This chapter took me a long time to post–not necessarily to write but to think through. That’s because it’s a bridge chapter that sets up stuff for upcoming chapters. So I percolated and ruminated over it for a couple of weeks, wrote down a few snippets/excerpts and percolated some more. I finally sat down today and swore I’d get it finished. It’s now 3:37 a.m., and installment 17 is indeed finished. Usual caveat about typos, misspellings, weird word usage, etc. all apply – especially this late in the evening/early in the morning. Also, at the end of this installment, I’ve posted a second story by Aria M. Jones titled IVORIES. I hope you like it as much as I do.
As always, a heartfelt thanks to everyone who reads and comments. An apology to anyone whose comment I might have accidently deleted. I get hammered with spam; it’s why comments are on moderation, and I sometimes get a little careless with clicking on the Spam/Trash button when I’m wiping out a ton of spam notices in one big group.
We’ll wrap this up as my eyelids have lead weights attached to them, and I have a 9:00 a.m. appointment in 5 hours. :) Have a great weekend, everyone!
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
If there was anything fouler-smelling than an amaranthine dye house, Ildiko had yet to learn of it. She covered her nose with a handkerchief and followed master dyer into the billowing clouds of choking steam that poured off the tops of open kettles suspended over fires. The smells of salt, soda ash and shellfish combined to make her eyes water and her throat close.
Kai laborers worked in teams, taking turns at tending fires, dunking cloth in boiling vats of amaranthine, and setting the cloth to dry on wooden horses. The house’s muddy floor looked like an emptied battlefield before all the blood washed away in a rainstorm. Puddles of water in shades from palest pink to deep ruby splashed across her boots as she trudged through the muck. She was far too busy trying to keep her balance to pay much attention to the stares her presence drew.
Anhuset muttered under her breath as she followed Ildiko. “It would have been easier to have someone deliver samples of the cloth to the fortress.”
Ildiko chose not to answer her, preferring to keep her mouth closed and the odor of the dye off her palate as long as possible. It would indeed have been much easier to order samples brought to the fortress, but Ildiko wanted to see the dye houses and learn how the Kai made the valuable commodity that made the human kingdoms covet the vivid amaranthine.
She listened closely as the master dyer, a weathered Kai with hands permanently painted reddish-purple, described the process of extracting the dye from the freshwater bitter mollusk they fished from the nearby lake and dying the stacks of bleached linen, wool, and silk stored in another room. It was a messy, smelly, sometimes dangerous work involving boiling the mollusks, racking the slime and impurities from the top, straining the dyes and boiling them again with salt and soda ash.
Fabric dyed in the jewel-toned magenta was stretched on the wooden horses in various states of drying. The master dyer had explained to her and Anhuset how the amaranthine didn’t fade after years in sunlight as other dyes did, but instead, grew more vibrant over time with the saturation of light. Ildiko thought it ironic how a people who shunned the day were known for creating something that grew more beautiful with exposure to it.
Mollusk slime racked from the top of the boiling dye was pushed into a noxious pile near one of the middens. The congealing heap glistened in the moonlight, glowing green from the thousands of buzzing flies that swarmed its surface. The smell sent Ildiko’s stomach into an endless tumble, and she turned away before she lost her breakfast.
Anhuset stood beside her, hand over her nose, a thunderhead of disapproval darkening her brow. “That bow-legged Beladine rooster isn’t worth this.”
Ildiko silently agreed, but she wasn’t here solely to handpick a gift of hospitality for Serovek’s visit. This was one of four principal dye houses in the Kai kingdom and under Brishen’s guardianship. Ildiko felt it her duty as his wife to learn some small thing about the product that had secured an alliance between her people and his and this marriage between them.
She inhaled a grateful breath of clean air when the dye master led them outside and away from both middens and pungent steam roiling out of the kettles. He pointed to another set of vats, these planted on the ground with no fires beneath them. Kai dyers used pulleys to raise and lower dripping cloth into more of the dye.
“This is the cold dye stage, Your Highness. The color has been racked and strained and left to sit in the sun for eleven days. We dye the silks in this amaranthine.”
Ildiko drew closer to one of the vats and peered into a contained sea of magenta colored liquid. The dye shimmered under the glow of hanging lanterns strung from poles driven into the ground. Her typical everyday garb reflected the colors she preferred – blacks and greens, dove grays, and the ambers and browns of autumn. She had never before favored reds or pinks, but staring at the lustrous amaranthine tempted her to consider a scarf in that color at a later date.
She leaned farther into the vat.
“Be careful you don’t fall in, Your Highness.”
The dyer’s warning came too late. While Ildiko didn’t pitch headlong into the vat, the necklace she wore slipped its clasped and fell into the color with a gentle plop. Its onyx cabochon and chain sank, leaving behind an expanding pattern of circular waves to mark where it fell.
“Oh no!” Ildiko didn’t hesitate and plunged her arms all the way in into the vat until the dye lapped at her collarbones. Heedless of the dyer’s and Anhuset’s cries, she flailed in the dye, fingers clutching until she caught the tail end of the sinking chain on which the cabochon hung. She jerked it out of the vat, splashing dye across her neck and the underside of her jaw.
The necklace hung from her dripping fingers, and she lifted it to show Anhuset. “Got it!” she crowed triumphantly.
The master dyer stared at her silently, features pinched. Anhuset also stared at her but with eyes narrowed and lips alternately twitching and compressing as she held back her laughter.
Ildiko glanced down at herself, soaked to the skin in dye. Her green tunic had turned a muddy brown, and where the color had washed bare skin, she was painted an interesting plum shade. She looked again to Anhuset whose sharp teeth flashed in a wide grin. The master dyer didn’t share in her amusement. The pinched look had been replaced by a wide-eyed stare and a face gone pale as old ash. Even Ildiko couldn’t mistake his dread.
She hastened to assure him. “No harm done, Master Soté. Nothing a good scrubbing with soap and hot water won’t fix.” Ildiko almost smiled but changed her mind at the last moment. She might not possess the fangs the Kai sported, but that didn’t mean they found her smile any more reassuring than she found theirs.
Anhuset snorted. “Don’t count on it, Highness. Remember what Soté said earlier, and you’ve seen the dyers here. The amaranthine holds fast. Cloth, skin, hair. You’ll be an even more unusual color for several days.
