The Lady sat sheltered under silken canopies beside her fire, shuffling her painted cards and listening to the rain patter across her delicately patterned stone floor through the open ceilings of her elegant chamber. Somewhere in the glistening darkness beyond her leaded-glass windows, an owl began to hoot soft, musical inquiries of the night.
These late hours were her favorite time, after all the business of her day was done, alone at last but for the company of her sweet, silent page. After so many, many years, she had finally begun to feel her age. To wish for, or at least to imagine, something…else.
“Grant his wish.”
The Lady twisted in her chair to gape over a shoulder at her page. “Jordan?!…” She had never heard the child’s voice before. Never since his birth had the poor boy uttered so much as a sound to anyone. “Did you just speak?”
He offered nothing in reply but the same untroubled gaze he’d worn ever since his infant eyes had first learned to focus. Then, “Provide him aid, if asked to. But do not try to steer.” The baffling words seemed to touch nothing but his lips.
“Aid…to whom?” she asked, rising to face him in something like alarm—a state she could not recall experiencing for a century or more. “Where have you found…this voice?”
“Let him go. And keep him close. But never interfere,” the boy intoned, his face and body as still and empty of expression as those of any ventriloquist’s puppet.
A chill ran down the Lady’s spine. “Jordan, dear, please answer my questions.”
“Tonight we forge.
Tonight we plant.
Tonight we mend the hole.”
She placed a hand against the chair back beside her, light-headed with…disbelief. Ventriloquism. Yes. But… “We…who?” she asked, half breathlessly.
“IF…” said Jordan.
“If…” she echoed fearfully when nothing more followed. “If what?”
“You lie to none, but of our part, you tell no living soul.”
“Jordan…dear. I want to understand you. But I don’t… Can you…help me to?”
In his eyes, she saw tears begin to gather. Despite the horrifying circumstances of his birth, she had never seen Jordan cry. Not once. Even as a baby.
“Is there more?” she asked, as uncertain of whether she wanted the answer as of who her question was actually addressed to.
A single tear escaped to trickle down Jordan’s cheek. Nothing else.
“Oh, Jordan,” the Lady moaned, crossing the short space between them to gather him in her arms. “It’s all right, child. This is none of your doing. I can see that. Nor any of your concern. Come sit here by the fire with me. Be warm, and safe. I will make sense of this—for both of us.”
The boy came, as docilely obedient as ever, and sat at her feet as she reclaimed her chair. When she reached down to stroke his soft, pale hair, he leaned in to press his cheek against her dress. A few tears still sparkled in his lashes, but none welled up to replace them.
This startling intrusion on his lifelong muteness had been no trick of Jordan’s. That much seemed clear. And she knew just as clearly that no one must ever learn the boy had uttered words at all—no matter whose they’d been. Jordan’s muteness was two-thirds of his protection here.
Only twice in her many centuries had the Lady encountered even credible report of what she was all but certain had just occurred. If her assumption was correct, then something was about to happen. Something large enough to justify this miracle. ‘Tonight,’ they had said. And not until it had already come would she have any way of knowing just how frightened she should be.
“I’d better go.” Dusty dropped a twenty on their check.
“Already?” Colleen gave him a pretty pout. “Your class isn’t ’til two.”
He smiled apologetically, and stood. “I have to stop and get a card for Thom and Anna on my way. It’s their fifth anniversary tomorrow. And I’ve still got reading to finish before class.” Colleen sighed, and stood as well. He leaned across the small café table to peck her on the cheek. “Want anything for tonight while I’m at the market? …Wine?”
She shook her head, honey-colored curls swaying in the dim light. “We’ll just finish that open Chardonnay from last time.”
“You’re a wine snob now?”
He grinned. “I’ll get a bottle of Syrah. We can finish your Chardonnay while the meat’s cooking.”
After a second, less perfunctory kiss, Dusty squeezed her hand and headed for the door, forcing his umbrella open against the wind and rain.
Ten minutes later he stood dripping in aisle 8 of Ricky’s Market, scowling at their dull selection of saccharine anniversary cards. How could a store two blocks from campus carry nothing suitable for couples under sixty-five?
“You’d be Dustin? Dustin Bennett?”
Dusty turned to find an unfamiliar, dark-haired youth with startling, almost violet eyes gazing at him from just down the aisle with a sly half smile. Dusty’s ‘creep radar’ began to beep as he realized the guy was less young than just oddly pretty—in a disturbing, theatrical way. Dusty’s last name had been Bennett once, before Anna and Thom had adopted him, but he was not about to explain that to this vaguely oily stranger. “Who’s asking?”
“An old friend of Matthew Rhymer’s.” Dusty’s eyes widened. “Would you know where he might be looked for these days?”
“No,” Dusty said brusquely. “I haven’t seen or heard from him since—for almost seven years now.” Memories of that awful night punched through him like gun shots. “What do you want?”
“Only to get this to him,” said the man, extending a cream-colored envelope.
Dusty’s first thought was ‘subpoena,’ but it looked more like a greeting card pulled off the racks beside them. Weirder and weirder. He could see Matt’s name written in flowing green calligraphy across the envelope.
“I have no idea where he is,” said Dusty, stiffly. “Sorry.” He turned to walk away, though putting his back to this guy made his skin crawl. Old instincts, so quickly resurrected. The street never really left you, he supposed unhappily.
“If you care for him at all, or for any of your kind, at least take this letter with you,” said the man behind him. “Just in case he should cross your path again.”
“My kind?” Dusty asked, tensing as he’d used to do before a fight. He turned back despite himself. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If we don’t find your old friend, and quickly,” the man said softly, “it will matter to a great many people in this city.”
Incredulous, Dusty thrust his chin at the proffered envelope. “What’s in it?”
“Just a note. From another of Matt’s old friends. A very good friend…who needs him. Badly,” the man added as if it cost him to admit it. “Please,” he said, straightening his arm to emphasize the urgency. “If Matt’s to be found, you’d know better than most where to look, would you not?”
“How would you know that?” Dusty demanded. “What’s this about?”
“Justice,” said the man. “For one who helped him beyond any call to do so. And about the fate of…much that you and I both care for in the world.”
“Like you’d know what I care about?” Dusty had begun to back away, wondering if it weren’t past time the police were called. And wouldn’t Matt have laughed to hear that thought cross his mind. Then again, what about Dusty’s life these days would not have made Matt laugh?
“I’ll just leave it here then, shall I?” The man set his envelope carefully on the floor between them, eyes trained uncertainly on Dusty. “Do as you see fit, Dustin Bennett. But if he learns you could have gotten this to him, and did not try, he may not thank you for it. Not if he is the man I pray he is.” The guy’s initially provocative demeanor was gone. Now he backed down the aisle, as if cautious of Dusty. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, lad. I’ll not bother you again, whatever comes to pass.”
Whatever comes to pass? What the hell? Dusty gazed down at the envelope in escalating turmoil. “I’ve just told you. I have no idea where—” He looked up again, and found no one there. Only the stranger’s letter, lying at his feet—like a threat. Or, perhaps, an accusation.