“Of course, Mother,” he said with more warmth than before. He said nothing to Andevai but left. The attendant emerged from the shadows opposite and knelt at the fire to set new kindling.
“Don’t bother,” said Andevai. “It won’t light until I’m gone.”
She continued with her task as if she had not heard him.
“You are come late, Vai. You who study the magic of winter are most at risk. You dare not walk abroad on the day when the veil is thinnest and the hunt rides. For I am sure the tales tell us that the ancient ones who rule in the other world distrust magisters most of all.”
“They hunt down those who become too powerful and draw their notice, so we are told, but you can be sure I am not taught enough to become truly powerful. Not I, the son of slaves.”
“Is that a bitter apple, son?”
He grimaced. “I asked for nothing. I wanted to be a hunter, not a cold mage.”
“Yet you are what you are.”
“So I am. Now I am responsible for all of you, as I am reminded every day at the House. Trouble runs at my heels like a pack of wolves. The mansa has ordered me to kill a person.”
“That is a heavy task. What manner of person?”
“I have to do it. I have no choice. That is not why I came, Mother. This night and day I cannot travel abroad—no magister can, although our servants can ride where they wish, evidently.” How annoyed he sounded! How glad I was that the eru and the coachman had the power to tweak the noses of the proud House mages! “So I stopped to see you,” he continued, as humbly as an affectionate child. “The visits I make here are what sustain me through the rest of the year. It will be a colder winter than most….” He faltered, voice choked, and after a moment continued. “Best I go see Fa now, to greet him, and then to see my own mama. What news of my mama, Mother?” His voice trembled on the words. Beyond the walls of the house, the drums rolled loudly and in unison as youthful voices whooped and cried out, breaking into song.
“The Hallows fire is being lit,” remarked the old woman.
“There is no place for me at a fire’s lighting,” he answered curtly.
The drums fell into a shared rhythm, one that made my shoulders twitch. I recognized the measure of the drum, calling “koukou,” which we’d learned from friends in the city. The sound came closer, as at a procession winding through the compounds of the village.
“Best you wait until dawn to greet your mama. No good for her will come if she is woken now that the medicine has taken effect, for they dosed her before dusk. You may as well go on to the celebration. Let the old and ill take their needed rest while the young dance.” The procession’s clamor lessened as it moved away through the village. “If you go to Kayleigh now, she’ll fit you with proper clothes.”
He lifted a hand to touch his fine, elegant jacket with a self-conscious lift of his chin. “Is Kayleigh well, Mother? Is there any trouble for her?”
“No soldiers have trampled through our village’s fields since you went up to the House seven years ago.”
He ducked his head as if the words pinched him. “But they will. There’s worse, Mother. The mansa himself told me today that he intends to take Kayleigh to his bed, to see if more magisters can be bred out of our bloodline. What am I to do?”
“What can you do, Vai? The magister who sired your father on me did not ask my permission. The magister’s gift—if indeed it came from him—lay quiet in your father, but it has woken in you.”
“More curse than gift.”
“Truly, Andevai, if you could be shed of it, would you?”
“No.” He cupped a hand over his eyes to shield his face. “Even to what I endure at the House, I will suffer it in order to learn.” When he lowered the hand, his expression was knit of iron. “It would not matter even if I wished. I belong to Four Moons House, as does this village. I must obey them, or it will be the worse for all of you.”
“Has the mansa threatened you?”
“That he chooses today to inform me of his plans for my sister? That he reminds me that without the medicine provided by the House, my mother will die? That he mentions this village’s obligations to the House? Are these not all threats? Because I failed to properly do what he asked me to do? Maybe there is nothing I can do to make it right no matter what happens. But my only leverage—as the Greeks would say—is to gain enough favor in their eyes by doing what I am required to do. Then, perhaps, the mansa will, one time, allow me to spare Kayleigh being dragged off to suffer his attentions.”