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Reaching the wooden deck, Vee glanced at the shuttered windows fronting the cabin. A golden glow gleamed faintly through the cracks. Relieved he had found some source of illumination, she opened the door, only to find herself in a dark, modest entry room. It wasn’t big, just enough to have a bench on either side with coat hooks above and room for spare boots, snowshoes and the like beneath the benches, and a pair of steps up to the inner door.
Even as she looked around, the inner panel opened, letting through a large spill of warm lamplight. Kiers poked his dark head into the boot room, grinning down at her. Some of that light danced and crackled behind him, bringing with it the sounds and the scents of a firmly caught hearth fire. Some of it gleamed through his black locks, cut finger-length short in an effort to change his appearance so that the men chasing them wouldn’t immediately recognize him without the long braid of a member of the Jade Mountain royal family. Vielle thought the shorter strands looked good on him, balancing the square planes of his jaw with their subtle curls.
“Smart fellow, our host,” Kiers praised, dragging her attention back to their surroundings. “It seems he left the house well-prepared for his return. A lamp on the bench down there, and wood already laid in the hearth up here. No alchemical twigs or even a tinderbox in sight, so I suspect our absent host has a fair bit of Fire in him.”
Hopping down the distance of the two steps, he worked on unbuttoning his pale gray woolen coat, his gloves already stripped off. Beneath the coat lay a darker gray waistcoat and matching trousers, with two layers of bleached shirt beneath. Shrugging out of the wool overcoat, he hung it on one of the hooks, added his plebian, knitted wool cap, then moved to help Vee out of her own outer garments.
She was already struggling with the backpack holding it in place, moving stiffly from hours of holding her muscles tense, channeling her thon so she could fly. He helped set it on the bench, then unbuckled the leather cap on her head while she worked on the buttons of her leather jacket. Pulling it away exposed the coronet of her braided, ash-gold hair. Some of the pins came loose as he did so, forcing him to stoop and catch them before they could vanish between the floorboard cracks. That brought him down by her white, trouser-clad legs, and the scuffed white leather boots she wore.
“He also laid out slippers, so off with your boots, too, Miss Vielle,” the ex-prince told her, feeling like a valet. “Or do you need help with them?”
“No, I can get them, thank you,” Vee replied, pleased that he had offered. Now that she had the chance to rest, her brief bout of temper was fading again. “Sorry for snapping at you. And thank you for helping. And for the slippers.”
The reduction in his circumstances had angered him at first, but now it was merely an annoyance at best. Not to mention Miss Vielle expected him to haul his own weight, even if she literally hauled his whenever they flew. Now that he knew her better, he admired her common sense and practicality. He valued her good opinion of him. Claiming the other bench, he worked on removing his own boots.
“You’re quite welcome. Apparently, Mister Horgen has a thing for keeping his boots downstairs and wearing lambswool-lined slippers inside the cabin proper. He left three or four pairs lined up just past the door. You should be able to shuffle around in the ankle boots, I think. They’ll be a bit big on you, since they looked like they’ll fit me without a problem, but they’ll be toasty-warm and dry, unlike our boots.”
“Then we’ll do our best to comply with his wishes, spoken or not.” Sitting down across from him, Vee tried not to shiver; the upper level might be receiving some of the heat radiating from that fire, but not down here. Unlacing her boots, she left them with her coat, scarf, cap and gloves on the bench across from his. Before she could pick up her pack, she found it lifted by one of his hands. The other, he offered to her to assist her to her feet.
“For the record, I’ve set a pot of water to boil. Also for the record…if you’ll tell me what to do, I’m willing to learn how to cook, Miss Vielle,” Kiers teased her. “Now that we actually have the facilities and the supplies to do so. I took a quick tour while the fire caught; the larder goes back into a cave set in the mountainside. From the looks of it, Mister Horgen has this place very well stocked. Enough for an entire year, I should think. Though I should think it’d only take us a week or two for the men from Jade Mountain to give up on us and move on, thinking that we’ve moved on as well.”
“We’ll have to remember to leave a bit more in payment for our host, then,” she murmured, accepting the hand. Sitting down in the cold entryway had allowed her sore muscles to stiffen. “Plus set fresh wood in the hearth and return the lamp to the entryway bench, and leave the place as good or better than we’ve found it. But as to whether or not they’ll give up…we’ll have to fire up the portable aetherometer and try to find the frequency they’re using to communicate again. Assuming we can get a signal through these mountains, of course.”
“Assuming that, yes,” he agreed, leading her into the cabin proper. “They might see that the cabin is occupied, but it’ll look like it’s been occupied since before the avalanche fell, which with no visible tracks leading to or from it, should discourage them from visiting—and if nothing else, we’ll at least know it if they get close. They’ve been sending out their reports at dawn and dusk. You’ll probably want to crank it up soon—do you need a bite of thonite after all that hard work?”
