No matter how many times she went away from it, home always seemed to welcome her back. Just like her father, thought Talia Minitz.
It was dark and bitter cold, the last breath of winter holding out here in the north. Talia spent much of her time in the south now, because her father’s health demanded that he travel less these days. She loved the south, the rolling hills, the short, mild winters, and the people, always warm with compliments that meant nothing.
If her father were gone, would she—?
No, she would not think of that.
Not now. Not ever.
The lights in the windows winked at her. Dear David, though Silva was now gone these four years. Her father had not had the heart to replace her. That meant David had more work, especially on a night like tonight. But she knew he would not have it any other way.
Talia pulled up on the reins to slow her horse. How she loved that she had her own horse now, and no longer relied on her father to choose on for her, or for his money to pay for the feed and board. It had been ten years since she bought her first horse, that old, bad-tempered beast that her father had begged her not to ride.
But she had loved the feeling of speed, the way she felt at one with the horse when she leaned forward and held tight to the mane. And sometimes got bit for her trouble, but that was part of the adventure. All part of the adventure.
This horse was a gentler one named Coal for her black coat, and for the fortune Talia had amassed in selling coal those first few years.
“Good girl,” Talia whispered, as the horse slowed to a walk.
Then she slipped off and guided her to the stables.
David was not there.
Well and good. She could manage on her own.
Once Coal was settled, she went into the house.
There were lights everywhere, but when she opened the door, she saw no faces waiting to greet her. No voices calling out her name in welcome.
She put a hand to her heart, thinking the worst.
And then stopped still enough she could hear the soft sounds of human voices towards the kitchen.
She crept closer, and then peeked inside.
There sat her father, heavy with wealth and contentment.
She smiled at the sight of his red cheeks. His one hand was withered and stiff at his side, and he had less hair than before—all gone shockingly white. But the sound of his voice was the same as ever. A hint of laughter, a hint of stubbornness—just like her own, she supposed.
She stepped inside. “Father, I’m here!” she called out.
It was then that her father stood and she could see that the man behind him was not David, as she had suspected, but a man she had never met before. A handsome, young man.
She groaned to herself.
Another of her father’s matches, then.
She thought that he had been cured of it three years ago, when she had told him the young man he had waiting for her looked too young to do more than hold her hand, and she expected more from a man than that.
“Talia, so good to see you!” Her father rushed towards her, gathered her into his arms and kissed her cheeks. “Oh, you look cold. And tired. You work yourself too hard, my dear.”
More hints that she should settle down and perhaps give him a grandchild, as Ivana had done.
“Come, sit down. This is my good friend and fellow merchant Feodor Feodorov.”
Talia did not sit down. She stared across at the man.
Well, he was good-looking, for certain. And no boy. She guessed him to be a year or two older than she was herself. He was very dark, with broad shoulders and height enough to look down on her.
Exactly why she disliked him instantly.
Or perhaps it was the way he looked at her. As if she were a dish that he would soon be serving on his own plate.
“Miss Minitz,” said Feodorov.
She stiffened. “Merchant Minitz, if you don’t mind,” she said. It was a title that no one in the south ever denied her, not these days, anyway. She knew that in the north, it was less uncommon—perhaps even unheard of—for a woman to work as a merchant. She did not care.
“Merchant Minitz, then,” said Feodorov with a hint of a smirk. “Though it will be difficult to tell the difference between you and your father.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage somehow,” said Talia. “I think I resemble my father, but most men of my acquaintance are able to distinguish between us quite easily.” Unless they were only interested in the money. Then the distinction hardly mattered.
“Ah—” said Feodorov. He seemed about to say more, but then stopped, his mouth held open as if he were waiting for something to be placed in it.
“Father, I had hoped to find you alone this evening,” said Talia, trying to convey a scolding.
But as far as she could tell, Merchant Minitz did not pay any attention to it. He was her father still, and it was his duty to get her married. Merchant woman or not, she could only be truly happy if she had a man to rely on.
