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The door locked behind her. She heard it engage. But Bella Mythen turned and checked it anyway. The knob turned, but the door didn't open.
He'd locked her out. It didn't really surprise her.
The last of the boxes in her arms, Bella forced a smile for the three friends who had come to help her move. Two women—Maria Santosa and Michelle Ducret—and a man, Antoine something. Michelle's newest boyfriend. Not in the Agency. Maria and Michelle were arranging boxes in the trunk of her car. Antoine was checking the ties that secured her furniture in the bed of his beat-up, ancient truck.
"Ready to go?" He shouted.
"Yeah, just give me a minute."
It was pathetic. All her worldly possessions fit into a Jetta and half a truck bed. She didn't even need a small moving van. Not even a really, really small one. It was better than the saddlebag she'd with which she'd arrived in Je Bardeau, but—how far had she really come?
"Please tell me you stuck him with the nursery furniture," drawled a deep, accented voice.
She startled. She knew that voice, but she also knew that the person it belonged to wasn't here. She had deliberately not invited him. Dereth would have had a fit, she knew; Maria Santosa, with her understanding of demons, was bad enough. But to have Báta, a certified Black magician, in his house!
Shadows lengthened, writhed, twisted. And then the shadows on the porch coalesced into a man. For a moment, the man's eyes looked like pure, liquid darkness. They seemed to glow. His entire body shimmered with Taint.
And then he was human. Just human. Youthful but aging Báta, with his sleeveless shirts and graying black hair.
"Báta!" Bella fought to hide her exasperation. Her voice was a little too cheerful, too happy to see him.
He noticed. He raised an eyebrow, put a hand on the hip of his jeans. "You did, right?"
"Good. Give me the box." He paused, eyed the door. "Locked it behind you, huh?"
She nodded, darting forward a little when she heard a yelp. Looking out toward her dark green car, she saw Maria straighten and rub her head.
She saw Maria's posture turn corpse stiff.
Behind her, the door sprang open.
Báta, smirking, gestured to the entry hall from which Dereth was conveniently absent. Mythen was almost positive that he'd gone to fetch his ritual silver dagger, a bag of salt, and a white fan. He got so jumpy about Dark influences in his home.
But the Black magician seemed totally unaware—or uncaring—of his peril. "You left something behind."
"I know. I'm putting all of that behind me." She paused to add effect, then lowered her voice. "I asked you not to come. I asked, Báta, I even asked nicely. So what in the name of the goddess are you doing here?"
His reply was breezy: "I go where I'm needed."
The ringing of four different gongs filled the silence for him as he stepped into the house. The air inside the house seemed to try to push him back, but he made his way forward with near ease. Bella attempted to follow.
The doorway was impenetrable. He'd set the wards stronger against her than against Black magicians.
The wards went quiet the instant she stepped away from the door.
Dereth's voice, in the fury he had so perfected, exploded from inside the house. But then that, too, fell silent.
Minutes crawled by. Báta emerged after three knifing eternities. He'd added a wooden box to the cardboard one he'd taken from her earlier. The sandalwood box wrapped in red gauze, tied in faded red leather, was one she knew instantly. She'd just wrapped it the night before, packed it away in Dereth's closet so he'd find it, if he looked.
She'd had no doubts he'd mail it to her, or have some hapless rookie in the Agency put it on her desk.
"My robes," she murmured.
Báta looked straight at her. His eyes were pure black. She couldn't tell where his iris ended and his pupil began. It was like looking into the ornamental ponds still found, occasionally, in the City of Dead Men. Something just a little evil always seemed to be staring back out at her.
His voice was just as soft as hers. "Yes. Your robes. Not even Zintzne could condone such abandonment, Bella, and Zintzne forgives much."
Bella fought back the urge to hiss, to claw at his eyes. "Zintzne forgives as he pleases."
The shadows on the porch jumped. Báta's shadow seemed to recoil, then crept toward her, shivering with tension. Báta himself didn't seem to notice. He forced eye contact, lips twisting into a snarl. He clenched one hand into a fist.
It was instinct to step backward. Away from the shadow, into the light.
His voice, when he finally spoke, was breezy again, but there was an undercurrent of tension. "Zintzne forgives as he pleases, and Kailo forgets her children."
She stepped backward again. She could feel sunlight on her back, but it didn't make her feel any safer.
The ingrained hurt at that statement, the need to correct it—theologically unsound, a myth in service to Kazsio, Goddess of Light and patron of puritanical pleasure-haters, not true, not true, not true—was probably his point.
