He emerged from sleep like a man clawing his way out of deep water.
It was late; his nose told him that even before he opened his eyes. The night smells were gone, overlain and obliterated by the odours of morning. Not the ones he was accustomed to, though; not wood smoke and cured meat, or pine and Akhir’s musky odour. Rather, his senses were assaulted by a shattering melange of floral and spicy scents, herbed oils, perfumed soaps, splashing, and low, melodious laughter...
Gods! His eyes opened. Sunlight – low and watery, but sunlight nonetheless – was streaming into the bed-chamber.
Instinctively, he shot bolt upright. There was a startled squeal, and he whirled.
A spear’s toss away – the room was that big, he reflected with surprise – were three elf-women. They were perched atop a raised platform that, the night before, had supported a low dining table. The table was gone and the flooring had been folded back to reveal a low, broad bathing tub.
One of the women – his new bride, Amorda – was lounging in the water, while the other two, obviously hand-maidens of some sort or other, were busying themselves at opposing ends: a short, wide-eyed lass of no more than a century or so was brushing the older woman’s freshly-washed hair; and a taller, solemn-looking girl, equipped with a startling array of stones, files and lacquers, was attacking Amorda’s feet.
It was the shorter girl who’d squealed. She wasn’t squealing anymore, however; now she was flushing a bright, florid pink. Her colleague, the half-elf noticed, by contrast, wasn’t blushing at all. She was regarding him frankly, with a tiny smile and a raised eyebrow.
Noticing that her attendants had suddenly stopped moving, Amorda glanced over at the bed. She espied him and grinned happily. “Good morrow, my love!” she called, waving.
Breygon suddenly remembered that, apart from a few tangled sheets, he was naked. Bloody elves! He’d been raised in human society, and while he’d never accepted most of its conventions, he was used to them. Humans – all of them, wherever and however they lived – affected at least some degree of body modesty, especially between the genders. The elves, however, as well he knew, did not.
This was your idea, fool, he reminded himself. And it’s only the beginning.
Gritting his teeth, he came to a decision. With a deep breath, he slid off the low mattress and padded over to the bathing platform, looking neither to the left nor to the right. It felt like the longest march of his life.
Amorda watched him the whole way, a mischievous smile playing about her lips. So did her attendants, albeit with demurely downcast eyes. At the edge of the platform he dropped to one knee, took the hand that lay along the tiled lip of the tub, and pressed it to his lips. “Good morrow,” he said, relieved that the words betrayed no trembling.
“My lord slept well?” she asked impishly.
“As my lady knows,” he replied with a low bow, “her lord hardly slept at all.”
“And you?” Breygon went on. “You are well this morning?”
“Most well, and I thank you,” she said happily. “Apart from a wondrous exentare dulcis. And I must thank you for that, as well.”
Both of her attendants snickered at that. Breygon’s brows drew together. He knew he was missing something, but he didn’t know what it was. ‘Exentare dulcis’ literally meant ‘sweet torment’. Probably a colloquialism. Something rude, no doubt.
“Happily,” she continued, taking his hand and kissing his fingers in return, “these ladies are proving most adept at repairing the damage you inflicted.”
“Please accept my apologies, my lady,” Breygon said as solemnly as he could, given the circumstances, and his state of undress.
“No apologies are necessary, my lord,” Amorda replied. Her tone was grave; but Breygon was watching her eyes, and they were dancing.
As she spoke, the half-elf flicked his gaze toward the taller of the two girls. Amorda nodded imperceptibly. “Pupae meum,” she said a little more loudly, addressing them both. “Your names again, if you please?”
Both girls immediately bowed from the waist. The taller said, “Dardana, noble-born”; the shorter, the one with the hair-brushes, said, “Chrysandra.”
“Call me ‘Milady’, girls,” Amorda said easily. “I’m not noble-born. Is this your home? Are you local?”
“Yes, milady,” they chorused.
The elf-woman nodded. “If you’d prefer a more urbane setting,” she said, stretching happily in the water, “I could use you both at my seat in the capital. Whatever you’re making here, I’ll double it. What say you?”
Both girls started in shock, then smiled and nodded. The shorter one – Chrysandra, Breygon reminded himself – squealed again, and threw her arms around Amorda’s neck in a savage hug.
Amorda patted the girl’s arm, rolling her eyes at Breygon. When she was released, she said, “I’ll inform Lady Danoria. Come as soon as you can. Domus Casia, in the Via Alnus.