Brishen had once said her skin reminded him of the bitter mollusk the Kai boiled to release the dye. Ildiko raised a bright pink arm, turning it one way and then the other. Her clothing was ruined, but at least now she could brag she had color to her skin. She shrugged and tucked the broken necklace into her bodice. ““Might I borrow a dry cloth, please?” she asked the dyer.
Master Soté leapt to do her bidding as if shot from a crossbow. In moments, she clutched two towels while Anhuset stood attendance, holding a spare set.
Her dip into the dye vat cut their tour short. Once dried, Ildiko apologized for the trouble and promised a fearful Master Soté that His Highness would not be angry and skin him for saddle leather just because his wife managed to dye herself pink in his dye house.
Soté was all that was polite and accommodating as he escorted her and Anhuset to where their mounts waited, but Ildiko had the distinct impression he couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. She mounted her horse, ignoring the raised eyebrows and gawking stares of the rest of their escort.
Anhuset handed her cloak to her. “You’re still damp, Highness. The cloak will keep you from getting cold.” And keep her from distracting the Kai guardsmen who’d accompanied them from Saggara to the dye house and tried not to be too obvious in their gaping at her.
Ildiko sniffed and wrapped the cloak snugly around herself. She didn’t regret her actions. They had been instinctive and careless, true, but the necklace was precious—a last gift from her mother before she died. Ildiko would have dove headfirst into a vat of boiling horse piss to retrieve it. Still, she didn’t relish the idea of her neck and arms being stained the color of young plum for a fortnight.
They travelled the main road to the manor, the young Solaris oaks silent sentinels to their passing. The trees gave way to a series of earthenworks and masonry walls that formed Saggara’s outer redoubt. Behind the barriers perched one of two stables that housed the many horses kept at Saggara and a set of barracks that provided hearth and roof for those soldiers who’d chosen not to live on the lakeshore.
Cheers, whistles and catcalls sounded nearby. Ildiko had heard them before when she’d ventured out onto one of the balconies to admire the landscape or the pattern of stars that wheeled above her. She glanced at Anhuset. “What is that?”
Anhuset called out a command, and their party turned as one toward the sounds. She pointed to a low earthen wall on which several Kai either stood or sat and watched something beyond Ildiko’s line of sight.
They followed the curve of the wall and paused at a wide entrance that opened onto a makeshift training arena. Archers’ targets shared space alongside one wall with straw men in various states of dismemberment. Weapons of every type, from wood to steel, occupied another space. There were other contraptions as well, items that looked like they were used for training from horseback, but in the dim torchlight flickering across the arena, Ildiko could only guess at their purpose.
The cheers and shouts that drew her here were for the combatants in the middle of the arena. Nine pairs of Kai faced off against each other, each man or woman intent on grappling their opponent into submission. The men were dressed down to simple linen cloths that girded the loins and were knotted at the waist. The women wore similar clothing except for the addition of a sleeveless gambeson cut to above the navel. Quilted and layered, it protected the breasts like a padded breastplate.
Lithe, sinuous, and muscular, the battling Kai reminded her of cats. The light from the torches cast the combatants in high relief. Their skin glistened with sweat as they crashed together, bent, twisted, and threw each other to the ground in multiple attempts to win the match.
Anhuset tapped Ildiko on the shoulder and pointed to one of the battling pair. “There is Brishen, Your Highness. He fights Nefiritsen. A difficult opponent to wrestle.”
Ildiko guided her horse to a better spot so she could see. Brishen and Nefiritsen were locked in a knot of arms and legs, muscles straining as they each tried to bring their opponent to the ground.
Not cats, she thought. Eels, very much alive and aggressive. They wound around each other, wavy and serpentine as if their bones had softened and stretched until they could bend and twist in a combat so supple it seemed more dance than fight and looked utterly inhuman.
Like the other Kai in the arena, Brishen wore only the linen loincloth. He’d scraped his hair back and tied it at the nape. The style highlighted the sloped almond shape of his eyes and the high curve of his cheekbones. He was shiny with sweat and streaked with dirt. A handsome man still, despite the grime.
The thought brought Ildiko up short. This wasn’t the first time she’d noted her husband’s appearance in such a way. She’d done so before three evenings past, and then she’d called him beautiful.
They had shared a bed, though they had done nothing more than sleep. Ildiko had quickly grown used to Brishen’s presence beside her, the heat of his body beneath the covers. He was a peaceful sleeper—no twitches or sighs, no snoring. She sometimes wondered if he or any of the Kai dreamed as humans did.
After their return from High Salure and Serovek’s dinner, she’d fallen asleep as soon as Brishen ordered her under the covers. Unlike every evening prior, she’d awakened before him and discovered a man sublime in slumber.
He stretched recumbent on one side, facing her, one arm tucked against his chest, the other extended toward her. A few locks of black hair partially obscured his features, but Ildiko could still see the sharp line of his jaw and equally sharp bridge of his nose. For a man who smiled and laughed so easily, his mouth had a distinct downturn, a gift of heritage from the cold-blooded mother he so despised.
His deep-set eyes were closed, the thick lashes fluttering with the occasional twitch of his eyelids. A faint frown marred the stillness of his face for a moment, lowering the slant of his eyebrows. It faded as quickly as it appeared, and he sighed softly in his sleep. Ildiko reached out to smooth his brow. She pulled back, unwilling to disturb him and end her chance to openly admire him.
He had rolled in the covers at some point. They bunched at his waist and twisted around one leg, leaving the other exposed to the cool night air that drafted in thin streams into the room through the window shutters’ narrow slats.
Ildiko blinked, and a surge of heat climbed from her belly to her chest, making the breath catch in her throat.
He was naked under the sheets. She’d seen him bare-chested before, but he usually came to bed partially dressed in loose breeches of parchment-thin linen. That long leg, bared to the evening air from ankle to flank revealed he’d chosen to forego such modesty.
The Kai were a tall, graceful people, their willowy physiques deceptive. It was known among the human nations that the Kai were immensely strong, with bones like iron and just as heavy. The Beladine lord Serovek was a big man, powerfully built and looked like he could carry a draft horse on his shoulders. Brishen, by contrast, had seemed almost delicate, yet Ildiko suspected his weight equaled if not surpassed Serovek’s, as did his strength.
