, Master Tallas.”
Tallas smiled shyly at Kiv, and though her black skin never showed a blush, Kiv knew Tallas so well that she could almost feel the heat rising in her cheeks.
Kiv had considered trying for her own Master’s hood once, long ago, but the days she spent nursing Tallas back to health after three unsuccessful attempts at the Trial of Sorcery changed her mind.
“Shall we go?” Kiv asked.
Tallas nodded, Kiv took her by the hand, and they made their way to the Great Hall at Castle Escot. As they approached the iron-bound oak doors, one of the royal guards broke ranks, heading straight toward them.
“Are you Kiv?” he asked brusquely.
Kiv took half a step back and readied a shield spell. She had no idea what she had done to wrong this man, but he appeared quite exercised by her presence.
“Yes, I’m Kiv,” she replied.
“I’ve been waiting thirty years for this,” he said, and he raised his right hand. Kiv steeled herself to fend off the blow, but it never came. Instead, he extended his arm and offered Kiv a meaty open hand, and his face cracked into a broad, beaming smile. Kiv took his hand in her own, wondering what was going on.
“I fought under Mardoc’s banner at Nilling Fields, with my two boys by my side,” the guard said, a storm of emotion clouding his face. “The younger boy was cut down early, but my oldest and I fought to the finish. When the line crumpled and we ran, I knew we were dead. Just knew it.”
A tear rolled down his cheek, and he made no attempt to hide it.
“But then there was a rumbling behind us, like distant thunder, and Bardoc’s army stopped chasing us, just like that,” he said. “It’s because of you I got to see my grandkids born. It’s because of you I got grandkids at all. Thank you, Dewin Kiv, from me and my boy and all the rest of my family. You saved our lives.”
“You’re welcome…” Kiv replied, waiting for the man to supply his name.
“Findal, Dewin,” he said.
“You’re welcome, Findal,” Kiv said, surprised to find a tear forming in her own eye.
The guard gave them a deep bow and backed away to resume his station. Kiv and Tallas stepped through the doors and into the hall, with a nod to Findal as they passed.
“See,” Tallas said in Kiv’s ear as they made their way to their seats. “I’ve told you over and over how big a difference you made back then, but you never believe me.”
Kiv didn’t respond.
The wizards were seated on the left side of the hall, directly behind the kings and assorted other nobles from the twelve Vannish kingdoms outside Escot. In addition to Tallas and Kiv, two Master Wizards and fifteen Wizards were in attendance – an impressive showing for a king whose reign began in fratricide. In the thirty years Bardoc ruled, Escot had prospered through a combination of sound economic management and brutal repression of dissent.
“Those are Bardoc’s sons,” Tallas said, leaning in close to Kiv and pointing at the front bench across the aisle. “Bam, Ohlveg, Ulgar, Silgar, and you already know Lendoc. The daughters are behind them – Barlach, Regan, and Birgid. The older two are married to Vannish nobles; Birgid is of age but still unmarried.”
A slight, red-robed man entered the hall from a small side door and the room fell quite.
“Filseth,” Tallas whispered in Kiv’s ear. “Bardoc’s first councilor, and Lord Regent since Bardoc was confined to bed last week.”
Filseth welcomed the guests, thanked them for their attendance, made a few short remarks about how Escot had prospered under King Bardoc, and called on a priestess to commend Bardoc’s soul to the gods. It was all over very quickly, without any long speeches or useless pomp, in accordance with Bardoc’s instructions. He had no tolerance for either flattery or criticism, even in death.
With the memorial over, Filseth turned to the other pressing matter of the day.
“And now, in accordance with the laws and traditions of the Vannish Kingdom of Escot, I shall name the right and proper heir of Bardoc who was King Escot,” he said in formal cadence.
The four older sons all sat forward in their seats, waiting to hear which of them would be king. Lendoc, the youngest, was ineligible – when he was eleven years old, Tallas had discovered a hidden magic blooming in him, and she took him away to join the Guild of Mages.
Bardoc’s four sons were not a promising pool from which to choose. Bam, the presumptive heir, grew up entitled and spoiled, just like his uncle Mardoc. Ohlveg was a drunk whose only ambition was to visit every tavern and whorehouse in the thirteen Vannish kingdoms. Ulgar and Silgar had both inherited their father’s foul temperament without any of his smarts or discipline.
“Seedday morning, King Bardoc summoned his council, along with representatives from the Council of Vannish Kingdoms to witness his declaration,” Filseth said. “Being properly recorded and executed, there can be no question of its validity. The new ruler of Escot is…”
He drew out the pause, keeping more than just Bardoc’s sons on the edge of their seats.
The hall erupted in howls and cheers, clapping and stomping, outrage and joy. The chaos threatened to whirl out of control.
Tallas stood, held up a hand, and the hall flooded with silence, instant and complete. Feet kept stomping and mouths kept moving, but no sound came. When she felt she had everyone’s attention, she gestured for Helgar, the white-haired King Vannin, to speak. He was overking of all the Vannish kingdoms, and also father-by-marriage to Bardoc and grandfather to all his heirs.
“The law gives preference to sons, but it does not forbid daughters from taking the throne,” he said in a voice as precise as carved stone. “The Council takes no position on the fitness of any of Bardoc’s children to rule, but we do affirm Bardoc’s lawful choice. Upon her coronation tomorrow, Birgid will be Queen Escot.”
