Nilma sat in a chair facing the window, not far from the canopy bed that filled much of the space in a guest room very similar in layout and furnishings to mine. Night had come upon us and the young woman gained no light from the open window, but a soft breeze, cooler than the heat of the day, entered and eddied between us.
The alchemical lamps glowed with a half-light that reminded me of the Sea of Dreams. They illuminated us enough for reading—Nilma held a Book of the Tree in her hand as she faced away from me, though she’d closed it on a thumb to hold the page when I’d entered. But they also cast deep shadows, causing me to exhale a quick puff of amusement of the appropriateness of it all.
As with our first meeting, she spoke to the wall, or rather the window, instead of turning to face me. “What do you want, now?” she asked petulantly.
The day and the previous conversations had drained me of all sense of tact and decorum, I must admit. “Why would you speak to me like that, girl, when I have saved your life?”
“My lord amn Vaina saved my life.” With her left hand, she absentmindedly stroked the embossed tree on her book’s leather binding.
“And how would he have known that the spirit that invaded your nuptials was not Orren and that it was a liar unless I had told him?”
“It wasn’t Orren?”
In my mind, I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t been sure how much Aryden had let her into his plans. “No. But you believe he would blame you for his death. Why?”
She shifted uncomfortably in her chair but said nothing.
“Tell me about what happened with the potion you got from Falla,” I continued.
“Witch,” she said reflexively.
“Hypocrite,” I returned, also reflexively. I’d grown too weary to stop myself.
“Nilma, that’s not true, and we both know it. I told you before that I would not use the Art to influence you, and that remains true. But if you do not tell me what I need to know, I will make sure that your wedding to Lorent amn Esto does not happen.”
“You monster! You’d deprive me of a life of happiness?” she protested.
She began to sob, softly. My stomach turned at that; no one wants to make the damsel cry. But I had a means to achieve an end I couldn’t turn from, so monster I’d be. To her, at least. I remembered that, in some way, that’s what I’d always been to her, and my empathy subsided a little.
“I love—loved—Orren. But he spurned me. But that alone wasn’t enough; he decided that he’d turn my feelings to torture, to a cruel game against me. He flaunted his dalliances with the other girls before me, taunting me with them. Before the other handmaidens and servants, he’d remind them how lovestruck I was, and then lead them in mocking me for it. I hated him for it. But I kept loving him all the same. I don’t know why.”
“So you got the love potion from Falla.”
“It was Lady Aevala’s idea. She wanted to help me, said that justice must be done in matters of love or the world suffers for it.”
“Lady Aevala had been to Falla before?”
“I don’t think so. Not personally. She’d sent servants before to fetch her things. But the Lady couldn’t be seen to consort with a witch.”
“Of course not,” I said sarcastically.
“Especially with Barro so close to her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lady Aevala is very pious. It’s she who gave me this copy of the Book of the Tree, though I’d left it here in the keep when I fled from Orren’s spirit. She spends—spent—a lot of time with the priest: giving confessions, discussing the Book with him, seeking his advice on matters of governance.”
“I see. Let’s go back to this potion. At your lady’s prompting, you went to Falla to get it.”
“She gave me the coin to pay for it. Said I should give it to Orren and then use my influence over him to exact my retribution. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to use the potion to make him love me.”
“But it didn’t work out that way, did it?”
“We—the servants and some of my Lady’s handmaids—were sitting down to eat dinner. I thought I’d put the potion into his wine, that he wouldn’t notice in all of the commotion. He did; he grabbed my wrist and took the vial from me just before I could pour it. At first he thought I was trying to poison him, kill him, so I told him what the potion was. He saw another chance for his cruel games, drew everyone’s attention to us and was going to force me to drink it in front of all of them, so they could watch my suffering deepen and know the reason as they did. No one thought to stop him—they were all too afraid he knew their secrets and that the Lord and Lady held him in too high of regard.”
“But Lady Aevala was helping you against him.”
“Yes, but until only recently she, too, had doted upon him, held him in high favor. He was smart and handsome, charming.”
“So he forced you to drink Falla’s potion.”
“No! The old man, Eldis, came in before he could. He hid it somewhere before the steward could see what was going on, and I never saw it again.”
“Did you tell Aevala what happened?”
“No. I was too embarrassed, and she became distant. She and my lord had been fighting about something and she pushed all of her handmaidens away from her. Stopped confiding in us as she had and turned only to Barro.”
“What did Orren do with the potion?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long was all of this before he disappeared?”
“A month? Maybe a month-and-a-half? I’m not sure exactly.” Now she looked exhausted, worn weary by my threats and by reliving the pain Orren had caused her without the respite that would have come if she had lost her feelings for him. Beautiful sometimes, but a dangerous thing, love.
As I opened my mouth to continue, there came a furious rapping at the door, followed quickly by it bursting forth. Gamven stood in the doorway. “Iaren,” he said, “the spirit is back. Come quickly.”