Amorda started slightly. She was sitting on the curule chair before her north-facing window, listening to the rain, and wool-gathering, lost in the reflective haze that generally followed an energetic and informative evening. As the evening had been unusually energetic and informative, the haze seemed especially deep.
Roused, she glanced over her shoulder. Reticia, her ancilla, was waiting expectantly by the door. “No,” she said after a moment’s consideration. “Not yet. But you can help me with these.” She ran a hand through her hair. She had dismantled most of her elaborate coiffure before the evening’s amatory endeavours, but with her prospect waiting outside the door, she hadn’t felt inclined to waste half a candle teasing out the complicated lesser braids. Anticipation always had a price, however, and now she would have to pay it, in pain and torn tresses.
Reticia nodded, fumbling through one of the traveling chests for the dreaded implements. Noting her mistress’ state of undress – Amorda had donned a diaphanous silk bed-gown, but nothing else, and the damp north wind whistling through the open window was raising goose-flesh on both women – the girl asked, “Would you like a blanket?”
Her mistress shook her head absently. “I like the breeze. I’m still a little flushed.”
“That’s the egeo for you,” the handmaiden agreed, falling to with brush and comb. “Was it fruitful for you?”
“We’ll know in a nine-month, won’t we?” Amorda quipped.
Reticia smiled without humour, giving the brush a forceful tug.
Amorda winced. “Gently, please! By now, the whole city knows I’ve tumbled a half-blood. It’s bad enough I have to face their derision; I’d rather not do so pie-bald.”
“You’d lose less hair if you helped a little,” the girl said primly. “Besides, when did you start caring about ‘derision’?”
The lady sighed heavily. Bending the flux was the last thing she felt like at that very moment. But without it, her mane would be much the worse for wear come dawn. With a flick of her finger and a word, she set the spell in motion. Her braids undulated like a nest of serpents, rising and uncoiling themselves as Reticia plied the hair-brush.
As the girl worked, Amorda heaved another, perhaps overly theatrical, sigh.
“What is it?” Reticia asked, as her mistress obviously expected.
“I’d rather lie a-bed this morning than spend it kneeling on stone and listening to Shima drone on about Tioreth and the Bargain.”
“Rejoice, therefore,” the maid replied, sounding smug. “Thou’rt reprieved. There’s no need to attend upon the Duke.”
Amorda half spun in her seat. “Oh? Has he suspended the Day’s observances?”
“No, but he won’t be there. According to the chamberlain’s office, he has a different engagement.”
That made the lady sit bolt upright. “What? What is it? He’s not leaving the city, is he?”
Reticia was grinning. “Only long enough to play the stallion for his new mare.”
Amorda relaxed slightly. “Oh, that,” she said, relieved. “So he finally got up the nerve to pass the rose and vessel to our darling princess, did he?”
“The way I heard it, the betrothal was her idea, not his.”
“Ah-hah! The egeo strikes again!” The lady chuckled. “Although I doubt he put up much of a fight.”
“Apparently not,” the maid clucked. “The ceremony’s this morning. At the Mnemosynum.”
Amorda nodded. “No guests?”
“No invitations were issued,” Reticia shrugged. “Probably just the attendants the Law requires.”
“Shame,” Amorda murmured. “I’d’ve liked to have seen him wrapped up again. It’s been a long time since Rykki passed.”
“And it’s to be nuptia bellum, too,” the girl added soberly.
Amorda’s eyebrows rose. “Truly?”
Reticia nodded. “I heard Lallakentan give the orders. He’ll be up the rest of the night honing their swords and polishing their armour.”
“Sancte mater!” The lady nibbled on a shapely fingernail, her mind racing. “That means Kaltas expects war!” She spun around on the chair. “What else have you heard?”
“About that? Nothing,” Reticia replied. “Just the order: arms and armour for bride and groom. Naught else.”
“He’s not mobilizing? Your contact said nothing?”
“Nothing about a summons,” the maid frowned. “But remember, my lady, you only turned me loose on the guards. They don’t hear everything.” She grinned wickedly. “You should’ve sent me after Lallakentan. Or the Duke himself.”
“You couldn’t handle Lal,” Amorda laughed, giving the woman a shove. “Much less Kaltas. He’s as tough and cunning as a greyling bear. He’d eat you alive.”
“I like a challenge,” Reticia smiled. “It’s too late now, anyway. Too risky. The princess is a terror; she’d mince me if I so much as glanced at him.”
“Yes, our darling Duke’s forbidden fruit again. Another shame,” Amorda mused. Her own smile had vanished.
Reticia, as befitted her name, waited patiently. Finally, she asked, “No regrets about the round-ear?”
“What, the animpro, Joraz? No, not really.”
“He’s a fine specimen,” Reticia said slyly.
Amorda shrugged. “It’s not an act of kindness to sunder a solemn vow, and doing so always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I’d rather salute him for his fortitude, and admire him from afar.”
“Your loss, mistress,” the maid shrugged.
After a long moment’s soul-searching, Amorda sighed. “Mobilization or no, I’m still going to have to report this. If Kaltas of Eldisle oaths the Queen’s grand-child under arms, then he thinks there’s going to be war, and the bird-catcher needs to know. And that right soon.”
“Yes,” the maid agreed, relieved that her mistress had reached the same conclusion. “Shall I fetch one of the scrolls?”
Amorda shook her head. “I overheard Kalena cautioning the Duke against flux-speaking and flux-leaping. Both of the Colleges are watching and listening. I’m afraid I’m going to have to report this the old-fashioned way.” She shook her head ruefully. “Boot leather.”
