Lunch with his fiancé. Alerich stood beside the corral gate, watching Celia’s car arrive. That was going to take some getting used to. Lunch with his fiancé. His grandmother, Hildreth, the matron of both House Ashimar and House Van de Mere, considered it the arrangement of the decade, and it seemed a lot of their set agreed. The congratulations flowed in in an endless stream. Grandmother thought Celia was perfect for him. She was politically powerful, the only child of Roland Carralond, the Archwizard of the Wizard’s Council. With Alerich as his father’s heir, marrying Celia would give their family control of three seats on the council: Ashimar, Van de Mere, and Carralond. Grandmother thought that set Alerich up to be Archwizard someday.
Judging by Celia’s ambitious reputation, Alerich was wasn’t so sure.
Fiancé. It wasn’t that Alerich didn’t want to get married. He was a wizard. Wizards married, it was simply how it was done. He would have preferred to have had a say in who he married, though. But Hildreth had not given him that consideration.
Celia slipped from the driver’s seat, dressed to ride in the English style, helmet in the crook of her arm, her blonde hair catching the sun like winter wheat in its complicated bun. She was beautiful, he could not argue with that. She looked him over, intelligent eyes filling with approval, and she approached with a sharp smile. “I do hope you’re Alerich. Pictures in the face books are one thing, but it is far better to meet someone in person.”
Alerich gave her a small bow and a smile of greeting. “Alerich Ashimar, at your service. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Celia.” He hoped it was. He was trying, at any rate.
Celia looked towards the corral, looking over the horses. “Bit of a barbaric business, this arranged marriage thing is, isn’t it?” She gave him a sidelong glance. “But so far, so good.”
Alerich’s smile widened a little. He couldn’t help it.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m acting as my own matron in this arrangement. My family’s matron… well, she’s gone a bit dotty, and we’re man-heavy in my line, so that leaves me to my own devices. Though I will say that your grandmother has been very considerate to me. I’ve asked for a long engagement. I feel it would be best for us to get to know each other.”
Alerich’s brows twitched up a little. That must have taken some wrangling to get Gran to agree to that. “How long, if I may ask?”
“Two years. We’re both young. We have the time.”
Alerich nodded, feeling a little relieved. “Thank you. I agree, a long engagement benefits us the most.”
Celia went up on her toes a little, watching the horses. “Oh, look at that black gelding with the magnificent blaze. Isn’t he a fine gentleman?”
Alerich watched the horse prance across the corral with pride. “He’s one of my favorites. I thought you might like to ride him to our picnic.”
Celia looked up at him, again evaluating. “You’re not the usual sort of wizard, Alerich Ashimar. I was expecting dinner at an elegant restaurant followed by the theatre.”
Alerich’s smile pulled at one corner of his mouth. “But I heard you love to ride. And I love to ride. I thought, if we have this one thing in common, perhaps we have other things in common. Besides, it’s too beautiful a day to waste indoors.”
Celia laughed, and it was a good laugh, the sort to turn heads. “Then let us ride.”
They spoke of small things as they rode side by side, knees occasionally touching. She spoke of her father and little rumors about the Council. He spoke of his family, his twin, Elspeth, and his two best friends, Thomas and Fitz. As they rode he wondered how well Celia would get along with his brittle sister.
Something rustled just off the path, and from his vantage point in the saddle Alerich could see a flash of red in the bushes. He brought his horse to a standstill and dismounted. “I see something.”
Celia frowned and dismounted, too. “A snake?” She obviously was concerned about her horse rearing under the trees.
“No, I don’t think so.” Alerich parted the bushes to reveal a small fox caught in an old trap, and he felt a flash of rage for the trapper. “It’s all right,” he murmured to the little one. “I’m here to help you.”
The fox cowered on its belly. It couldn’t have been more than a few months old.
Celia looked over Alerich’s shoulder. “Ah. Pity.”
Alerich grabbed the trap and began to pry it apart.
Celia frowned. “What are you doing? You’re getting filthy.”
“I think its leg is broken. My stablemaster has a talent for rehabilitating wildlife. See if you can hold it steady when I get this trap open.”
“I’m not touching that dirty little thing. It could have rabies.”
Alerich looked over his shoulder with disgust. “I see.” He pried the trap fully open and slipped it away from the kit’s leg before closing it in a controlled fashion to keep from startling the little fox into a run. He then slipped out of his riding jacket and wrapped the kit in his warmth.
Celia was watching him as if he was an alien. “You can’t possibly take it to our picnic.”
Alerich frowned at her. “One thing you’re going to have to understand about me is that I do a lot of animal rescue, both hands on and funding. That handsome fellow you’re riding is a rescue horse, as are most of the horses in my stable. This is me. Take me or leave me.” He moved to remount his horse.
Celia looked genuinely confused. “But what are you going to do, now? It’s just going to die. That’s that natural order of things, isn’t it?”
Alerich fought to not glare as he cradled the fox kit in one arm. “Not if I can help it. Enjoy the picnic. I may not make it, after all.” With that he turned his mount on the path and rode back to the stable. He let out a sigh. “You’re lucky, little one. You don’t have a fiancé.”
How could this possibly work between the two of them? Two years. It had to be enough time to talk his Gran out of this madness and find a woman better suited.
It had to be.
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