I hope you had a very merry Christmas, joyous Yule, happy Hanukkah and happy Holidays! We’re knee-deep in snow here, so it’s a good day for reading. If you’ve just dropped in, you can read the beginning of Jas and Amethyst’s romance here.
Divide and Conquer
Amethyst had brought Caramela with her to the Magus Building once or twice. She didn’t shed much, she was well-behaved, and she loved people. Well, except for stalker-y wizards, maybe. With stalker-y wizards in mind, she brought the dog with her this time.
She pushed open the tall doors of Coke-bottle-green glass and stepped into a lobby like a fairy cave. Her own stained glass flanked the door, a design of koi and lily pads in swirls of green water. The floor of water-smoothed pebbles in green and pink and beige embedded in urethane stretched away to a bank of elevators and the security desk. Dotting the space between were sculptures: a dragon made of junkyard parts, a fused glass frit panel depicting a tree-lined series of small waterfalls, a lump of polished, greenish marble carved to suggest a wolf lying with its tail curled around its paws.
The most striking of all was a fountain, a glossy black boulder ten feet tall and shot through with chips of brilliant color. Water cascaded down its face and disappeared into the pebbles surrounding its base. The murmur of water echoed through the lobby, weaving in and out of the voices of the people there. Caramela beside her, Amethyst walked toward it.
Amethyst had spent a lot of time by that fountain over the last year. Jas had obviously noticed, because sometime last winter during one of her visits, she’d found a bench made of a slab of redwood inlaid with turquoise had been installed beside it. Jas had never said a word about it, and neither did she, but gratitude for his kindness washed over her each time she sat on the bench.
As always when she entered the building, she called a little spell. People crossing the lobby, the guards at the security desk would be aware of her presence by the fountain, but have no interest in what she did there. If not for the spell, they’d think her stranger than most of the programmers.
Because as always, she stepped close to the fountain, trailed her fingers in the water purling over the stone and said, “Hi, Talys.”
Amethyst, a liquid voice replied, flowing through her mind. Silver reflected in the ripples around her fingers. You’re troubled. Why?
She sat on the bench. Caramela, putting her ears back and wagging at the fountain as if greeting a familiar friend, lay down at her feet.
Amethyst sighed. “I wish you were still my familiar. Everything would be so much easier.”
She’d first met him as the spirit inhabiting a ’69 Mustang Mach I. Then he’d taken the form of a man.
Who then would guard the magic? he said.
“I know, I know. And at least I have you…” She shrugged. “…here.”
Better than nowhere at all, she didn’t say. Although sometimes she wondered, was it really better? Each time she spoke to him now, as the guardian, it reminded her all over again: Talys, her trusted partner in magic, her friend, her lover, was gone. Forever.
She sat silent, listening to the water’s soothing voice. Talys only waited. She supposed time meant nothing to him now, being of pure magic that he was. Time, or the small distresses of one young wizard.
“If you were still with me,” she finally said, “I wouldn’t have to worry about why wizards are sniffing around.”
Certainly you have power enough to discourage them.
“Oh, sure I do. The problem is these…these stupid men, who look at me and say, ‘Pfft. Nothing to worry about there.’ And then things get ugly. People slap spellbindings on me. They hold my friends hostage and try to drain my power. Kidnap me to sell me to the government to experiment on.” She put elbows on knees and chin in hands. “Damn wizards have more respect for my dog than they do for me.”
The old Talys, her Talys, would’ve said something droll and British and made her laugh.
They will learn, he only said. You will learn.
He was like water now, reflective, impossible to grasp; like the magic itself, aware of all, a part of all.
The magic thrummed around and through her like an electric charge. This was what Talys guarded: this place, the wellspring, the source, the heart of the magic. It was soothing and vitalizing at once, driving out weariness and worry, recharging the power drained in the meeting with Balgaire. She always felt better here—sharper, stronger, more competent.
So watching the silver-gilt water pour down the black, light-flecked face of the boulder, thoughts occurred that hadn’t earlier.
“The whole problem,” she said, “is that I can’t figure out what this guy Balgaire is up to. Is he after me? Jas? Is he after—” She straightened, flattening her hands on either side of her. “Talys, has he come here? Does he know what you’re guarding?”
The magic is for all.
“I know that. But would you know if he came? Would you be able to tell he’s a wizard?”
I know the ocean of existence around me. I know the pulse and flow of magic.
She tapped her fingers on the bench, trying to decipher that. “In other words, you know when a wizard uses magic, and where the magic is used, but as long as they’re not doing anything too egregious it’s barely a blip on the radar.”
Talking with Talys was often like that now. She ended up following a spiral that would bring her, if she let it, exactly where she needed to be.
