Pentagrams and Pomegranates
Part II: Love is an Hourglass
Hieronymous Grabiner x Heroine; Damien Ramsey
By Gabihime at gmail dot com
Twelve: She Still Believes in Miracles
Amoretta came through the door quietly, padding on silent feet.
Grabiner sat with his back to the door, slumped over and face down on his desk, as if he had given up on the world. She was a little surprised to see that there was no stoppered bottle on the desk, as there had been before during tumultuous moments.
I suppose he's past it at this point, she thought to herself.
As she approached Grabiner, Dinah silently wove in and out around her legs once, then departed through the partially open door, apparently satisfied that the situation was now resolved enough for her to begin carrying out her own regular duties.
Amoretta's smile flickered after Dinah as she left, then she turned her attentions back to Grabiner. He had not stirred, as if he were stone dead.
She slipped up behind him and gently laid her hand on his shoulder.
He started as if he had been shot, sitting bolt upright and whirling in his chair to stare at her, mad-eyed and terrified. His sudden lurch upset a precarious stack of books and they went crashing down on the floor.
Amoretta winced slightly at the noise, so loud and terrible in this silent sanctuary.
"I'm sorry," she said slowly. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
"You're here," he answered equally slowly, staring hard at her, uncomprehending. "Why are you here?" he wondered in confusion.
"I'm here to talk to you," Amoretta explained patiently.
"Why would you want to do that?" Grabiner asked in continued confusion.
"Because I love you," Amoretta said simply.
"You shouldn't," he answered immediately and this brought a tired smile to Amoretta's face because it was so familiar.
"Yes, we've been over this before," she reminded him. "You ought to remember that I don't care what you think with regards to this particular subject because your opinion is stupid." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Hieronymous, I'm here to try and understand what happened, what's been happening. I know it seems awful. I know it's complicated. I know we're both upset and confused, but I think that if we work together, we can understand it. I'm going to try and help understand it for you, but it isn't something I can do completely on my own. I need you to listen. Will you listen?" she asked softly.
"I - " Grabiner began what was certain to be a meandering detour of self-loathing and personal disgust, but then cut himself off. He balled his hands so tightly that the knuckles on both his hands went white and his nails bit into his palms. And then he answered her.
"Yes," he said. "I'll listen."
Amoretta was relieved.
Well, there was really nothing else. This was where the rubber met the road. She would do it. It was terrifying. It was overwhelming. But she would do it.
"It's funny," she said, brushing her hands over her skirts as she settled down on the floor near his desk. "It was really funny when I started thinking about it, but I think maybe the biggest problem we have is that we haven't been talking to one another about the things that have been bothering us. I know it seems silly, like something that easy couldn't be the cause of all the hurt and fear and sorrow we've both been experiencing, but honestly, I think that's it."
" - Amoretta," he tried to break in tiredly, but she held up her hand to forestall him.
"Just listen for a while," she suggested. "I know you've got a big long list of reasons you're sure all of this is your fault, because I think it's comfortable for you if things are your fault. You know how to feel about them. They aren't really scary because you've resigned yourself to being unhappy. You like for things to be your fault. You expect them to be. That's something I understand now. It's your baseline. If something bad has happened, you assume that it's because of you."
Grabiner frowned, but was silent. He couldn't really contradict her. She hadn't put it quite the way he thought about it himself, but she was right. He could recognize that about himself. He expected for things to be his fault. He was comfortable when things were terrible and he could blame himself for their terribleness.
"And then me," she said, "You have a hard time thinking anything is my fault. But that's crazy. It's not like I'm perfect and never make mistakes." She raised an eyebrow, "And you know that. But it's hard for you to accept that some problems that we have might be my fault. I don't always choose the right thing to do. I don't always do the right thing, or the best thing. I make mistakes, and I know those mistakes hurt you."
He opened his mouth again and again she held up her hand.
"You're not allowed to disagree with that," she said firmly. "I know you've got an incredible repertoire of non-magical magic that you use to square that in your head: that I am wonderful and amazing and never do anything wrong and that absolutely everything is your fault. But I also know you're sensible and will listen to reason." Then she smiled a little. "But anyway, I'm not very interested in talking about whose fault any of this is. I don't care, honestly. I don't really think it's useful information. What I want to talk about is how I felt, and how you felt, and why we did all the things we did. If we can understand all that, then we'll have understood all the parts that matter, and I don't think either of us will be upset anymore." She paused. "It's sort of like doing a proof."
"What?" he asked in confusion, totally flat footed.
"A proof," she repeated again patiently. "You know, like a derivation. We're going to lay down axioms about our individual feelings until we get to a theorem."
"Are you serious?" he asked, clearly dazed and certainly incredulous.
"I'm absolutely serious," she said deliberately, and Grabiner could no doubt it. She certainly seemed to be serious about this completely ludicrous idea.
"You're absolutely bonkers," he said and sighed, sounding exhausted. He leaned back in his old desk chair and it made a tortured sound, like bones cracking. "But I'll be frank: this seems exactly like something you'd come up with, so I can't say I'm surprised."
"It's going to work," she assured with a smile. "I may not be ready to prove my fundamental theorems of emotional calculus just yet, but I can go this far right now. So I'll start. I'm going to lay out axioms. I'll try to go in order, but I may have to rearrange them as I go, because I bet we'll end up proving lots of little theorems along the way. If you think you've got an axiom, you can feel free to make it, and I am also free to dispute it. If I make an axiom about you that you disagree with, you can also dispute it, and we'll have to come to an agreement about it. I can't use any axiom that I can't defend. I can't use any axiom that you won't accept."
"Amoretta, this won't work," Grabiner said with a frown. "I understand what you're trying to do, but you can't make a proof based on emotions. They have no clear meanings. You could simply say: 'A is true because I love you.' While that may be very sweet, it isn't useful. It certainly isn't useful in understanding all the awful things I've done to you. And there. I'll say it. I forbid any axiom that depends on love as its causality."
Amoretta didn't even blink. "Naturally," she agreed with a brief smile. "I'm not planning to make a proof based on emotions. How on earth would that work? This is a logical proof, Hieronymous. I'm going to use logic. You can use logic to talk about emotions and mental states. You can use logic to talk about causality. In fact, if it makes you feel better, I won't use the word 'love' at all, until you allow it. We'll consider it a forbidden word. I want you to believe in what we're doing. I'll agree to your conditions."
Grabiner frowned briefly, then sighed. "Very well," he said. "Then begin."
"So, I'll lay out some axioms for myself at first, and then I'll try to arrange them properly," she said. "I'm going to say a lot of things that are true for me. If you don't understand something that I've said, or you just want more information or clarification, then just raise one of your fingers and I'll stop." She bit her lip for a moment, then steeled her courage and began. "I'm not jealous of Violet. I've been really interested in her from the moment I first heard about her. I want to know about her because she's important to you. I want to understand about all the parts of your life not because I want to hear about scandal, but because I want to understand you better. I want to be able to share that part of your life with you. I didn't know very much for a long time because I refused to let anyone tell me." She looked at the ground as her cheeks colored deeply pink. "I realize now that I had a sort of stupid attitude about everything. The headmistress tried to tell me. Ellen told me I should try and find out for myself because I had a right to know, since you were my husband, but I never listened. I never even read your entry in the Which Witch. I realize now that I went out of my way to avoid all that information because I really, really wanted you to tell me about it yourself."
Her eyes were still on the floor, so she couldn't see that he'd raised his whole hand.
"I understand that what I wanted was a bit selfish. It wasn't a terrible sort of selfish, but it was selfish. I wanted you to trust me and tell me whether or not you were ready. I guess I wanted us to have a tearful confession, like in a storybook. I did my best to hold on and to be patient and wait for you to be ready, but in the end, I totally failed. I couldn't be as patient as I wanted to be," she smiled and it was bittersweet.
At last Grabiner broke in, unable to wait any longer.
"Excuse me," he said, and she looked up, her cheeks still flushed. "Are you honestly telling me that you don't have any idea what happened? How is that even possible?"
Amoretta pressed her lower teeth against her lip. "Well," she said. "I didn't. I didn't know for a long time. You remember the day of my bad accident? When we had the play duel, and then the fight - well, Cord told me a little about it then. Just some things he had read in newspapers. That was the first time I sort of understood about things. A little, I mean. I wouldn't let anybody tell me much of anything before that. I thought I was being conscientious, but the truth was, I knew so very little that I was always blundering into your sore spots inadvertently. So I learned a little in hopes I could be kinder to you." She paused. "It's a bit frightening, you know? Being your wife. Oh, not because I'm afraid of you or anything. I'm not. I never could be, not really. But it's a big responsibility, bigger than I realized when I married you."
"Do you regret it?" he asked quietly. "Marrying me."
"No," she answered immediately, rolling her eyes. "And this seems like a great time for a proof. Here goes. You asked me that question because you wanted an answer. Based on your experience with me, you knew exactly how I was going to answer it. Therefore, you asked me that question just to hear me tell you that I don't regret marrying you. That's because it's what you really want to hear. You want me to tell you that I want to be with you."
"You shouldn't want to be with me - " he began.
"Hold up," she said. "That one goes a little further. You want me to tell you that I want to be with you, but at the same time, you have created a personal truth for yourself: Amoretta being with me is bad for her. This truth is something you seem to honestly believe, at least part of the time. I don't think you believe it all of the time. Maybe you did at first, but you don't now. Sometimes you forget it exists at all, that personal truth. But then you remember and feel guilty about it and sort of retrench. Mostly you seem to believe it when it's convenient for hating on yourself. If you believe in that personal truth and you accept that you want to hear me say that I want to be with you, then that creates this situation: you want to hear me say I want to be with you, while at the same time you think you're a terrible person for wanting to hear that. You have preconditions in your mind that create this situation. It's a way of reaffirming what you already believe, a sort of having your cake and eating it too. You get to hear me say I want to be with you. That's comforting. You get direct evidence that you're a bad person. That's also comforting, to you. And I don't really have any ability to disprove it either, since it's a personal truth and not an objective one based on reality. The only person who can disprove it is you."
He was silent for a moment, then said, "Well, you're certainly not pulling any punches this time, are you?"
"I'm not," she agreed. "I couldn't do this if I wasn't boxing with all my weight. This is pretty scary, you know. This is one of the scariest things I've ever done. But I can do it. This is something that only I can do. It's my own special magic." She nodded firmly, as if reassuring herself, then restated her axioms. "You don't like yourself. At least part of the time, you think that me being with you is bad for me. Do you object to either of these statements?"
Grabiner frowned briefly, then shook his head. "No. I don't object to those. I am not keen on admitting it to you, but they're both true." He made a brief wave of his fingers. "But I want you to restate some of your axioms about your knowledge of the past more clearly. I'm still trying to understand it. You were avoiding information about my past? To what purpose?"
Amoretta frowned. "I get that my motivations were pretty stupid," she said.
Grabiner waved her on. "It's not that I think they're stupid," he said. "But weren't you curious? I imagined you were dying of curiosity and gobbling up every little rumor and illicit tidbit you could discover, through fair means or foul. That is how most of my students are and have always been."
Amoretta crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him coolly. "Then you make some axioms about that based on what you know about me and see how far you get," she suggested.
Grabiner frowned briefly and waved her off. "Very well," he said, then closed his eyes, apparently thinking things over. Hardly any time at all passed before he opened his eyes and spoke in consternation. "It doesn't work," he said. "Of course you were curious, but you're stupidly conscientious, and you think about others far more than you think about yourself. Unless blind accident put the truth into your hands in a way you had no way of avoiding, it was inevitable that you would refuse it. You are passionately devoted to what you perceive as right and wrong. You never violate your principles, even if that puts your life into immediate danger. You would never gossip about me, not about something that you thought was cruel or harmful. Why didn't I see that before?" he asked, his eyes narrowing as he stared at his hands. "It was excruciatingly obvious once I bothered to think about it. I just assumed - well, I assumed that you already knew about it, about all of it. It is such common knowledge, after all. You could have just read old newspapers, or asked practically anyone at the school. But you didn't do that. You would never have done that. When you did finally ask someone to tell you about it, it was because you decided that knowing nothing was no longer conscientious." He laughed once, and it was not a hard sound, but a soft, private one. "That's so like you."
Amoretta smiled briefly, and it was sweet and a little sad. "Since I didn't know, it really never occurred to me that you might think I did, so I just kept waiting for you to talk to me."
"I'm sorry, Amoretta - " Grabiner began but she shook her head.