Reticia looked mournfully around the suite. “I suppose you’ll want me to start packing, then?”
“I’m afraid so, my dear.”
The maid pursed her lips, thinking. “I’ll send word to the harbour after matins. Perhaps we can find a ship leaving sometime during the coming week…what is it?”
Her mistress was smiling mischievously. “There’s a ship leaving tomorrow,” Amorda laughed. “Kaltas had Lal purchase passage on it for my young lupino and his colleagues.” She clapped her hands in delight. “Why don’t you see if you can purchase passage for us as well?”
Reticia burst out laughing. “You trollop!” she exclaimed. “Did the egeo take you that hard? Didn’t you get enough from your little lupino tonight, that you need to chase him down for a re-match?”
“You were watching,” Amorda replied with a wink. “What do you think?”
The maid pursed her lips. “He did well enough, although he hadn’t much in the way of technique,” she mused. “But that’s hardly surprising in an amateur. Impressive stamina, though.”
“ ‘Stamina?’ Is that what you call it?” The lady snorted. “That cub went at me like Barraj at his forge. I feel like a hammered beefsteak. That’s more than half the reason I want to go north by ship; I don’t think I’ll be able to sit a horse for a fortnight.”
“That rough, was it?” Reticia laughed.
Amorda whistled appreciatively. “Human blood is good for something, I guess. You should try it sometime.”
“Yes, I certainly should.” Reticia paused. “Why didn’t you ask him what his real name was? He gave you plenty of opportunity.”
“If you can manage to obtain tickets, I’ll have another chance. He’ll tell me, given time. Not that it matters a whit,” Amorda added with a wink. “Names are easy to find out. And everybody’s entitled to a few secrets. Nec?”
“I certainly hope so,” the maid said fervently.
Amorda laughed. “You got it all down, I trust?”
“All of it,” Reticia confirmed. “Three hands of pages full of you squeaking and groaning like a rusty portcullis. Waste of good parchment, if you ask me.”
“Operio!” the lady snapped angrily, although her eyes were merry. “That boy was a veritable trove of secrets. Tell me truly – did you get it all?”
“Every grunt and titter,” the maid nodded. “I wish you could’ve made him speak more slowly. My hand was cramping near the end. But yes. As much of it as I could hear, anyway.”
“I’ll pen my own notes, and we’ll compare them later this morning,” the lady promised. She grinned suddenly. “I hope they’ll make sense. My heart was still pounding, and my head ringing like a gong when all of that chit-chat about the Digger’s Cup was going on.”
“Yes, you looked a little shaky,” Reticia replied. “I was hoping you’d cry mercy, quit the field, and send in the reserve.” She winked elaborately.
“Don’t think I didn’t consider it,” the lady giggled. “I could’ve used a break, and Hara knows that fallow field of yours could do with a thorough farrowing.”
The maid snorted through her grin. “Say heya!”
“I thought better of it, though,” Amorda chuckled. “I’m all honey, but you’re a little spicy for the untutored palate. I didn’t want you to scare him off.”
“He nearly scared me off with the camella,” Reticia replied, whistling softly. “Cursed Seven! When he took up the rose I half expected him to drain the cup, smash it, and claim your hand on the spot.”
“I was a little worried myself,” Amorda said, shaking her head in wonder at the narrowness of her escape. “I guess that’ll teach me to trifle with the affections of people who don’t know civilized customs.”
Reticia put down the hair brush for a moment, grinning quizzically. “What would you have done? If he’d oathed you, I mean?”
The lady dropped a coy shrug. “The Law is the Law.”
“Really? You’d mate a penniless adventurer? And what…try to temper him to polite society?”
“ ‘Penniless’, forsooth,” the lady laughed. “I’m rich enough for the both of us. And you know I don’t give a donkey’s cock about ‘society’.” She pursed her lips, suddenly pensive. “But I could certainly use a little more adventure in my life.”
“Whore! I say thee whore, and whore again!” the maid exclaimed. “You are following him!”
“Don’t blame me!” Amorda laughed, seizing the hair brush and giving the girl a swat on the thigh with it. “Blame the egeo! And I’m not following him. We’re merely…travelling in the same direction.”
Reticia rolled her eyes.
“It’s not the same thing!” Amorda cried. “Not at all!”
Reticia snorted derisively. “Of course, mistress. Not the same thing at all!” She paused, then asked, “Shall I arrange adjoining cabins?”
“You always do, don’t you?”
“Not for us,” Reticia laughed. “I meant for you and your darling lupino!”
Amorda swatted her again.
Hoofbeats thundered against the rain-slicked surface of the drawbridge. The sentry, tucked beneath an overhanging stone windowsill with a corner of his cloak pulled over his helmet crest as a makeshift awning, started momentarily, but relaxed when he recognized both horse and rider.
Normally at such an hour the portcullis would’ve been down and locked, but the steady flow of coaches, carriages and litters departing in the wake of the Feralis had necessitated leaving it up. Not that there were many threats to guard against. Not in Joyous Light, on a rainy Winterdeep’s eve.
The rider, who was soaked to the skin within minutes of pounding out of the gate, blessed the rain as a welcome distraction. When her mount’s hooves rattled onto the cobblestones of the high street, she paused momentarily, then twitched her weight leftwards, directing the mare towards the seafront suburb of Vecordium, and the crashing, wind-driven waves beyond.
