There was almost no sound as pale feet in golden sandals trod the ancient concrete of the stairwell. Aria moved without haste, but still had to work to keep the tray balanced as she descended. Lucky for her that the Governor kept her court wizard near her, else she surely would have spilled the contents of the tray ere she reached the old man's quarters.
Hugging the tray to her with one arm, she pushed the door open at the thirtieth floor and headed down the corridor. Jon and Edgar slouched against the wall outside the door she sought. They straightened as she approached, and not entirely from military reflex. She smiled inwardly.
“Try not to strain yourselves, boys.”
An echo of her mother's clucked its tongue inside her. You should not address your future troops so familiarly. But she ignored it, or tried to, as she always did. She knew from experience that even grizzled veterans took no offense to smiling words from her. Men are such simple things, so easily charmed.
Edgar gave her a lopsided grin that spoke of groundless optimism. “We didn't expect to see you here, Miss. Where's Doris? Doesn't she usually bring the food for him?”
Aria narrowed her eyes in feigned irritation. “She's not well,” she lied. “Do you really wish she had come, instead of me?”
The two men eyed each other. “No, no, I'm just … surprised, is all.”
“Then let me in, will you? Or do you want to explain to him why his breakfast is cold today?
Edgar saluted and slid back the bolt and swung the door open for her. She sniffed and pretended not to notice the wink he gave to Jon as they both enjoyed the view of the back of her trousers entering the wizard's rooms.
They were at the table gazing at a steaming bowl of water. Then they looked up at her entrance and her heartbeat quickened, as it always did when she came into Xander's presence.
It was hard to imagine how there could be a greater contrast than the one she saw between the two of them. The apprentice was confused, wary, surprised, and clearly ill at ease as he ran a hand self-consciously through blonde hair. His features were pleasant enough, but his clothes were coarse and patched here and there. Clearly from a poor family. His hands were large and calloused with years of chores, and his boots had seen better days – probably from long-gone years on someone else's feet.
Xander, also was frugal in his attire. His robe and the cloak thrown over a chair were gray and free of ornamentation, serviceable though they were. But the rest of him was so different from the boy that the apprentice might have been his shadow rather than an entity in his own light. Xander's face was lined with decades of character. His beard marked him for an elder. His boots probably cost more than the rest of his outfit put together. And his eyes! Light like the boy's, though gray like her own, rather than blue. Unlike the boy's eyes, those of the wizard were as far from confused as a man's eyes could be. They gazed upon her with calm recognition, without the interest she saw the boy quickly suppress.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Doris fell sick and you volunteered to bring our breakfast.” But his eyes twinkled, and she saw that he knew this was a lie even before she agreed with him. Suddenly her face felt warm, and she felt an unaccustomed irritation with those eyes, his eyes that seemed hardly to look at anything, yet saw everything – saw right through her own subterfuge that she was sure fooled everyone else.
“Something like that,” she muttered.
“In any event,” he said, “you're here. Meet my new apprentice Lester. Les, this is Aria, a young lady who knows less than she should but far more than she admits.”
Instantly, she saw the boy drop a mask of courtesy across his face. He stood and sketched a quick bow. Which would have been a bit more flattering had his eyes not fastened upon the breakfast tray she discovered she was still holding. She set it down next to the steaming bow and straightened, a tad more stiffly than she intended.
“Well, there you are. Sorry about the interruption,” she said, turning to leave.
“We are never so busy that an interruption bearing food is unwelcome,” said Xander with a smile that was dangerously close to a smirk.
She hurried out the door, cursing herself for acting the fool in front of the new apprentice. How was it that the old wizard could make her do that – could so easily make her lose control of her reactions? It was not as if she was in love with the old fool, which from the books she read might have explained it. But no, that wasn't it. It was, rather, as if they shared a bond that went beyond any attraction. As if he were … she didn't know, an older brother, or an uncle seen so often that the only awkwardness between them was the fact that he could always tell when she was lying, or hiding something. Like today.
“So how's the old man doing?” said Jon. Is it true he's got a new apprentice?”
“None of your business,” she snapped. “Just make sure he's not disturbed.”
And that last was as unnecessary as telling the sun to rise, she realized. Gritting her teeth, she stalked away vowing to ignore Xander and the boy the next time their paths crossed.
She darted up the stairwell and tried to stop growling in her mind. This distracted her enough that she collided with Miss Gerloch. Only the closeness of the stairwell's walls kept the two of them from tumbling to certain injury.
Miss Gerloch put a hand behind her head and patted her bun back into shape, as she glared at Aria. “Where have you been? We were supposed to resume your training in Geopolitics over twenty minutes ago!”
“I'm sorry, Miss Gerloch. I had to take care of something first.”