"It's not time for that," she said. "We're not talking about fault or saying sorry. We're trying to understand things. I hadn't finished what I was saying. I just kept waiting for you to talk to me, to tell me about Violet, to tell me about everything. But I really didn't ask, did I? I really didn't tell you how I was feeling. I didn't tell you about my worries and fears. I just sat there waiting, as if you could psychically detect what I was worried about. Sure, I told you I was ready to listen when you were ready to talk, but I never told you how much I wanted to know about things, how much I wanted to hear it from you. I just kind of stewed about it. I was waiting for you to be ready. Then Ellen told me that maybe you'd never be ready. And you know what? I decided that was okay. If you were never ready to tell me, then that was going to be okay. But it wasn't really. I couldn't be honest with myself. I thought 'this is how I should be. I should be able to wait until he's ready to tell me, and if I don't, then I'm not good enough. I'm not a good enough person to be with him.' But that was just too hard. I had set up an impossible goal for myself. I couldn't pass it. I would fail it eventually. And that's just what happened. I failed it. And then I had to really wonder if I was good enough to be with you. I couldn't be the person I wanted to be. I could only be myself. So here are some more of my axioms: I never really talked to you about my fears and worries about the past. I didn't talk to you about them because I had decided that not talking was virtuous. I was being virtuous by letting you decide to talk in your own time. I was hyperfocused on proving to myself that I was good enough to be your partner, so that's why I was trying so hard to be virtuous. I was always afraid I wasn't good enough. I still am, even now."
"Of course you're good enough," Grabiner said, scoffing.
Amoretta laughed quietly. "Well, thanks for that, anyway." Then she grew serious again. "All right. I'm going to try and understand some things from your perspective, so correct me when I'm wrong, all right?"
"All right," he said slowly, his heavy eyes focused on her.
"It's very scary for you to talk about the past with me," she said quietly, then waited for a moment to see if he would deny it. He did not, so she relaxed a little. "It's painful to talk about the past for any reason, but it's particularly hard to talk about it with me because you lo - oops. That's the forbidden word. Okay. Let's think about what that means a little differently. It's particularly hard for you to talk about the past with me because Violet is very important to you and I am very important to you." She paused again, but he just kept watching her steadily. "Talking about the past is hard, so you wanted to avoid it. If I already knew about the past by talking to other people, or reading newspapers, then you didn't have to talk to me about it."
Grabiner had raised one of his fingers so Amoretta respectfully stopped.
"It's not as if I thought I could put off talking about it forever, just because you had read a newspaper or listened to whatever awful story the headmistress concocted," Grabiner answered immediately. "But it is true. I could always make an excuse to talk about it later. I always intended to talk things over with you, but the time was never right. I couldn't do it."
"And you could always comfort yourself with the idea 'We'll talk about it next time,'" she suggested and he nodded.
"I was always putting it off. So even though I did intend to talk things through with you eventually, Miss Middleton was correct. 'Eventually' might never have come," he said.
"Things are complicated when it comes to me and Violet," Amoretta said and it was simple and a bit childish, but unquestionably true. Grabiner snorted.
"I cannot disagree with that," he said and she smiled.
"You're always afraid that I won't want to be with you," she said thoughtfully. "Sort of like I've been tricked into it, and it's just a matter of time until I realize it and demand to be released. But I haven't been tricked. My eyes are wide open. Axiom: You were afraid to talk about Violet with me because it's going to be painful when we talk about it. You were afraid to talk about Violet with me because talking about it might make me come to the realization that I don't want to be with you."
"Yes," he said slowly. "That's true. I do want you to be with me. That in itself is terrifying. You may choose to leave me. Or worse, you may choose to stay, and everyday I will know that I hurt you. Everyday I will see that I hurt you and I will be unable to stop because I am unable to give you up no matter how much I hurt you. That is why I am a terrible person."
"Perhaps it is frightening because you may actually end up being happy, and happiness is scary for you, so you try to do everything you can to avoid happiness, or at least avoid admitting to happiness. But you know, all of those worries you have are the worries of a generous and conscientious soul," Amoretta pointed out patiently. "If you really were awful, you wouldn't worry about things like that at all," she said. "But you're preoccupied with the idea that you'll hurt me. I think you're carrying around a lot of guilt, and it's always seeping out, all the time. Anyway, although I appreciate that you're concerned about my safety and well-being, those are all my decisions. I get to decide whether or not I want to be with you. You can decided if you want to be with me, but you don't get to decide whether or not I should be with you. That's my call." She paused weightily as she looked at him steadily. "And you know that."
Grabiner made a rumbling sound in the back of his throat and then threw his arms up.
"All right. I concede. I do know that, although sometimes it is difficult to remember," he growled out.
"Well, we don't always act in accordance with what we know," Amoretta said with a smile. "Sometimes we act according to what we feel."
"You have all the answers, don't you?" he asked tiredly. He felt like she was patiently backing him into a corner.
"Of course I don't," she admitted easily. "That's why we're doing this. Okay. Axiom. Violet and I have some kind of connection, even if it is a whole lot of coincidences." She paused. He did not disagree. "You're worried about the fact that you blur the past and the present together, and that you sometimes think of Violet immediately after I've said or done something."
He stared at her. It was a keen observation. He wasn't sure what to say.
"In fact, when I first suggested that we were going to talk our way through this using a proof, you thought, 'That's something Violet would have thought of,'" she said.
He continued to stare at her.
She gave him a weak smile. "No, it's not some kind of grandiose trap. I know that's what you thought because it's what I thought, when I first thought of the idea. I was sitting down on the rocks, trying to think about things and what I ought to do, and this sort of presented itself. And then I thought, 'She would have loved this idea.' I know that because I've been reading her books. They were like a box of treasures when I found them. I kind of get it now, why you sometimes stop hard after I've said something. It's bizarre, isn't it? It's not as if we're exactly alike. We don't think or feel or do all of the same things. But it's very easy for me to understand her. It's easy for me to understand the way she thinks. I think that's probably why you lo - yikes, I did it again. I think that's probably why you want to be with me. Not because I remind you of Violet, but because it's easy for you to love that sort of person, and that sort of person is just the sort of person I am. I don't think you should feel guilty about it. It's just how things are." She looked at him very steadily. "I have never been offended by the way that you love me."
"You said it," he pointed out. "The forbidden word."
"I meant to say it," she said seriously. "Axiom. You were frightened to talk to me about Violet and thought I already knew besides. Axiom. I was frightened to ask you about Violet and thought it was virtuous to never mention it. Axiom. Neither of us talked about it. Axiom. Both of us stewed and worried and worried until it finally exploded. Axiom. You never meant to hurt me. Axiom. I never meant to hurt you. Axiom. We both hurt each other kind of magnificently. Theorem: it's better to talk about things when they bother us. No matter how afraid we are, talking about it will make it less frightening." She was very quiet as she looked at him. "Do you accept this theorem?"
He looked at her, with her calm face and her eyes puffy from crying, her small body, with the pale hands folded in her lap over the familiar deep indigo of her skirts.
She had done it. She had done it again, turned absolutely everything completely upside down. She had changed the light from red to green when that ought not have been possible. The color green had no longer existed in his world. The concept of moving forward had been deleted from his knowledge base.
He had only red.
Crash with no hope of recovery.
And yet Amoretta had created the idea of green again, defining it carefully, so he could not object to it, so he would not refuse to recognize it out of sheer perversity. She hadn't simply pulled a rabbit out of a hat. She had altered the fundamental nature of his universe. She was always creating tomorrows, even when he turned his back on the possibility of the future. All the fragmented pieces of their lives: of their pain, and love, and heartbreak, and sorrow, had been carefully arranged into an intelligible picture.
He had been hoist by his own petard and he was glad of it.
He could see the way to go home.
He smiled faintly.
"Yes," he said. "I accept it."
Relief broke over her face and she was soon rubbing at her eyes with small balled up fists and sniffling. Then she couldn't keep it back anymore and had thrown herself into his lap, openly sobbing.
"I'm so happy," she managed between her sobs. "I was so afraid. I was so so so afraid," she cried. "I'm always so afraid that you won't want me anymore."
Grabiner stroked her hair as she cried into his lap and he was forced to brush his own hand across his eyes.
"It's all right," he said. "Everything is all right. I'll always want you."
She looked up then, and her face was red and blotchy from crying. "I'll always want you too!" she insisted passionately and he smiled, weak and tired.
"I could never doubt it," he answered lowly. "Not really. It's practically impossible to doubt you. It would be like doubting gravity."
She cried for quite a while, holding tightly onto his knees, but at last she was only hiccuping and rubbing at her face with her hands.
"Are you all right?" he asked, because she still looked a little morose, even after her crying jag had finished.
"I'm so tired. I wish I were tougher. I need to be tougher," she lamented. "I sometimes feel like I'm the weak, and everyone else is the tyranny of evil men," she said with sadness and frustration. Even after having built a bridge over a bottomless chasm by taking step after step into nothingness, having reached the other side and rescued the one she loved best, even after having done all that, she still felt small and very pathetic.
"What?" Grabiner asked in confusion.
"Nothing," Amoretta said, waving him off. "It's Ezekiel 25:17, only it's not. It's sort of Ezekiel 34, but it really isn't - it doesn't matter that much, honestly."
"Amoretta, you're not weak," Grabiner said quietly.
"I hope I'm not," she said, feeling the weight of the whole world on her small round shoulders. She still had such a long way to go. She had to get stronger. They both needed her to get stronger. She felt like she was going to start crying again. "And miles to go before I sleep," she murmured to herself.
Grabiner frowned. "How is it that every poem you love is excessively morbid?" he asked. "Why don't you love poems about daffodils or walking in beauty like the night or even green eggs and ham?" He got to his feet and then helped her to hers. He crossed the study to properly close and lock the door, tripping one of his contingency wards as he did.
She smiled weakly. "I guess it's just part of my nature," she said, then added quietly, "The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity."
"You are unquestionably the best," he said quietly, "And I am certainly the worst because I am filled with passionate intensity. Pequena rosa," he murmured softly as he advanced on her. His voice was low and sweet, his earlier harshness having melted away. "Rosa pequena, a veces, diminuta y desnuda, parece que en una mano mia cabes, que asi voy a cerrarte y llevarte a mi boca," he laid one of his hands on her shoulders then let his fingertips brush up along the line of her neck before catching some of her hair. "But suddenly," he said with warmth, "My feet touch your feet and my mouth your lips: you have grown, pequena rosa. Good lord how you have grown, little may flower." He took a deep breath and said, "I still can't believe that you did all that, that you said all that, that you were able to tell me all that you told me, that you were able to explain it in a way that I could understand, in a way that I would accept, and all of that after I had hurt you so badly - "
"Hieronymous!" Amoretta interjected in distress, but he shook his head firmly.
"It is true, Amoretta. I know that you're uninterested in blame, but I must be honest, both to you, and to myself. I hurt you badly. I am not ashamed to admit this to you, even though it is certainly shameful and I am shamed," He closed his eyes and added gently, "Let me be honest with you even if I am honest with no one else. I will show you my shame. I will show you my weakness. I will let you be the keeper of it all." His eyes remained closed in contemplation. When he opened them again there was a fire in them and he spoke with conviction. "But what I must tell you is this: you are strong like no one else I have ever known. You have the weight and strength of stone, of the solid earth. That is the plain truth," he said, shaking his head solemnly. "You are not weak, and I respect and admire you. To be honest, there are moments when I am in total awe of you. You make so many difficult things seem so laughably easy - "
"They're not easy!" Amoretta broke in again, fighting back tears. She was trembling all over, overcome with emotion.
"I know they're not," he agreed and his voice was warm and strong as he folded her up in his arms. "I know that it's all terribly difficult for you. I know that it is exhausting. I know that it hurts. But you were right. This is your incredible personal magic, Amoretta, that you can take what is so difficult and hurtful and give it back to me as something I can know and understand, as something I can touch and feel, as something I can hold onto. I thought it was all impossible, that it was a thing that could not be done. I thought I had done a thing I could never atone for. I thought that you had finally come to realize what a grotesque monster I was. I thought that it was impossible that you would continue to love me. But then you carefully took it apart, piece by piece and showed me every little bit you could discover. You refused to let me look away from it. You refused to let me cower in fear and self-loathing. You refused to let me refuse you. That is your incredible strength, Amoretta." He pushed her away from him lightly, so that he could look down at her face. "You've told me many times that you wish to protect me, as I protect you. But I believe that it has been true for many months now that you have been my guardian. You have been fighting doggedly on my behalf, and I appreciate that. Honestly," he added seriously, his voice low and deep. "I do."
Amoretta flushed and ducked her head, trying to look away. "But I haven't really been doing anything - "
"You have," he insisted fiercely. "I'm not such a fool that I cannot recognize all that you have done. You are courageous and brave, Amoretta. I am very lucky to have you as my partner, as the person I can always trust to have my back, as I have yours."
"Oh Hieronymous," Amoretta cried weakly, moving close to him again and burying her face in his robes. "Sometimes things are so difficult I feel I can hardly breathe. I love you so much. I love you awfully. No one ever told me that living would be so painful. It is incredible that humans choose to do it, day after day after day."
"We do it because as painful as it is, it damn well beats the alternative," he said with a low chuckle.
As she clung to him, Amoretta let out a great sigh and shook her head hard, as if she were trying to shake out all her doubt and confusion. It did not work.
Grabiner could not help but be worried by her deep sigh and subsequent thrashing.
"Amoretta," he asked softly. "What is it?"
