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A lot of what I’ve written recently has felt as if it should have been the beginning of something bigger, this piece especially so. It was supposed to be self-contained. It’s clearly a prologue. I’m posting it today as a promise – to myself as much as to anyone else – that, although Katie & Pasha have a story that will run and run, I’m going to get them out of my head for long enough to write something else one day. This might even be that something else.

“But the girl is yours!”

I had been watching the girl in question spinning daydreams in the courtyard, and I turned in surprise to find Giorg standing squarely in the centre of the room, trembling, amazed by his own outburst. Giorg has been with the family a long time, and has the right to speak his mind, but he’s never lost his temper with me before – not badly enough to let it show. Anything that could move him that far was worth understanding, and I settled him onto the bench, pressed him to a cup of wine, and tried again to explain myself.

“Perhaps I do own her – the old man’s word gives me a claim, I know, but what profit is there in taking this to law? You know how I feel about slaves.”

“So claim her, and keep her only for the month the law demands. We’ll be two hundred miles away and you can free her and offer her a place in the household.”

“Do you think I have not asked about the girl? She believes that she belongs here, and she won’t accept a place with us. I’ll have no right to stop her, and a healthy girl can walk two hundred miles. Stavan will overrule the court in his own name, and treat her worse than ever in despite of me. She is determined to stay here, and I cannot.”

I almost wished I could, and not just for the sake of the girl. I had no illusions but that some of the changes enforced by the presence of my embassage would last no longer than my visit. I was back at the doorway, eavesdropping on her dreams. She was young and slim and almost a woman, with a dappling of old bruises along both arms and the healing gall of a shackle on her ankle. There would be no irons, at least, whilst I stayed.

“With respect, my lord, you do not understand.”

“Tell me, Giorg, I am in your hands,” and I gave him the attention he deserved. He had earned it through his years in my family’s service, but that was not why I listened. In this matter he had earned it before we met, by the faded scar below his talus bone.

“You think that the old man left you property, in fondness. He didn’t. He left you a responsibility, in respect. The girl has made her choice, yes. The girl is thirteen years old. Did you make wise decisions, at that age?”

He knew very well that I had not. He had rescued me from the consequences of more than one youthful folly.

“So I must decide for her between safety in a strange place and danger at home?”

“No, my lord, not quite.”

He had joined me at the doorway to watch her daydreams. She had been spinning them for her own amusement, in the precious half hour of idleness after the evening meal, but having an audience of children she had spun for them bright butterflies that danced above their heads, improbably brilliant hummingbirds to dart and tease and make the girls giggle, and a great prowling tiger to make the boys squeal.

“She is cursed, and you cannot lift it, but it is for you to choose it. He will kill her – not soon, but soon enough, not in one act of murder but . . . you have seen the way he handles her.”

He hesitated, then. He had a little reticence, despite everything, over speaking bluntly of the mysteries of his youth, but I was a stranger in the West, and he could see that I did not understand her insistence, or her bond.

“She knows that everything she is is rooted in this place. She knows that if you take her and you hold her . . . then her magic will die.”

Even as he said it the tiger faded, and I saw that the wicket gate had opened on the hulking form of our reluctant host. As he moved across the courtyard her bright birds dipped down amongst the children, only to soar defiantly behind him.

“You are asking me to kill her, one way or the other.”

He might have argued that one. He only said softly


The last bird vanished abruptly as her master’s hand fell heavily on her shoulder, and I was out of the door before I knew that I had obeyed Giorg’s injunction.

“Take your hands off her, Stavan. The girl is mine.”


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