The shadowplay stopped. Báta peered at her. His expression was almost sad. He had just remembered that for all she tolerated Black magic, for all she supported Black magicians, she was still Grey, and more dependent on White than on Black.
And then his expression turned distant. She knew that expression all too well: whatever it was that let Báta Vahai know things he shouldn't be able to know had just told him something. Báta had been her senior partner when she first joined the Agency. He'd guided her through those first painful months in modern Balreqiea, guided her through her time as a probationary field agent.
"So soon…" He breathed. "Maybe it is Zintzne who forgets his children and Kailo who does as she wills."
Bella said nothing. Now he was talking nonsense. Love is the Wilderness Itself was Kailoan canon. Translated from the theological jargon and Vabren poetic idiom that made up the canons, Love is the Wilderness Itself meant that Kailo was whimsical and unpredictable. The goddess of love and fertility, breathed in secret by Creation, beneath wind and sand, did exactly as she pleased. It was a fact.
But Zintzne had never, in any canon, been held to be forgetful.
What could have prompted that?
Báta's attention snapped back to her. His voice turned brisk, professional. "Do me a favour. Request a Black magician as your next partner."
"Make me a promise," she replied.
Before she could list that promise, Báta waved her off. "Whatever it is, you have my word."
She chuckled. "You should have asked, Báta. You just swore never to return to this house again."
Báta glared at her, but said nothing. Instead, he carried the boxes toward her car, shaking his head and mumbling in Vabren. His steps were quick, smooth, long but unhurried. Bella rushed to keep up.
Bella watched as Maria scowled at Báta, then turned and said something to Michelle. Michelle, who had known Maria only a little shorter than Bella had, saw Báta coming and wasted no time in joining Antoine in his truck.
"Maria," Báta said, easily transferring the boxed to one arm and opening the passenger-side door. "Didn't expect to see you here."
Maria folded her arms across her chest and stared. One brown eyebrow lifted in a taut arch.
"I thought you were on assignment in Vladiretheh."
Hazel eyes burned. "Friends are important to me."
Bella sighed. "Can we please not make this day any worse?"
Báta shoved the boxes into the car, organized them a bit more, then tossed a Black spell that would hold them together. He gave no sign that he noticed Maria's glaring at him. His movements were smooth as he straightened, turned away from Maria, facing the priestess.
His expression was so serious. He kept his voice soft, all the solemnity to be expected of a former priest permeating his voice. "About Dereth… For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
"I'll be fine," she forced herself to say.
A wooden curtain rolls down, wooden slats separating the two halves of the room. Red-stained fingers pry a single slat free, baring just an inch of a woman's face.
The other woman in the room bows her head and unfurls a white fan. She puts the fan just in front of her face.
"Make your confession, sister," says the red-fingered woman.
Green-inked eyelids flutter closed. "I am beginning to doubt the goddess."
The red woman's voice is serene. There is no judgment here. "A grave thing. Why do you doubt?"
"I have lost the child."
The only reply the red woman gives is a soft sound of sympathy. Dark, thick-lashed eyes, limned in red, stare out at her.
The green woman shuts her white fan and rises. There is a grace to her movements as she bows and turns away.
"Do not forget the sound of the wind," says the red woman when the green woman is nearly out the door.
The green woman bows once more, saying nothing, and leaves.
Bella had a dining table, some dishes, and a bed. For now, that was it. She didn't even have a couch or a television. Not that she missed either of those.
The door opened and closed. She didn't even look up from the table she'd set with Vabren food.
"It's like a greenhouse in here," Báta's voice said. "Do you think maybe you need more plants?"
She smiled for him, but it was a small, forlorn thing. "I'll be adding a few more tomorrow." Her voice came out more wry than she'd intended.
He held up a dark glass bottle. "I brought wine."
"Ah, I see. Thank you." A pause. When he didn't move, she made an impatient gesture. "Come sit down."
He sat. "Take-away?"
"Take-away," she agreed. "The dumplings are excellent."
They each fell silent, praying to their gods. Meals were times of celebration and contemplation, of bringing one's triumphs and troubles before each other and before the gods. "So, are you going to sue for custody?"
Bella looked down at the spread of food on her plate. At the bowls she and Cazgo had painted together one rainy afternoon. At the dark, steaming tea in her cup. Nothing provided an answer.
"How much chance do I really have? I'm not her biological parent."
Báta slapped the palm of his hand on the table. Dishes rattled. "You're her mother. You adopted her. It carries more weight than you think."
"But not enough," she said quietly. "I'll have visitation at least."