"Nothing," she said, then shook her head again. "Everything," she corrected. "I don't know. Everything just seems - well, it's just hard, it's just so hard. It was so hard being patient all this time. I've been trying my best to be even-tempered and steady and strong, but it's been exhausting. We've come so far, and I'm proud of how far we've come, honestly, and I am trying. I'm trying sincerely. One more step. One more step. I just need to be patient for one more step."
"What are you trying to be patient about right now?" Grabiner asked quietly, dreading the answer that he had asked for. It was coming. He knew it was coming, and now they had come to the point where it could no longer be turned aside. He would have to face it. "You proved your theorem magnificently. We should talk to one another about our worries and our fears," he said seriously. "You don't have to fight to be patient any longer. Honestly, you've already been more patient than a choir of saints."
Amoretta trembled, wrapping her arms around herself, and then seemed to at last come to a decision. She ducked her head and studied the floor.
"You know everything about me," Amoretta said tremulously, and then the words tumbled out one after another, as if she feared she would fall completely silent if she stopped for any reason at all. "But I know next to nothing about you. It's not like I tell you things about myself as bribery, because I'm hoping you'll trade your secrets with me, but Hieronymous, I want to know about you. It feels like," she struggled. "It feels like you'll let me bare myself completely. It feels like you'll let me be totally exposed, totally vulnerable, but you don't trust me enough to even unbutton your shirt."
"I don't know everything about you," Grabiner disagreed reflexively, but then he passed his hand in front of his face and felt very tired himself. "But you're right," he said. "That's not because you withhold yourself. You give your secret self freely. I'm sorry I - "
"I do that because I love and trust you," Amoretta broke in, staring up at him with tears at the corners of her eyes, desperate to explain herself, "It comforts me to know that you see the me that there is. It's not like I expect total parity or anything," she said weakly. "You are your own person, and you should decide what you want to share with me on your own terms, but I feel like, I feel like you don't think that it's safe to share anything with me - "
"What do you mean by that?" Grabiner asked, mildly affronted. "I shared my soul with you - "
"I know, I know, and I love you for that, just like I love you for dozens, hundreds, thousands of other reasons, and I will love you, for a hundred years, for a thousand years, for a hundred thousand years. Time like that doesn't matter to me, not when it comes to you. My love is a perfect element. It doesn't experience radioactive decay," Amoretta protested, waving her hands in the air, making strange motions that she meant to represent atomic decay. It was a little like a pantomime of fireworks. "But there's so much that you keep back from me, and I don't know if it's to protect me, or because you're frightened, or because you've been so hurt - but Hieronymous, I want to share all of that with you. It can be at your own pace. It can be when you're ready. I just wanted you to know, I wanted to tell you myself, that I want to know about you, all about you. I wanted to tell you plainly, in a way that you couldn't misunderstand." She shifted her gaze to the floor again and continued on reluctantly, "You were there at the moment I impressed Stardust Miracle, so you know the name of my grimoire. I know that the name of a grimoire is a private thing, a thing that is only shared through a bond of deep trust - but it hurts me," she closed her eyes and shook her head hard as she denied, "I'm sorry if I'm petty and selfish and immature and I don't have the patience that I ought to have, but it hurts me that I'm still not allowed to know the name of the red book."
Although her eyes were closed and her head was bent, she pointed unerringly at the book in Grabiner's arms: his book of intimate secrets, the one written in ink and his own blood.
She was still speaking, her head bowed, a tremor in her voice, "What do I have to do to prove myself to you? I'll do it, or at least I'll try to do it, I promise. Just tell me what you want me to do, please."
"Now that you cannot accuse me of," he denied in consternation. She had caught him flat footed again. Amoretta was nothing if not continually surprising. "Of all the things you might accuse me of in regards to secret keeping, this cannot be one of them," he said with a frown. "That information is already in your possession. You already know what you're asking for. Amoretta, I shared it with you already. It was so difficult for me. You can't have forgotten it," he insisted, "I told you the name of my grimoire weeks ago."
"Hieronymous, I don't know!" Amoretta answered in distress and confusion. "What are you talking about? You haven't told me - "
"I have!" he insisted, advancing on her as if his physical presence might have the weight to prove him right on its merits alone. "I have," he repeated himself. "Here. In this place," he insisted, stepping forward as he gestured deliberately at the ground. "I hope you remember the evening we first made love - "
He had become testy and accusatory and Amoretta stamped her foot. She was ready to go toe-to-toe with him. If he wanted a fight, she was ready to fight like an angry little cat, an angry little cat who just happened to be a pacifist.
"Of course I remember it!" she said crossly. "I am certain that I'll never forget it! But you can't be serious! Are you telling me that you confessed the name of your grimoire while we were - " she stopped, suddenly shy and she got very red as she looked resolutely at the ground. When she spoke again she went on very quietly, soft and reluctant and vulnerable; she was afraid of being mocked. "While we were making love - Hieronymous, if that's when you told me, you might have picked a better time. I was," by this point she had recovered somewhat and could look at him again, if only briefly. She was still very flushed. "I was pretty distracted while you were, when you were - " she struggled again and at last settled on, "Then."
"Don't be a goose," Grabiner said dismissively, waving her off with easy nonchalance. His rising temper had been blunted by the sweetly attractive mixture of her vexation and embarrassment, and he couldn't deny a certain amount of smug satisfaction that arose when she confessed to her state of mind. When she got like this he had the distinct desire to eat her up, like she was a delicately sweet dessert, or a girl in a red hood. It was pleasurable simply to watch her, with her flushed face and her eyes downcast, nervously skirting around discussing the particulars of their various physical engagements, but certainly remembering and reimagining them. While he was normally very reserved, Amoretta had the uncanny ability to turn him into a wolf with appetites that were both big and bad.
No matter how delicious his wife was at this particular moment, they were in the middle of a very serious conversation after an exhausting amount of trauma. Now was a time when they had to communicate clearly, with words, and he understood that. Honestly, they seemed to have very little difficulty communicating with their bodies, but as fulfilling as these exchanges might have been, he knew that they could not be all of their conversation, nor did he wish for them to be. And truthfully, no matter how appealing she might have been at that moment, he had to be realistic: they were both ill and peaked and ragged. It was not the appropriate moment for passionate embraces. The most erotically charged thing he felt like doing at the moment was patting her on the head.
Still, just because he had a calm, thoughtful hold on the situation didn't mean he was dead.
He frowned and explained, "Of course I didn't tell you while we were making love," and he took decided pleasure in the fact that she squirmed slightly when his mouth moved over the words that she was still not yet accustomed to hearing in their own intimate context. "What an absurd idea. As you noted, at the time we both had other preoccupations. And immediately afterwards we were both exhausted, considering everything that had happened. It wasn't the right moment. So I waited. It was the next day. I went to practice in the side yard. I showed you the tree of fire."
Amoretta's brows drew together and she tilted her head to the side. "Yes," she said slowly. "I mean, I remember all of that. It was wonderful. It was beautiful," she added softly. "I felt so moved, just watching you. You're incredible, you know that?" she asked, and it wasn't clear whether the question was rhetorical. Then she shook her head slightly, and the look on her face was a curious mixture of fondness, nostalgia, pleasure, and admiration. "That's what I thought when I was watching you. You are incredible."
He flushed deeply and coughed, attempting to cover his unease at receiving her honest praise. He turned his back on her and said with a little difficulty, "So then, you do remember."
"When you painted the tree of fire?" Amoretta asked in confusion. "Of course, but - "
"That's when I told you," Grabiner cut in with a sharp wave of his hand as he wheeled to face her again, agitated. "That's when I told you the name of my grimoire," he said, holding the book up so that she could not mistake his meaning.
"You did?" Amoretta wondered aloud, her brows drawn together again. "I don't - "
"πῦρ ἀείζωον," he said, and the sound nearly exploded out of him. He stopped and drew in a breath before he spoke again, closing his eyes as he did so. "The living fire that burns even in a vacuum. That which is born must change."
He opened his eyes again and silently held the grimoire toward her, beckoning her to accept it.
Her cheeks were still pink as she tentatively took the book from him. "That which is born must change," she repeated softly. "Pyu- Pyur Aeyee - "
"πῦρ ἀείζωον," he repeated steadily, watching her closely as she ran her hands over the cover of the grimoire, down the spine, along the gilt edging. She was getting the feel for it at last, this familiar book that she had first seen on that day when it all began. She was shaping the sound of its meaning with her fingers as well as her mouth.
"Pyur Aeyzoon," she managed, and he nodded once. She ducked her head. "I do remember," she admitted. "I do remember you telling me, only I didn't know what you were telling me. I didn't understand what you meant. I'm sorry."
There was a still moment between them as they simply looked at one another. His eyes were heavy as he watched her with his grimoire in her arms. But then she had pulled it tight to her chest with one arm and held out her other hand towards him, as if offering him personal salvation. The weight of Stardust Miracle caused her hand to drop slightly as it glimmered into material existence. He took it from her without a word, although he gave her a meaningful look as he did.
She watched him handle it, his long fingers sure and practiced, but he was very gentle, almost reverent, and briefly Amoretta wondered what was running through his mind.
Is he seeing Stardust Miracle, or is he thinking of Eclipse Starlight? she wondered.
But then he raised the grimoire to his mouth and gently kissed the spine of the book. He did this very deliberately, with his eyes on her.
She flushed and felt a little light-headed. It was something that he could do to her seemingly without effort.
How stupid of me, she thought to herself as she watched him. How absolutely stupid. It's both, isn't it? He's always thinking of me, and of her, and that's all right isn't it? It is. I know it is. I want him to love her. I'm such an idiot. How is it that I doubt him? How is it that I doubt that he sees me when he never takes his eyes off me? He's always looking at me. He always sees who I am, what I do, how I live. He never looks away, even for a moment. I think he would reorient the world, just to keep me in his sights.
"It was my fault for being unclear," Grabiner said, then moved to put his arms around her, grimoires and all. As he held her, the books both winked out of material existence, one after another, and he could draw her still closer. "You have no reason to apologize. I shouldn't have assumed you'd understand without any context. You are new to everything, and for some reason I cannot keep this fact in my head. It is because you are someone familiar," he said, threading his fingers through her hair at the base of her skull, gently drawing her forward to lay her head against his chest. "It is because you are so well-loved and dear. It is no excuse, but it is the only one I have to offer. I am sorry."
"No, no, I'm sorry," Amoretta insisted, pushing against his chest in mild panic. She was now desperate to apologize for what she perceived as wrongdoing on her part, "I accused you of not sharing that part of yourself with me, but you already had, and I was just too stupid to realize it - "
Grabiner held her firm and refused to accept or acknowledge her flailing. "You were not 'too stupid,'" he denied, "Given the circumstances, you had no way of knowing what it was that I meant. And while you were mistaken in this specific instance, you are correct that there is much I have kept from you for any number of reasons," he closed his eyes as he admitted, "All of which seem thin and ludicrous in the warm light of evening, with you here at home in my arms. I am sorry, Amoretta," he said again seriously. "I mean that sincerely. I am ready to speak, if you are ready to listen."
Against his chest, Amoretta took a deep breath and nodded. "I'm ready," she said. "Take your time. I'll listen for as long as you want to talk."
"All right," he said. Then he paused and was silent for several minutes. Amoretta was very still, listening to his heartbeat, which was swift and urgent. He was anxious. She could feel his anxiety even without listening to the beat of his blood. At last, he spoke haltingly. "Having said all that, I'm still not sure - that is - I don't know how to begin. I'm such a coward - " he said, letting her loose to bring a hand to his face as he turned away from her. He was trembling.
Amoretta moved to put a hand comfortingly on his back. "You are brave," she corrected gently. "And I love you. I'll protect you. I'll protect you, Hieronymous," she said sincerely, and at that moment she felt very fierce and brave herself. She would protect him. It was all she wanted to do with herself for the rest of her life. "So please, don't be afraid. It doesn't have to be all at once," she said softly. "You can tell me a little at a time, however you'd like. But we should begin. If we never begin, what sort of story would that be?" she asked with wry affection.
He was still for several more seconds, and then he seemed to get some command of himself because he said, "Then let's play a game."
"A game?" Amoretta asked curiously, tilting her head to the side. He had aroused her curiosity, and now she was a little cat. She was an enthusiastic player of games, after all.
"Yes," Grabiner said, turning back to face her again. "Have you ever played question-question?"
Amoretta thought about it. "It's the game where one person asks a question, and then the other person has to answer with a question, isn't it?" she asked. "And they go back and forth, answering questions with questions. Isn't that it? A round ends when someone answers with something other than a question."
"Exactly," he said, and then led her over to the old sofa, where he sat as if he were a thousand years old, drawing her down after him. "So you ask. Ask whatever it is you want to know, and I'll do my best to answer. We won't think about winning and losing. We won't think about keeping score. We'll just question-question. Is that all right?"
"What do you think?" Amoretta asked with a smile, settling down next to him in the crook of his arm. She was already a little bird comfortably in her nest.
"Very funny," he said wryly, then he took a deep breath. "All right," he said. "Please begin."