She wanted – needed – to ride with the wind. But galloping meant hurling herself and her beast headlong into the night, tracing the forest paths at speed; and Lusoria, the mare, lacked her eyes. Even she, a daughter of the Third House blessed with extraordinary vision, would have been hard-pressed to make out the trails at night, in a pounding rainstorm.
It didn’t matter. There were other ways to achieve the same objective; to quench the fire that throbbed within her, scorching her conscience even as it warmed her vitals.
As they descended the steep slope from the palace to the city’s western peninsula, she patted the creature on the neck and, with sure, gentle pressure of her knees against the mare’s ribs, slowed her frantic pace. Lusoria was sure-footed; but slick cobbles were no laughing matter, and it would be poor payback for her caution in eschewing the forest paths if her mount were to slip and snap a fetlock on a city street.
The horse obediently checked its career, slipping comfortably into a high-stepping trot. The hammering rhythm was intoxicating, but it did nothing to ease either her mind or her condition. The rider murmured calming words to the animal, slowing the mare to a walk.
That gave her more than enough time to pay attention to her surroundings. The upper reaches of the high road were tightly packed with the dwellings and amusements of the equine class, the near-nobility who fancied themselves the equals of those who lived within the palace walls. She herself was a scion of that lot; folk who were not wealthy, and who squandered what little wealth they had in a futile effort to imitate their betters. She hadn’t found it offensive so much as pathetic, and had longed for release, for a different life; a chance to prove herself. To earn her way into the glittering ranks of the nobilitae through effort and ability. To be judged by her talents and sacrifices, rather than the heaviness of her purse, or her skill in ensnaring a rich lifemate. And she had succeeded; after a lifetime of training, blood, sleepless nights and ineradicable scars, she now stood at the Duke’s side, foremost among his praetorii, a trusted and valued counsellor. It was a dream long held, and at long last, realized.
And none of it explained what she was doing riding towards the sea in the pre-dawn hours, in the heart of a spring storm.
It had begun innocently enough. After the tussle at the Feralis had been settled, the wounded seen to, and the would-be assassins secured, she had expected to be able to manage a night’s sleep, assuaging such sentiments and urges as the day’s events had engendered in her breast in the usual fashion. She’d been a little surprised when Karrick – the shield-bearer for the warcaster Thanos, to whom she had, before this night, paid little attention – had insisted, quietly but firmly, on interrogating the prisoners. She’d stood by, expecting him to brutalize the captives, and wondering whether she would have to intervene to rescue her master’s honour; but to her surprise, he’d managed to elicit a veritable trove of information, all without killing any of them (although his treatment of Calperyso was likely to give her nightmares in the months to come). In fact, he’d astonished her by using precious magic to heal the chief of the interlopers before questioning him. That had been a greater portion of grace than she would ever have accorded someone who’d just tried to murder Kaltas.
Altogether, it had been a sophisticated and informative performance by someone that she had written off as unworthy of her attention; pleasant enough, perhaps, but little more than a simple thug. Deciding that she’d misjudged the man, she’d invited him to continue the evening’s celebrations at the Guard’s senatio. At the time, she’d given little thought to her motivations in doing so; the wine she’d consumed, the heat of the dancing, the sudden rush of blood in the Great Hall, the furtive scuttling about in the cellars, and the anguished screams of young Calperyso had masked rather effectively the deeper desires churning in her spirit. Had anyone suggested that those desires had sparked her invitation, she would have scoffed; but now, swaying from side to side as the rain obliterated her coiffure and drenched her gown, and Lusoria picked her way cautiously down the street towards the land-spit and the thundering sea, she wasn’t so certain.
Karrick had laughed with apparent pleasure upon entering the senatio. When she’d asked him what he’d found so amusing, he’d replied that there was at least one similarity between his own army and the Duke’s - the sergeants always seemed to manage better accommodations, better fare, and better drink than the officers did.
He’d been equally delighted (or at least, had feigned delight) when she had introduced him to the establishment’s master, asking the man’s permission to join the host for the evening.
The master – an elderly, hard-bitten elf with a pair of long, jagged scars running from his right temple, down the side of his face, and disappearing under the collar of his tunic – was hight Oldak of Spreading Wonders, centurio primus pilus – Sergeant of the First File, the senior non-commissioned officer of the Joyous Light garrison. Oldak had immediately called for the barman, standing his commander and her guest to large stoneware flagons of vinum munio – a fortified brew the taste and strength of which had elicited an appreciative grin from Karrick. She’d considered warning him about its legendary potency, but decided not to bother; among the many skills the man had demonstrated over the past several hours, his capacity for liquor stood out.
When the first round had vanished, Oldak had called for a second, then launched into an account of the Defence of the Priory – the horrid, sanguinary struggle that had taken place at the crisis of the Battle of Duncala, where the troops of Eldisle under Kaltas, with Sylloallen and Lallakentan as his lieutenants, had held a crumbling temple for three days against repeated assaults by the Hand’s armoured footmen. The elves had lost more than half their number, but had inflicted horrendous casualties on the enemy. By the end of the third day, Kaltas and his survivors had constructed a makeshift redoubt out of the armoured corpses left by the Hand. Their victory, costly though it had been, had become legendary; it had prevented the Hand cavalry from turning the Vendicar’s flanks and rolling up the allied lines like a carpet. Songs had been written about the Priory; she even knew some of them.
And well I should, she’d thought, toying with her flagon. I was there, too.