“Ask for Cayless,” she added. “She’s my matrona.”
The girls nodded.
Amorda grinned suddenly. “When she growls at you, tell her that I want you assigned to my balnearium, not the scullery. And tell her that if she gives you any trouble, I’ll dock her a month’s pay and make her marry that club-footed skald she’s been topping. Do you understand? Use precisely those words.”
“Yes, mistress!” the pair exclaimed, the shorter one snickering.
“Excellent,” Amorda murmured. “Off with you, now. Love, a corollarium, if you don’t mind? They were most helpful.”
Breygon realized that he was going to have to resign himself to parading around before complete strangers in the altogether. He rose, looked for his clothing – he vaguely recalled having abandoned his garb entirely early on in the night’s activities, so he concentrated his search near the sitting area – found his purse, fumbled through it, and gave each of the girls a gold coin. They both bowed deeply, muttering variations on “Milord”; then they collected their accoutrements and let themselves out.
He rejoined Amorda at the side of the tub. Her eyes were on him the whole way. For some reason, that didn’t bother him at all.
Now that they were alone again, he relaxed slightly. Perching himself on the lip of the tub, he asked, “What was that all about?”
“What, the ancillulae?”
“Recruiting,” she said briefly. “I’m always looking for decent ladies’-maids. Just when you get them trained up the way you like them, they move on, or fall pregnant, or get married. Or...” her voice caught in her throat “...or die.”
He took her hand and held it tightly. She squeezed his fingers in return.
“Or,” she added with a sly grin, “some wretched harpy who’s visiting you abuses your hospitality by snapping them up right under your nose!”
Breygon chuckled at that. “Very underhanded,” he said. “And I mean that as a compliment.”
The elf-woman shrugged, setting the water – and other more interesting things – in motion. “All’s fair in love and war, dear heart. And when trying to find someone who can brush this –” she tugged on a strand of her midnight hair “- without yanking it out by the fistful.”
The ranger chuckled again. “How’s the water?” he asked lightly.
“Plentiful,” she grinned, sliding to one side to make room for him.
He eased himself into the tub. To his surprise, the interior, rather than being made of hammered bronze or even iron, was lined with glazed tile. Each tile was individually painted in greens and blues. Together they formed a mosaic that seemed to shift and transform as the bather’s perspective changed. “That’s magnificent,” he murmured appreciatively.
“They have good glaziers here in the south,” she nodded. “Something to do with the clay, I understand.”
The water, however, was another matter. It was merely lukewarm, and he shivered a little; they’d left the windows open, the better to appreciate the night air, and the room as a result was a little chill.
Amorda’s eyes missed little. She nodded at a braided silk rope nearby, one of about a dozen that depended from the rafters at various strategic points around the room. “I can call for more hot water, if you like,” she said.
Breygon shook his head. Moving carefully in the confined space, he shifted around until their shoulders were touching. As a matter of convenience and comfort, he put his arm around her.
Typically, she misinterpreted the gesture, sliding into his embrace like a seal.
“Wait,” he said, choking a little on the word. “Just a moment.”
She drew back, looking confused.
Summoning all of his focus – no easy task, given the slickly sensual creature clinging to him – the ranger raised a hand, fingers spread, made a few simple gestures, and spoke the words.
The last three, she recognized: “Infans facis, venite!”
Child of Fire, come!
The was a brief pause. The air in the chamber seemed to tighten, pulling together, growing denser, more compact, more powerful. It was as though the seams of sky and earth were straining, straining...
POP. The strain broke, and the seams ruptured. With a hissing crackle, a sudden burst of flame exploded into existence at the opposite end of the tub – a round, roiling, waist-high ball of fire that seemed to feed on nothing but the air.
Amorda shrieked, clutching at him and drawing her legs up, away from the snapping mass of flame.
“Sshhh,” Breygon whispered, holding her in place with ease. He still had to –
The ball of fire suddenly resolved itself. Crackling softly, it twisted and shifted. Flickers of flame split apart at its base, resolving into stubby, leg-like pillars; and from within the roiling mass, two brighter points of light emerged. These swung around to regard the pair lounging in the tub. Their gaze was otherworldly, entirely inhuman, and entirely disinterested.
That changed the instant it saw the water. The creature recoiled instinctively. At the same time, the muted, crackling roar of flame gathered, gaining focus...and out of the garbled mass of crackling, a word emerged.