It was Amoretta's turn to be silent as she thought about things. It was a strange moment for the both of them. She had so many questions that she wasn't sure where she ought to start. Dozens and dozens of questions had been stilled on her tongue since the moment she had first collided with Grabiner, and these were all questions that she wanted answers to, questions that she had been afraid to ask before now. Now he was a warm presence next to her - real, deliberate, material - and he had promised to answer as best he could. Despite his assurances, she was still a little frightened to ask what it was that she wanted to know. She was afraid that he would run from her, and that she would be left alone.
She did not want to be left alone.
"You won't run away from me?" she asked softly, wrapping her arms around his arm nervously, as if she feared he might bolt even now. She had a very firm grip on the sleeve of his robe.
"I won't run from you," he said gently, curling his captive arm around her and drawing her close. "I'm sorry, Amoretta, that you even had to ask that."
Amoretta relaxed in his embrace, closing her eyes. Weakly, she said, "That's one point to me."
"I told you, we're not keeping score," Grabiner laughed quietly, moving to muss her hair with his free hand.
"I know, I know," she admitted, snuggling against him. She was still for another moment, then she let the question slip out of her softly: sweet and gentle and natural. She asked it as if it were an easy question, like 'what is your favorite color?' She asked, "How do you love Violet?"
It was a simple question. In some ways, it was a very easy question. In Amoretta's mind, it remained the question, the base of what she needed to understand. Nothing else at all mattered until she could begin her understanding of this.
He stiffened briefly, as if rigor mortis had at last set in on his long dead corpse, and Amoretta worried that she had pushed too far too fast, and hastened to withdraw her question, to ask something easier, something more innocuous, but Grabiner's arm around her tensed, pulling her tightly against his side again, and then he spoke in a quiet voice.
"If I tell you, you won't hate me?" he asked. It was a sad question, pitiful and small. It was something a child might have asked, a child who is used to being treated badly. Grabiner was frightened. He was at least as frightened as she was.
"Never," Amoretta answered automatically, because it was an answer she had under her tongue. "Never ever. I love you, Hieronymous. Trust in my feelings. I'll protect you," she insisted.
Quietly, wryly, he answered her. "That's one point to me."
"Hieronymous," Amoretta said as she laughed, quiet and close.
"Not a question, but an indictment," Grabiner answered, stroking the top of her head. "But I'll answer as I am obliged." He paused and seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "How do I love Violet? I am touched, you know, that you understand that much even now. She is part of my present as much as you are," he said quietly. "I am very fortunate that you do not demand that I not - " he broke off and shook his head. "But then, I don't think you could do such a thing, given your warm, sweet heart - which is for the best, since I have no way to be, other than I am, other than as you find me. I love her. I will always love her. I love her presently." He paused. "But, even in the past tense - 'How I used to love her' is still a valid question, since I did love her then, just as someday someone will perhaps ask me 'how did you love Amoretta?' and I will be able to provide some answer, however unsatisfying."
"Would you really answer a question like that?" Amoretta wondered.
"If it was you who were asking," Grabiner answered easily, then he turned his thoughts back to her question and endeavored to answer. "I suppose I love her like breathing. It isn't an active thought. It isn't something I consciously do. That was true from that first moment when I met her, although I certainly didn't want to admit that at the time. Violet - she could be a very difficult person. She was always horribly honest, even when you hadn't asked her to be," he paused. "Perhaps particularly when you hadn't asked her to be. She would show me her heart so casually, like it was easy, like it was nothing. And she was white hot - " he stopped again and explained. "When we first met at school, we met as rivals, you know. Or at least, I thought. I thought we met as rivals. I think she had different ideas even then. I was an arrogant little bastard: privileged, gifted, intelligent, and powerfully aware of all of these advantages. I was the first in my year, obviously, or at least I intended to be. In an ordinary year, I certainly would have been. It is not arrogance to say that. It is plain fact."
"I'm not disputing," Amoretta said with warmth and humor and Grabiner chuckled.
"Always my most ardent supporter," he admitted, then continued his story. "But then there she was, that first day, a charity student in awful clothes, as loud and as vulgar as a little starling, with no name, no manners, no friends, nothing - do you know what the first thing she said to me was?" Grabiner asked, and Amoretta could feel his nostalgia and exasperation all at once.
"What?" she asked, honestly curious.
"You'll do," it burst out of Grabiner as if he could no longer keep it to himself. "What a little beast she was, even then, at the very beginning, with nothing at all to her name. 'You'll do,' like she was picking out shoes, or a mangey pony to ride at the seashore. I hadn't said a single word to her, and I didn't intend to either, not until it was absolutely necessary - "
"You were horrible," Amoretta laughed. "So stuck up! You didn't even say, 'Hi, how are you?'"
"Of course I didn't!" Grabiner retorted. "And you are absolutely correct. I was the worst sort of child imaginable. But, I might add, she didn't introduce herself either - at least, not until afterward. She just said, 'You'll do.' Then she said, 'I'm Violet,' and I said, 'No, you're rude,' because introducing yourself to another person blindly like that is atrocious. I had never met such an ill-behaved person in my life! It was deeply offensive."
"What about Button?" Amoretta asked, giggling into her hand.
"Button was four years old," Grabiner pointed out, rolling his eyes. "And she wasn't so much rude as disastrous. I don't expect you to understand issues of civility, because you're American and therefore uncivil by nature, and besides that, you're very peculiar - "
"Sometimes I think all English people have brain damage," Amoretta observed. "It's rude to introduce yourself?" Amoretta scoffed. "That doesn't make any sense at all. You know that don't you?"
"It is rude," Grabiner insisted. "You don't just go introducing yourself to a stranger. It isn't done. It's crass. A person with manners will wait until someone of common acquaintance provides an introduction."
"But you just said she was a charity student," Amoretta said. "And I know she was a wildseed, so she probably didn't know anybody," she pointed out.
"I'm sure that she didn't," Grabiner agreed. "But that's not relevant. In that situation, the polite thing to do is to remain outside the circle until one is invited."
"But what if one isn't invited?" Amoretta persisted.
"Then one is not wanted," Grabiner said plainly and Amoretta stuck her tongue out.
"English people are awkward," she said frankly. "And dumb."
"Thank you," Grabiner answered dryly. "I'm sure the nation of Shakespeare, Dryden, and Pope appreciates your sentiments."
"Shakespeare pretty much spent all his time making dirty jokes," Amoretta pointed out. "He could make a penis joke at any time, in any place, and it would be hilarious. But all of that? It doesn't mean he wasn't awkward when he had to talk to people face to face. And I think - I mean, I can't say for sure, but I think - that Pope and Dryden were probably pretty awkward too. Pope was that guy in high school who's kind of strange and really, really smart, but who thinks everyone hates him, so he's really insufferably superior and totally mean to everybody so no one sits with him at lunchtime. He maybe writes a column in the school newspaper about how much everybody sucks, and it's really really funny so everyone reads it, but like, nobody wants to be his friend. Oh, and he wears glasses. Dryden is that guy who's from the wrong side of the tracks but dating a super rich girl and is always getting pushed around because of it. He writes songs, I bet, and plays in a local band, and they're really good, but not quite famous. They need to cut some demo tapes and get some air time. Dryden gets to sit at the popular table during lunch, but has to accept being picked on and gracefully laughing it off every time, even though it always hurts his feelings. When he cries, he cries on the inside. Pope wants to be Dryden's friend by the way, because he really likes the songs that Dryden writes, but he's too suspicious of everybody's motives to ever try and make friends. And Dryden thinks if he tries to befriend Pope he'll just get harassed even more by the in-crowd. I am totally right about this, no question." She paused. "I should really write a story about this."
"You have a very creative way of looking at things, as always, but until you can produce their high school yearbooks, I'm afraid your point remains to be proven," Grabiner said and Amoretta shrugged.
"So what did she say then? When you told her she was rude?" Amoretta asked, leaning toward him in interest. She was very invested in the outcome of this school drama.
"She said, 'Not nearly as rude as you!' Can you imagine the nerve?" Grabiner demanded. "So pert."
"Yeah," Amoretta said with a laugh. "I pretty much can. I bet you were furious." She cleared her throat and then began narrating theatrically, "And thus, as the earliest leaves of autumn scattered," she made a voluminous sweeping gesture with one of her arms, "The two destined rivals had met at school. The girl: very pretty, very funny. The boy - " she paused and considered. "The boy: plainly in need of the healing powers of friendship - "
"You're magnificently funny yourself," Grabiner noted dryly. "And so you know, I didn't think of her as my rival as yet," Grabiner said, plainly dismissive. "I thought she was simply awful and wanted absolutely nothing to do with her."
"Really?" Amoretta asked, giggling into her hand. She gave the impression that she suspected something slightly different.
"Yes, really," Grabiner insisted, slapping the sofa for emphasis. Then he rolled his eyes and admitted, "Or at least, that is what I thought at the time. Hindsight paints the scene in different colors. She most definitely had my attention, but I was certain that I was aggravated, rather than attracted. At that point, I probably was.
"But then I met her in class for the first time: those dark eyes and that wicked smile, and her mind. At first I tried to compete with her," Grabiner said. "I had my pride, and I assure you that it was considerable. But even in the beginning, there was no competing with Violet. She was, even then, without peer." Grabiner shook his head. "It was shameful for me. I had been tutored by the best private teachers from the time I was six years old, and beyond that I worked diligently at learning all I could, magic, and otherwise. I was gifted and I was well aware of that fact. I was enormously proud of the fineness of my brain, of my intelligence, cleverness, and skill."
"You were a know-it-all," Amoretta laughed. "I can't say that much has changed -"
"Well, it takes one to know one," he retorted with the confidence and tact of an adult. Then he tensed again and grew serious. "In any case, I knew how intelligent I was," he said. "It gave me superiority, an assurance that I was better than everyone else: in fact, in truth, in actuality. It also gave me something to hold onto when I had nothing else. I could claim some small amount of self-worth because I was more intelligent than practically everyone on the goddamned planet."
He was breathing hard at the end of his tirade, at the end of his confession, but then he sobered as he took another breath. "But Violet came in with nothing, blind and deaf, an alien in a new and uncertain world, and she still ruled. She was good at everything: pretty, funny, charismatic, athletic. She made friends so easily. People liked her even when they didn't mean to like her. That would have made her a candidate for queen of the school by itself. But it wasn't just that she was popular, and easy to be around. In every single class she set foot in she was goddamned brilliant - she had this insane ability to grasp things intuitively, with very little instruction. It wasn't as if she didn't study. She did. Violet was always reading, she was always thinking, she was always considering and solving problems. Her mind was never still." He paused thoughtfully before continuing."She was so precocious. Children crawl before they walk, yes? I never saw Violet crawl. She began by walking, unsteady only in the first moments, and then before an hour had passed she was turning cartwheels and doing tumbling passes. She ran on her two feet until it suddenly occurred to her that she didn't have to, and from that moment on, she flew. By the third week she might have taught all of our classes. A mere mortal with an ordinary brain could not have hoped to keep pace with her."
"Not even Icarus?" Amoretta asked softly and at the mention of the name, Grabiner tensed briefly, but then he sighed.
"Such were the challenges I had to conquer to even have the opportunity to chase after her," Grabiner said slowly. "I had to devise and construct my own wings, metaphorically speaking. But, as I have noted, I was not a child with an ordinary brain."
Amoretta giggled impudently and Grabiner raised an eyebrow.
"All right, go ahead and make your cheeky little joke," he prompted. "I know what you're thinking."
"Then I don't have to say it," Amoretta teased gently, snuggling against him again.
This simple, familiar touch, a touch of idleness and comfort, made Grabiner relax again.
"But you know," she added conversationally, "I do greatly appreciate your incredibly abnormal brain." She giggled into her hands and it was a fairy's laugh, sweet, like the sound of bells, or the thrilling shiver of morning dew on bare feet in the dim hour just before dawn. It was the sort of laugh one could not take offense at, even when it was laughed at one's own expense.
He snorted and squeezed her briefly and the continued with his story.
He smiled fondly as he remembered, "Violet was as stubborn as an old horseshoe and as weird and difficult as a bent nail, but then she was also like exotic matter made flesh, as beautiful as Lucifer, rare and strange and impossible, and wonderful and uncanny thoughts were always spilling out of her like milk and honey."
"She sounds amazing," Amoretta said thoughtfully. "It's no wonder that you loved her."
"Well, as I said, I didn't at first," he said pensively, shaking his head. "Or perhaps more correctly, I didn't understand my feelings very well in the beginning. It was all so difficult." He paused and seemed to be thinking something over. "She was so impossible. I had known her about eight weeks," he said. "The whole school was preparing for the Samhain celebration that evening, and of course as first years we had a part in it. I think we were working together to build offerings out of sticks and leaves. I can't say that I've always excelled at handicrafts - and she just blew in like a storm and commandeered my offering and had it turned around and finished in a moment. She put her hands on mine as she guided my fingers with her words, with that wicked smile of hers. When it was done she grabbed onto my arm and said, 'That's why I love you, Hiero. You're so smart, but you can be an absolute disaster.'" He stopped and looked at Amoretta seriously. "She said it, just like that. Just like it was nothing, like it was completely ordinary, like commenting on the weather. It was my twelfth birthday, and I hadn't heard those words in years. It was - " he struggled. "It was very confusing for me. I didn't think - " he struggled, "That is, it wasn't what I had envisioned for myself. It wasn't part of the lifescript I had written for myself, age eleven. I was to be great, brilliant, powerful, ominous, hard, forbidding, alone, aloof. Her love, it felt strange and foreign and terrifying, although I was far too prideful to admit to being afraid of what she gave to me so nonchalantly."