Oldak had revelled in his tale, grinning ghoulishly when Karrick asked him about his scars. “When the footmen faltered,” the elf had explained, “the Hand priests summoned all manner of horrors from the pit, sending them in after us, trying to do what flesh, bone and steel couldn’t.” The elderly warrior tapped his scars. “That’s where I got these.”
“Odd sort of thing for a holy man to do,” Karrick had observed blandly. “Maybe the Hand weren’t a lot of jolly old buffers after all.”
“Yes, I remember thinking that myself,” their host had laughed.
In addition to his obvious martial skills, Oldak was an accomplished story-teller with a powerful, mellifluous voice, and the two guests had hung on his every word. She loved his stories, especially those about the wars with the Hand. She’d lost her parents at a young age to a Hand incursion that had overrun her ancestral home in the north, and she herself had played a part – albeit a small one – in the final battle, plying her bow and wielding her court-blade in the forests not far from the Priory, where the Duke and his comrades had stood back-to-back against the armoured hordes. She still had that sword.
When the tale was done, Karrick had been unable to restrain himself, pounding his fist on the table in a rapture of approval. Gratified, if a little appalled, by the exuberance of the gesture, she had grasped his hand. Her intention – she was certain of this – had merely been to quell his enthusiasm. Karrick, however, had apparently interpreted the gesture differently. He’d taken her small hand in his enormous paw, favouring her with a wink and a gentle squeeze. Startled, she’d flushed and put both hands in her lap.
Karrick had turned back to his host. “Did you at least get a citation for your standard out of it?”
“Yes, and better than that,” Oldak had replied, grinning. “The Vendicar himself rode through our ranks and gave each of us a platinum sovereign from the treasury. One with the old King’s face on it. You know, the one the Hand murdered, back when they first seized power. What was his name?”
“Jakta. The Second, I think,” Karrick had replied.
“That’s the one,” Oldak had agreed. “Remember him?”
“ ‘Fraid not,” Karrick had deadpanned. “It was a little before my time. He died about two hundred and fifty years ago.”
Oldak had burst out laughing. “Right, right. Anyway, the Vendicar gave us all the coin, and told us to have a drink on the Empire.”
“Indeed we did,” the elderly elf had laughed, draining his flagon and motioning to the barman. “That much money buys a lot of wine, my friend.”
“Hunh,” Karrick had muttered. “I’d’ve thought you’d’ve kept it.”
“Oh, I did that, too,” Oldak had replied. “We all did.” Loosening the ties holding his tunic together, he’d pulled the collar aside, tapping a finger against his chest. There was a round, indistinct scar roughly the size of a coin, directly over the old elf’s heart. “Not all in the same place, of course,” he’d added as an afterthought.
Karrick had leaned in for a closer look. In the centre of the scar was an indistinct, head-shaped blob…and, in raised letters, the words SUCSIF MUIREPMI.
“ ‘Imperial Treasury’. Bardan’s balls!” he’d whispered. “How…”
“Heated’em in the fire and held’em there for a five-count,” the elderly elf replied. “Hurt like the Nine Hells. But worth it. We got to have our wine, and our memorial, too!”
The barman had arrived with a tray of filled flagons. Karrick had reached for his purse, but had tucked it away again when the grizzled elf scowled fiercely. “Not in my mess, brother,” Oldak had growled. “My guests don’t pay here.”
She’d nodded her head gravely. Karrick had followed suit. “Honoured.” With a grin, he’d added, “And sorry I missed it. The fight, I mean.”
“You want honour,” Oldak had replied with a matching smile, “ask the Duke to show you his scar some time. He’s got one, too. On the forearm, I think.”
She had laughed at the shock on Karrick’s face. “Kaltas branded himself?” the warrior had exclaimed. “With an Imperial sovereign?”
“How could he not, when the troops were lining up to do the same?” Oldak had asked. “You’d be amazed how many of us have this scar.”
Then, to her infinite embarrassment, Oldak had winked at her. “Right, Captain?”
She’d flushed a deep, burning scarlet. The worst of it was that she didn’t know why she was blushing – because Oldak had reminded her of an incident from her past? Or because Karrick was eyeing her speculatively, all too obviously wondering where her scar was?
They’d talked for another hour before Karrick had stood, politely begging their host’s leave. She’d stood with him, and after hand-grips and bows, the pair had left Oldak to his kegs and wine-cups. They’d departed the garrison halls together, climbing the twisting tower steps towards the main body of the palace. Beneath a portico, with the rain hammering against the flagstones of the courtyard, she’d favoured the warrior with a brief nod, and sincere thanks for his company.
That – a quarter of an hour ago, now – was when he’d stunned her speechless by suggesting that they spend what little was left of the night in each other’s company.
The shore was near, now; the mare’s hooves were smacking wetly into the sodden sand. The sound made her shudder. The driving rain had helped to sooth her distress somewhat, but it didn’t help her memory. She felt numb with shock.
The warrior’s exact words had escaped her; it was as if, at the very instant his intentions had become clear, her mind had shut down. She’d been frozen by the moment – frozen with astonishment at being propositioned by a round-ear; frozen with horror as she struggled to remember whether she had somehow slipped and given him any indication of interest; and worst of all, frozen with appalled terror at the sudden realization of how badly she wanted him.
