Snow all but obliterated Aquae Solis, sticking to the steep roofs and transparent domes that sheltered the living rooms, gardens, and baths from the storm. The boughs of the tall conifers were heavily laden with snow, some drooping so far they were touching the domes. They’d break, Stairnon had said, if D’Omaha didn’t go out to do something about it; there was no one else to send. So Praetor D’Omaha had put his thermals on over his blouse and trousers and gone into the storm to save Aquae Solis’ trees.
Pitting himself against the wind-driven snow invigorated him. He waded through drifts and even climbed up onto the roofs to reach the snow-covered branches. He knocked off snow with a vengeance. There was a time when Stairnon wouldn’t have hesitated to come out into the storm with him to save the trees, a time when she was as young and sure-footed as he. He should be grateful that the clinics had done as much for her as they had, but he couldn’t help thinking that it just wasn’t fair. Stairnon should be out here in the snow, her laughter carried away with the wind when he knocked a boughful of snow over her. She shouldn’t have to wave to him from the window like an old woman.
He formed a snowball between the thermal mittens and threw it at the window, splattering it onto the glass, startling Stairnon into laughter. She stepped into the next window, presenting herself as target again, daring him to throw another. He reached down to scoop up some snow and formed the ball carefully. He was drawing back to throw when someone stepped behind Stairnon to look curiously over her shoulder. He recognized Adelina Macduhi Macduhi, the decemvir who had replaced him in the Decemvirate only weeks ago.
Embarrassed by his playfulness under Macduhi’s critical eye, he dropped the snowball. She must have arrived while he’d been in the gardener’s shed, for he hadn’t heard a windshot land. Had any of the other decemviri caught him like this, he would have plastered the glass before their faces with snow. He couldn’t do it to Macduhi; she was too new, too vulnerable, and he more than anyone else too able to penetrate her defenses. With a wave to both the women in the window, he turned to finish his work. Only two more trees to save from the snow, then he could go back inside.
D’Omaha’s shoes clicked on the rough-hewn timber staircase leading down to the sundeck. There was no sun today of course, and not even much of a view with the snow falling so thickly. The storm pushed the fireplace to its limits to heat the area, and Macduhi, he noticed, was wearing one of Stairnon’s fine woolen shawls, one she’d knitted with her own hands. She didn’t do much hand work any more; her fingers were not nimble enough. He hoped Macduhi wouldn’t forget to return the shawl. “Sorry I wasn’t on hand to greet you,” he said to her.
“I didn’t really expect you to be here,” she said, not even glancing up from the periodical. “Nor Stairnon.” She read the plat a few seconds more, then put the page marker on the surface and let the plat fold. Macduhi looked up at him with icy blue eyes that were not in the least warmed by the firelight. “The summons Koh sent said this was an emergency meeting of the Decemvirate, one so important and so secret that I was to tell no one, not even another decemvir, where I was going. When I arrive I find not one other active decemvir, no raider guards about save the one who travels with me to keep me safe, and an ordinary civilian telling me that I’m safer without them.”
D’Omaha was taken aback by her open hostility. Until this moment, Macduhi had been somewhat aloof but painfully civil during the formal meetings they’d been having as he turned over all his affairs of state to her. Plainly, she felt any need she might have for him had ended with the last of them. “Drink?” he said finally, heading for the bar.
“I do not indulge,” she said, her disdain for his indulgence quite evident.
“Maybe you should,” he said. “You’ll find that it takes twice as much alcohol to have an intoxicating effect while you’re taking elixir. You have many other things to learn, as well.”
“I prefer not to learn from a man who cannot accept his retirement gracefully. Praetor D’Omaha, let’s get this out in the open once and for all. I will not be your puppet in the Decemvirate. My genes are as good or better than yours for being decemvir. I have the appointment now. Let me use the skills as I see fit.”
D’Omaha poured wine into a goblet, carefully controlling his anger. Macduhi’s rebelliousness had been predicted; five minds that were the product of decemvir genes had agreed on that, his own included. His surprise was in realizing how deeply it affected him. There had to be more truth in her words than he cared to perceive when he’d looked at the probability models. He drank half the contents of the goblet, then refilled it to the brim before walking over to the fireplace. He sipped the wine slowly, looking at Macduhi over the rim of the goblet. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of him.
“The first years are painful,” he said quietly. “For some, so painful that they’ve given up the hundreds of years of life they could expect after their Decemvirate service just to be rid of the pain.”
“I would have taken the office with or without the allotment of elixir,” she said.