Resting beside her, he seemed to Ildiko a living statue, carved from dark granite into a form of supple elegance and power. He was beautiful, and the tremor change in her perception of him robbed her lungs of air.
He opened both eyes suddenly, making her jump. Two shimmering gold coins stared at her unblinking. “Good evening, wife,” he said in a voice raspy with the remnants of sleep. A closed-lip smile curved his mouth upward and deepened the tiny lines that fanned from the corners of his eyes. “You’re staring. Do I have a fly on my nose?”
Fighting down a blush at being caught gawking at her own husband, Ildiko lightly tapped the tip of his nose with one finger. “I was trying to find a way to kill it without punching you in the face. Lucky for you, it flew away.”
He clasped her wrist and brought her palm to his mouth for a kiss. Generous with his affections, he’d done this many times before, but this time was different. This time the brush of his lips across the sensitive center of her palm sent hot shivers down her arms and back. Ildiko freed her hand from his grasp and sat up to fluff the pillows behind her. She avoided his gaze and smoothed the covers over her lap. “I’m sorry to have woken you.”
She caught the faint narrowing of his gaze from the corner of her eye. She was acting oddly, and he knew it.
He made to sit up and recline beside her but paused. A gravid silence hovered between them before Brishen cursed softly in bast-Kai. He yanked the covers over both legs and sat up. His fingers on her chin were light as he turned her head to face him.
The firelight yellow of his eyes had paled, and the smile that greeted her when he awoke was gone. “Forgive me, Ildiko. It was too hot yesterday for bedclothes, and I usually sleep unclad. I meant to be up and dressed before you.” He dropped his hand and motioned for her to turn away. “This will only take me a moment.”
He made to rise, halting when Ildiko grabbed his arm. She heard it in his voice, threads of disappointment, embarrassment. He thought her disgusted by the sight of him naked beside her and barely covered by the bed covers. The opposite couldn’t be more true.
That persistent blush did a slow crawl up her neck. This time Ildiko ignored it and grinned at her husband. “Don’t be foolish, Brishen. I should be the one embarrassed. You caught me eyeing you like prized horseflesh.” She chuckled as his eyes rounded. “Don’t look so shocked. I may be human, but I’m not blind. I’ve come to appreciate Kai beauty.” She raised her chin. “And I refuse to apologize for indulging in that admiration of my own husband.”
Brishen’s wide grin matched her own, even if his teeth far outmatched hers in intimidation. He tucked his pillows behind his back and recaptured her hand. Ildiko didn’t pull away this time. “And here I thought I’d married a shy, blushing maiden,” he teased.
Ildiko sniffed and tugged aside the collar of her night rail to reveal her neck, now feverish to the touch and certainly bright red. “You’re partially right. I’m blushing right now.” She released the collar and gave him an arch stare. “I am not, however, a maiden.”
To a Gauri nobleman intent on siring heirs of his blood, confirmation of a new bride’s innocence was paramount. Ildiko’s cousins had been guarded like prisoners by an army of governesses and bodyguards as if their maidenheads were made of precious stones instead of flesh. Any man deemed unworthy as suitor material by the royal family risked life and limb by so much as casting an admiring glance toward one of the prisoners.
Ildiko’s own virtue was far less prized and as such, her aunt didn’t act quite the zealot toward protecting it. Brishen had never inquired, and she hoped it was from lack of interest more than an assumption that she was yet uninitiated into the physical intimacies between men and women.
Brishen wiggled his eyebrows at her and crossed his arms. “Ah, a tale of your past. You keep your secrets close, wife. Tell me this one. What lovers taught you the pleasures of the flesh?”
She squeezed his fingers, relieved that her admission incited only curiosity. Maybe the Kai didn’t place the same value on such a silly notion as the Gauri did.
“Lover,” she said. “Just one and I didn’t find it all that pleasurable.” Brishen lost his slight smile but remained silent. Ildiko shrugged. “It was nice but certainly not worth drinking lorus flower tea beforehand.” She shuddered at that memory.
“Did he force you?” Brishen asked the question in a voice gone guttural. Tiny white sparks flashed in his eyes.
Ildiko patted his arm and eased her hand out of his before he forgot he could crush her fingers with one squeeze. “Of course not. He was a pleasant lad, the youngest of a minor nobleman’s eight sons. Neither one of us knew what we were doing really. It was messy and awkward and not worth bothering with after the third time.”
Brishen’s mouth contorted into strange shapes as he struggled to hold back his laughter. “Why didn’t you try someone else? An experienced lover would have taught you much. It’s called ‘pleasures of the flesh’ for a reason, Ildiko and goes far beyond clumsy fumblings under the covers.”
She waved a nonchalant hand. “It still wouldn’t have been worth it in my opinion. Lorus flower tea prevents a man’s seed from catching in the womb, but it tastes so foul even the memory of it makes my stomach turn. Surely, there is nothing so pleasurable to make it worth drinking that swill.”
Her comment made Brishen laugh outright, his fangs gleaming white in the room’s semi-darkness. He reached for her braid and wrapped it loosely around his forearm. “Ah, my Ildiko, what a practical soul you have.”
“I consider it an attribute, not a fault. More people could use a dose of practicality now and then.”
He tugged on her braid. “I don’t disparage you. I find such a trait one of your many charms.”
The color of his eyes had deepened once more to the lamplight gold he’d shown her when he first woke. While Ildiko couldn’t track the movement of his eyes except for the slight jerk at the edges of his eye sockets, she had the sense his gaze touched long on her hair, her shoulders and neck, her bare arms.
The fine tingle dancing along her skin transformed to a sizzle. Ildiko inhaled sharply as Brishen leaned close to nuzzle the sensitive spot at her temple with his nose. His breath tickled her ear. “One of many,” he whispered, and his words were a caress along her back.
Brishen’s lips fluttered along the edge of her ear to her earlobe. Caught between the sensual beguilement of his light touch and the unconquerable fear that he might inadvertently snap off her earlobe with his teeth, Ildiko sat frozen, her breath riding through her mouth and nose in shallow pants.