Then he shook his head again. "But Violet didn't give me the luxury of being confused or frightened," he said. "She was already up and off to the next thing, and naturally, I followed behind her, because I was fascinated to see what she'd try next. Watching her was like watching fireworks. I didn't want to be captivated, and yet I was. Before I knew it, we were always together. It became something I looked forward to. It became something I wanted, something I needed. That Samhain was the first time she told me that she loved me, but it wasn't the last. She was as motile as lightning, but her heart was constant and unerring. She was always telling me how she felt, in the weirdest and most bizarre circumstances, like it was always occurring to her like a brand new thought, a new secret that demanded to be told."
"It was more than a year before I could answer those words that were so easy for her," he said quietly. "When I finally told her how I felt, she just laughed. Imagine that. It sounds so awful, to have someone laugh at you when you've just confessed all your silly, awful schoolboy feelings, but I was never afraid of being rejected, as hard as the telling was. She laughed because what I said to her made her happy, and that was something I could understand without trying. I knew she wouldn't reject me. She already loved me and had told me so dozens and dozens of times. It was me. I was always me. It was only me. She picked me out of the crowd that first day. She knew, even then. Her intuition was always astonishing, and in this, in this - it is the greatest honor in my life that she chose me that first day, like a mangy seaside pony, and that she kept choosing me afterward, day after day, year after year." He looked away briefly and seemed to struggle with himself before speaking. "It is the other great honor of my life that you find me to be a suitable partner," he said quietly. "I will never be able to adequately express how much that means to me, and for that, I am profoundly sorry. There simply aren't words," he finished weakly.
Amoretta felt the color rising to her cheeks and ducked her own head shyly. "I'm honored too," she answered softly. "I know that sounds silly: I'm honored that you're honored, we're both honored, everyone is honored - but it is true. Don't feel bad for not being able to say all that you mean. Whether you speak or not, my heart listens. I love you, Hieronymous."
"I know you do," he said with gentle warmth. "I cannot help but know it. Your heart is generous and unguarded. I love that about you, and many other things besides."
Amoretta moved close to him in response, pressing herself against his side briefly. It was a way of embracing him even inside his arms.
Grabiner's voice dropped and when he continued speaking, it was low, hushed. "It is strange to consider, but Violet and I were both alone in the world when we met one another. She had a family, it is true, but she had left them behind, cut herself off from them when she made the Choice and went away to study at the Cradle. Just like her, I had nothing and no one of my own. I had acquaintances among the youth of the other notable houses, but no friends. I spent my holidays alone in a dark, cavernous house with no one but a skeletal housekeeping staff and my tutors. Our lives had been radically different, and yet they had been radically similar. We were both alone and found our only solace in books - in wishing to know and understand. We both felt suffocated and beaten down by our circumstances, crushed by the weight of loneliness and the futility of empty and mindless conversation. We were both desperate for something different, both scrabbling hard in the darkness, like castaways searching for any sign of human contact. We found that 'something different' in one another, and we never looked back."
He curled his arm around Amoretta's back again and began stroking the top of her head, as if she were a little cat.
"And the great depth of our loneliness and personal despair became the weight of our passion and commitment and devotion," he explained. "Because we both had nothing, we became everything to one another. What we had together was so rich and so rare, it was a treasure that could not be fully comprehended by those outside of ourselves. Even now, it is not a thing that outsiders understand. They think whatever it is they think," here he waved his hand dismissively. "But none of them ken the truth: that simple, complicated, magnificently beautiful truth. Against what we had, even the greatest love would have seemed shallow, vague, and uncommitted. We knew one another. We truly did. I knew her as I knew myself, and I found her much easier to love. I was never really comfortable living as Hieronymous Grabiner. I was never really consciously aware of my discomfort until I saw her for the first time. When I was with Violet, it became possible for me to be. I could be Hieronymous Grabiner without anxiety and discomfort, without anger and superiority."
He stopped stroking her head to consider his next words.
"Everything new that we learned, we tried together," he said. "She was my partner in every sense of the word, and she taught me," he was struggling again, "She taught me so much. She taught me how to be, how to think, how to love, how to live. She taught me that there was a reason to keep breathing, every day, no matter how difficult it got. That's one of the reasons I could never - that I couldn't - " He stopped and was very still for a moment. "I did once," he said soberly, sliding his fingertips up his arm, as if there was an age-old unseen itch. "I did try. Once in the early days when the agony was so fresh and all-consuming, I did try. Then, all I wanted was oblivion. But I was found and - I am glad I was found. I never tried again, after that, no matter how bad things were - it would have shamed her, and that I could never do." He frowned briefly. "I resolved to live in this world," he said. "This ugly, terrible world, barren in the absence of the one star that crowned the heavens. I would live in this world and endure its misery, because that is what she would have done, had she the choice."
He smiled and it was strange and bittersweet. Amoretta held her breath.
"I told you I was a coward," he said and his smile was weak and unsteady. "There are dozens of ways I might have done myself in and been done with it, been done with everything. But I was too much of a coward for anything so final. I didn't have the necessary commitment. I was looking, even then, for an alternative," he said with a pitiful laugh. "They found me half bled out in a bathtub, and that was the end of my pitiful attempted suicide."
"I'm glad you didn't have the necessary commitment," Amoretta said honestly, laying both her hands on his arm and leaning close to him. "If that makes you a coward, then I am glad you're a coward. But I don't think you are. I think it is much braver to choose life than it is to choose death. You are the bravest person I know," she reminded him gently. "I love you very much."
"I know," Grabiner said, closing his eyes for a moment. "Thank you," he said. "It means a great deal that you will listen, that I know you will always listen, no matter what it is that I have to say. I have never shared this with anyone before. I have never cared to," he admitted with a frown. "But you? You I will give all my secrets to, just as I gave you my heart. I will share it all, even the parts I wish I did not have to show to you: the ugly parts, the disgusting parts, all the things that make me vile and wretched. I wish I were a better man. I wish that I could give that truth to you, but I cannot. I am me. I ever have been nothing more than that."
"I don't think they're disgusting," Amoretta assured him. "Or ugly. I don't think you're vile or wretched. I want all of it, Hieronymous. I want all of you. It's all valuable to me. Every part of you is a treasure. I will keep it all safe and warm in my arms." She mimed pulling it close to her chest and holding it, as if his cares were a pillow she could hold against her heart. "Thank you for sharing it with me. That is what takes real courage." She gave him her own sweet smile as she continued. "It is you that I want. Always you. Only you. You are already so great that you fill my heart to bursting. Do not wish you were different than you are. I want no one else besides you, just as you are, just as you ever have been. You are my favorite. Of all the things in this world, you are my favorite."
He captured one of her hands and brought it to his mouth. He held it there, pressed against his lips and was he silent for a moment, thinking. At last, he continued, speaking into her skin so that she felt his warm breath on her palm.
"I married her when I was seventeen. It was the most natural thing in the world, and it was certainly the best idea I had ever had up until that point in time." Grabiner frowned as he continued. "We had both finished six years at the Cradle, and we both left with distinction. My father had already made it abundantly clear that he would not accept our marriage, and I was no longer remotely interested in his approval. When I married Violet, I gave up my name and I took hers. At that moment, I became Hieronymous Lore, and I felt that I had truly found my place in the world. Being grim, forbidding, aloof, solitary, the young archmage of gens Grabiner, that had all flown out the window the moment I realized that I could not ever do without her, no matter the cost. I was at her service. I was always at her service." His smile was wry and wistful, and his voice was filled with warmth and sentiment. He was sharing his intimate secrets with her. She shivered slightly, and pressed close to him again. "We had nothing but what we carried with us when we left school, but Violet already had such celebrity that doors were open everywhere," he explained."I had never done without anything in my life, but I was prepared for hardship. Life with Violet in honorable poverty was worth more than two dozen gilded lifetimes as the miserable, self-absorbed heir to Dernegrave and Shetlock. She and I, we would have made it one way or another, just scraping by on talent alone. I am confident of that. She was doing serious professional research at the time, which is why we went to the Otherworld in the first place. That and the fact that it's easier to live in the Other if you are young and lack both financial resources and conventional employment."
"The Otherworld is really dangerous for young people, isn't it?" Amoretta asked tentatively. He had released her hand. There was the brief brush of his fingertips and then she could pull her arm back to herself. She was treading very lightly, uncertain of this strange, dangerous ground. They were nearing the place where Violet had met her death. It was coming. It could not be avoided. "That's what the headmistress always says," she finished dutifully. It was true. The headmistress was always cautioning them about the Other. It was not a place for children.
"She is not incorrect." Grabiner answered seriously. "When you are in the Other you cannot take anything for granted, least of all your safety. You must always be ready to defend yourself, using lethal force if necessary. It is not a place for children, that is true. If a human child slips sideways and enters the Other unintentionally, then that child will not return untouched. The children who are spirited away rarely return at all, but if they do return, they almost never return as humans. They have become something different."
Then he shook his head.
"You have to understand. Violet and I, nether of us were children," he explained. "We were old in our shoes, old on the ground. We were blooded and competent and capable, with years of experience in combat together. I held a Rank A license even at that time. Violet had obliterated the Rank S examination - " he broke off briefly and offered his hands up. "That immense amount of strength, effortlessly controlled - frankly, she was a force of nature. Rather than she being frightened of the Otherworld, the Otherworld ought to have been frightened of her. She was very nearly an archwitch at seventeen. She was monstrous, honestly. What I mean to say is this: we were both aware of the risks and prepared to face them. We could handle ourselves very well at that point."
"What was Violet studying?" Amoretta asked thoughtfully. She had some ideas but -
"She was looking for information about the lost grimoires of the White Empress," he said with an absent wave of his hand, then seemed to recollect that she was not witchreared. "Ah, the White Empress - "
"Is a magnificently old witch," Amoretta supplied immediately. "The greatest witch in the world, if she's still alive. Headmistress Potsdam's teacher was one of the White Empress's students!"
"That's what they say, although that in itself might be a tall tale. It is likely that Felicity Shaw had a learned mentor, since she did develop Pentachromatic magic herself, and creating a new spell paradigm requires a deep knowledge of the systems that are already in place. But you must understand, the White Empress is something of a fairy tale figure at this point, like Jeanne d'Arc, or Gretel," Grabiner agreed with another idle wave of his hand. "At this late date, the witch or witches who inspired the legends of the White Empress are certainly dead. Her omnipresence as the once-and-future-witch is just part of her myth. The witches of North America like to embellish legends and having such a great legend of their own appeals to their sensibilities."
"Because the White Empress is supposed to be here, right? In North America, I mean." Grabiner nodded and it was Amoretta's turn to shrug. "I think it's more interesting to imagine that she's alive somewhere out there," she said. "I want to believe," she said soulfully. "It would be really cool if it were true! What if she's someone we know?!"
"And who might you suggest?" Grabiner asked dryly, crossing his arms over his chest.
"How about Professor Finch," Amoretta said with a giggle. "He's really old right?"
"I'll let him know that you suspect his secret," Grabiner said, rolling his eyes. "Of course, believe whatever you like," he said with an exaggerated shrug. "This is, as you are most certainly aware, a free country."
Then he was silent for several minutes. He was thinking hard.
"Hieronymous, if you don't want to talk about, to talk about the, um, the incident, I want you to know that I'm willing to wait," Amoretta said haltingly, but Grabiner shook his head.
"No," he said seriously. "It's time for me to talk about it." He closed his eyes briefly before opening them again. "I'm ready," he said, then pulled her close to him again, giving her a short, intense squeeze, as if reassuring himself of her material existence. "Thank you for your love and concern, but I will manage."
Amoretta's fingers drifted up his sleeve again and she began to slowly stroke his arm, smooth, sweet, and soft. She hummed tunelessly as she did. It was a gentle comfort, and reminded him more than any words might that this girl beside him was his home. It was enough to sweep him away with warm nostalgia, with visions of her sitting on the floor near the dresser playing cards with Kavus, or standing in the kitchens at Iris Academy with flour all up her arms and in a streak across her forehead. The bricks and mortar didn't matter, nor did the stone. That was not how his home was laid, because his home was not material place. The hearth he where he warmed his tired heart was not one with a fire built of sticks and straw. It was simpler than that, and more complicated. He felt safe at her side. She was his garden and his sanctuary. Wherever she left her small footprints, he followed beside her, and that place became their home.
He would take what she had freely given. He would keep it carefully, like a flower pressed between the pages of a book.
After a few moments of solace, he began to speak again.
"It was hot that day," he said slowly. "We were crossing Mare Veld. The suns were burning like fire in the sky. I can remember sweating in the car, the shirt sticking to my back. It's strange, the things you remember so acutely. We were heading toward a confluence of the veld and the great library. Generally it's both easier and safer to travel outside of the library rather than inside it."
