Chapter 17 Part 7 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book 1
Neya's Day flower buntings no longer arched above the streets of Arren, but a soft, flowery mood still hung over the town, weeks after the festival. The winter's coal smoke had finally blown away with the snow, leaving the air clear and the sky a fragile but unbroken blue. Mattie Dunley, now Mattie Ambleson, walked through the streets toward Arren's market square, and saw none of it.
Mattie hated market day in Arren, even with the newly mild weather. She missed Reggiston's clean, wide boulevards, the squares with their pots of colorful flowers. The outdoor cafes would be open now; girls in bright dresses would be drinking coffee and eating little cakes with their young men on their day off, and she would not be among them. (She wouldn't have been among them were she still there, but in her homesickness, she glossed over that unfortunate fact.) The ancient, gnarled apple trees lining the sloping road toward the Mother's Temple on its little rise were probably in bloom now, she thought with an inward sigh.
Arren was gray by comparison, the high brick and stone houses piled on either side of her throwing the narrow street into shade. Even the windows looked funny here: tall and thin, topped with arches that made her feel like startled eyes looked down on her. Without its Paggday basket, Mattie's arm felt bare; her bored but attentive footman held a much larger one instead. Mattie was used to being a servant, not having one trailing behind her, and the liveried young man's presence at her back set apprehensive prickles at her nape, as if she were being followed. She was being followed she told herself, but it was just Pawl.
Just then, her new and unfamiliar bootheel caught in a chink in the paving stones. She abruptly teetered and tried to catch herself, but gravity was against her.
Hands caught Mattie firmly round the waist and checked her fall; even so, the world spun and sparks flew all around her vision. "Are you all right?" a man's voice said. "Can you stand?"
She put her foot down, and pain flowered in her badly twisted ankle. "No, Pawl, I can't. Let me lean on you...oh!" she cried, the sparks increasing. "Perhaps you might hail a cab."
"Most certainly, and I shall escort you home as well, miss, yes?" said the man in a musical, cultured Corrish accent not at all like her footman's rough monotone.
Now that she no longer feared for her skull, she realized a stranger's hands held her up, not Pawl's. They belonged to a Corrishman whose dark eyes tilted down at their outside corners. They would have given him a mournful, almost sinister, air, but for the rest of his handsome face, kind and attentive. "Oh, thank you, sir," she said, coloring, "but Pawl can see to me."
"Nonsense, I won't hear of it," said the man. His smile warmed the gray street; it went straight into her heart, a small ray of unexpected spring. The painful sparks in her vision receded, and Mattie suddenly saw the gilt work on the lamp posts, and the cheerful, molded plaster swags of fruit and leaves festooning the elegant, narrow windows of the building opposite. The hair at Mattie's nape prickled again, this time with sudden, inexplicable elation.
A quick gesture from the man, and a hackney cab appeared as if it had been waiting. Between the Corrishman and Pawl, they gently packed Mattie into the hackney; the Corrishman sat down on the seat opposite, and said to Pawl, "Run to your mistress, and tell her to expect us." Pawl nodded unquestioningly and trotted double-time down the street toward the Ambleson townhouse; the Corrishman tapped on the roof twice, and the cab followed the footman more slowly through the Paggday traffic. How easy everyone found it to obey this stranger, she thought somewhat drowsily.
"I'm afraid these are hardly the usual circumstances. May I introduce myself, miss?" said the Corrishman. His voice fell in velvet folds around her, silken and rich, and she wondered how she'd ever thought the Corrish accent sounded funny; in his mouth, it sounded lyrical, almost exotic.
"Oh, please do!" she said.
"I am Adrik Adrikov, and it is my honor to assist you, Miss...?"
"Dun--Ambleson, sir, Miss Ambleson." She became acutely aware that she was alone in a cab with a strange man. "Oh, dear," she said faintly. "I'm afraid I've behaved very improperly."
"Never say so, Miss Ambleson, never! No one would speak ill of you--why, what were you to have done, lie there in the street? But never worry, here we are at your own front door." He climbed down from the hackney and turned back, holding out his arms. "I shall carry you up the stairs and make sure you're safe, yes?"
"Oh, Mr Adrikov, that's far, far too much trouble--oh!"
The Corrishman scooped her up before she could object further or wonder how he knew her address, and she put her arms around his neck rather than be dumped into the street. As he carried her into the house she could smell his cologne, a golden, mossy scent that mixed with the fine wool of his suit, and something else far beneath, a lurking dark; it registered deep in her heart. She closed her eyes and let herself enjoy his closeness, his strong arms holding her as if she were a little package. "I'm so lucky you were there today, Mr Adrikov," she murmured. She felt as if he were carrying her into a new life, into some unexpected, exciting future; Reggiston and its enticing beauties began to fade.
"Oh," the Corrishman smiled, "the luck was all on my side entirely, Miss Ambleson."