As if he sensed her wariness more than her desire, he pulled away slowly, shoulders rigid, face wiped clean of expression. He uncoiled her braid from his arm and smoothed it over her shoulder, his movements controlled and careful. He drew away from her in both body and spirit.
Ildiko clutched his arm, unwilling to have him leave her side. “I enjoy your touch, Brishen.”
The stiffness eased from his shoulders. He gave her a wry look and pressed his palm to the pale expanse of skin just below her collarbones. His hand rose and fell in quick time to her breathing. “I believe you, but this tells me you fear it as well.”
She winced. “Your teeth are so…sharp.”
“They are, but I’m not careless, wife. And if for some unfathomable reason I accidently bite you, you’re welcome to bite me back.”
His attempt at humor worked, and Ildiko chuckled. “Brishen—” She offered him a toothy grin. “These wouldn’t do much damage.”
He traced the line of her collarbones with the rough pads of his fingers, their dark claws a whisper of movement across her flesh. “You have obviously never been badly bitten by a horse.”
Strange as the analogy was, she had no argument to rebut it. Instead she contented herself with lifting strands of his hair from his shoulder and letting it slide between her fingers. Brishen’s eyes drifted shut at the caress, and he shifted position so that he laid crossways in the bed, his head in her lap, his back to her.
Ildiko smiled. If they both didn’t have a hundred tasks to complete once they rose, she’d be content to stroke his silky hair for hours.
A lock of hair snagged in her loose grip. “Sorry,” she said. “You’ve a few tangles back here.”
“You can brush it for me when we get up.”
Very clever, she thought. “I’ll brush your hair if you tell me about your first lover. Hopefully, the encounter was more memorable than mine.”
She felt the vibrations of his laughter against her leg and across her pelvis. He stayed quiet, and she pulled on one of his tangles. “I told you a past tale, Brishen. Your turn.”
“Wouldn’t you rather hear about how my nurse caught me practicing how to write my name by pissing on my bedroom walls?”
Ildiko rolled her eyes. “No, I don’t. You just told me too much already.”
Another silent laugh shimmied down her leg. Brishen turned onto his other side to face her. His head pressed into her belly, warm and heavy. He took her hand and placed it back on his head. She took the hint and resumed carding his hair.
“My first lover was thirteen years older than me and the most famous courtesan in Haradis. My father felt if anyone was to teach his sons the skills of the bedchamber, it should be someone well known for them.” Ildiko halted, and Brishen tapped the back of her hand to continue. “You asked,” he said.
Ildiko wasn’t shocked by his revelation and in many ways understood Djedor’s logic. She twirled strands of Brishen’s hair around her finger, let it unspool and twirled it again. Men, as well as women, sold their favors in Pricid’s flesh markets. Though how she might have sneaked one into the palace was another subject altogether. “I should have hired myself a courtesan,” she mused.
Brishen startled beneath her hand, and he sat up clumsily, half swaddled as he was in blankets and sheets. He gaped at Ildiko. “You are an odd creature,” he finally said.
She wished for a lit candle so she might better see him in the slowly darkening room. “You’ll adjust,” she said in her sweetest voice and promptly swatted him with a stray pillow.
He toppled to the side only to spring up, a matching pillow in his hands. “That is a declaration of war, Ildiko.”
“Of course it is.” She took another swing at him with her pillow only to be interrupted by a pounding at the door.
Instead of his servant’s voice as she expected, Brishen’s steward called from the other side. “Your Highness, the constable from Halmatus township has arrived and seeks an audience.”
Brishen’s shoulders drooped, and he dropped his pillow with a sigh. “I’ve not wasted my hours here with you, wife, but I’ve matters to attend to, and no one waits at the leisure of a lowly prince who isn’t the heir apparent.”
Ildiko shared his disappointment. She had a task list longer than her arm to take care of herself, but it didn’t lessen her regret at having to end these moments with Brishen. She knee-walked across the bed to him and looped her arms around his neck. “I owe you a hair-brushing,” she said.
He enclosed her in a loose embrace and smiled down at her. “You do. I’ll collect later. Count on it.” He kissed her forehead and lowered his arms. “Off with you. With any luck, we can share the mid-evening meal together.”
She left him for her room, giving him a last glance and nod as he watched her leave from his spot in the middle of the rumpled bed. Her ear still tingled where he’d kissed her, and her back felt feverish at the memory of his touch.
Anhuset’s quick tap on her shoulder brought Ildiko back to the present and the reality of horses, torchlight and Kai fighters trying to kill each other on a dirty training field.
“Highness, do you want someone to summon him?” Anhuset nodded at Brishen still locked in martial embrace with his opponent.
Ildiko flinched, barely able to watch. Someone was going to end up with a broken neck or broken something before this was done. “No,” she said. “Let’s leave. I don’t want to distract him, and I’ll see him soon enough at the house.” She turned her horse amidst the soldiers who accompanied them to the dye house. They made to follow her but stopped when she held up a hand. “Stay if you wish. We’re within the redoubt. I don’t need an escort to the house.”
She nudged her mount into a trot, Anhuset riding beside her. They weren’t far from the iron gates that opened to a manicured loggia and more orderly landscape. A flash of motion teased the corner of her eye. Ildiko turned in time to see Anhuset draw her sword, utter a swear word and resheathe the sword.
Brishen loped toward them, long legs flexing as he cut across their path. Ildiko had barely slowed her horse when he caught up, grasped her saddle pommel and landed behind her in a smooth, running mount.
“That is the worst display of showing off I’ve ever seen,” Anhuset said in forbidding tones.
“Of course it is.” Brishen wrapped an arm around Ildiko’s waist and pressed himself against her back. “I’m trying to impress my wife after all.”
“I’m very impressed.” Ildiko knew he could hear her smile in her voice
Brishen’s hands wandered over the folds of her cloak. “Why are you damp? And you smell like salt. Did you fall into a dye vat?”
“Dove in is more like it,” Anhuset volunteered in cheery tones.
Ildiko narrowed her eyes. “You can leave now, sha-Anhuset. I’m sure Brishen makes a capable guard to get me safely to the front door in the next fifteen steps by himself.”
Anhuset’s unrepentant cackle echoed in the night air as she saluted and wheeled her horse back toward the outer redoubt.
