Spike raced down the stairs, robes clutched in both hands to avoid an embarrassing fall. *I can't wait until I'm of age to Apparate,* she thought, dismally. She glanced over the balustrade. *I might be able to jump it,* she thought, *skip these last couple of flights and save a few seconds.* She thought better of it, remembering a sprained ankle that had hobbled her for weeks as a younger child the third or fourth time she had tried to save those seconds. *I'm late anyway, more or less doesn't really matter.*
With that thought, she reached the bottom of the stairs in time to meet Waterhouse's gently disapproving look. "You were expected in the west garden--"
"Several minutes ago. I know." He always made her feel about three years old, with one hand in the cookie jar and chocolate smears on her pinafore. She took a deep breath, trying for the poise that always seemed to come naturally to Matya. She shook her robes out so they fell properly around her boot tops. "I should like a moment to put my hair back in order; kindly let them know that I apologize for being tardy . . . and . . ." She withered under the increased weight of his stare. "Right." Meekly, she crossed to the wicket door set in the much larger egress and opened it.
They had shoveled the show that afternoon, and it had been a clear evening; only a dusting of powder lay on the flagstones. *It's been a wet winter,* Spike noted with approval, tucking her hands into her robes for heat. The piled drifts lining the walkway were taller than her head. Through the moon gate across the inner garden, she could see the lights glittering on the snow in the western garden, the warm glow of candles, the sparkling of the charmed crystals hanging in the trees. Atyets's back was to her, the gold embroidery across the yoke of his tunic gleaming.
She crossed from darkness into light; from winter into the perpetual summer of the west garden. Hummingbirds and cardinals mingled like living jewels in the air, some clinging close to the light and blossoms, others flying out into the evening in search of cooler air and berries standing out against the snow. Spike made her graces to her parents as one of the footmen pulled her chair out for her.
"Good of you to join us," Atyets observed dryly, softly. His voice was always soft and dry, it was his words that cut. Spike blushed and looked at her empty plate, the silverware arranged on three sides. "Tell me, is time management on the roster for next term?"
"Now, Pavel." Matya, gently chiding, from Spike's left hand. "She's here now." She unfolded the snowy bear of her napkin, giving it a crisp shake before spreading it over her lap. Startled birds fluttered, wheeled, then settled, watching beady-eyed for crumbs from the table. Atyets grunted, acknowledging the point, then followed suit.
The pavane of dinner had begun.