“No fight,” Breygon replied, speaking simply as he knew he must. “Just boil the water, please.”
“Boil?!” the elf-woman squeaked. “Beck, what are you – ”
It was a question. The half-elf sighed. “Make hot,” he clarified.
In response, the stubby fire elemental flowed towards them. Amorda, in a panic, drew herself as far away from it as possible, trembling and clinging tightly to Breygon’s arm. The half-elf found he didn’t mind at all.
Gingerly, hesitantly, the blazing creature leaned over the edge, and dipped one of its ‘legs’ into the tub.
The water immediately began to hiss and sputter.
Amorda threw him a startled glance that evolved from terror to astonishment to glee in the space of a heartbeat. A moment later, she had relaxed again.
Chuckling softly, she wrapped her arms around his chest, pulling him into a tight embrace. “You are full of surprises, aren’t you?” she murmured.
They broke their fast together, sitting on thick, comfortable cushions alongside the low table that had been replaced atop the wooden tub-cover. Even though the tiled enclosure was covered, a gentle heat still rose from beneath them. It was soothing, and helped to ward against the spring chill.
Amorda was still shaking her head over the incident with the fire elemental. Breygon had dismissed it as nothing of consequence, but she had refused to accept his evasions. After a heated exchange, she had seemingly dropped the matter. The half-elf, though, no stranger to the ways of women, knew that she had merely tabled it, to be raised again at an inconvenient moment.
“We have a little problem, you know,” she said, after a long moment of silence. “With the wedding.”
“Only one?” Breygon asked drily.
“It’s a big one,” the elf-woman replied carefully. “One of the principal purposes of Dîor’s Law is to regulate relationships among the great houses. The ancients were obsessed with it. Something to do with measuring each others’ worth by how far their respective family lines diverged from the Third House’s divine descent. How far, in other words, from the lineage of Bræa and Hara.”
“The Duodeci,” he murmured.
She nodded. “The ‘Divine Twelve’. It’s more a matter of administration than of faith, these days, but bureaucracies apply rules with far greater rigidity and far less sense than even priests do. And the old traditions are still respected. In any joining involving one of the Houses – even one of the cadet branches, like House Olestyrian – lineages must be confirmed.”
“I can lie with the best of them,” Breygon shrugged.
“You don’t understand,” Amorda said firmly. “You can’t lie. As part of the ceremony, we are required to declare our identities and our lineages, to the fourth generation. The declaration is made before the officiant...and it is made under a zone of truth.” She grimaced. “Believe me, it’s hard – very hard – to evade one of those.”
Breygon frowned. “You’re right. That...could be a problem.”
She looked stricken. “There’s a convention,” she said quickly, “a recent one, but a convention nonetheless, that...that supplicants may whisper their true names and lineages to the priest, instead of declaring them openly. That generally causes talk, because it suggests something irregular in the woodpile. But for lifemates who have something serious to hide...well, so long as the priest is discreet, it at least keeps their secrets from going too far.”
The ranger nodded. His eyes were distant.
“Don’t fret, lupino,” she whispered. “We all have secrets. I’m sure there’s nothing so terrible about you that I couldn’t stand it.
“For example...” she shrugged, helping herself to the heel of the loaf. “I know you’re lying to me about not being a caster.”
“I’m not, though,” Breygon protested. “I couldn’t cast a magic spell to save my life! What I can do...the few small things...it’s all part of being a servant of the Protector. The power comes from Him, not from me!”
“Kak,” she snorted. “I can work a little magic, but what you did, calling an elemental like that – that was something! A small thing for a powerful wizard, perhaps. But you keep telling me you’re no wizard!”
“Nor are you,” Breygon replied softly. He had been making the most of the bread and cheese that had been brought by the castle’s servants. The bread was decidedly average; but the cheese was something remarkable, aged to perfection, crumbly and sour and spicy all at the same time. He wondered whether it would be worth trying to poach Danoria’s cheese-maker. Probably comes from somewhere in town, he decided regretfully.
Given the turn the conversation was taking, though, he put his food away, and focussed on his new bride.
His remark took her aback. “What?” she said, confused. “How...how can you tell?”
“The words,” he shrugged. “The gestures. Your eyes, when you’re casting.” He took a bite, chewed, swallowed. “I’ve travelled with wizards and sorcerers alike, sponsa mea. Most latterly with that walking apocalypse, Thanos. You all do things...differently.
“And, of course,” he pointed around the room with his knife, “you’ve no spellbook.”