She couldn’t remember what she’d said instead. She couldn’t remember, in fact, whether she’d said anything at all. She could only remember fleeing, sprinting blindly across the courtyard; the light and straw-smell of the stables, the comforting musk of the horses, the hot, hard warmth of Lusoria’s spine against her, and the stinging lash of the rain against her cheeks. She hadn’t been running from Karrick; of that much, at least, she was certain. He hadn’t so much as moved to touch her. She had been running from…something else.
At the water’s edge, the mare slowed. She squeezed her thighs together, signalling a halt. The mare stood stock-still as the rider threw herself over the horse’s flank, sinking ankle-deep into the sodden earth. Her light shoes were poor footwear to pit against sand and surf, and she kicked them impatiently off before clenching her teeth and wading into the breakers.
Eldisle was the southernmost stretch of the Homelands, and the
the fairest and most forgiving of the
world’s oceans. But it was still winter,
and the water, whipped by the wind into salt foam, bore a deathly chill. Sunlit Sea
She needed that chill, needed it desperately, to quench the fire that the day – and the night – had kindled within her. Bracing herself against the hammering roar of the breakers, she waded forward, forcing her way against the press of the waves until she stood waist-deep. The crashing white-tops broke against her, inundating her completely.
The icy slap of the waves made the rain feel like a lover’s kiss. The freezing chill helped. In less than a minute she was blue-faced and gasping with the cold, the muscles of her legs knotting, her feet going numb. She struggled back to the shore, and gasped again as the wind pierced her drenched gown, plastering her hair against her skull. The counter-irritant was effective; the heat had been quenched. Temporarily, at least.
Stumbling back up the beach, she found a high dune topped with scrubby salt-grass and collapsed gratefully into the hollow behind it. She was immediately coated with fine, gritty sand, but at least the drift blocked most of the wind. To her relief, Lusoria followed her, and when the elf-woman dropped to the sand, the mare followed suit, her chestnut bulk serving as an additional wind-break. She leaned against the horse’s heaving flanks, grateful for the warmth and the placid companionship.
Her mind was clear now; the fire was not gone, but it was banked, at least for a while. She could recognize now, without confusion or rancour, the fact that she might have enjoyed a different companionship, a different warmth, if only she had had the courage to accept Karrick’s gallantly inept proposal. And now that her mind was clear she knew, too, why she had refused.
He couldn’t have known. There were few taboos in elven society, particularly among the wanton hedonists of the Third House, and the higher one rose among those august ranks, the fewer taboos there were. No act, it seemed, was beyond the pale, no topic unmentionable. Except for one. One thing only, that was hinted at obliquely, but never spoken of. The egeo.
She did not know whether it was a blessing or a curse. She had asked Alorestes, once; a long time ago, a century and more, she had fallen enamoured of the young priest, and had approached him after a ceremony of farewell at the Lucum, her colour high, and her ardour clear in her eyes. She’d wanted him, wanted him desperately – and in her youth and innocence, she’d thought that what called to her, what had aroused her desire, had been his high brow, his noble carriage, his gentle speech, and his serene, calming presence. She’d waited until the other attendees at the funeral had departed, and then she had all but thrown herself at the man.
To his credit, as befitted a servant of the Protector, Alorestes had invited her to a seat on the sward, and had – red-faced, but speaking softly and clearly – explained the egeo to her.
It wasn’t her fault; she was an orphan. Her parents had been slain in a raid by the Hand Knights against the farms near Arx Eos, the scene of some of the bitterest of the fighting during the heyday of the Theocracy. They had been gone to wind before she had seen forty summers. She had been rescued by soldiers, raised by soldiers, fed and cared for by soldiers, and trained by soldiers. Soldiers had celebrated her saltatio limenis with her, and when it was over, she had donned their cuirass and joined their ranks, serving alongside them with energy and distinction.
She’d had a thousand fathers…but no mother. She hadn’t even learned what to do with her hair until she’d entered the Duke’s service two centuries past; she’d simply hacked enough of it off to keep it out of her eyes. An appalled Alrykkian had immediately taken her in hand, struggling manfully to forge a lady out of the rough ore of an orphaned warrior-child. But even the Duchess’ surrogate mothering assumed too much; she assumed that the girl had been taught what every elf-child is taught at an early age: to be wary of the egeo mortis; to recognize it, when it came; and to know when to yield to it…and when to run.
In the traveling tongue, it had no name, because the elves never spoke of it to outsiders. The dwarves, in their passionless way, attributed its effects to the elves’ unruly, chaotic nature; and if the halflings had a word for it, they hadn’t revealed it to anyone. The only other creatures in all Anuru who knew what the egeo was were the dragons, who suffered from a form of it themselves. They called it kematian nafsu – the death-lust. And they were equally reticent to speak about it with those who did not share their passions or their needs.
Healers, magi and priests alike speculated about its origins, but even the wisest acknowledged that they were only guessing. Alorestes had done his best to draw some sort of sense out of the disparate theories.
“It is a divine blessing,” he’d said, sitting next to her on the grass of the Lucum, companionable and comforting, but taking all too obvious care not to touch her. “But, like most gifts of the Powers, it is also a curse.”
“It’s Hara’s punishment,” she’d muttered. Her hands had been shaking, she remembered, her breath coming in hitching gasps.
“No,” Alorestes had corrected gently. “Neither he, nor the Holy Mother, had anything to do with it. At least, I don’t think they did. It is a deeper force that calls to you; one not so powerful, perhaps, but far more insidious and persistent than the Anari.
He’d waved a hand at the surrounding rampart of trees. “It is the green.”
“The green?” she’d asked. “How could…I mean, isn’t that just the plants and such?”