The older woman shook her head in exasperation. “I swear, hardly a day goes by that I don't wonder why I even bother. And then I remember.” She fixed Aria with a brown-eyed glare. “Do you know what it is that I remember?” she grated, as she straightened her stiff and unflattering black dress.
“That one day I will be Governor, and must be prepared for that,” Aria recited.
“If you can remember that, can remember just that one thing, then there is a tiny chance that the last three years have not been a complete waste of my time.” Miss Gerloch turned away. “Now come along. The Map room won't come to us, child.”
Aria hurried to catch up with her obsessive tutor, and was a little short of breath by the time she reached the thirty-fifth floor. Miss Gerloch didn't bother to wait for her. She flung open the door and flew in like some enormous bat diving into a cave mouth. Sighing, Aria followed.
She nearly turned right around again, because Ludlow was there.
She ought to have expected it, because she'd heard from Mabel that he spent a lot of time in here these days. Which was probably a good thing, since he didn't fit in anywhere else. Ludlow was too informed to be a commoner, but too crude and brusque to be a courtier. In her opinion, he knew a little about everything, but not enough about anything to fill a useful position in the Governor's staff.
In Ludlow's opinion, she knew, he already filled a valuable position – that of a generalist advisor, an expert of unspecified expertise. He maintained that the Governor needed someone who knew how different areas of concentration related to each other. Someone, for example, who knew what farmers would think if the military demanded more jerky for field rations instead of more milk for the cheese makers. Or someone who could suggest ways to convert fabrics seized in border raids for military bandages.
But really, she couldn't stand the man! He was so, so in-between about everything. Never sure what he thought, until he 'd heard what you thought, so that he could seem to be agreeing with you. Never interested in anything until he learned you were – at which point he would exclaim that he'd been fascinated with it for years. He was a human chameleon, with no color of his own. No, she decided, not a chameleon. Even lizards had more personality. He was a pool among the rock, reflecting his surroundings without addition or improvement. A mirror in the shape of a man.
And his eyes were always clinging to her as if trying to pry her clothes off. It always made her want to go and take a bath.
“Why, hello, Aria!” he oozed. “What a pleasant surprise seeing you here today.”
As if he didn't know she had Geopolitics in the Map room at nine every morning. Her eyes narrowed. “More pleasant for some than others,” she said.
His eyebrow lifted. “Oh dear,” he murmured. “Has someone spoiled your mood already? Fear not, the day will improve, I'm sure of it.”
Not in the way you hope. “Were you looking for something particular in here?”
“Alas, no. Just trying to pick up a few more facts, learn a bit more. You know how it is. I'm always looking for ways to make myself more useful.”
Indeed you are. More useful than anyone wants. Why didn't you just go away when Xander decided you would never be much of a wizard? “I see,” she said.
“Aria! Stop wasting time with Mister Ludlow and get over here!”
Se closed her eyes and turned toward Miss Gerloch, erasing him from her existence and avoiding the conspiratorial wink he was aiming in her direction. “Yes, Miss Gerloch.”
“Time for review drill. Name all of the neighboring countries and for each, give the ruler or rulers, the form of government, and the main exports.”
“To the West,” she began, “is the kingdom of Deseret, a theocracy, ruled by the Prophet. Their main exports are salt and agricultural products. To the South lies the Empire of Texas, with a dynastic monarchy ruled by the Honcho, and their chief exports are beef, leather, and … and livestock.”
“To the East we have the kingdom of Kansouri, with a constitutional monarchy consisting of the Council of Nine. Their exports are wood, livestock, and textiles. To the – ”
“What sort of textiles?” interrupted Miss Gerloch.
“Wool, flax linen, and burlap or sackcloth.”
“Very well. Continue.”
“To the North lies the People's Republic of Wyoming, a communalist union of farm-states with a Worker's Congress of representatives. Their chief exports are wheat, beef, and cornflour.”
Miss Gerloch turned to the wall, which held a map without labels. It showed the entire continent, without the boundaries of the various kingdoms, those shattered remnants of the original Union. It was something the General had put there, twenty years ago. His Dream.
“Not bad for a start,” she said. “Now go further. What lies beyond Deseret to the West?”
“Californ. Ruled by the Queen of Angeles, Earl of Francisco, and the Duke of the Northern Forests. Main exports are fruits, wines, artworks and hemp.”
“And to the far East of us, east of Okla?”
“The Dixie Emirates. Ruled by the Council of Emirs. Chief exports are tobacco, corn, rugs, and coal.” Aria paused, “Have you ever been there, Miss Gerloch?”
The older woman turned away from the map to face her. “I have,” she said. “And someday I might even tell you about it.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish