09 May 2012

ELVEHELM: Starmeadow I - Domus Casia

            “This is…quite something,” Breygon murmured.  The master suite of Domus Casia was enormous, elegant beyond words, and not a little labyrinthine.  The ranger felt as if he had wandered into a fairy-story.

From the private gardens of the House, where they had appeared from their flux-leap and vanquished the dread apparition that had intercepted them, Amorda’s servants had led Breygon’s companions down one broad hall.  His bride had taken him by the hand and led him down another, smaller one.  This had debouched onto a well-lit and exquisitely appointed study complete with walls of bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling, a pair of large desks, comfortable chairs, tables, and a floor strewn with magnificent carpets.  Apart from that through which they had entered, there were three doors in the walls, nestled between the bookshelves.

            “This is the library,” she explained unnecessarily.  “That door leads to our private dining room, the lounge, and beyond to the rest of the house; that one, to my boudoir; and the last, there, to my bed-chamber.  Ours, now.”  She was pale, even more so than usual, and he could see that her hands were trembling slightly.

            He took her hand and held it.  “You’ll have to give me a tour at some point,” the ranger said, an uncomfortable grin etching its way across his cheeks.  He felt horribly out of place here.  This was luxury on a scale that he had only ever heard about, and could never have imagined experiencing for himself.

            “I’ll have Cayless show you around,” Amorda replied.  “When you meet her, though, remember that you’re bound to me, sponsa.”  She smiled, blinking rapidly.  “You can look, but you’d better not touch.”

            Breygon stared at her.  There was an odd lilt to her voice.  He realized that her hand was still quivering in his grip.  With his other hand, he felt her cheek, her neck.  “You’re not well,” he murmured.

            “I’m cold,” she murmured faintly.

            He moved his fingers to her forehead.  “You’re like ice!” he exclaimed.  Dropping his bow and pack, he swept the elf-woman into his arms and made for one of the doors that she had pointed out; the bedchamber.

            “No!” she cried.  Her voice was distant, like a sea-bird far out across the waves.  “Not there! There!”

            Breygon followed her finger.  She was pointing at the door that she had told him led to her boudoir.  He shrugged.  Stepping lightly over the impeccable carpets, he approached the door, lifted the latch with his knee, and stepped through into the room beyond.

            He didn’t bother with a thorough inspection.  The room was brightly lit and airy; it would do.  A spicy, intoxicating scent assaulted him, shot through him like a lance; it was a moment before he realized that it was the perfume that she normally wore, but in concentrated form.  She’s lived here a long time, he thought.  He was mildly surprised at its effect on him.

            There was a chaise-long against one wall, immediately beneath an enormous, exquisite tapestry depicting something or other.  He laid her carefully on the upholstery, rummaged through a nearby chest until he had found something blanket-like, and quickly wrapped her in the soft, fluffy material.

            He put a hand on her forehead.  She was flushed now, her cheeks pink; but she was still shivering.  Her teeth were actually chattering.

            “What…what…is this?” she asked.

            “Shock,” he replied grimly.  “Lie still.  I’m going to go build up the…”  His voice trailed off as he glanced around.  “Where’s the fireplace?” he asked, dumbfounded.

            “The House is…centrally heated…” she replied.  She pointed at the wall near the door.  “Lift that...all the way up.”

            Breygon padded over to the door.  Sure enough, a bronze handle about a foot long protruded from the wooden wainscoting.  He grasped it and yanked upwards.  It moved several inches.

            As he did so, there was a steely rasp at his feet.  His nerves were still on edge, and he leapt back without thinking.  An instant later, warm air flooded across his ankles.

            “That’ll do, love,” Amorda called weakly.  “Come back to me, please.”

            The ranger trotted back to the couch.  He could feel the warm air washing into the room, but she was still shivering.  “I’ll find another blanket,” he said.

            She put a hand on his arm.  “Just hold me.”

            He obliged, enfolding her in his arms.

            They sat like that for perhaps ten minutes before her trembling subsided and her breathing once again became slow and regular.  Amorda squirmed gently, and Breygon released her and sat back, relieved; his posture had been awkward, and his lower back was screaming imprecations at him.

            “Is it always like that?” she asked.

            “Eh? Battle, you mean?” he said, slightly confused.

            She nodded.