Ildiko guided her horse to a waiting groom. Brishen dismounted first and Ildiko waved away his offer to help her down. She was perfectly capable of climbing off her own horse.
Hoping to delay her confession and avoid showing off her new skin color to Brishen, asked him about his wrestling bout. “Did you win?”
“No. Nefiritsen is my best wrestler. He remains unbeaten in all matches so far. If any of us must face an enemy in unarmed combat, we want him beside us.”
They passed through the great hall and climbed one of the two stairwells that flanked either side of the high-ceilinged chamber. They navigated a long hallway dimly lit by candlelight. Ildiko didn’t stumble around in the dark as often these days, but she was glad for the candles and their anemic luminescence.
She stopped in front of her door, turned to face Brishen, and adopted what she hoped was a nonchalant expression, especially when he was standing before her half naked. She tried not to let her avid gaze linger on him too long. “You’ll want a bath I’m sure. I’ll meet you later for a meal or some wine?”
She made to open her door. Brishen placed a hand over hers. “You’ll not get rid of me that quickly, wife. My cousin said you dove into a dye vat. I’ll be on my way once you satisfy my curiosity.”
Resolved to the inevitable, she motioned him inside. Sinhue was elsewhere, probably getting an earful from another servant or soldier about how Brishen’s homely wife tried to make herself more pleasing to the eye by dying herself pink. If horses traveled as fast as gossip, they’d blow their riders clear off their backs.
Brishen laughed only a little when Ildiko removed her cloak, shrugged off her ruined tunic and revealed her arms, neck and shift dappled in varying shades of the summer rose.
“I look ridiculous,” she huffed.
“You look pink,” he replied. He circled her slowly. “And you chose to bathe in amaranthine why?”
Ildiko told him the story of her necklace. “I didn’t want to lose it. I know someone could have fished it out of the vat for me, but I panicked.” She lifted the necklace from where it nestled under her bodice laces and handed it to Brishen. “I think it’s worth very little in coin but is precious to me. The clasp broke as I leaned over to get a closer look at the cold amaranthine.”
Brishen raised the chain for a better look. “It’s a good piece. Remember the constable from Halmatus?” Ildiko nodded. “A silversmith resides there. He can repair the clasp or fashion a new chain for your necklace.”
Ildiko eyed the necklace longingly. Her hand itched to snatch it out of Brishen’s grasp, but she squelched the urge. He deserved her trust, even with those things precious and irreplaceable to her. He’d certainly earned that trust though it was still hard for her to surrender—even for a brief time—the only thing personal and material of her mother’s. Ildiko clasped her hands behind her back. “Would it take long to fix the clasp?”
He must have heard something in her voice, something hesitant and fearful. “Not long. I can deliver it myself if you like.”
Ildiko clapped her hands. “Oh yes, please, would you?” Mortification rushed in hard on the heels of euphoria. “I’m sorry, Brishen,” she said. “You’re not a messenger boy. Someone else can go.”
Brishen offered the necklace to her, his head cocked in a way that Ildiko was fast recognizing as a sign of his amusement. “You misunderstand me, Ildiko. I’m not going alone. You’ll go with me. I’ve no eye for the delicacies of a woman’s trinkets. You can deal with the silversmith. I’ll just be there to keep you company and cross the man’s palm with the coin he demands for his work.”
She scooped the necklace out of his palm and held it close. “That is a wonderful idea. I know you’re worried about the dangers of Beladine raiders, but I’d love to visit more of the towns and villages under Saggara’s protection.”
He’d been reluctant to let her venture to Lakeside, convinced only by Anhuset’s promise to bring a small army as escort and the fact the town was within walking distance of the estate and redoubt.
Brishen lifted her hand, turning it one way and then the other. “At least it wasn’t nettle dye,” he said and kissed her knuckles before leaving her for a much-needed bath.
Ildiko frowned, puzzled, and then snickered. Nettle dye was green. There were worse colors to sport than pink.
They met again for their supper in the great hall and afterwards in his chamber for another game of Butcher’s Covenant in which Brishen out-maneuvered her and slaughtered every man on her side of the board without losing more than three on his side.
“You’re getting better,” he said as she lay the intricately carved pieces into a silk lined boxed and closed the lid.
Ildiko snorted. “That’s a lie and you know it. Just when I think I’ve outsmarted you, you kill off one of my men.”
Brishen poured them both a goblet of wine from a nearby pitcher. “You’ve outsmarted me on several occasions in the game. Your weakness is you over-think your strategy and question yourself until you react instead of plan.” He handed her one of the goblets along with a comb. “You are, however, far better with a comb than you are with Butcher’s Covenant.”
Ildiko took the comb. “That doesn’t comfort me. One is an exercise in strategy, the other carding wool.”
He dropped down onto his haunches in front of her chair and tilted his head back to gaze at her. “I am no sheep.”
She gathered his hair into a waterfall that fell down his back and set to combing out the dark strands. “Trust me, Brishen, no one with eyes will ever mistake you or any Kai for that matter for anything other a wolf.”
Brishen sat passive before her, his wide shoulders slumped, his breathing slow as Ildiko glided the comb through his hair in long strokes.
“Tell me a tale,” she said.
It was their bargain. She groomed his hair, and he told her stories of his childhood in Pricid. Some were funny, others grim though he told them a matter-of-fact voice as if it was quite commonplace for mothers to lash their children with a horsewhip because they had a slight lisp and couldn’t quite master one of the simple spells all Kai children learned.
From what she gathered, Brishen had been rambunctious, resourceful and clever. And he’d been born with a compassion and nobility of character neither of his parents possessed.
“What would you like to hear?” he asked.
Ildiko thought about it for a moment. Her request was more for an answer to a question than a story of the past. “Why are you nothing like the man who sired you and the woman who bore you?”
It was as if she touched with him a hot brand. Brishen jerked forward, back stiff as a spear haft. He gained his feet in one fluid motion and turned to Ildiko with his hand outstretched. “Come with me,” he said.
She rose, abandoned the comb on the chair seat and took his hand without question. He led her through the manor, down to the first floor and out a door that led from a buttery to the bristling thicket of brambles and wild oranges that hemmed in one side of the estate.