He was old-fashioned, but he did love her. She believed that.
And he listened to her. Some of the time.
If she told him why Feodorov was completely impossible as a match for her, he would send him away.
She just had to get through this very awkward meeting.
“Oh, you will have plenty of me. More than enough of me tomorrow and in the days to come. I think you are tired of me almost as soon as you come home. You must be, or you would not be in such a hurry to leave again. How many days are you staying this time?” he asked.
She batted him on the shoulder. “I am not tired of you father. And I am staying for twenty days this time.”
“Just long enough for the weather to be fine again, I suppose. Has nothing to do with me. You just want to ride in the mud with that horse of yours.”
“Yes, Father. That is exactly what I want. To be muddy from head to foot, rather than sitting here with you in the kitchen, warm and clean and—drinking something hot.” She sniffed at the drink in the mug her father had in front of him. It was nearly empty, but there was a strange scent. Familiar, but she could not quite put her finger on it. Some spice from across the seas, perhaps? That she had decided it was not worth the guards to caravan to the north?
Was that who this Feodor Feodorov was? A man who was a more daring merchant than she?
Well, let him take the risks then. She would take the money. She was no fool.
“Shall I get you some tea, as well?” asked Feodorov.
Talia was surprised. “Thank you,” she said. And then she watched to see if he would really do it himself.
He stared back at her. “I am quite capable of boiling water over a stove, and of seeping tea in it,” he said. “Though it is obvious from your expression you think I am completely useless.”
She blushed, not at all pleased that Feodorov had read her so well.
But at last he went away, into the kitchen.
If she whispered, she could at least speak her mind freely to her father.
“Why did you bring him here? Today of all days? I have no interest in your matchmaking, Father. I thought I made that perfectly clear.”
“You speak to me as if I were a child.” Her father’s eyes flashed with anger, and Talia felt a moment’s regret.
Then Feodorov was back, carrying a steaming cup of tea for her.
The pungent scent seemed to fill the room, and suddenly Talia felt less angry, less uncomfortable. So, this man was here. So, he would disrupt her first evening home with her father. She would survive it, no doubt. She had survived worse.
“You look as though you are thinking of something in particular,” said Feodorov.
“Do I?” said Talia.
“Tell us,” he said.
And because she liked the story, she found herself telling of the time when she had been attacked by bandits and left for dead, with only a few broken items of the wagon she had once had full. But she had taken those items and traded them for better, and then traded again, and again. Until she had back a wagonful of better goods than she had started with, and fie on the bandits.
“Fie indeed,” said Feodorov.
Her father was still gasping with terror at her description of the bandit who had ripped her gown from shoulder to waist. He jibbered something about how differently he would have reacted to her travels as a merchant woman.
“Exactly why I never told you before,” said Talia. It was Feodorov that made her tell it now. She wanted to prove to him that she wasn’t the woman her father saw her as.
But why did she care about his opinion at all?
He would be gone tomorrow and she would never see him again.
She set down the remains of the tea and stood up abruptly. “I find I am tired,” she said. “I think the journey here has tired me more than I anticipated. You will excuse me, Mr. Feodorov.”
He stood for her, all politeness, ever the gentleman. Though whether he thought it would please her or her father she did not know.
Her father kissed her on her cheek.
Talia had thought that perhaps her father would dismiss Feodorov at last, and walk her to her room.
But no, he remained where he was.
Annoyed, Talia walked up the stairs, lit by wall sconces. At the top, she saw David had fallen asleep on a chair. He had waited up for her, after all.
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
He started awake then. “Ah, Miss Talia.”
Somehow it never bothered Talia when he called her “Miss,” possibly because he always combined it with her first name, as he did when she was a little girl. There were times she did not mind remembering those days herself.