“Furthermore,” Tallas added, “the Guild of Mages recognizes Birgid as the rightful ruler of Escot, with our full support.”
Whatever plans were forming behind Bam’s gray eyes died there. Palace intrigues were risky enough, but opposing the Guild was tantamount to suicide. He slumped back in his chair in defeat.
With that, Tallas lifted the blanket of silence from the hall, and it erupted once again. This time Tallas let them talk themselves out. A storm of activity swirled around the hall, with Birgid in its eye.
“Let’s go,” Tallas said into Kiv’s ear. “Birgid will need us later, but I think she’ll be quite occupied for the next few hours.”
Kiv and Tallas squeezed their way through the crowd and left the hall. On their way back to their rooms, they stopped by the kitchens and managed to talk the cooks out of two bowls of stew, two mugs of ale, and a tray of bread, cheese, and fruit. It was nice to share a meal together, just the two of them. They rarely had that luxury at Ashfen Hill, or anywhere else.
Hours later, after the food and the ale were long gone, a knock came at the door. With a magical wave of her hand, Kiv opened it to reveal Birgid standing outside, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Birgid said, “but—”
“Don’t apologize,” Tallas said, cutting her off. “This time tomorrow, you’ll be crowned Queen Escot. You need to adjust your bearing accordingly.”
“I’m sorry—” Birgid started to say, but she caught herself and tried again. “Master Tallas, Dewin Kiv, I would like to ask you something.”
“Better,” Tallas replied. “Now come in and ask of us what you will, Queen Escot.”
Birgid walked through the door, blushing at the title. Kiv closed the door behind her with another wave of her hand.
“I need a new Court Wizard,” she said. “I can remember five in my father’s court over the years, but the only one he trusted completely was you, Master Tallas. I know he asked you time and again to serve, but you always told him no.”
“He could not satisfy my conditions,” Tallas said. “Kiv and I come together, or not at all.”
“Of course, I’d love to have you both, if you’re willing,” Birgid said. “I don’t know yet if I can afford you both – the Court Wizard’s salary is not an insignificant portion of the budget…”
“Money won’t be an issue,” Kiv said in a neutral voice.
“Oh,” Birgid said. “Good. Well, then, Dewin Kiv and Master Tallas, would you consider serving as Court Wizards in Escot?”
“Kiv and I need to discuss this matter privately,” Kiv replied, looking to Tallas for reassurance. “We’ll give you an answer in the morning.”
“Of course,” Birgid said. “I should, um, probably go now.”
“Goodnight, Queen Escot,” Kiv said. Birgid curtsied to the wizards and left.
“Well, well,” Tallas said after Birgid shut the door. “This is interesting. I do think she’ll be a good ruler in time, but she does need our help.”
“You knew,” Kiv said, her eyes flashing with anger. “You knew Bardoc would name Birgid as his heir, and you knew she would ask us to serve in her court. You had all of this planned before we ever stepped through that telegate.”
“I honestly didn’t,” Tallas replied. “I hoped, but I didn’t know any of it for sure.”
Kiv raised an eyebrow.
“When I saw Bardoc last week, he asked me to promise the support of the Guild to his heir,” Tallas said. “He wouldn’t tell me whom he had chosen; he just told me I would approve. I hoped that meant Birgid, but I didn’t know for sure until Filseth read her name at the memorial this afternoon.”
“And now you want me to uproot my life and move here?” Kiv asked.
“I do,” Tallas replied. “I’m getting old, Kiv. I can feel my body slowing down, and I want to retire somewhere that feels like home. I know how much your work at the Healer Hall means to you, and I do love Ashfen Hill, but I really think we could make a home here. Will you do this for me, Kiv?”
“No, I won’t,” Kiv replied, reaching out to take Tallas’s hand. The hurt in Tallas’s jet-black eyes was unmistakable.
“I’ll do it for us,” Kiv said.
“Really?” Tallas asked.
“Really,” Kiv replied. “You know my one regret in life is how I failed as Court Wizard here.”
Tallas opened her mouth to object, but Kiv held up a hand to still her. “I know you won’t call it failure,” Kiv said, “but I lost my chance to make up for my mistakes when Bardoc banished me. How often do we get second chances in life?”
“Oh, Kiv,” Tallas said. “Every time I think I finally have you figured out, you surprise me again.”
“I try, my darling,” Kiv replied, smiling.
“We should get some rest,” Tallas said. “The festivities go all day tomorrow, and they’re going to be spectacular. Bardoc was never liberal with his treasury, but he did know the value of a grand gesture.”
“That should help get Birgid’s reign off to a good start,” Kiv said. “She’ll need it.”
“I hope you don’t mind, Kiv,” Tallas said, “but I packed that green dress that looks so good on you, and a purple hood.”
“And you really didn’t know exactly how everything was going to turn out?” Kiv asked, though her voice was teasing this time.
“I really didn’t know,” Tallas said, “but I hoped.”
“Come to bed love,” Kiv said, taking Tallas by the hand and leading her to the bedroom.
Tallas lifted a hand to her blue Master Wizard’s hood, but Kiv stopped her.
“No,” she said. “Let me.”
Kiv proceeded to slowly undress Tallas, shedding her own clothes along the way, with a tenderness deepened by thirty years together.
When she was finished, she pulled Tallas into bed and made her forget about the coronation in the morning, the palace politics that would come after, and everything else in the world but the joining of body and spirit and magic.