A new moon hung thin in the sky and did nothing to illuminate the earth below it. Ildiko stumbled along behind Brishen, blind as a mole in daylight. Her husband moved surefooted in the suffocating darkness, guiding Ildiko toward a destination she assumed would answer a question she was starting to regret asking.
They stopped before a patch of wall that surrounded part of the manor’s loggia. Brishen uttered a word in a language Ildiko was certain couldn’t have been bast-Kai. A shadow, paler than its siblings, parted from the stone, exposing a set of three indentions cut shallow in one of the masonry blocks.
Brishen placed the three fingers of his right hand into the depressions and whispered another arcane word. Ildiko gasped as the block softened until it melted into the stones on either side of it, leaving an opening black and deep.
She almost batted his arm away when he reached inside the hollow. For all she knew, something with teeth loner and sharper than a Kai’s lurked in that space. Brishen didn’t hesitate and pulled out a small urn. He faced Ildiko, gently cradling the urn.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The answer to your question.”
He lifted the lid. For a moment nothing happened, then suddenly a feeble light no bigger than a dandelion puff and just as delicate floated upward until it hovered above its housing.
The glow of Brishen’s eyes provided the only illumination between them, but it was enough to gild the tiny light as it flickered and bobbed between them. “My sister,” he said softly. “Or her memory at least.”
Ildiko gasped softly. His sister. He’d never spoken of another sibling, only the indifferent brother she met briefly in Haradis. Brishen’s revelation begged more questions, the first being why would his sibling’s mortem light be here at Saggara, hidden away by spellwork, instead of at Emlak where the Kai held the memories of their dead?
“She was never formally named, but I call her Anaknet. I’d seen eleven seasons when she was born.” The tiny mortem light floated toward him and balanced on the back of his hand. “She was born with a club foot, an imperfect child and unacceptable to Secmis. I thought her pretty.”
A sinking dread grew in Ildiko’s chest. He would tell her something terrible, something to bind her insides into knots . She was tempted to cover her ears, tell him to stop and apologize for asking her silly questions, but she stood silent before him and waited for this childhood tale to unfold.
“Secmis murdered her three days after her birth. She broke her neck. I saw her do it.”
Ildiko’s knees almost gave under her. “My gods,” she breathed, horrified at Secmis’s monstrous cruelty and the knowledge that Brishen, a young boy, had witnessed that cruelty.
Brishen continued, his voice flat and distant. “Secmis is a mage-leech. She gains power and long life from forbidden spellwork and the consumption of souls and memories. She was old when my father was a child, though now she goes by a different name and claims lineage from another clan.” He smiled as Anaknet’s mortem light danced over his palm.
“I took Anaknet’s light and released her soul before my mother could steal both. Anhuset and my old nurse Peret helped me with the lamentation and got me through the memory sickness. Peret kept the light for me tucked away in the hollow of a birch tree in her sister’s garden. When I was given Saggara, I brought Anaknet here.”
He coaxed the mortem light back into the urn, closed the lid and returned the urn to its hiding place. Different spells reformed the masonry block until it hardened, leaving only an expanse of blank wall.
Brishen faced Ildiko fully, and even through a vision compromised by darkness and tears, she still saw the sparks of red that danced in his eyes. “I hate my mother, Ildiko,” he said in that same flat voice. “Down to the marrow of my bones. One day I will kill her. She knows this.” He looked at the place where the urn rested. “Anaknet is why I am who I am, wife. Because I refuse to become like the monstrosities who bore us both.”
Ildiko sniffled and scraped her sleeve across her cheeks in the futile effort to staunch the flow of tears. She reached out to Brishen, carefully, as if he were an injured animal caught in a trap. He accepted her touch, and soon she was wrapped in his embrace.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed into his shoulder. “So very sorry.” She stroked his hair, holding him for what seemed like hours, listening to the rapid hammer of his heartbeat and the shallow breaths that sometimes verged on sorrowful moans. The Kai didn’t weep, but they mourned just as deeply as humans.
When he finally stepped away from her, his eyes had lost their red sparks and Ildiko’s had dried of their tears. She grasped one of his hands in both of hers. “I swear I will take this knowledge to my deathbed, Brishen.”
One corner of his mouth turned up, and he meshed his fingers with hers. “I know. It’s why I told you.”
They walked back to the manor in silence just as a thin line of crimson spread across the far horizon to announce the dawn. Sinhue greeted Ildiko at her door. “Your Highness, are you unwell?” She ushered her charge inside and made her sit on the bed while she poured water into a cup and handed it to her. “This might help. Do you need a cloth for your eyes? They’re swollen and red.”
Ildiko sought and found the a partial lie to tell. “I was crying.” She hiccupped a giggle at Sinhue’s bewildered look. “Humans weep when they’re sad. I was missing my family. I’m fine now, though I’ll take that cloth.”
By the time she’d bathed her hot face and changed into her night rail, the sun had risen enough to turn the plains into a golden sea. Ildiko slipped quietly into Brishen’s room and found him, still dressed, standing in a clot of shadows near the open window. He stared eastward, into the blinding dawn and didn’t turn as she padded closer to him.
Startled by the abrupt command, she halted. “Brishen?”
A faint sigh, and his voice gentled. “It will be best if you sleep in your bed alone today.”
An icy rush of hurt punched her in the gut. She staggered inwardly for a moment, then righted herself. This had nothing to do with her. His recounting of his sister’s death had left her emotionally wrung out. She suspected that for him it had torn open old wounds that had scabbed but never healed. He wanted to tend them in isolation.
Solitude, however, wasn’t always the best comfort. She eased another step forward. “Are you sure you wish to be alone in your grief?”
His dry chuckle held no humor. “If it were just grief, no. I’d want you here.” He still refused to face her. “I’m not only grieving, Ildiko. I’m bitter; I’m angry and I’m lusting.” His voice deepened on the last part of his declaration and sent Ildiko’s heartbeat into a gallop. “Those three emotions together offer nothing but misery and violence for both human and Kai. It’s dangerous for you to be in here with me. Go to your room. I’ll talk with you tomorrow.”
She fled, carrying with her his words before she shut and bolted the door between them.