Amoretta didn't stop him to ask about the fact that he had said suns, or related riding in a car across a magic veld toward a library it wasn't safe to travel through. Some things she knew. Other things she didn't. She simply listened.
"We had been singing together. She had improvised a tape deck according to the Rail Finch school of automotive engineering, and there were all these cassettes scattered across the floorboards. I was in charge of picking and changing the cassettes because she was driving. She loved music - the awfulest stuff, really, but she loved it, and because she loved it I loved it, because I loved her loving it. I was still rummaging around on the floor - Violet was the first to notice that the veld had become quiet," he shook his head. "The veld is never quiet." He frowned. "The birds and animals had scattered. They hadn't cared a whit about Violet howling Bon Jovi songs at the top of her lungs. Something else had frightened them off. She cut hard on the wheel, but she wasn't fast enough. In that moment I could swear before heaven that we were hit with dragonfire. She lost control of the car. The damn thing nearly exploded on top of us, but we got clear. And then it was on us. It was on us so heavily that it felt like the sky was crashing down on our heads. I almost threw up. Violet did throw up, coughing and spitting from the smoke and the heaviness. It was hard to think. It was hard to do anything," he said. He was very grim. "It was hard to exist."
"Antimagic field," Amoretta said softly, and she shivered, remembering how it had felt to her that evening she had visited Donald when he had been jailed. She never wanted to feel that way again. It felt like slowly suffocating. It felt like your life was ebbing away, your blood draining, drop by drop.
"Yes," he answered. "The first thing she did was try to throw up a shield around us both, because we were both certain we were under attack. The spell didn't take. Nothing took. We knew we were in an antimagic field then. We knew that if we didn't get out of it, we'd end up dead. Violet ran. I ran after her. I was almost always her vanguard, and as you know, in full retreat the vanguard covers the rear where the pursuit is likely to be most hotly contested. Violet was a genius in final position." He snorted and clarified. "She was a genius at everything she tried, but she was notably brilliant in final position." He raised a knuckle to his lips thoughtfully. "We expected to hit the edge of the field in a dozen steps. Antimagic fields are difficult to hold in the best of circumstances, but we were on the open veld. It isn't possible to hold a field of any size out in a wide open space like that, not for any amount of time. Diameter, height, duration - one of these measures had to be as thin as a sliver. We needed to find the narrow edge and break through it, out into safety, out where we could defend ourselves." He closed his eyes. "But we did not make it out of the antimagic field in a dozen steps, or two dozen steps, or four dozen steps, or a hundred steps. We didn't make it out at all. We could not find the narrow edge of the field." He opened his eyes and Amoretta felt him tense. "And that was when the drums began," he said.
"The drums?" Amoretta asked, her fingers tightening on his sleeve again.
"The drums of the war party," he said quietly, and she pressed her teeth against her lower lip. "There was a ridge running parallel to us, and all at once we could see them silhouetted against the sun: goblins. There were hundreds of them. It was a full war host, with cavalry and infantry and artillery. We had no magic. We couldn't even strike a spark, either of us. All we could rely on were conventional weapons. They came down on us like thunder. By the time I had drawn my sword and put myself between Violet and the mob, they were after us."
Amoretta started, and she immediately tugged on his arm. "Wait. What?" she asked. "Your sword? You have a sword?"
His smile flickered. "Yes," he said. "I did at the time. I have carried one at various points, and I am tolerably acquainted with its use." He paused and raised an eyebrow. "Now don't go entertaining romantic visions of swashbuckling witches slashing their initials into their foes to the rising cheers of a recently liberated crowd. It is practical to have both conventional and augmented weapons when one travels through dangerous territory, and hand-to-hand weapons are particularly useful for a vanguard who has to forcibly break the defenses of a heavily shielded opponent, since more force can be brought to bear through direct point-to-point contact." Even now he thought and acted as an educator, ready to carefully explain himself, ready to guide her interest and help direct her inquiry. "I also had two side arms," he said. "But I couldn't have reloaded quickly enough given the numbers that were falling on us. For that, I would have needed a very large automatic weapon to lay down suppressive fire, and suffice to say I did not have one. But I knew I could rely upon Violet's shooting, as I always had. She was a very accurate shot even without any augmentations, and generally favored firearms as her conventional weapons of choice. And once we were through the antimagic field - not even the most ardent prayers would have saved those goblins from the kind of wrath that Violet could visit upon them. She was a devil on the battlefield, a devil arrayed in starlight and majesty. She was a devil with all the beatific charms of an angel when she was fighting, or perhaps, an angel with the devil's sublime genius for destruction."
He studied the ground.
"We had to get out of the field," he said. "We both knew we were running for our lives. We both kept running, and I kept myself between her and the filthy mess of them. Once we were clear of the field, we knew we could fight them off. We had to get clear. We both knew that our lives depended on getting clear. I killed dozens of goblins as we ran." His mouth was turned down and he was very grim. "It was gory and the smell and the screams were awful. None of those goblins died easily or well. I had to flick the blood from my sword again and again because it kept getting slick and difficult to hold onto. When you're in a situation like that you have to let your body move according to muscle memory while your mind is thinking as many steps ahead as the time horizon allows." He frowned and shook his head. "I was desperate to keep them off of her. I was keeping them off of her, somehow, some way, by pushing myself far past my own limits, running and fighting until it felt as if my heart might burst from the strain. My blood was cold as it sloshed through my veins, as cold as deep seawater. It's as if I could feel it, everywhere, all at once: the sound, the throbbing, the drums. It made me shiver. My blood tasted like pure adrenaline. Then I could no longer hear the sound of anything because silence was roaring in my ears as I cut down goblin after goblin after goblin. It was survival, moment to moment - but we were surviving. We were surviving."
He was so tense that he was shivering even now, his voice low and fierce. But then he was still.
And when he spoke again, his voice nothing but a whisper.
"And then there was the howling," he said. "That terrible howling that only comes from worg wolves, and I knew we were cut off. The cavalry had circled us. We tried to flank them and withdraw, but we were on foot with no functioning augmentations. Just imagine it," he murmured, with a sick little sound that might have been a nervous giggle. "A girl and a boy, spattered over in red, in blood and gore, hand in sweaty, grasping hand, scrambling desperately to outrun a pack of wolves bigger than tigers. The ground seemed to shake as they chased us. Then boom." His hand flicked open, miming an explosion. "Part of the ground nearby was simply gone. Artillery bombardment during a charge. We had no chance. From the beginning we had no chance, not without magic, but we were desperate to stay alive." He shook his head. "They closed on us. The weight of the field was still crushing us, and then we were swept up in a chaos of swinging blades and clubs. The cavalry had overrun us, and the infantry was upon us at the moment we were run down. It was a bloody swill of confusion and those flabby, stringy little bodies of the goblin infantry. It was madness. I tried to cut a swath through them, to get to Violet, but there were so many. There were so many." He had drawn into himself again, tense and coiled, as if he were trying to make himself as small as possible. Amoretta held his hand in both of hers.
"We were overtaken," he said very quietly. "I failed to protect her. Even at the last she was fighting, fighting as hard as she could. I remember her staggering, the blood seeping out of her ears, and I felt it crumbling all around us, like a house of cards falling in on itself: the antimagic field. She had done something insane. What, I have no earthly idea, but she had done something that had collapsed the field from the inside, and doing it had ruptured her eardrums and damn near killed her. I could feel the fire building up inside of me, white hot, forge hot, and I knew that she had done it. I knew that we would survive. She smiled at me, that wise and wicked smile she had," And then his voice cracked as he brought his hand to his mouth again, "And that's when I saw her skull crushed in. I couldn't get to her. There was no way I could have been at her side. There was no time. It was a troll on a worg the size of a draft horse. He nearly took her head off with his first blow. I knew that, I knew that there was nothing," he admitted, blinking back tears. "There was nothing. She was dead. In that moment, she was gone, and I had nothing. She was dead." He covered his face with his hands, pulling away from her. "They piled on me after that, and I don't remember anything else afterwards. When I came to my senses, I was already a prisoner, chained to a bed in a dirty little cell. I never saw Violet again."
Amoretta swallowed hard, and then asked a tentative question. "Is it possible then, that she might still be alive somewhere? I'm sorry, I know that's a terrible question - "
"It's all right," he answered gently. "It is a reasonable question to ask." He closed his eyes. "She is certainly dead. No human could have survived the injury she sustained, even if they had received immediate medical attention, which she did not. It was a fatal blow and probably an instantaneous death. Whatever I may think of them, the magistrates did investigate the scene thoroughly. They recovered some of her bones, which they presented in court as proof of her death. They had been verified as her bones. I independently verified them myself, after the trial."
"So there's no chance?" Amoretta asked weakly, and he shook his head.
"I wish I could believe otherwise, but I cannot," he said. "I have been investigating her death for years. I have never uncovered any evidence that gives me hope for her continued existence. Everything I have discovered confirms her death."
Amoretta squeezed his hand once, then leaned down to brush her lips against his knuckles briefly. He stroked her hair absently, and when she drew back she saw that he was staring up at the ceiling abstractly.
"It was after I was ransomed that I saw the star," he said quietly.
"The star?" she asked, and her intimate sympathy was washed over by a wave of powerful curiosity. If she had had ears on the top of her head like Dinah, they would have perked.
"There was a new star in the sky. They called it the Peerless Star, or otherwise the Witching Star," he said. "Some people just call it 'Violet,' like they expect it to answer them. They say it's her star. It's plain enough to see with the naked eye in the Otherworld. It's a bright enough star that it can be seen in the daytime. Like the library, it is omnipresent. You can see it in the sky no matter your location."
"That's what Madame Belle meant when she said you ought to take me stargazing," she breathed.
"Yes," he said. "The stars above Revane are set to mirror those above Brittany, so you have never had the opportunity to see the Witching Star. I'll show it to you tonight."
Amoretta nodded, overcome with the solemnity of the promise. Then she thought about it.
"Why did that happen, though?" she asked. "The star being born, I mean. That's totally strange, isn't it?"
"It's bizarre," he agreed. "I have no idea. No one has any idea, although there are any number of theories, most so ridiculously farfetched that they're laughable and not one with even a single shred of evidence to support it. It is an unnatural phenomenon, even among witches. No one can begin to explain it. We simply know that the star flared into being - or at the very least became visible - around the time of her death."
"Then it's a great mystery," Amoretta said, folding her hands in front of her chest.
"Yes," he agreed. "It is."
Amoretta was silent for a moment, thinking. "The enormous antimagic field you encountered: that can't be explained by modern magical theory. It ought to be impossible. That's probably one of the major reasons no one believes you about it."
"Yes," Grabiner agreed tiredly, "And yet that is certainly what we both experienced."
"Yeah, I'm not discounting that," Amoretta answered seriously. "But what I mean is, that's something that seems like magic even to a witch. That makes it a great mystery, just like the star."
"You are not incorrect," he said simply. "I have been attempting to unravel the nature of that great mystery myself for the past fourteen years. If I can understand the nature of the mystery then it is possible I will be able to trace it to its source."
Amoretta laughed weakly. "And then I fell into your lap and suddenly you had even more great mysteries to contend with," she said. "You just piled that up on your to-do list, like it was nothing: 'research the true nature of mortal souls so that an otherwise fatal wound can be doctored away.' And then I don't even have a mortal soul, probably. You said yourself that I'm very, very strange. That's not even figuring in my weird connection to Violet, which may or may not be totally imaginary. It's like I'm a walking great mystery." She threw up her hands. "You know, I really like playing girl detective, but you've been carrying out a serious investigation for years. That makes you an ace detective." She folded her hands in front of herself and smiled shyly. "I hope you'll let me act as your assistant from now on. I want to help you, Hieronymous, with everything. I know I'm young and I still have lots and lots to learn, but this is actually a thing I'm pretty good at, I think. At the very least I can help you organize what you do know."
He ruffled her hair briefly. "I am grateful for the help," he said with his own small smile, then he snorted. "If and when we do unravel all of these great mysteries, we will certainly both be mages of the highest caliber, on the level of the greatest archwitches who have ever lived."
"Well," Amoretta said with a laugh. "If anybody can do it, then we can. I mean, I seem to be some kind of genius, and you've got a super abnormal brain."
"I can say without question that your brain is also extremely abnormal," he said dryly.
"I never said otherwise," she giggled, giving him one of her foley effect twinkling winks. It was if the entire room were suddenly lit by magic lamps and diffused by pixie dust. That was the sort of general effect Amoretta had on her environment.
It did not go unnoticed.
"Good lord," Grabiner said with a low, private laugh. "You are such an impossible little idiot. I hope you understand that I am wholly devoted to you," he paused. "And your idiocy," he finished.
"Yeah," she said with frank confidence. "I know you are. For my part, I really like how you're super grim and serious and bad at talking to people. I'm also a big fan of your knowledge of ropes and knot tying."
He laughed again, a bit more freely. "You little monster," he said. "I will honestly make good on my threat of locking you in a cupboard."