“David, take yourself to bed. You’re too old to stay up like this. Keep your strength for the morning.” She was blunt with him, but he had never minded her sharp tongue.
“No, Miss. I won’t do that,” he said, and stood up, turning away from the chairs, as if rejecting the temptation.
“But I’m home and safe. There’s no need for you to worry about me now.”
“It’s not you I’m worrying over, Miss Talia,” said David. He stared down the stairs, and into the corridor that led into the kitchen. “It’s your father.”
“My father? Has the doctor—?“ she began.
“The doctor says that your father is easily tired, no more than that. But why is he so easily tired? Why in the last month more than any other time?” asked David. Then he began to cough.
Talia patted his back. “You should take something for that,” she said when he had recovered himself. “Some good tea, perhaps.”
“No, Miss Talia. No, I won’t.” He stood so stiff and proper that she let him be. He had his dignity and she would take it from him.
That night she dreamed of Feodorov.
She thought of him kissing her.
It felt so good to be held in strong arms and loved. She had kissed other men, of course. A Baron, two Marquises, and one Prince. Of course, he had been only twelve years old, but still.
None of them had ever made her feel like she felt in her dream.
She woke with a start and realized it was still before dawn.
But she could not go back to sleep.
She kept thinking of the dream.
She got out of bed and made her way to the kitchen, thinking of getting more of that tea. That scent of it had not left her, since the night before. It had even filled her dream. . .
But she opened the door to the kitchen, and found another scent was there, the scent of death.
She found a cat lying in a pool of blood just outside the kitchen door.
It had died in agony, tortured.
Who could have done such a thing? The creature was well-cared for, not a stray..
She turned around, and saw Feodorov looming before her.
“Its life was well spent, I think,” he said. “For the magic of the tea.”
Magic, thought Talia. Of course that was the scent.
For ten years, she had lived without magic, and thought herself rid of it forever.
She had been wrong.
“Get out!” she shouted at Feodorov.
She had been right about him, at least.
But he only smiled. “Your father owes me a good deal of money,” he said.
“What? How can he? We are rich.”
“Magic is very dear,” said Feodorov. “And without it, your father’s life will be over. It hang already by a thread. The thread of the magic I feed him.”
“But he does not know! He cannot!” Talia protested.
“You think he does not notice that the tea he drinks strengthens him?”
Talia was horrified at the thought that she, too, had taken the tea and the magic in it.
“I explained to him the price of the tea. He agreed to it. He said that you would pay. And so you shall, Merchant Minitz.”
Talia went cold. Had her father imagined she would marry this man to pay off his debt? It would never happen. She had too much pride for that.
No, she softened a moment later. Her father had likely thought it was the best for her. He was always doing what was best for her. A little debt to bring them together, he would think was in a good cause.
Which only told her that her father had not known what was truly in the tea, nor that his life was dependent on it.
But still, it was.
“Tell me what he owes you, then,” said Talia.
Then Feodorov named a sum that made her gasp. It was more than she had earned in all of the last ten years put together. It was half as much as her father had saved his whole life.
“And your father will owe the same again in another month’s time. And for every month you wish him to live after that.”
Talia stared at the dark features and wondered how she had ever, even briefly, thought them handsome.
“I will pay you half that,” said Talia, her merchant woman’s experience coming back to play.
Feodorov laughed. “Done,” he said. And gave her his hand on it.
How she hated the feel of his hand on hers.
And there was something in his eyes now that she looked at them more closely, that made her sure that he was not her age, after all, but much, much older. If he gave magic to her father to keep him alive, then why not to himself to stay young?
“But for next month, what will you do?” asked Feodorov.
“Leave,” said Talia. “I do not need your magic.”
Feodorov shrugged, and turned away from her. “As you choose,” he said. “But your father knows how to contact me if you change your mind.”
Talia wated until she heard the door the door at the front of the house close. Then she lowered her head and wept.
Her father had five days to live.
Unless she found magic of her own.
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