“Thank you, sweet Ildiko.”
by Aria M. Jones
Copyright 2010 by Aria M. Jones
All rights reserved
Eleven year old Eleanor bit her fingernails not out of nervousness, but necessity. There was a trick to it: you used your teeth like shears, snipping through the nail and following the curve from left to right. Done properly, it felt good, even better than removing a splinter or peeling off a ripened scab.
As her mother’s car pulled out of the driveway, she spat out the ragged crescent into her palm and flicked it onto Mrs. Lundemann’s manicured lawn. Her piano teacher’s white and green house stood at the end of the block, with a pink crabapple tree out front. Clusters of yellow day-lilies grew by the front door, but all the windows had their curtains tightly drawn against the light.
The September heat left the dark tangle of Eleanor’s hair damp with sweat. She lifted it off the back of her neck and bit off another nail. The curtain in the front window twitched, then settled as if stilled by an invisible hand. Swinging the canvas bag that contained her sheet music, she took the long way around the garage to the back door, past the bird feeders and painted wooden lumberjacks windmilling their arms in the afternoon sun. She walked slowly, stepping on each crack in the sidewalk, fingertips pressed hard against her lower lip.
Her piano teacher always insisted upon short fingernails for all her students. If they were too long, Mrs. Lundemann required they be trimmed back to their proper length, right then and there as they sat at the piano. Eleanor dreaded this, a hushed performance punctuated by the staccato snick of a nail trimming flying off and burying itself in the blue shag carpet.
“You cannot play with nails like that, dear– always clicking, clicking on the keyboard. What will your audience think?”
The last remark was always delivered in a mocking trill, as though Mrs. Lundemann gloated over her pupil’s carelessness– one more black mark against Eleanor’s record, along with her creased and dog-eared sheet music. Just a few months ago, her teacher seized her wrist in mock threat, brandished the clippers playfully and announced that she’d cut them herself if necessary. Eleanor barely repressed a shudder at the thought. Her teacher’s nails were always trimmed to the quick with no white showing. Her hands had a slippery, hairless quality to them, veins like milky blue creeper-vines spidering across her wrists and up her arms. Eleanor did not like them touching her.
In spite of all that, she had forgotten again. On the car ride from school, she’d begun on her left hand, gnawing furiously and hoping she would finish before the lesson started. Eleanor glanced down at her watch. She was five minutes late. Still chewing, she scattered the rest of the clippings in the petunia bed. The thumbnail went last, but in her haste she bit off too much. The flesh beneath was pink and tender, a sliver of red now unprotected. Eleanor scowled. It would hurt each time she hit the D key during the Bach prelude, and because it was Bach, she would need to hit it often.
The house smelled like Mrs. Lundemann herself, of talcum powder laced with lilac. With the curtains closed– to prevent fading of the carpets, her teacher had explained– only a small lamp shed a weak pool of light over the piano. The relative darkness made the living room look cave-like and mysterious, and at the far end crouched the piano like a three-legged beast, lid agape and the pedals thrust foward like a single heavy arm.
The kitchen rang with a hollow echo when Eleanor shut the door. By the entrance was a low counter with a chair and a squat little bookshelf full of childrens’ games and books. She hadn’t always been the first student of the afternoon; on some days while she waited for her turn, she’d paged through the yellowed copies of Garfield comics, ignoring the wooden tic-tac-toe set with its one missing black peg. Once, she’d opened the set of pick-up sticks and spilled them out over the cool formica counter, only to have Mrs. Lundemann scold her from the living room for making noise. Eleanor didn’t see the point of having games that weren’t meant to be played.
“Come in, dear. Have you washed your hands?”
Her teacher’s voice drifted from another room, disembodied in the quiet house. Eleanor let the faucet run for a full minute, soaping her hands twice and stretching on her tiptoes to reach the paper towels. When she walked back to the living room, her teacher was already seated beside the piano in her low-backed chair, legs crossed at the ankle.
“Shall we start with the prelude?”
Mrs. Lundemann had been a concert pianist in her day and still dressed the part. Her grey hair lay in even curls across her forehead, and around her neck she wore a pale green scarf with blue roses, fastened at the shoulder with a coral pin. Eleanor took her time adjusting the piano bench so that her feet rested flat upon the floor. She spread out her sheet music, moving as slowly as she dared.
Mrs. Lundemann was not fooled. She picked up the long bamboo back scratcher she used to tap the back of her students’ wrists as a reminder to keep them straight, and a small smile played around her lips. “Begin.”
After the warm-up scales, Eleanor’s playing went remarkably well. She liked this piece, and she liked how the notes danced up and down the length of the piano in rapid succession. Here came a rippling arpeggio, played hand over hand with graceful ornaments, there went a melodic third, golden and even in its harmony. The old piano sang, strings vibrating deep its in dark frame like the thrum of a beating heart. From the corner of her eye, she saw Mrs. Lundemann nod in approval. Eleanor even made it past the difficult bits she stumbled on last week. It seemed almost effortless, her fingers flowing over the black and white keys without conscious thought.
Presto, prestissimo, molto vivace, she thought, liking the way the words rolled around her mouth like melted chocolate.
The bamboo back scratcher descended upon Eleanor’s wrist in a stinging slap. “Don’t speed up, dear. You must never rush Bach.”
Forceful taps emphasized the last three words, and a wave of heat rose past Eleanor’s cheeks to the tips of her ears. She bit down hard on her lower lip.
The bamboo back scratcher retreated. “From the beginning, please.”
Mrs. Lundemann’s metronome sat atop the piano in a black, triangular case. She set its metal arm swinging, the clacking sound like the opening and closing of a tiny steel trap. Eleanor gritted her teeth and began again. This time the music lumbered along, chained to the metronome’s steady beat. That it kept perfect time she did not doubt– that was its job. But it didn’t feel right; the piano no longer sang. To her dismay, tinny notes skittered off into the ether or were swallowed by the ponderous left-hand harmony. Sometimes the metronome’s count forged crazily ahead, dragging the melody behind it. Other times it lagged, dogging her notes with a half-beat delay, all the vivace dissipated by its mathematical precision.
Mrs. Lundemann called for many more stops and starts, occasionally leaning forward to demonstrate a difficult measure, her hand nimble as a crab. Her lilac perfume grew stifling in the closed room. The entire lesson crept by this way, the hall clock chiming each quarter hour with agonizing slowness. When only fifteen minutes remained, Mrs. Lundemann interrupted her own lecture about dynamics to fan herself.