"Only if you lock yourself in the cupboard with me," she giggled, and it was certainly a giggle with intent.
"I hate to rain on your parade, ma petite Justine, but that's not going to be as tense and erotic as you imagine. It's going to be mostly stuffy and uncomfortable," he noted idly. "You will complain about me stepping on your feet. I will end up accidentally kneed in the groin. It never fails."
"You sound like you're talking from experience," Amoretta said with keen interest.
"That's because I am talking from experience," he said dryly. "And I am now taller and heavier than I was at fifteen. You may weigh roughly the same as an anemic duck and be conveniently portable, but I am a grown man. I'm not locking us into any cupboards in the near future, unless I have absolutely no other recourse for privacy. I would like to add, if we attempted to engage in this sort of indiscreet shenanigan on school grounds, I am certain that the headmistress would wait for the most picturesque moment - when we were most embarrassingly involved with one another - and then promptly throw open the door with an innocent claim that she needed to find a stapler, or was looking for more toilet paper, or something similar. If she could arrange it, the yearbook photographer would be there to document the heartwarming event for all time. Then you would have absolutely no ability to hide behind the nondescript words 'Not Shown.'"
"That would be an interesting experience," Amoretta laughed nervously, a flush creeping up into her cheeks. She was beginning to feel hot. She was certainly already bothered, but unfortunately not in the clandestined sense. She was feeling bothered, as in, she was feeling harassed. She was feeling harassed by the headmistress, who was not even currently on the premises.
That was really sort of remarkable all by itself.
"You'd die on the spot," Grabiner predicted with an eyeroll. "Not even heroic measures would be enough to save your life. I have developed some tolerance to her harassment, being as I have had to live with it for some years now. But you, my darling, you are still young and tender. I have no doubt that you would promptly expire."
"Well, yes," Amoretta admitted, pressing her teeth against her lower lip as she smiled. "That's probably spot on. And I mean, I can totally see the headmistress doing that, even with the yearbook photographer and all. All right then, I defer to your judgement," she said with a nod.
"Excellent call," he said dryly.
That bit of levity settled, Amoretta looked thoughtfully at the ring on her finger and then tentatively asked, "The violets that Lord and Lady Something-or-other sent, were they a trap? I mean, were they sent with the intention of causing one or the other of us harm?"
Grabiner grunted and it was a noncommittal sound. "Aylesbury," he said. "Lord and Lady Aylesbury. And more specifically, I believe these were sent by Lord Aylesbury, Sir Richard Marvell. The other present marked Aylesbury, the clock? That was certainly from Honoria, his wife. I doubt she had any knowledge that he sent the other 'gift.' Nonny can be a bit high strung, but it's not in her nature to be purposefully cruel. As to the question of malice - the answer to that is complicated and depends on what you mean by 'intention to harm.' The violets were sent to me as a threat and an accusation. There's not really any question about that. He meant for them to hurt me, but he meant for them to hurt me psychologically. I'm sure he hoped you would also see them and be disturbed, and perhaps begin to question your relationship with me. That was lagniappe. The violets were intended as an act of psychological warfare, not literal warfare. There were no spells, enchantments, or hexes involved in this unfortunate incident. The violets weren't cursed. They were filled with an immense amount of negative emotional energy. That latent energy is what caused the horrible reaction you experienced when you attempted an empathetic analysis. It was as if you reached out and grabbed a live electric wire. The vast power of his hateful feelings was concentrated in the statuette, and it hit you all at once. You're naturally very sensitive and empathetic ordinarily, even without magical augmentation. I'm just glad the event didn't cause any lasting damage. The spell buffered a great deal of the surge, but it couldn't offload all of it. There was simply too much."
"Why does he hate you so much?" Amoretta asked, frowning slightly.
"Because I had what he wanted desperately, what he never got to lay his grasping fingers on," Grabiner said grimly. "Marvell has been in love with Violet since the moment he met her." He made a vague motion with one of his hands. "We all went to school together, you see: Marvell, Honoria, Violet, and I. We were all in the same year, all part of the same social set. Marvell was obsessed with Violet from the beginning, but he was too stupid to admit that until well after she was involved with me. He has always been convinced that I seduced her, when the opposite is much closer to the truth - although I must confess: I was certainly a willing participant. Besides that," Grabiner said as he shrugged, "Violet was never interested in being Marvell's lover, only his friend. Violet was committed to me from the first, and her commitment never wavered. He hated me for that."
Grabiner snorted then paused and corrected himself. "He still hates me for that. When Violet was among the living, he forced himself to behave with civility, or at least the outward appearance of civility. Since her death he has had no reason to even vaguely disguise his disgust and contempt. He seems to think that I stole the woman who ought to have been his, and therefore stole the whole of his life." He made another brief wave of his hand. "Of course, Marvell was never particularly interested in what Violet thought, what Violet wanted. I'm sure he thinks that he was perfectly conscientious and attentive, but he never wanted to listen to her dreams. He wanted her to listen to his dreams. I'm sure that he believes even now that he knew what was best for her and her happiness, and that they would have been perfectly happy together if I hadn't gotten in their way. He had a plan for their splendid life together. The problem is, Violet never wanted to have anything to do with it," Grabiner said, shaking her head, then he leaned back against the sofa and looked up at the ceiling. "But the power of human delusion can be very great, even in a person who is otherwise very calm and controlled." He looked down at her again seriously. "Perhaps particularly so in such a character," he said. "Marvell has always been very keen on control and perfection. I'm sure one of the reasons he was so obsessed with Violet is that she defied categorization and never acted according to anyone's script but her own. Bodies are often powerfully attracted to that which they lack themselves."
"He sounds . . . difficult," Amoretta said diplomatically.
"Difficult is too kind a word," Grabiner said grimly. "I have known him since we were both children. His father and my father are both peers of the realm. Inevitably, that means our families move in the same claustrophobically small social circles. It's perhaps even worse there than it is here. The witchfolk of Britain are very insular, and class cleaves to class." He said with a shrug. "Marvell has always been a cold-blooded viper, hidebound, by the book, and intoxicated by authority. I have known him to be deliberately cruel, as he was in sending this obscene 'gift.' But he is no man's fool. He is very adept at disguising his cruelty when he chooses to do so. And he may be cold, but Marvell's got a chilly sort of charisma. He had his own fan club while we were in school," Grabiner said with a dismissive wave. "Not that he ever encouraged them. He didn't have to. They were encouraged by the fact that he discouraged them. Some people have perverse tastes," he said with a frown, and Amoretta squirmed slightly and flushed, but a Grabiner was too lost in thought to notice. "And he plays the noblesse oblige card very well," he said. "Marvell seems like the sort of person who ought to have authority. He moves with grace and subtlety and tact. These are the seven veils he wears to conceal the fact that he is completely ruthless. He's the sort of person who can smile cooly at you while signing the orders for your execution. He'd throw his own grandmother in prison if it suited his ends. In fact, his appellation recalls this: Richard Marvell, the Discreet Knife. He's organized, ambitious, and brutal, and this has made him very successful in his adult life. He's charismatic, handsome, wealthy, well-educated, and he has a silver tongue. He also wields a great deal of influence. He is a powerful figure. I'm certain that he remains popular with women even now," Grabiner said with a shrug. "But none of those glittering accolades and accomplishments can change the fundamental truth of his life: Marvell was never the person that Violet wanted. He blames me for that. He also blames me for her death."
All at once Amoretta shivered, from the tip of her tailbone all the way to the top of her spine, as if she had received another jolt from a live wire. Her mind seemed very clear and still and pieces that had been at odds with one another fell into place easily and she understood.
"Mack the Knife," Amoretta said, her eyes widening. She had connected a real flesh and blood person with one of the strange entities in Violet's rambling commonplace books. "Richard Marvell is Mack the Knife."
"Yes," Grabiner said, his mouth set to a thin line. "That's what Violet called him. She started calling him that the first week of school and it stuck. It's the source of his appellation. I can't say it's the most flattering depiction, but he's very vain about it. I'm sure he wouldn't be so keen on it if hadn't come from her, but Marvell enshrined her like a madonna when she was living. Then, after her death she ascended to Godhood in his own personal religion. I haven't spoken to him in years, but everything about this indicates my past experience with him remains true. He is a leopard who has no interest in changing his spots. That's why he sent the violets," Grabiner explained. "Violet is still with him - or at least, his own image of Violet is still with him. She remains a real and material part of his life, just as the Violet of my heart remains a part of mine. In having the audacity to marry again, I committed the most mortal of sins in his eyes. He is accusing me of having forgotten her, and at the same time reminding me that he has not and that he never will." He laughed and it was a short, harsh sound. "He is ever faithful to her memory, despite the fact that he was never involved with her in the first place and has been married to another woman for ten years now. Poor Nonny. She has always deserved better than him, but there's no accounting for taste," he said with a shrug. "The primary difference between our two sorry patches of existence is that I actually had a relationship with Violet. He clings only to his selfish, ludicrous fantasies."
"Did Violet give you your appellation too?" Amoretta asked with sympathy. "It seems like she was always giving names to everybody."
"No," Grabiner said. "That came courtesy of the headmaster," he said, sounding exasperated. "Violet always called me - "
"Hiero," Amoretta answered absently, because she was thinking about Marvell, and Grabiner's time at Newton's Cradle. "I know."
Grabiner stared at her. She flushed as she realized he was staring.
"I've read her commonplace books, remember?" she said awkwardly.
Grabiner gave his head a sharp toss, as if he could shake the wool out of his skull.
"Sorry," he said. "It's only - I haven't - no one has called me that in a very long time," he explained, wringing one of his hands out very slowly. "It was just startling to hear it spoken. I hear it in my head all the time. I hear it in empty rooms when I'm alone," he confessed, and his voice was low and dark. "I hear the way she shaped my name."
"I'm sorry," Amoretta apologized sincerely, feeling panicky. "I never meant to upset you. I wasn't thinking. I won't say it again, I promise."
Grabiner shook his head. "It's fine," he said. "You may call me that if you like, whenever you like. It is your exclusive privilege," he promised. "You don't have to force yourself either to say it or not say it. Say it when it feels right. Otherwise, call me as you always have. No one else says my name quite the way you do."
She covered her warm cheeks with her palms. "Hieronymous!" she said, clearly deep in the throes of keen embarrassment.
"Be mindful of when you use that tone, darling," he warned lowly. "It is always powerfully compelling."
Then he got to his feet and then offered her his hand.
"Come along then," he said. "And I'll show you the stars."
The dew was heavy in the grass in the side yard. He led her out past the little court that she and Ellen had flattened in preparation for playing tennis as part of their extracurricular activities at Grabiner's school. He led her out through the grass, to the far end of the field, where it almost ran into the thin treeline that stood as polite camouflage for one of the boundaries of the capsule world of Revane. Here the sun rose as commanded and also set as commanded. The stars would show themselves not as the turning of the universe decreed, but rather according to the will of the master of the house.
The night air was a little chilly. Amoretta could smell the promise of rain. She pulled the wrap she wore a little more closely around her shoulders. Grabiner had not called a light up, but led her through the dark by the hand. When she shivered, he turned back to look at her and smiled.
"You can already feel the storm coming on, can't you?" he asked quietly. "I can. I set it to go a little while ago. It seems like the sort of evening to have rain, don't you think? It'll remain clear until we finish our stargazing," he promised.
Amoretta nodded. "Rain has a healing quality about it, a making new. Running water holds no enchantment," she quoted and he chuckled.
"Neither does falling water," he agreed.
He stopped at last and Amoretta could see the dark smudges of tree shadows in the dim light ahead. He carefully spread the blanket he carried on the ground and beckoned her to sit. She sat.
"I feel like I ought to have brought a box of sandwiches," she said with a mild laugh.
"I did bring a box of sandwiches, if you'd like one," Grabiner admitted. "It occurred to me that neither of us had eaten since lunch. There's also tea with milk. It's in the thermos."
"You seem to have thought of everything," she said peaceably.
"I can be moderately conscientious every once in awhile," he agreed.
"I promise not to eat your chicken and avocado sandwiches," she swore faithfully as she unwrapped her own sandwich.
"For that reason and many others you are a jewel among women," he agreed, then turned his attention to the sky.
He spoke briefly to the open air, and Amoretta realized that he was not casting a spell so much as adjusting some element of the demi-plane's permanent systems. She recognized the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates he began with. He was verifying the Brittany coordinates then, perhaps shunting them off to a different field, so that they could be easily retrieved later. And then he began a long string of coordinates. That was absolute location. He was giving a coordinate in absolute location.
He turned to look down on her and his smile flickered very briefly, and then he was serious.
"I've set the sky to show as the night sky shows above Shetlock. It's one of the few absolute locations I know by heart," he said. "And perhaps Shetlock is a fitting setting for us after this long day of turmoil."
Amoretta nodded and turned her eyes up to look at the familiar sky above. The stars of the summer triangle reigned bright and serene.
"Confirm the change in coordinates for the demisphere," Grabiner said clearly, and Amoretta's eyes widened as a ripple seemed to spread across the sky with smooth serenity, and the heavens reoriented themselves.
