SPEAK, DON’T SPEAK V. Hereafter follows the first-person version of IV.
A sharp-edged gust of wind threatened to snatch my hat from my hand and send it cartwheeling down the beach. I was out of practice at this, it seemed. My skirts were too long, my coat too thin, my hat nothing more than a useless encumbrance, and I had left her gloves in my tent. If Antonia had been here, the gloves would not have been forgotten. The thought did not make me feel any better.I had been too long in the city and now I could not be trusted to remember my gloves without a maid to remind me.
I considered attempting a discreet return to my tent to collect them, but the path of loose grit and pebbles that zigzagged up the cliff effectively prevented that convenience. I had no choice but to hold my hat in one hand and tuck the other into the sleeve of my coat, alternating which was which when the exposed skin grew too cold. My joints ached, just as my mother’s had in her old age. My knuckles had begun to swell, as hers had, and I disliked looking at them, and at the thin crepe of the skin on my back of my hands. Magic could ease the discomfort and that lovely rose-scented ointment from Laduree could smooth the skin but they would never been enough to stop either the arthritis inherited from my mother or the inevitable aging that made me mortal.
At least I had possessed the foresight to tie my hair back into a tight braid, so that I was spared the indignity of having to spend my time keeping it from my face.
Erzabet, whether deliberately or not, had not bothered. Her hair was a dark banner in the wind but if she noticed it, as she crouched by the sea’s edge, she gave no sign of it, just has she gave no sign of discomfort at the occasional wave that rushed up and round her, for all the water that lifted her skirts must have been bone-chilling. She had been there, almost motionless, for long enough for me to begin to worry. The sight of the black-clad figure against the grey stony beach, the heave and break of the grey waves, and the lowered grey clouds did not inspire confidence.
Montreson, I decided, had been worrying all along, if his relentless pacing were any indication. He had been forced to hold his hat as well, revealing iron-grey hair that matched his coat. And the beach, and the waves, and the sky, as if this all were a matter of sympathetic magic.
“Are you certain she can do it, Montreson?” I asked. “Even diPreti would have found such a spell a challenge at her age.”
He shrugged, a faint motion, as he turned and began his even pacing once again.
“Then perhaps you might stop pacing.” I sounded waspish, which annoyed me, because I had not intended it. “You are making me nervous. You are possibly making her nervous – though I am not certain she has anything as human as nerves in her.” We both looked towards the woman on the beach. “If she fails, I trust there is still time for the navy to deal with the matter in the old-fashioned way. Or the army, should their ship reach the shore.”
“Perhaps. “ Montreson, still moving, glanced back up at the escarpment above them, as if expecting to see ranks of soldiers assembled there, watching us. “It is by no means certain, though the Admiral has assured me there is a contingency. She is not going to fail, my lady Roussilon.”
Best she not, I thought, but had recovered enough wit not to say. Best for all of us. Mercifully, Montreson stopped his motion and we stood in silence, watching Erzabet. Her arms moved, her hands fanning out into the waves and then digging down into the pebbles tumbled by the retreating water. I heard something, though whether it is a cry or a bird or the wind I could not tell.
At the water’s edge, Erzabet rose and turned to pick her way across the beach. I could read nothing her face, as it was veiled and unveiled by the wind-blown hair. She is going to make us ask, I thought, because it makes her feel powerful. Uncharitably, I wished I could ignore her, force her to speak first, but that was petty and the reason we were here was not.
Montreson spared me the gesture and stepped forward. “Is it done?”
Erzabet only smiled and moved past us without another look, heading for the slanting path up the cliff. Her wet skirts dragged lines of her passage into the loose, gritty sand. She lifted them for a moment as she started to climb, then dropped them. I watched her go, her head high, her dark seaweed hair swirling around her, and shivered.
After a moment, Montreson held out his arm, a gesture of automatic courtliness. It reminded me of who I was. “We must take it from that smile that it is,” I said, accepting it. “Now, Comte, perhaps we can find a warm tent and nice glass of brandy.”
He smiled and I wondered if he believed me, if he too could no more see below the glossy surface of my cultured accent and perfected charm than I had been able to see what lay behind Erzabet’s smile.