“The trees,” he’d replied, glancing at the verdant canopy overhead. “The grass beneath us. The sky above. The hawk overhead, the fish in that stream, the great predators, the least prey. The earth we touch, the water we drink, the air we breathe…it is all one. It is the Unity you feel, Kova, bearing down upon you, driving you to this. It is kesatuan.”
“How can the Unity make me…make me…” She hadn’t been able to finish the question.
Alorestes had smiled. “One of our failings as children of Hara,” he’d replied, “is our lamentable propensity for self-extermination. We kill each other, Kova, with terrible abandon. More than once in our past, we have come close to dying out as a race. I believe, as some others do, that the egeo is the green’s answer to that.
“We live long, and reproduce all too slowly. The green…feels this. Laments it. The green knows that every one of us who passes is one fewer to carry on our race. And so…it has taken steps to deal with the problem.”
“Death sparks desire in us,” he’d said, colouring slightly despite his calm. “It is not passion, nor is it love; those are emotions, products of the mind. The egeo is something deeper. It is a product of the jiwa, the divine spark within us – that small piece of the soul that came from the green, and that must someday return to the unity of kesatuan as our bodies return to the earth. The drive it induces is stern, demanding…difficult to deny.
“When many of us fall,” he’d continued, “the rest must make up the loss. The heat rises within us, and we seek each other out. Or…or any suitable mate who may be to hand. Kesatuan does not care for our individual circumstances. It does not heed your wants or desires. Only the whole matters.”
“So it’s just heat,” she’d said bitterly. “Like rams and sheep, or hounds and bitches.”
“Why is that bad?” he’d shrugged. “They are our cousins, are they not? Made by the Holy Mother’s touch, before ever we were formed. Don’t dismiss out of hand the deep connection that all living things share. Their need, though, is not like ours; theirs comes from the way they were made. From Bræa. Ours is a gift of the unity. We feel it, and fight it; our wilder cousins, the torvae – they feel it, and embrace it. Perhaps they are wiser.
“The egeo runs so deep within us that any proof of mortality can summon it. The merest ceremony of remembrance can bring it to the fore. As it did, in you, today.
“You must learn to recognize it, Kova, and deal with it.” He’d laughed then, trying to infuse the situation with a modicum of humour. “As you now know, it can strike at the most inappropriate of times.”
It did, and it had. She’d seen it, felt it, herself. In heated, surreptitious grappling after a long and fruitful stag hunt. In the flushed faces, roving eyes and restless feet at otherwise dignified funerals. Worse, it struck in the aftermath of battles; she’d witnessed countless furtive couples sneaking off in the ruins of Duncala to placate the driving need implanted in them by the ruthless hand of nature. Often, she had been able to suppress the urge, or distract it through other activity; occasionally, she’d been forced to take other measures to satisfy its remorseless call. In all her later life, she’d never once succumbed.
“Don’t the humans suffer this?” she’d asked Alorestes.
His reply had been a shrug. “I don’t know,” he’d said. “But I doubt it. This blessing – and yes, I call it that, for it has sustained our race, despite terrible trials – this blessing is a gift of the Forest Mother. The humans – and the dwarves and halflings, for that matter – do not feel the green within them as deeply as we do. They are not part of kesatuan.”
“Perhaps I should envy them,” she’d muttered.
“You don’t mean that,” he’d said, shocked.
But she had meant it. Why should she be a slave to desires imposed by the impersonal force of nature? Why should the green play her folk like puppets, mingling, with such cold indiscrimination, the end of life with an undeniable lust for its generation?
Humans were fortunate not to suffer this. She still felt as she had so many long years ago, when Alorestes’ soft voice had done nothing to slow the hammering of her lifebeat, or slake the desire burning deep within her.
She had meant it. And squatting now in a dip behind a sand dune, shivering and huddled for warmth against Lusoria’s comforting bulk, she still meant it. With all of her heart.
The rain had ended, and dawn was in the air - a cool, clear dawn, bright with the promise of sunshine. The land-breeze was petering out and the sea-breeze not yet begun; the airs were muddled and still, and Valaista soared amongst them like an icon of life and power. By some trick of the light, her iron-grey hide was virtually invisible against the fading night; she was like a hole in the darkness, visible only when she chanced to occlude a peeking star. And unless she snapped her pinions, she was as silent as those self-same stars. Gliding comfortably, she streaked in perfect silence. She even essayed holding her breath for a moment, to stay the small, sibilant hiss of the air across her fangs, soaring in perfect silence.
She was hungry. The fare at the Duke’s feast had been plentiful, lavish even, but she found elven cuisine trying. She was not made for berries and fruits, tree-gifts and earth-roots; even when she walked in the First House form she had chosen, she craved flesh. She had already made the error of indulging her desires at table; the appalled stares of her seat-mates as she tore into a roast had taught her a valuable lesson, and she had determined that, henceforth, she would play the lady whilst in elf-shape, and strangle her blood-lust until she could hunt in her natural form.
She had advised Thanos of her decision, and had been gratified when he had praised her reasoning and her discretion. There was something pleasing in working one’s way through a problem. The fact that she had managed to descry the correct solution to a situation involving Kindred social conventions was especially pleasurable. Draconic conduct came naturally to her; it was, so to speak, in her blood. But those whose shape she took...
She shook her heavy, triangular head, hissing a sigh between razor-edged fangs. Dogs were easier; badgers even. But the Kindred were a puzzle. The elves especially. They had rules, but they obeyed them so seldom that she wondered why they existed at all. Indeed, they seemed to be observed only in the breaking of them.