Once everything was still again, Amoretta found herself looking at a night sky she did not recognize.
A thick band of stars surged like a river running across the dome of heaven. It was humbling even to look at it, and to imagine the worlds and worlds and worlds those millions of tiny, brilliant lights represented. Clouds of interstellar dust were lit up pink and purple, like the turgid, milky currents of the stellar river.
Amoretta let out a long, slow breath.
"What is that?" she asked. "I want to say it's - "
"It's the Milky Way," Grabiner agreed with a smile. "This is how the Milky Way appears from Shetlock."
"It's beautiful," she said softly, and he nodded.
"Yes," he said. "It is."
She stood up from the blanket and craned her head back as far as she could, taking in the splendor of the night sky from every angle as she slowly turned in circles. All at once she stopped and pointed. There was a band of pitch blackness that seemed to cut across the brilliant, jeweled sky.
"What's that?" she asked.
"It's the great library," Grabiner answered. "What you're seeing is the shape of the Mirabillis Library as it cuts across the sky. You can always see the library in the Other, no matter where you are, but it is not always particularly easy to get to it."
"Is it a mirage?" Amoretta asked, craning her neck back as she studied it.
"No," Grabiner said, shaking his head. "It's not. It is actually there. You can make an approach and land, although you'll still need to find a point of egress. The library near Shetlock is in the free sky. There is no terrestrial land about it. If you were to see it in the light of day from the edge of Shetlock proper, what you would see is an infinite tower, spiraling up to infinity, and spiraling down just as far. There are some who believe that the Mirabilis Library is the staff on which this universe rotates. It is a very mysterious place."
"No wonder Violet wanted to explore it," Amoretta said as she studied the dark shape of the library tower. Then she tilted her head slightly and pointed again.
There was a brilliant star, shining magenta-red in the night sky. It was visible past the bulk of the tower.
"That's it," she said. "That's the Peerless Star, isn't it?"
Grabiner was silent for a moment and then said, "It is."
"How did I know that?" she wondered, turning to look at him.
He shook his head.
"I don't know," he said.
"I don't know either," she said, and then they stared at one another quietly for a while, then looked up at the stars again.
Grabiner was silent for several seconds as they both looked up at the sky, but at last he spoke.
"When you impressed Stardust Miracle, the reason I lost myself, the reason I shut you out - it was because I was afraid. I will admit that." He swallowed hard. "I must admit that. I realized at that moment what I could not see before. If you do have some real, material connection to Violet - if it exists outside of shadows and coincidences - then there is a possibility that she had to die before you could be properly born," he said quietly. "That was not something I had mentally prepared myself for, that piece of causality." He closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. "None of that is your fault. You did nothing wrong. You cannot be responsible for something that happened before you came to be. You have always been wonderful, at every moment, in all the moments that I have known and loved you. I am profoundly sorry for how I behaved that day. No matter how shocking that revelation was to me, it was a moment when you badly needed my support. It was a moment when you ought to have had the whole of my support. You had already deigned to share an intimate moment with me." He opened his eyes again and focused them on her as he covered his heart with his hand. "I am sorry, Amoretta. I am very sorry," he said very slowly, with dignity and sincerity. "I know that I can't make up for my behavior with just a few paltry words, so I will endeavor from this point on to try and make up for what I've done with actions instead. I love you. I will always love you. I'm sorry that I hurt you."
"Your apology is accepted," Amoretta said gently. "It was all very hard at the time, but I do think you understand that." She closed her eyes and tilted her head back for a moment. "Thinking about Violet, it's all so complicated, isn't it? If it is true, if I do have a connection to her, then it's possible that someone killed her expressly so that I could be born." She opened her eyes a sliver to look at him through her dark lashes. "You thought of that," Amoretta said quietly, opening her eyes slowly so that she could look at him soberly. "You'd thought of that already: that the person you loved the most in the world might have been murdered for the express purpose of bringing me about. That's what Madame Belle meant when she said that you ought to suspect conspiracy."
Grabiner's mouth had become thin because he'd pressed his lips together, but he nodded. "It is something that I was forced to consider again at that time."
Amoretta leaned back again, looking up at the dark sky. "Violet was murdered. I was born. And now you find yourself married to me, just as you were married to her. That's the causality we're looking at here, isn't it? That's the impossible coincidence. If I am here beside you, it cannot be by chance."
"We don't know for certain - " he started but she cut him off.
"Hieronymous, you told me that you don't believe I'm human," she said steadily, and he nodded silently in confirmation. "I'm beginning to realize that I might not have been born in a very human way. You're always very careful about the words you use when you talk about it."
His mouth flickered up at the corner briefly as he said, "This from the girl who told me that she was torn from the thigh of Zeus." He shook his head briefly. "I don't believe you were born in the way most human children are born, no," he said. "Given your semi-divine nature, that seems clear. What is less clear is how and why. I don't know the answers to those questions, Amoretta, although I am working to understand what it is necessary that I understand."
She smiled briefly herself. "Thank you, Hieronymous. Thank you for all of it."
He raised one of his hands and frowned.
"There are many many 'ifs' that remain uncertain and hazy, Amoretta," he said. "We have some conjecture, but not a great deal of solid information. To be perfectly honest, I don't even have any particularly good guesses about most of the mysteries with which we find ourselves confronted. It is dangerous to let ourselves be led along by fancy too easily. It is dangerous to infer causality where there is none, to see patterns of our own invention. We will find ourselves drowned in a bog, the victims of will-o-wisps. It seems that you might have some relationship to Violet, but we don't really have any idea of what that relationship might be. Even now, I am still a little reluctant to countenance the idea, although it is not a new one, at least not for me. I had already recognized some of the strange coincidences that seemed to connect you and Violet together even in the first days of our marriage. That afternoon when I turned your face up to look at it and saw your eyes: that deep, strange indigo that I thought I would never see again - There were other things, things you said, things you did, things you didn't say and didn't do. It was a little like experiencing a haunting. I had a difficult time determining how much of it was real and how much of it was just my stilted perception. But when I saw the grimoire - there could be no question. Until you named it, I was certain it was Eclipse Starlight."
"But it wasn't," she pointed out.
"It wasn't," he agreed. "I want you to know, I was honest when I said that I don't suspect conspiracy when it comes to you," he said seriously. "Violet was certainly murdered. I cannot question that. We were drawn into a trap we could not escape from. I still don't know why she was targeted, why we were both targeted. My investigation is ongoing. But I want you to understand that I have no reason to believe that your existence was the direct cause of Violet's death."
"What if that someday turns out to be true?" Amoretta asked. "I hope it isn't true. I don't want it to be true. But I think it would be really foolish not to consider that it might be. I don't want to be blindsided again, Hieronymous," she said, frowning.
"I understand," he answered steadily. He was silent for a moment, then said, "If that is what is ultimately revealed to me, then I will accept it. You cannot be culpable when it comes to Violet's death, no matter the nature of your relationship to her. It remains true that you cannot have been the person or among the persons who arranged the circumstances that lead to her death. That is the only way in which your involvement would have any bearing on my feelings toward you." Here he took a moment to magnificently roll his eyes. "I am confident enough in my judgement of your character to conclude that you are not a murderess, let alone an infant murderess." At last he smiled briefly. "Does that put your mind at ease?" he asked.
Amoretta laughed weakly and then nodded. She stared up at the sky for a long, still moment.
"Do you think that I'm a reincarnation?" Amoretta asked quietly. "Of Violet, I mean. Do you think I am Violet, come again? One star in the sky," she said, raising an arm over her head and twirling her wand between her fingers, "And another on the ground."
He was still for a moment, but it was only a moment.
"I don't really care if you are or not," he said simply, curling his arm around her back. "Certainly, I would have given anything to have made such an oath with Violet while she still lived - the gimmal oath. The oath to bind souls. But we were young. When you are young it is difficult to see death, even when it stalks behind you. I thought - we both thought - that we had time, time to spare. All the time in the world. But we did not," he took her small hand and held it up so that it glimmered faintly in the starlight. "And certainly it would be a darkly humorous twist of fate if I ended up bound to you as some karmic answer to that great treasure that was lost, that was stolen from me. But I don't believe in karma, and I think that we make our own fate. But even if the grand cosmic conspiracy turned out to be true, and we discovered that the machinations of the universe had drawn us together again recompense, it wouldn't matter to me in the least. I love you. I love you as you are. I love you singly, as your own self. You seem to be," he faltered. "You seem to be carrying something of Violet with you, in some way, as if you've got a bit of her hidden in your pocket. I can't say that I understand it, but whatever your connection to the past, whatever that might be, if it is material and not simply an impossible string of coincidences, it isn't important to me beyond its relevance as an element of your own self. You are Amoretta. If some part of you was Violet once, it isn't now. It is you." He drew her hand to his mouth and brushed his lips against her knuckles. "It is you. You are my wife, Marianne Amoretta Grabiner, and I recognize you. This place beside me is your place, and it belongs only to you."
Amoretta bit her lip and asked her next question hesitantly, because she wasn't sure it was a question that ought to be asked.
"And if Violet knocked on the door tomorrow, if she were suddenly here, what then?" she asked, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. "I know that's a cruel question. I'm sorry for asking. It's just, it's just - "
He laid his hand on the top of her head and lightly ruffled her hair.
"You have a right to ask that question," he said gently and she trembled. His eyes grew distant and he turned his face up to look at the stars, watching the heavens turn ever-so-slowly. At last, he said, "If she suddenly appeared at the door tomorrow, I'd ask if she minded standing on the other side of me."
There was absolute silence for a long, still moment, and inside the hard shell of his soul, Grabiner cringed, because he had just shared a deep, uncomfortable secret with her, a secret that he was only now beginning to accept. He had taken the chance, taken the leap to tell her because she had had the courage to ask, and he felt he could not but respond to that courage with courage of his own.
But perhaps he had miscalculated. Perhaps he had said something that could not be unsaid. Perhaps -
But then Amoretta had burst out laughing, drawing both her hands to her mouth as she doubled over wheezing. She laughed until she was breathless, and when she looked up at him her cheeks were rosy and her eyes were lit with humor and affection. She was alive with laughter and the pleasure of being.
"Just like that?" Amoretta asked, and the laugh was still dancing in her voice.
"Just like that," he agreed levelly, and then gave her his own brief smile.
"Oh, Hieronymous, I love you," she said, throwing her arms around him and holding onto him tightly. "You are an odious nincompoop, you know that? Your nincompoopery is so great it can be only be represented by an uncountable infinity. You are a gloriously magnificent idiot. I love you for it. I love you for all those reasons, and a thousand million more."
"That's what she would have said, had I said the same to her," he said simply and quietly, and Amoretta drew back slightly and looked at him seriously.
"Really?" Amoretta asked, genuinely curious.
"Yes," Grabiner answered, leaning down to pull her close to him. "You would have gotten along with one another splendidly, I think."
"I know we would have," Amoretta said, and her laugh was weak and filled with relief, like a fawn collapsing on its haunches after its terrifying first steps. "I know that now. I'm sorry," she began hesitantly. "I'm sorry that I can't meet her."
"Me too." he murmured into her hair. He held her tightly for a long moment, drawing her up to stand on her tiptoes, and then he released her, letting her down so that she settled lightly on her feet again.
"But our life is rich enough as it is," he admitted, giving her his warm, private smile. "I have so many things to be thankful for, I haven't a list long enough to record them all."
"I'm lucky," she reminded him, and he chuckled.
"We both are," he amended.
The wind had risen, and it whipped the hair around their cheeks. The storm was not long off now. He looked at her, lit by an infinity of distant stars, and then he reached out to brush his fingers through her hair.
"And since to look at things in bloom, fifty springs are little room, to the woodlands I will go, to see the hawthorne hung with snow," he spoke softly, then he tilted his head slightly to the side. "Time is fleeting," he said, and he was very serious. "Even for a wizard who can refashion elements of reality to suit his whims, time is fleeting. Even with more than a score of lifetimes in front of us, time is fleeting. You will die. I will die. One day, a day lost among countless thousands, will be our last day. One hour will be our last hour. We will both be fodder for worms," he said solemnly. "This hour is precious. This minute is precious. It will never come again. And so even though we both wept and screamed over the course of this day, it is a treasure. It is the rarest of treasures, and I have graven it on my heart," he said, folding his hand across his chest as if he were making a vow or pledging his allegiance. "Death is coming for all of us, inexorably. Time is always limited, but what I have is yours."
"It will always be mine," she agreed with her own strange smile. "And I will lift the cup and drink it all until the last drop. When I do run to the end of my rope, I will never leave anyone even a moment to consider that I did anything other than live my life to the fullest. If my life is a match, then I will strike it and strike it and strike it until I can strike it no longer. All of that belongs to you, Hieronymous. It's what I have to give."
"And a richer tribute no man could ask for," he said as he leaned down to brush his lips against her forehead. "And now, let's watch the stars awhile, before the rain."
And they watched the stars, the brilliant ribbon river of light, and they ate their sandwiches, and they listened to the wind.