“I’m a graduate of the College of Stars,” she said faintly. “I can prove it. I’ve the scroll, attested to by...by...”
Her voice trailed off. Breygon was grinning. “By whom? By the same illuminator who forged your littera coniugialis to his Worthiness, the Baron Olestyrian?”
She looked stricken. “It came to me centuries ago, with my woman’s blood,” she whispered. “Be careful, love, I beg you! Even here – even here, in the Homelands! – my kind are not always safe.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so concerned.”
“That’s because you didn’t have to hide your skill during the reign of the White Hand in Ekhan,” she whispered, swallowing hard. “They had already been destroyed by the time you were born. I was a girl, though, newly come into my power, when Mishanirta was burnt at the stake in Whitefields. You can’t imagine the...the fear, that I had to live with...”
The half-elf took her hand and squeezed it, hard. “You can trust me with your secrets, my lady. I’m bound to you now.”
His words mollified her somewhat, but she still looked nervous. “I know, you’re obliged to protect me. The Codex –”
“Kak for the Codex!” he snarled softly. “I’ve been here a fortnight and I’m already sick of hearing about the damned thing. I don’t need laws to force me keep my word, or convince me to safeguard my lifemate.”
He stabbed his knife into a plum, rather more viciously than the fruit’s tender flesh merited. “And what’s more,” he added, “if you’re to be my wife, then our secrets are shared and sacrosanct. Know this, too: no one will ever harm you, unless I’m already dead.”
Amorda sat back against her cushions. Her cheeks were pink, and her eyes wide. “Gods, you...you’re...”
Breygon blinked. “What?” he asked, with all the eloquence he could manage.
“When you talk like that,” she breathed, “I want to climb you like Mons Nivis!”
The half-elf put his cutlery down. Her desire was so obvious, so potent, that he could taste her passion on the air. “Not that that wouldn’t be my preference too,” he said, his voice trembling as he fought to control himself, “but the day marches on. Thanos is probably already beside himself with rage at what we’ve just done.”
She arched a shapely eyebrow.
“The engagement, I mean,” he clarified hastily. “Not the...uh...other stuff.”
That earned him a grin.
“There are some...things about me, that you need to know,” he continued with a grimace. “Before we leap to Starmeadow. And before we take this – all of this –” he pointed to her and then back to himself “- any further.”
“Well,” she said, retrieving her teacup and leaning back into her cushions. “That certainly sounds ominous. Discourse, sponsus. I’m listening.” She gestured for him to go on.
Breygon sighed and put his knife down. If he told her, there was no going back. But...how could he not tell her? For her own protection, if for no other reason?
His hesitation was obvious to her. “I understand,” she said softly. “I understand you not wanting it known. Who your father is, I mean. It will cause problems for me, too; everyone knows that I was his mistress. To wed his son, it...well, it would look –”
“I’m not his son,” Breygon said harshly. “I’m his nephew.”
She blinked, stunned. “But – Mya was one of the Beloved of Valatanna!” she exclaimed, astonished. “A virgin, until she wed Kaltas last week! How –”
He cut her off. “Not Myaszæron either. She’s my aunt.”
The elf-woman’s eyes lost their focus for a moment. An instant later, they snapped back to his face. “Zelly?” she gasped, her jaw dropping. “Szæleryan? You’re Szæleryan’s son?”
“I knew her!” Amorda exclaimed. “We had...we had the same song-mistress! She was only a little older than me!”
“Thirty years, give or take,” the ranger agreed, looking gloomy.
Her words came in a horrified whisper. “But Zelly moved to Zare, and married a...a human...”
The elf-woman dropped her teacup, the vessel bouncing once on a cushion. Breygon leaned forward and, with thumb and forefinger, nipped it out of the air before it could shatter against the flagstones.
Amorda didn’t notice. “Holy Mother!” she gasped. “She was lawfully wed! That means...you’re not a bastard! You’re legitimate!”
“More or less,” he grunted.
Her eyes were like dinner plates. “That means that...sacrae deus silvae!”
“Mmm-hmm,” he sighed.
She cast her gaze away from his face, toward the windows. He saw her lips moving, and guessed what she was thinking. “Second in line, in the fourth generation,” he said. “After Princess Laranylla. I know.”
Her eyes snapped back to his face. “No,” she whispered. “No, that’s not...not what I was thinking. Not at all.”
The ranger frowned. “What were you thinking, then?”