“My, it’s stuffy in here,” she remarked breathlessly, “Be a good girl and open the window. We’ll make an exception just this once.”
Shoving back the piano bench with a squeak, Eleanor swept back the dull brocade curtains. The window latch was sticky and she struggled with it, wrenching it this way and that with both hands until it gave. Dusty shafts of sunlight flooded the living room. On the coffee table, Mrs. Lundemann’s collection of glass paperweights refracted the light, casting dozens of smeary rainbows on the walls and ceiling.
Her teacher blinked against the glare of the afternoon sun. “There, isn’t that–”
A gust of wind blew a stack of sheet music off the top of the piano and pages went flying. The metronome toppled over, pinning the swinging arm beneath it. Gears clicking and grinding, it twitched across the piano top like a dying insect before landing on the carpet with a muffled crunch. Mrs. Lundemann’s hand flew to her throat, her long face quivering above her ridiculous flowered scarf. Eleanor couldn’t hold back a giggle.
“Don’t just sit there gawking, girl,” snapped her teacher, “Pick them up at once. The manners they teach children nowadays…”
Mrs. Lundemann’s voice trailed off, and she sat with her hands folded tightly in her lap while Eleanor crawled beneath the piano to retrieve the runaway sheet music. It wasn’t hers– she didn’t recognize the piece at all, and the notes seemed so crowded onto the page that they leapt out like angry bees. Arpeggios in running sixteenth notes, the occasional sforzando marked out in dark ink. Across the top of one page was a bold scrawl quite unlike her teacher’s handwriting.
Con spirito, it read, like an invocation.
The paper was yellowed and brittle, and it crackled angrily when Mrs. Lundemann snatched it out of Eleanor’s hands. Eleanor looked up to find her teacher looming over her, mouth set in a thin line. The older woman’s bifocals had slipped down to the tip of her nose, and through them, her watery blue eyes looked enormous, narrowed with disapproval.
“Don’t waste time. These,” she clutched the sheet music protectively to her bosom, “Are far beyond your abilities.” After a pause, her clipped tones softened grudgingly. “Perhaps when you are older.”
There was an ever so slight emphasis on “perhaps”, as though Mrs. Lundemann couldn’t quite expunge the note of doubt from her voice. She seated herself and adjusted her scarf, patting the wispy fabric back into place.
Eleanor crawled out from beneath the piano. She picked up where she’d left off, but the notes were hesitant, resonating from the piano in wobbly plinks and plonks. Mrs. Lundemann waved a dismissive hand.
“That’s quite enough, dear. Your time is nearly up and I shall have to inform your mother that more practice is required if you are to– child!”
The last word rose a sharp octave, startling Eleanor so that the bench creaked when she jerked her hands away from the keyboard.
Across three white keys was a small smear of crimson.
Eleanor didn’t know how she’d missed the paper cut. It was on her first finger, a neat red slit like a mouth nestled in the crease between one joint and the next. She flexed it experimentally. It hadn’t hurt before, when she didn’t know it was there. It hurt now.
Mrs. Lundemann swabbed the keys with a tissue, short, angry puffs of breath whistling from between her pursed lips. “So unsanitary… for pity’s sake! Wash your hands before you make a mess everywhere. No, dear, use the bathroom. You’ll find band-aids in the lower right drawer.”
The bathroom door stood slightly ajar, the light already on. Eleanor shut it behind her and clicked the lock for privacy. It was, she thought, the ugliest room in the house. The sink was shaped like a seashell with scalloped edges and gold-plated faucets, and the wallpaper was a repeating pattern of silver and turquoise ocean waves. A bar of scented soap sat in a pink porcelain dish, still wet with suds clinging to the edges.
Eleanor twisted the cold water tap, then held her finger beneath the flowing stream until it felt numb and the water ran clear. She hadn’t expected such a fuss. The piano was old, to be sure. It had belonged to Mrs. Lundemann’s great-grandfather’s mother, smuggled out of their homeland before the war and shipped to America piece by piece. The ivory had taken on a yellowish sheen in places, and the wood was dark and with a fine, swirling grain. Eleanor supposed that the trees the piano had been carved from were older yet.
When she looked again, the paper cut was bloodless, her waterlogged skin white and curling at the edges. Eleanor dried her hands on the pristine guest towel and left it crumpled by the sink.
The living room was empty, and Mrs. Lundemann’s chair sat slightly askew. All the sheet music had been neatly stacked upon the seat, and on top of the pile were the pieces of the broken metronome. Out in the back yard, sparrows splashed in the stone bath, their wings a furious blur as they sent water droplets out in every direction. An empty bird feeder swung from a tree on a cord, swaying gently in the wind.
Eleanor noticed a strange thing. The piano lid had been propped open; now it was shut. She ran her hand down along the keys in a gentle glissando, expecting the notes to be muted and soft. Instead, they did not sound at all, as though something kept the little felt-covered hammers from striking each string. She looked closer. A narrow triangle of gauzy blue and green fabric was caught beneath the lid, fluttering in the breeze from the window. The edge of it was ragged, as though it had been torn to pieces. Nearly lost in the shag carpet at her feet were Mrs. Lundemann’s bifocals. Eleanor retrieved them, then daringly perched them on her own small nose for a moment. The room was neatly bisected in two: blurry furniture like colorful blobs lined up against the wall, the polished wood of the baby grand coming into sharp focus. She took them off.
I could lift the lid, thought Eleanor. I could check. Mrs. Lundemann never permitted it of her students, fearing they would be careless and let it drop, smashing small fingers or perhaps more importantly, cracking the lid itself. But Eleanor was certain she could lift it, if she wanted to. If she cared to look and see what lay inside.
She knocked firmly on the piano three times, but it sounded as hollow as it ever did. Outside, the birds had fallen silent. There was no answering cry from Mrs. Lundemann demanding to know what was being done to her precious instrument. Even the cloying scent of lilac was fading, replaced by the clean smell of wood overlaid with a faint coppery tang. Eleanor stood with one hand resting lightly on the piano lid, and then–
The hallway clock chimed five o’clock. The lesson was over.