Author's Note: Wow. I'm done with this behemoth of a story. Many, many thanks to Vesica and Calledbyname for helping me beta the story, especially the last two chapters, and thanks to everyone who read and reviewed!
"You don't make it easy, m'Lady. I've got to think." That was all Diccan had said, before brushing his lips lightly over hers and walking out of the inn. She'd felt the tension boiling off him, so tightly contained that a power lighter than the Sapphire couldn't have perceived it, and only just restrained herself from following after him. She couldn't - wouldn't - make him stay; she could only hope he chose to. So she'd spent the time since then attending to the business that she could attend to, including a hastily requested audience with Lady Elenor.
Possibly too hasty, Wilhelmina thought as Elenor dusted her soil-covered hands against her pants and stared at her. "I can't have heard you right."
"It didn't seem that complicated to me." Undiplomatic, but all she could muster after a restless night and a morning of planning with Mairin.
"No, it was pretty simple," Elenor agreed, hoisting a pile of papers out of the nearest chair and motioning Wilhelmina to sit down. The Queen's offices were in no better shape than they'd been the first time - then again, the Steward here had more to concern him than housekeeping. "When you first came here, it was with a letter saying you wanted to complete your business and then get back to your home in Kaeleer. Now you're telling me you want to immigrate?"
"With your permission, Lady." She'd never signed a formal contract with Morghann and didn't need her permission to leave Maghre, but she'd have to have Elenor's approval to remain in Chaillot longer than the few days she'd originally planned.
"What would possess you to want to come to a Territory with years of rebuilding ahead and nothing to offer?"
Wilhelmina thought of the plans she'd made with Mairin and the arguments with Diccan, but in the end what came out was, "I can help."
Elenor raised an expectant eyebrow.
"My grandmother's - the old house can hold most of the children you've been trying to house, and if I sell the outlying properties, we can afford to feed and clothe them for a long while." Quick decision it might have been, but that didn't mean she hadn't thought.
"All on your own?" Elenor was watching her through narrowed eyes.
"With my friends." Her court, she supposed, though a witch who wasn't a Queen set up her court along very different lines. "And I have some income outside of what my grandmother left me."
"Which will eventually run out." Elenor leaned forward, still watching her intently. "Truthfully, Lady, I need some assurance that this won't be a - a hobby for you, something you'll abandon when your interest runs out. And you will need some support when your resources run low. I'll give you permission to settle here if you're willing to sign a contract for Court service with me. Third or Fourth Circle, I think, would do."
High enough that the powers in Terreille would take her seriously; low enough that she wouldn't be expected to spend all her time in day-to-day service to the Queen. Elenor was more politically astute than she believed she was. Wilhelmina nodded. "Fair enough."
"This is a hell of a commitment you're looking at, Lady Benedict, for a Territory that you've got no reason to be grateful to. Why?"
It was the same thing Diccan had asked, and she gave the same answer. "It needs to be done, and I can do it. Maybe better than anybody else - I've seen some of the same rot these children have, and I can at least give them a safe place while they heal." Healer, Jhaliir's remembered voice whispered in her mind.
"And your escort? What does he think of your change of plans?"
Wilhelmina's chest tightened. "I don't know yet."
"What are you going to do if he's not willing to stay here?" Mairin asked, when Wilhelmina came back to the inn. She'd been restraining herself by sheer force of will from improving on Wilhelmina's packing, and had apparently decided that asking uncomfortable questions was preferable to sitting and fidgeting.
"The same thing I'll do if he is willing," she answered. "It'll just...be harder. I can - I can visit Maghre, at least, and maybe things will be all right. But I can't just leave, now that I've seen what needs doing here."
Mairin chuckled. "Are you sure you don't have some hearthwitch in you? You can't let a mess sit unattended any more than I can."
"Oh yes I can. You've seen my library."
"Well, no, not physically. But people, the way they work together-" Mairin shrugged. "This Territory of yours is in the biggest mess I've ever seen. Just means somebody needs to dig in and start fixing it before it gets worse."
"You make it sound easy."
"It's not. But it's good work. I'll be glad to help with it." Mairin hugged her, then gestured to the cases stacked near the door. "Now then, those Escorts that Lady Morgann sent with us know you're upset, and they're fretting about it. Let's give them something heavy to carry to distract them."
Packing aside, it was several days before Wilhelmina was able to get back to her grandmother's house - her house, now. Home, if she could make it one.
Diccan wasn't arguing with her any longer - she almost wished he would, but he was just silent, in mind if not in body. At night, he made love to her with an intensity that felt uncomfortably like farewell, and held her fiercely after. But whether he was out in the city or pacing their suite in the inn, he wasn't there any more than if he'd been a shadow. She wanted to reach out and test his temper with a private thread, but held herself back; whatever decision he reached, she had to let him make it alone. She hoped he could bring himself to leave his home for her; she wouldn't take the chance that he'd come to hate her for demanding it.
And in the days, she was almost too busy to worry; there was simply too much to do since Elenor had given her permission to immigrate. At the moment she was sitting in the shade outside the house, using a dainty chair and writing desk that had never been intended to see the outdoors. Jhaliir was lounging nearby - close enough for comfort, far enough that he could bask in the weak winter sun - and surveying the scene with slit-eyed contentment. Good land. Good den, he sent. This will be a good place for kittens.
"I wasn't precisely planning on kittens, you know."
It is still a good den. And you and your mate can teach them to play and hunt as they should.
She shied away from thoughts of her "mate" and glanced down at the stack of letters on the desk, hoping to distract herself from worries about Diccan. Letters to Mairin's mother and sister, inviting Dirdre to come and help with the children they'd be taking in; letters to Karla and Andra, and one to Morghann informing her of the change in Wilhelmina's plans. If things went well, the Escorts Morghann had sent would take them along when they returned to Kaeleer. If not, then Diccan could take them when he...went.
After a morning's worth of genteel bullying, Alexandra's former man of business had agreed to let his apprentice handle affairs with Wilhelmina; she thought she would be just as happy with the apprentice, especially after he'd drawn up a list of every unemployed carpenter and mason in the area. A good many of them were on the property now, building furniture, repairing what had deteriorated, and altering plans so the house could hold as many as it needed to. Mairin was keeping an eye on the builders, interviewing staff, and enjoying both roles to the hilt, while Wilhelmina split her time between the house and Elenor's court, trying to advise the Queen on the history and idiosyncrasies of Beldon Mor's aristos. It was only going to get harder when they were ready to take in the children - but when she remembered that fleeting vision of well-worn garden trails and a house grown shabby through active use instead of neglect, she couldn't quite be scared of the burden she'd taken on.
Well. Not too scared.
She folded the note to Morghann and was about to seal it when she felt Diccan's presence at the gates - calmer and less conflicted than he'd been in days, but shielded so tightly that she could sense no more of him than that. Jhaliir glanced up at her, then nudged her lightly and padded away. Wilhelmina bit her lip, told herself it was not the end of everything if Diccan walked away - she could visit, he could visit, things could always change - and walked to meet him.
He smiled when he saw her, and visibly gathered himself. Hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around her. "It's not going to be easy."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"I've sent Morghann my formal resignation. If you want me-"
"What do you think?" She scowled at him.
"-you've got me."
The tension went out of her in a single relieved breath, and she laid her head against his chest for a moment. "They need us here. And I need you. But - but I don't want to take you away from your home-"
He huffed. "You're my home."
She couldn't stop the smile that grew as she stretched up to kiss him. "Welcome home."