She sighed and got to her feet. “Thanks, Talys. I guess I’d better go see if I can find Jas.”
* * *
Jas was, naturally, in meetings all afternoon. Amethyst left a message with Sylvia, his assistant, then logged on to her über-secure account to get some work done.
She was just setting a spell into a module of code when Caramela raised her head and said, “Woof.”
Jas stood in the doorway decked out in full CEO regalia—custom-tailored suit, expensive shoes and one of his usual green silk ties. This one was a conservative stripe in black and warm green, like a pond banded with shadows. The one outfit probably cost as much as her whole wardrobe. And wow, could he ever wear it. ‘Woof’ indeed.
He bent and kissed her. “There,” he said. “You can’t go a day without seeing me.”
“Of course I can’t.”
Damn. Where had that come from?
For about a nanosecond, Jas looked surprised, then for another fraction of a second, pleased. He turned to pull out a chair from the credenza in front of her office window. She suspected he wore a grin he didn’t want her to see.
When he turned around, the expression on his face was perfectly pleasant. He settled into the chair and nodded at the lines of code on her computer screen. “What are you working on?”
“I set an aggressive reflective spell in a remora. The remora will track an attacker and the spell will return an attack that much worse.”
Jas whistled softly. “I’m glad you’re working for me. You’d be a terror as a freelancer.”
She hit a key to save her work and logged out. The light outside her window was fast deepening to dusk. Behind the lighted squares of the neighboring building’s top-floor windows, the Sandia Mountains loomed dark against deepest indigo. A reflection of herself, Jas and the office floated over the view.
“I had an unexpected visitor this morning,” she said. “Remember our friend Dougal Balgaire, from the party Friday?”
Jas’ pleasant expression vanished. “What?”
Amethyst sat back in her chair. “Don’t worry. I deployed my secret weapon—Heather.”
“Don’t worry?” he said. “Balgaire will be guaranteed to return now. Did you think of that?”
She tensed. “Yes, Jas. As matter of fact, I did.” The bitter taste of fury ran over her tongue. “Is this jealousy? Because if it is, I’ll tell you right now, it’s a deal breaker. I don’t do that crap.”
“Like you didn’t when Heather and I were talking?” he shot back.
She shoved to her feet, so mad she could feel the thick, fast thud of her heartbeat. She snatched up her purse and Caramela’s leash from under her desk. Caramela watched her with round eyes and drooping ears, not at all happy with the sudden change in atmosphere
“You know what, Jas? I don’t need this.”
She snapped on Caramela’s leash and headed for the door.
Jas stood too, imposing in the power suit. “What don’t you need? Someone to point out that you have no business getting angry over behavior you engaged in yourself?”
“Oh, hey, knock yourself out if it makes you feel better.” She fisted her hand on her purse strap. “But don’t ever imply I’m stupid.”
“It’s difficult not to when you leave yourself wide open for further trouble.”
“What did you want me to do? Blast him in the middle of the driveway?”
“Think. Use your wits.”
“I did. I’m not clever. I’m not cunning. That’s your thing. I do the best I can with the tools I’ve got. Sorry they’re not up to your standards.”
She turned her back on him, jerked open the door—
And stopped. As if it had only been waiting for her to stop arguing, shut up and listen, a bad thought dropped on her. The anger abruptly drained away.
She turned. Jas stood in front of the window, radiating power and anger. He might’ve been intimidating, but it was like she observed him from a distance.
“Is this what he’s up to?” she asked.
Jas looked at her like she’d fallen on the floor frothing at the mouth. “What are you talking about?”
Her thoughts skipped ahead. “I keep wondering what Balgaire is trying to do. Have you noticed every time he shows up we end up fighting? Maybe that’s it. Maybe he’s trying to split us apart for some reason.”
And she didn’t like the reasons that occurred to her, the least noxious of which was that he intended to be ready with a shoulder to cry on.
The anger faded from Jas’ face and his brows crooked in a thinking frown. “You’re possibly right.”
She crossed her arms. “Of course I am. The woman is always right. You should know that.”
He slanted her a glance at her as if trying to decide whether or not she was serious. She wasn’t, mostly. But she was still smarting from that argument.
“For someone who wants to take things slowly, you’re presumptuous about the relationship.”
“I learned from the best.”
A smile hinted at the corners of his mouth. “I’ll have to be more careful what I teach you.”
He stepped past her and shut the door. He lifted her purse off her shoulder, set it on the desk and took her hand.
“I’m not jealous, Amethyst, and I certainly don’t believe you’re stupid. The last thing I want is to get at cross purposes with you. I’ve had enough of that.”
She nodded once, took a breath, pushed it out again, trying to push out the anger at the same time.
“Me too,” she admitted. “I don’t even know how it got started.”