She’d asked Joraz about it a few days earlier; his answer had been obscure, but she’d managed to work her way through it. He’d told her that the difference was one of perspective, of how one’s society saw itself in the world. The dwarves, he’d said, made rules to facilitate community life in tight quarters, and to ensure their survival in a hostile environment, where the efforts of everyone were needed to secure the well-being of all. The elves, by contrast, made rules to provide a framework and reason for rule-breaking; the elven spirit was such that rebellion was natural, an unavoidable urge. But chaos could not exist without order, and every elf needed something to rebel against.
“That makes no sense,” she’d objected.
“Wait ‘till you’ve been here awhile,” he’d laughed. “You’ll understand.”
The halflings, he’d added with a smile, took the elves’ proclivity for casual mayhem a step further; they lived in a perpetual state of chaos, and made rules to add the spice of law-breaking to their natural proclivity for deception and larceny.
“What of men?” she’d asked, her curiosity fired by his disquisition.
He’d turned suddenly sorrowful and grim. “Men make rules,” he’d said sadly, “to slow their drive for domination. The law simply offers them another battlefield, a distraction from swords and bloodshed. It helps to dilute and diffuse their energies, and give the rest of the Kindred a fighting chance.”
That also had made absolutely no sense to her. To leave something as fundamental as social order to chance or to individual racial preferences seemed an act of madness. Law, to her rigid, highly ordered draconic mind, was a natural excrescence of life itself, as much a necessity as air or water. “Somebody ought to take you people in hand,” she’d said bluntly.
“All of you. The Kindred. You need order. You need to be ruled,” she’d insisted.
“For our own good, I suppose,” Joraz had said without expression.
His face took on a distant, sad look. “It’s been tried.”
Contemplating the nature of laws and law-breaking was all well and good; but the sky was lightening, and she was ravenous. She’d spent part of the evening nibbling half-heartedly at a plate of unidentifiable greens, and during the dancing, had come within an inch of dining on one of the young noblemen who’d dared to tread on her toe. The fool had had the temerity to compliment her on how light she was on her feet. When she’d replied, in all honesty, that it was due to the fact that she hadn’t had a decent meal in two days, he’d laughed like the brainless dilettante he was. Somehow she’d managed to restrain her temper, confining her response to stomping, with all of her considerable strength, on his foot in turn. She’d painted a sweet smile on her face as he limped off the floor. The result, however, much to her dismay, was that she had subsequently been deluged by scores of would-be terpsichoreans. She was a terrible dancer; but the young men, entranced by her beauty, seemed endlessly willing to laugh off her clumsy stumbling. At least the dancing had distracted her from her growling stomach.
The dawn, she decided, was a far better companion; and the wind (echoing an adage first expressed by an ancient draconic sage) a far better lover. She wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it certainly sounded poetic, and the sentiment matched her mood precisely.
She looked down, and bared her fangs in delight. Far below, there was a flash of white amid the trees. The tail of a deer, perhaps, or some lesser creature. She banked immediately to the right, tucking her forelegs in to minimize drag, and curving her short, heavy neck under her body for a better look.
The flash appeared again, and then again, as if the creature was bobbing around in the underbrush, perhaps rooting around for a meal of its own. Valaista snorted happily. She took careful aim, spotting the site and marking it by trees and the long, sinuous line of a nearby creek. Then she folded her wings, and dove.
There was a trick to silence in the dive; she had learned to keep her scaled lips clenched tight over her fangs, muting the eerie, terrifying whistle that normally announced the approach of a stooping dragon, and caused enemies to flee or cower in terror. With her maw clamped shut, it was different; the only sound she made was the unavoidable result of the whirling rush of wind over her scales, claws and ailleles.
Her aim was flawless. Head extended and wings raked carefully back, she penetrated the forest canopy like a bolt from a ballista, piercing the heavy foliage with scarcely a rustle. Perfect! she exulted. The deer would never hear her coming. Extending her talons, she -
- it wasn’t a deer -
- snapped out her right forelimb, awkwardly snagging a tree branch, pivoting around it like a top and slamming into the trunk with jarring force. Her claw slipped on the damp bark, and she plummeted the last few paces to the forest floor.
For a mercy, she landed on a drift of rain-softened leaves. The impact drove the breath from her body, but she was uninjured. Struggling to her hindlegs, she tested her wings carefully, and was relieved to discover that she hadn’t sprung a joint.
She spun on her heel-spikes. She knew that voice. It had come from...
Bending her neck, she stuck her head carefully around the tree. Her eyes, already wide with shock, fairly gaped, and her jaw dropped open in astonishment.
It was Kaltas, the Duke. More surprisingly, he was unclothed.
More surprisingly still, he appeared to be lying atop the royal princess, Myaszæron, who was similarly attired. Or rather, not attired.
The Duke was gaping at her. “Valaistanaulata? That’s you, isn’t it?”
“It is,” she rumbled, still astonished beyond measure. “I’m sorry. I meant, ‘It is, your grace’,” she added belatedly, as Thanos had taught her.
Kaltas flushed at the formality of the address, and how it highlighted the awkwardness of the situation.
Valaista turned her eyes to the princess. “Greet the dawn, Highness,” she said with growing confidence, adding the traditional draconic salutation as a personal touch. Noticing that the princess was lying on her back and was, as a consequence, regarding her upside-down, Valaista rotated her head on her neck until their perspectives matched.