She pursed her lips. “Article IX,” she said softly. “Culpa Patronem. Sins of the Father.”
“My father wasn’t an elf,” he reminded her.
“I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about Dîor’s Law. The Codex.”
He shrugged. “I told you, the Codex is all a mystery to me.”
“ ‘Sins of the Father’,” she repeated as if mesmerized.
Breygon sighed. “You’re going to have to explain, my dove.”
Amorda knitted her fingers together. To his astonishment, her hands were actually shaking, and she had to clench them tightly to still them. “Article IX,” she said carefully, “governs outlawry. Crimes so great that they merit the expulsion of an entire House.”
The ranger sat upright. “That can happen?” he asked, stunned.
She nodded. “That article was first used to to justify and effect the expulsion of the Filia Eiectionia. Mærglyn Kin-Slayer, Daughter of Exile, and her offspring and followers. It was how the Fourth House, the Shadelven, came to be.
“It’s only happened a few times since Dîor’s day,” she added, “but it remains in force. It’s the main weapon that the Houses that sit upon the Council have to wield against would-be renegades. And potential usurpers.”
“Why haven’t they used it?” he asked, frowning. “Against Æloeschyan, for example?”
“Because it takes two things,” she replied soberly. “Something so grossly contrary to the Codex that it can't be ignored – overt rebellion, for example – and, also, a two-thirds vote of the Council. Æloeschyan hasn’t yet been accused, with clear proofs, of any treason against the Throne; and even if she were, she controls enough of the Houses, whether through scutage, alliance or simple fear, to prevent the Queen marshalling the votes she would need to outlaw and exile her niece.”
She sighed heavily. “But that’s not why I mentioned it just now!”
“All right,” Breygon nodded. “Let me hear it.”
“Article IX,” the elf-woman breathed, “applies to everyone. Everyone, sponsus! Do you understand?”
“Of course,” he shrugged. “So what?”
“So,” Amorda replied, her voice descending to a whisper, “if Landioryn were to stand accused of a suitably terrible offence against the Codex...treason, or something like that...then, under the provisions of Culpa Patronem, he would be outlawed. And exiled.
“Moreover,” she added, “no majority vote would be required. The Queen is Prima of House Æyllian. She could exile him herself. And she would have to, if his crime were sufficiently horrid, if only to maintain the peace, and preserve the balance of power between the Houses.”
“So?” the ranger said, perplexed. “If Landioryn falls, your law of primogeniture passes the precedence to his eldest son, doesn’t it? Aira...Airy...”
“Airæszyllan,” Amorda corrected. “Normally, it would. But obviously you don’t know the full text of Article IX.”
“Obviously,” Breygon acknowledged, the word dripping with irony. “Why don’t you tell me?”
The elf-woman took a deep breath. “Culpa patronem,” she intoned, “iniunctum filiam, adusque saeculum decimus.” She blinked. “I’m quoting from memory, of course.”
“Of course,” he said faintly. “Gods!” The sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons, even unto the tenth generation. “Does that...does that mean what I think it means?”
Amorda nodded. “It means that if Landioryn is condemned,” she whispered, “then his whole line falls with him. Both of his children, Airæszyllan, and Gyennareen – well, maybe not Gyennareen, as she’s already married, and I think there’s something in the law that exempts married daughters – and all of their children too, born and unborn. They become an outlawed house, lupino! Expelled from the realm...and also from the succession.”
The ranger felt suddenly faint. “That would leave...Bræagond, and...and the Princess, Mya...”
He broke off. Amorda was shaking her head. “You’re forgetting Article IV,” the elf-woman said.
Breygon ran his fingers through his hair. “What was that one, again?” he said, feeling a little overwhelmed.
“Primogeniture. A male heir always estabishes precedence for any parent – father or mother. And Zelly,” she said faintly, “your...your mother...she was Szæronyla’s oldest child.”
Breygon said nothing. He knew what was coming next.
Amorda nodded, her face as pale as marble. “That’s right, my love. If Landioryn remains loyal, then whether he lives or dies, you’re safe. But if he betrays the Queen, and is found out, and falls...then you’re next.”
The half-elf looked down at his hands. They were trembling. Amorda followed his glance, then reached out and took his hands in hers, stilling their shaking. “Nothing to say?” she asked, putting on as brave a face as she could manage.
Breygon cleared his throat. “Well,” he said weakly, “I’ll bet you’d look lovely in green.”
She hit him. Hard.