He forced his attention where it belonged and studied the objects in the windows before him, trying not to dwell on the implications of what he was about to do. Better not to think about that. Better not to think about anything, just accept Calesta’s orders and obey them blindly and pray that somewhere, somehow, vengeance would be achieved. Calesta said that Andrys should come to Jaggonath, so he had done so. Calesta said that Andrys should seek out a silversmith, so he would. Calesta said that he should cause to be made—
A cold shiver coursed up his spine.
Don’t think about what he wants with it. When it’s ready, that’s time enough to know.
He forced himself to study the objects displayed in the windows, searching for something that would help him decide on one shop or another. Each shop seemed to have its own specialty: he passed by displays of jewelry, daggers, decorative goblets, engraved tableware, a thousand and one items suitable for courtship, weddings, formal ceremony. Nothing displayed was exactly like what he needed, but was that a surprise? How long had it been since that kind of work was last done in Jaggonath? Or anywhere, for that matter?
At last, with effort, he winnowed the choices down to five likely candidates. One by one he studied them through their mesh-bound windows, trying to get a feel for the businesses inside. Hoping for some kind of sign or omen that would narrow his choices even further, so that he wouldn’t have to go through the same painful interview more than once. He didn’t think he could stand that.
He studied two shops in that way, found no such omen, and with a sigh he moved on to the third. This one had a promising display, a unique collection of bowls and goblets with delicate figurines intertwined to serve as stems, handles, and spouts. Each one was individual, he noted, and meticulously detailed. So far so good. He looked past the fine steel knives with sinuous sterling handles, the elegant silver picture frames and anniversary mementos, to see what was within the shop itself—
And his heart stopped for a moment. The steel and sterling bits faded into shadows, as inconsequential as dreams. For a moment he could hardly move, then he walked to where the door was and grasped its handle. The ornate grip felt warm in his palm, and he could feel his pulse pound as he held it. Quickly he turned it and pushed the heavy door inward; bells jingled merrily as he stepped into the shop’s cool interior. There were display cases within, tables topped in velvet, a long counter capped in fine white numarble....
And a girl.
He stepped inside, letting the door fall shut behind him. God, but she was lovely! Not in the way of the women who normally appealed to him—those were buxom and full-hipped, flamboyantly sexual—but in a way that made it hard for him to breathe, impossible to think. Skin as fine and as pale as porcelain glowed in the late afternoon light, with the pale flush of a sunburn crowning the cheeks and forehead. Hair as black and as lustrous as silk shimmered in a loose chignon at the nape of her neck. Slender hands with impossibly delicate fingers smoothed the black velvet of a display table. Fragile, she seemed. Slender and pale and so very fragile. Like a china cup that might shatter if you held it wrong. Like a pane of fine stained glass with its delicate webwork of lead veins, beautiful to look at but oh, so easy to destroy. Her presence awakened new feelings within him, disturbing feelings, so different from his usual feelings about women that for a moment he could do nothing but stand there mutely, unable to respond.
“Can I help you?” she asked. It was a reflexive response to the presence of a customer, which she began even as she turned toward him. Then the dark eyes met his—God, those eyes, you could drown in them!—and with a short gasp she stepped back. To his amazement, it seemed as if she were afraid. Of him? He looked around, startled, expecting to see someone else in the room. But it was just the two of them. The response was for him alone.
“I’m sorry,” he said hurriedly. Not knowing what he had done wrong, but anxious to correct it. Was it possible that in his fevered entrance he had seemed threatening? She seemed the kind of creature who would shy away easily, like a wild and wary skerrel. “I didn’t mean to startle you—”
She drew in a deep breath; he could sense her struggling to compose herself. “It isn’t you,” she said at last. “It’s just... I thought you were someone else. Someone I didn’t expect here. I’m sorry.” She shook her head slightly; the black hair rippled about her neck. “I shouldn’t have reacted like that.” She smiled then, and her expression softened. “Can I help you with something?”
He fumbled in his pocket for the papers he had brought, and somehow he managed to tear his eyes away from her long enough to make sure they were the right ones. “I need some custom work done. Here.” He handed her the drawings, a well-worn package. “It’s all there.”
She led him to one of the velvet-clad tables and pulled up a chair before it; he sat opposite, and watched her as she studied the drawings. God, but she was beautiful! In another time and place he would already have been making a play for her, if only for the sheer pleasure of the hunt. But in this time and place he felt strangely helpless, and he sat there quietly as she studied the drawings, watching as her slender fingers smoothed the papers flat for better perusal.
“A coronet,” she mused.
Something tightened in his throat. “Family heirloom,” he managed. “It was... lost.”
Lost in a pool of blood, shattered by sorcery. Shards of metal swimming in the red that dripped down chair legs, over tiles—
“Hey. Are you all right?” Her hand reached toward him.
He shivered as the vision receded. “Yeah,” he managed. “Just a little faint.” He forced himself to put his hands on the table, so that he might look a little more natural. “I wasn’t feeling well this morning.”
was an understatement! “I thought it had passed.” He managed an awkward grin. “Guess not.”
“Can I get you something?” When he hesitated, she suggested, “A glass of water?”
“No, I ...” He drew in a slow breath, tried to think clearly. “Yes. Please. That would be wonderful.”
Water. It meant a moment when she wouldn’t be watching him, a moment when he could struggle to pull himself together. Those visions... he should have taken something before he left his room, he knew that now. A few grains of tranquilizer to ease the painful interview along. How in God’s name was he going to get through this?
You have to,
he told himself.
Calesta says this has to be done, therefore you will do it. Period.
“Here,” she said, as she set down a small glass before him. Her voice was gentle, soothing; he could listen to it for hours. “I wish we had more to offer.”