“It started because I was—am—alarmed and concerned. It’s clear Balgaire intended to flush you out at the party. I, too, have been wondering exactly why. Now he appears on your doorstep.” His grip on her hand tightened. “I don’t like what occurs to me, and frankly, I have no intention of waiting to find out what he plans. I don’t care if he discovers I’m a wizard. I will put a stop to it.”
Amethyst pulled her hand away. “No, you won’t. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and give me a look. If Balgaire knows you’re a wizard, so will everybody else. If everybody knows you’re a wizard, you might as well just die in a plane crash or something and will your assets to your new self, because you won’t have a hope in hell of functioning the way you have for the last however-many years.”
Jas folded his arms and perched on the edge of the credenza. “Haven’t you become brash.”
“Gosh, so sorry. We all know women should never question a man’s superior wisdom. In the future, I’ll make sure I only talk about fluffy little kittens.” She picked up her stuff again.
“Amethyst—” Jas put a hand over his face.
He didn’t answer. After a minute, she realized he was laughing silently.
She propped fist on hip. “What?”
He lowered his hand, still grinning. “I’m trying to imagine you talking about fluffy kittens.”
“Just because I write code and like cars doesn’t mean I can’t mush on puppies and kittens as well as the next girl.”
“Then I suppose you won’t mind me being male about this situation.”
“Depends on how you go about it.”
“What about this,” he said. “I’m perfectly capable of making his life unpleasant without magic. I might just do that. If I’m feeling generous, I might tell him what can happen before I do it.”
Truth be known, she’d be perfectly happy if Jas would make Balgaire go away. “That’s up to you,” she said.
He studied her for a long moment. “Are we all right now? Because I’d like to make a suggestion, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.”
She reached down and stroked Caramela, who sat panting anxiously.
“Okay,” Amethyst said. “Let’s hear it.”
“Why don’t you borrow my guest bedroom for a while. I don’t like the idea of your being alone. Not that you’re unable to take care of yourself, but why put yourself in a position where you have to?”
Amethyst raked a hand through her hair. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t like the idea of being alone, either. But—”
“Bring Caramela, of course.”
She bit her lip, thinking. If it weren’t for the argument, she might’ve thought this was all part of a plot to get her to move in with him. She knew from experience how wily Jas could be. But now—
“Don’t worry about problems,” he said, obviously misinterpreting her hesitation. “We’ll handle them.”
“I don’t know, Jas. Maybe I’m overreacting. For all I know, Balgaire really only came to apologize. It was probably stupid to come scampering down here to tattle on him.”
Jas had started shaking his head at the word ‘overreacting.’ “No. Listen to your instincts. What was your reaction when you found him outside your door?”
“Alarm. Caramela was barking the house down, too. We backed him off the porch.”
“Exactly. You might have overreacted. I might have overreacted. Not both of us.”
She gusted a sigh. “Great.”
He tapped his lips thoughtfully. “I have another idea,” he said. “Let’s trade houses. You stay at my house for a week or two, I’ll stay at yours.”
Amethyst just stood stunned for a moment. My god. He’s serious. He’s really concerned about me. That’s why he was so mad.
She stammered before she could get out a reply. “You can’t do that! You can’t…can’t turn your life upside down because I got spooked by a guy in a skirt!”
“It’ll solve several problems.” He ticked off points on his fingers. “It will serve to discourage him. If he is trying to divide us, it will prove that he hasn’t succeeded. It might possibly enlighten us as to his motives. And finally…” He gave a thin smile. “I might get the chance to discuss a few things with him.”
“Yeah, and we still have the same problem. What if he tries to throw down on you? Even with the protective spells on my house, even with protective spells on your person, you might end up forced to use wizardry. For all we know, that’s exactly what he’s angling for. And besides, hiding out at your house makes me look like a gutless weenie.”
He folded his arms and frowned. “Amethyst.”
“Hey, you were the one who told me I shouldn’t show weakness.” She shrugged. “If it makes you feel better, I have exactly zero interest in going toe-to-toe with Mr. Balgaire. So here’s another idea. Why don’t you stay in my guest bedroom? It has all the advantages you just mentioned without leaving you exposed and me tucking tail.”
A slow smile spread across his face. One black brow inched up.
She leveled a finger on him. “Do not smile like that. You’re the one who said not to take it wrong. And just so you know, Caramela sleeps with me.”
The dog, hearing her name, licked Amethyst’s hand and wagged her tail.
He held up his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. You caught me off guard. Yes, that’s an excellent idea. Also…” The smile and the quirk of the brow came back.
She narrowed her eyes. “Also…what?”
“What do you think? I was only going to say that I’ll learn if you truly squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and put the toilet paper roll on the wrong way.”