Myaszæron tittered somewhat frantically. “Salve, amicula,” she managed in strangled tones.
“Does the day see you well?” the dragon continued, using the elven form that Thanos had taught her.
“Very well,” the princess whispered, flushing mightily. “Ah…very well indeed.”
Glancing around the glade, Valaista noted, with no little relief, that the pair’s garments, along with their arms and armour, were piled rather haphazardly near the tree-trunk. That resolved one worry; evidently, they had doffed their garb voluntarily, rather than at the behest of some assailant. “Are you not cold?” the dragon asked conversationally.
“A little,” the princess admitted. Both she and the Duke remained still, apparently paralyzed by the novelty of the situation.
“His Grace doubtless makes an adequate blanket, though, I suppose,” Valaista continued, wondering why they hadn’t brought one with them. The forest floor was soft enough, but damp. And there were roots, and stones, and thorny plants to contend with.
Myaszæron choked back a giggle. “As blankets go, he’s a little boney,” she snickered.
Without taking his eyes from their visitor, Kaltas surreptitiously reached down and pinched her in a vulnerable spot. She smothered a squeal.
Valaista finished her inspection of the glade, then turned back to the couple. Remembering her manners, she said, “I beg your pardon. Forgive my intrusion. I will wait. Please, continue...whatever it was that you were doing. Unless you are finished?”
The two elves exchanged an inscrutable glance.
The dragon blinked. What were they doing, anyway? “Are you finished?” she asked.
“Yes,” Kaltas said emphatically.
“No,” the princess said at the same moment.
“Yes,” the Duke insisted.
Kaltas sighed and put a hand over the elf-woman’s mouth. Looking up at Valaista, he said firmly, “We’re finished.” He removed his hand.
“Oh, for...” Myaszæron rolled her eyes. “Yes.” She sounded terribly put out.
Valaista looked from one to the other, thoroughly baffled. “I beg your pardon, your Highness, your Grace, but I must ask...what in the Shells are you doing?”
Kaltas looked dismayed. He glanced down at Myaszæron, who shrugged. To Valaista, he said, “We’re...ah...newly mated. Er...lifemated, actually.”
“Oh!” the dragon expostulated. She reared back on her hind legs and extended her wings. “Oh! I understand! My congratulations! May the stars and the Lantern shine upon your union!”
The two elves sighed with simultaneous relief.
“Thank you,” the princess said, all sincerity.
“This, then, is your method of joining,” Valaista continued expectantly.
Myaszæron flushed anew. “Er....”
“One of them,” Kaltas chuckled, desperately suppressing a grin. Myaszæron poked him.
“There are more?”
The Duke chortled helplessly, tears streaming down his face. “Oh, most assuredly! Many more!”
The princess ground her teeth.
“Would you demonstrate, please?” Valaista asked politely.
Kaltas couldn’t help himself. He exploded in gales of uncontrollable laughter.
The dragon glanced down at the princess, twisting her head again for a better view. “Why is he laughing?”
“What he means to say is ‘no’,” Myaszæron said with a tightly forced smile of her own. “No demonstrations, I’m afraid. They are not...it is not customary for us.”
Valaista looked crestfallen. “Oh.”
Her aspect was so regretful that Myaszæron couldn’t bring herself to feel angry or upset. “I’m sorry, my friend,” she said. “I know your kind dance the Trepudio in the open skies, and join where all can see. But we elves...we generally do not do this before an audience.”
Kaltas, his chuckling under control once again, said, “That’s not true, my love. I heard that, at the Palace, the Queen’s eldest daughter, your aunty Cæfalys, in front of the whole court, once took on a quartet of - “
The princess poked him in the ribs again.
Undeterred, he continued, “And anyway, there’s a first time for –”
She punched him in the stomach. Hard. And she knew how.
Kaltas winced and gasped for breath. “Hara Sophus, woman! Be gentle! I’m twice your age!”
Feeling somewhat left out of the conversation, Valaista piped up. “Difference in age between mates is laudable. Among my folk, younger females often seek out and mate with older males, valuing their experience and sagacity.”
“Hah!” Kaltas exclaimed. “See? ‘Experience and sagacity’!”
“They do so,” the dragon continued remorselessly, “in hopes that strong children will make up for their elderly mate’s gradual senescence and decrepitude as he slips inevitably towards the Twilight.”
Myaszæron smiled sweetly up at her new husband. “Don’t worry. I’ll see you through your senescence and decrepitude, my darling.”
“How kind,” Kaltas growled. “ ‘My darling’.”
“I am glad for you both,” Valaista said firmly. “My heart dances for you.” She stared down at the princess. Her eyes narrowed. “I sense that the mating was successful. Am I correct?”
Kaltas glanced down at Myaszæron, whose eyes were wide with panic. “It certainly was for me,” he said, grinning. “How about you, dear heart? I’m not sure, but I’d flatter myself that you succeeded...what, four, maybe five ti...OW! OW!”
“You need to stop talking now, 'dear heart',” the princess hissed through clenched teeth.
Confused beyond all reason, the young dragon glanced from one elf to the other and back again. “May I ask a final question?” she said plaintively.
Myaszæron sighed. “Of course, child. What is it?”
“When are you likely to clutch?”
Kaltas’ eyes widened. He glanced down at his new lifemate. “That one was for you, love. Though I confess, I’m a little curious myself.”
The princess’ only response was a welter of inarticulate gargling.