“This is fine.” The water was cool and refreshing, and the glass gave him something to do with his hands. “Thank you.”
When she was satisfied that he was going to be all right, she returned to her seat opposite him. He noticed that her hair had one narrow streak of white in it, falling from a spot just above her left temple. A natural discoloration, or faddish vanity? For some reason he hoped it was the former. She seemed a wholly natural creature, more like the timid nudeer that wandered free on his estate than the painted beauties he usually dated. Though such women had never appealed to him before, this one had him totally captivated.
She was paging through the pile of sketches, studying each one in turn. One meticulous rendering of a’ county coronet. Ten pages of details, in perfect scale. Other drawings, other items. She shook her head in amazement as she went through them. “You did a beautiful job on these.”
“I traced the artist’s originals.” When she looked up at him in curiosity, he added, “My ancestor saved everything.”
How bizarre this conversation was, he thought. How utterly bizarre to be discussing the archival habits of Gerald Tarrant in this cool and offhand manner, as if men hadn’t wept and suffered and died for that very coronet.
“In sterling?” she asked.
“If that was the original metal.”
She nodded. “Silver was customary up until the sixth century. I take it this is older than that.”
“It must have been beautiful,” she mused aloud. Her eyes traced the lines of his drawings with obvious relish, and he knew in that instant that she was the artist who would be translating his sketches into reality. The thought pleased him. “Revivalist, right?”
“I think so.”
“Neocounty?” She smiled as he affirmed that, too, her dark eyes sparkling. “I’ve never worked for nobility before.”
The words caught in his throat; he had to force them out. “We haven’t... we don’t use the title. Not for a long time.”
“Are these from the same period?” She had found the sketches of armor at the bottom of the pile: breastplate and bracers of fine steel with embossed and inlaid motifs. “Armor?”
“I should have removed those,” he said quickly. Reaching for the sketches. “That’s a different job, I know you don‘t—”
“But we do. At least, Gresham does. My boss,” she explained. “He used to do this kind of work. There isn’t much of a call for it, you know. Not enough to base a business on. But I think he would love to work on these.” The dark eyes were fixed on him again; he didn’t dare meet them. “Unless you have someone else in mind, that is.”
“No,” he managed. “Not at all.”
“Then I’ll show these to him. He can probably get you an estimate on all this by ... say, Thursday?”
He felt something knot up inside himself at the sound of the word.
meant another interview about these damned pieces, more questions, always more questions ... and he couldn’t begin to answer them because he didn’t know why Calesta wanted these things made, only that he did.
“I don’t need an estimate,” he said quickly. Trying to get the words out before he could have second thoughts. “Whatever it takes. Just make everything as much like the originals as you can. Whatever that costs.”
She hesitated. “It’s going to be expensive.”
“That’s all right.”
expensive. This is all gold here, look.” She showed him one of the sketches, her finger tracing the line of decoration on a breastplate. “The materials alone—”
“Money’s not an issue. Really.”
She sat back, and for a moment said nothing. He could see curiosity burning bright in her eyes, but knew she wouldn’t question him about his wealth. Not directly.
“He’ll want a deposit,” she said at last.
He reached into his jacket to where his traveling purse was secured and removed it. Untying its clasp, he spilled its contents out on the table. They were thick coins, heavy coins, the kind of gold one bought for investment purposes, not the kind one normally carried around town for day-to-day expenses. He had brought them with him so that he wouldn’t have to wait for the local banks to clear his account before he could buy anything locally. Now he was infinitely glad he had them.
She whistled softly. Despite himself he smiled, pleased with the drama of the moment. “Will that be enough?”
“Oh, yes. I think so.” She picked up one of the coins and studied it with a smile. “Yes, I think Gresham’ll take these.”
“How much do you want?”
She hesitated, then picked out half a dozen of the coins; one was a beautiful memorial piece which she admired before putting it away. In a smooth, flowing hand she wrote him a receipt. “I’ll need some information from you.”
“Your name?” she asked. And it seemed to him that there was more than professional interest in her tone. Or was that just wishful thinking on his part?
God, he used to be so good at this! Where was all that skill when he needed it?
“Andrys. Andrys Tarrant.” Other questions followed, more difficult to answer. Where did he live? Permanent address? How long would he be in Jaggonath? Business references? Personal? He knew the questions were unavoidable, given the value of the work he was ordering, but some of them were difficult to answer. How long
he be here? Calesta had said that the process of vengeance would begin in Jaggonath. How long would that take?
Later, when he was finally out of the shop, he leaned against the brick wall outside and shut his eyes and cursed himself for being a fool.
You’re an idiot, Andri, you know that?
The after-image of her face was burned into his soul.
You could have said something
could have made some
kind of beginning.
Though the fragile appeal of her was new to him, he was no stranger to games of attraction. If this had happened in the days before, he would have had her address by now and probably a tentative date as well. Had this project so unmanned him that he couldn’t even manage that?
He laughed bitterly, mirthlessly; the sound devolved into coughing.
I don’t even know her name.
It was just as well. What did he have to offer a woman, anyway? Restless, distracted days. Bitter, frustrating nights. No, he had better reserve his attention for the whores who asked for nothing but money, and opportunistic wenches who could be purchased with gifts and small talk. That was his venue now, the comfort and prison of his new existence. Better stick to it.
God, those eyes....
With effort he pushed himself away from the wall and began the long walk back to his hotel. It was just as well, he told himself. Women like that usually had a man already, and if they didn‘t, there was probably a good reason for it. He had enough problems of his own to deal with, didn’t he?
He shivered, wrapping his arms around himself, cold despite the warmth of the city streets. The pills would help him. Little black pills. They were waiting on his dresser, a kiss of velvet oblivion. Under their influence he could forget it all for an hour, an evening, an eternity. The pain. The confusion. The fear.