“That’s the truth,” D’Omaha said. “I know it is. It was for all of us at first. But after twenty years, it’s all that keeps you in the Decemvirate. My absence would not make it less painful for you. You’ll make decisions that effect millions of lives, billions! You’ll order out legions to enforce the decisions, and you’ll know exactly how many legionnaires and civilians died because you couldn’t come up with any better alternatives.”
“Are you trying to frighten me, Praetor D’Omaha?”
D’Omaha sighed and shook his head. “No.” He sipped the wine though he knew it would give him no comfort; liquor had never dulled his sensibilities. There was no way to prepare her for what would come. She would endure it or be the one in five who couldn’t, one in five who would give up hundreds of years of living in a youthful body just to be rid of probability trees and thinking of all the contingencies. D’Omaha had endured it, first because he was too proud not to, then because he was afraid not to, and at last because he knew that in the whole Arm of the Galaxy there were few who could do what he was doing and none who could do it better. But there was Macduhi now who could do it just as well. It was time for her to know the whole truth.
D’Omaha put his wine goblet on the mantle, and stood with his back to the fireplace to look at Macduhi. She was a tall, slender woman with brown hair and deep blue eyes that looked at everything with candor. She was staring at him hard. “You’ve been cut off from some of the probability models, Macduhi. Deliberately cut off. You know that and you think it’s me, don’t you? That somehow I’m withholding vital information from you so you’ll continue to need me.”
She said nothing but her face seemed slightly less intractable, a trace of curiosity perhaps.
D’Omaha smiled. “Your instincts are good, Macduhi. You were used, all right, but not by me alone. And you behaved . . . predictably. All the known worlds are blaming the newest member of the Decemvirate for holding up the decision on elixir reapportionment.”
She nodded and frowned. “I couldn’t vote while believing I wasn’t in possession of all the facts.”
“We counted on that. Thank the Timekeeper that we were right. There was a risk factor on the probability model that with your coming so recently from an old world you might let your emotions vote for you, a vestige of righteous indignation that would demand fairness for your constituents.”
Her frown deepened. “Everyone in the Arm is my constituent, not just the population of Dvalerth.” Then abruptly she shook her head. “You’re deliberately begging the question. I will not have you appear to be my puppet master. You made it impossible for me to insist that winter recess be cancelled so the Decemvirate could continue to work on the final solution to the elixir reapportionment. You blocked my proposal to cut the waste of having Praetorian raiders here at Aquae Solis. Raiders doing nothing more significant than building maintenance, just so you could have an honor guard and pretend your time in the Decemvirate has not come to an end.”
D’Omaha was stunned. “You believe I used the Decemvirate for personal gain, that I need to live in the likes of Aquae Solis?” He shook his head. “Macduhi, you do me more injustice than I thought possible, let alone what is probable. I would not, could not . . .”
“Praetor D’Omaha, your wife is to the manor born, and yes, for her I believe you would do anything, even manipulate the Decemvirate. They allowed it, of course; it couldn’t have happened otherwise.” She shrugged. “What’s to be done with a decemvir who no longer has an office? The early ones were sent off to the elixir gardens, but we’ve run out of gardens now.”
He knew that if he tried to speak now he would sputter. It wasn’t true, and yet he raged inside as if it were.
“I had no choice but to bow to your so-called superior wisdom during the official transition. That’s over now, Praetor D’Omaha. You will have no voice in today’s meeting. You’re nothing more than the groundskeeper’s husband, and I will remind you of that fact as necessary until you accept it.”
“Then I don’t suppose you would feel it appropriate for the civilian staff to brief you on today’s meeting,” he finally said. Her response was predictable.
“As you wish,” he said. He could have spared her a great deal of embarrassment, but now felt relieved of any need to do so.
“Oh,” she said. “I forgot to tell you. Commander Calla sent a message. She and the others are grounded at Norwell by the storm. They expect it to pass in a few hours and will arrive this evening. Stairnon said she was going to take a nap.”
“Well then, there’s nothing to do for a while. I trust you can amuse yourself among the antiquities and treasures for a while? Or perhaps you’d like a formal tour; it is your first visit to Aquae Solis, isn’t it?”
“You know it is,” she said. “Please don’t make it any more difficult than it already is. Stairnon already offered a tour and I turned her down. She looked tired. Perhaps you’d better look in on her.”
D’Omaha took the half-empty goblet from the mantle. It was so ludicrous, he should be laughing in Macduhi’s face, but all he felt was sorrow that he should be told to look in on Stairnon. He turned to go.
He paused to look at Macduhi. She had already spread the plat in her lap.
“I really like Stairnon. She isn’t ill, is she?”
He shook his head. Everyone liked Stairnon. She was always affable and relaxed, and could make even the likes of Macduhi feel comfortable very quickly. She was an old hand at that, very old.