“No, thank you,” Vee dismissed. A part of her was pleased he had asked. She found the ankle boots when he pointed at them, and slipped her stocking-clad feet into them one at a time while he toed his way into a pair of lambswool slippers. “I’m not completely depleted yet, and if we’re going to be resting here for a good week or so, then I’ll have my reserves topped up naturally by the end of it.”
“Like we did back in Triskelle as a guest of His Majesty’s?” he asked. “The only reason why they found us there is because it was the logical place for us to go next on your little gizmo quest.”
“Rest is always better than eating part of a cube. We also don’t know when we’ll be able to buy thonite again,” she pointed out. “As for the next logical place, we haven’t had a chance to think about all the legends we poured over, going through the Trionan king’s somewhat confusing, contradictory archives, so we don’t know where we’re going next.”
“Copious and confusing,” Kiers agreed. “I’m the one who’s been carrying most of the notes, remember?” Stopping her near the hearth, a blue-gray stone construct set with a wire mesh screen in front, he gestured at it. “As for our current sheltering spot, this, Miss Vielle, is the single smartest piece of survival equipment Mister Horgen owns. A genuine soapstone fireplace.”
She gave him a curious look. Not because she didn’t know what it was, but because he seemed so proud to know it. He took that as encouragement to continue.
“Even when the hearth fire dies down at night, the properties of this particular stone will keep this place warm for hours—I only know about it because I chatted with one of the palace servants in Triskelle while he was stoking the fires in the reading hall.” Kiers wrinkled his nose as he said it, grinning at her. “There’s some strange mix of Earth and Fire affinities in the stone itself; it absorbs heat and holds it inside, never quite getting too hot, and then it slowly releases all that kept heat over time. That’s a very good thing to know, because we won’t have to worry so much about having to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire.
“I had to ask the footman what kind of stone it was, since I hadn’t seen the like before…which is true of a lot of things down here on the ground, under the Vull. I only got to see new things up in the sky when they were painstakingly imported up there, or when I was on a diplomatic trip. Since my exile, I’ve needed to know these things a lot more than I’ve needed to avoid looking like an ignorant, pompous fool.”
That self-deprecating quip at the end made her smile. He wasn’t much of a fussy, status-conscious prince anymore—he still insisted on some formality between them, but he wasn’t nearly as arrogant as before. She wouldn’t have wished on him the pain of having his own sister frame him for treason if it could have been prevented, but Vee could admit the hardships he’d endured and his efforts to blend in with the common sort were making him a better man.
His comment about needing to know things made her look around, examining their new, temporary home. The front room had two deep bays. One held a sort of crafts nook, with tools scattered over a workbench lining the alcove, and a stool with a clever, padded seat that looked like it could rotate so the sitter could face any of the three sides. The windows were also glazed with expensive sheets of glass, she realized. Doubly so, because the hunter would have had to carry them into the mountains by hand, hopefully without breaking any. But if the shutters were open, the window over the bench would have let in a great deal of natural light.
The other alcove, framing the boxed-in space of the entry room, held a padded bench on one side, a paper-strewn table across from it, and bookshelves overhead crammed with tomes, scrolls, and stacks of writing supplies. Some of which were maps, she realized, moving a little closer. Some of the wood on the hearth snapped, and she shook herself out of her curiosity. Turning around, she surveyed the rest of the room.
The hearth of course was central, but above it sat a balcony with banisters and railings made from thick, peeled tree limbs. The A-frame was crossed by antler- and horn-decorated rafters high up, and stout logs served as columns and posts, giving the interior enough structural support to withstand all that snow piled over the roof. But beyond what lay directly overhead, she couldn’t yet say because she couldn’t see much more. There weren’t any lamps up there to illuminate what lay on the floor above. Disappointed, but knowing she would soon find out, Vee lowered her gaze again.
To either side of the hearth, short sections of slender logs had been laid almost to within touching distance of the hearth, dividing the front room from the back by forming two little walls between the stout pillars supporting the upper floor. Flanking them were doorless openings on either side.
Picking the left one, she stepped beyond the wall and found herself in a kitchen. One with a fire crackling away cheerfully…in the same hearth, Vee realized belatedly. It had two openings, one to the front parlour, such as it was, and the other to the largish kitchen in the back of the cabin. It also had more of those soapstone blocks, this time forming a sort of soot-stained table over the hearth. An actual cooking stone. She’d heard of such things, but hadn’t seen one until now. Most people used sensible iron cookstoves these days.