            “No,” he said firmly.  “Or at least, not usually.  It was that terrible thing we faced.”

            “What was it?” she shuddered.

            “Some kind of undead horror,” the ranger shrugged.  “We can ask Thanos later.  I wasn’t paying attention to details; I just wanted to destroy it.  But you felt its effects.  We all did.”

            “Feel it? I should say so!” she exclaimed.  “But not see it.  Just an…an outline.  It looked like some sort of…of hole.  A hole in the world.   Full of stars!”  She gasped, and her hand tightened on his.  “And then…it became clear, and…and…”

            He nodded.  “I know.  I got a closer look, but it didn’t help.  It was horrible.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

            She shivered again.  He leaned forward attentively, but she smiled and patted him on the wrist.  “I’m fine.  I was just…just remembering.  What it felt like.  As if my life were…were being pulled out, through my eyes.”

            “Revenants have a terrible presence,” the ranger murmured.  “They are a blight on the earth.  A stain on the green.  If it were within my power, I would obliterate them all, erase them from existence.”

            Amorda could see the muscles twitching in his jaw as he spoke.  She snorted weakly.  “You made a good start on that today.  You, Thanos, Joraz…Karrick even.  You saved us all.”

            Breygon shook his head.  “That fight should never have happened.  We knew we were being watched; we knew that terrible things could come through during a long leap like that.  It’s happened to us before.”  He thumped his free hand into the couch cushions.  “We should have been prepared.”

            “You were prepared,” she insisted.

            “I was not,” he grated.  “I was just lucky.  We were all lucky. Had I known this would happen - had Thanos warned me of any fears he may have had – you would have been safely away.  I would never have knowingly allowed this kind of danger to threaten our house.”

He was looking away from her now, staring at the tapestry above the couch, mesmerized by the play of colours.  “That thing…”  He glanced down. To his astonishment, his own hand was shaking now.  “You might have died.”

“I didn’t die,” she reminded him softly.  “You put yourself between my body and the enemy, love, like a hero of old.  You even dropped your bow for me.” She smiled, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.  “Your bow! I didn’t know such love was possible!” 

“Don’t make light of this,” the ranger growled.  “This was a mistake.  I didn’t pass you the rose one day only to lose you the next.  You could be one with the wind right now, and it would be my fault.”

She shook her head.  “And how, your fault?”

“I brought you into this,” he said grimly.  “I made you a part of it.  That…may have been a..a bad...”

She was watching him now.  There was no expression on her face, but he knew that he had her whole attention.

He struggled to explain.  “I don’t mean it that way.  It’s just that...trouble follows us, my lady.  It dogs our heels like...like a wolf after a lame deer.  If I had any sense, I would never have…asked you what I did.”

            “Are you sorry you asked?” she murmured.

            “No.  Never.  I will never regret that,” he replied firmly.  “But…I’m beginning to be sorry that you said ‘yes’.”

            She smiled happily.  “You’re afraid for me.”

            “Of course,” he said distantly.  “I lost…of course, I’m afraid for you!”

            “Good.  I like that,” she laughed.  Lupino, you’re an absolute dear.  But you need to understand this: I am responsible for my own actions.  Not you.  The question was yours, yes; but the answer – and all of the consequences that go with it – was mine.”

            She took his hand, kissed his palm, and pressed it to her cheek.  “I knew what I was getting into.  I knew that it would make me – and you too, don’t forget! – into a bigger and more valuable target.  I knew there would be danger – either incidental danger, such as we saw, and you defeated, today, or intentional danger, from the foes that hunt or oppose you, and from the many enemies I have made at court.  I knew all of that, and I accepted it.  I still accept it.”  She squeezed his hand gently.  “We are stronger together, my love, than we are apart.”

            He shook his head.  “I’m not sure that’s true.  I feel weaker than ever before.”


            “Because,” he sighed, “I never really cared whether I lived or died.  I never really had anything to lose.  Until now.”

            Amorda grinned her beguiling, lopsided grin.  “Poor men don’t fear thieves.  Fear only begins when you have something you treasure, that you can’t live without.”

            He nodded.  “Precisely.”

            “I guess we’ll have to work to keep each other safe then, hmm?” she asked, pulling him down to the couch and sliding an arm around his neck.

            “I’m having a hard time thinking about anything else,” Breygon confessed.  He got his arm under her shoulders.  She was warming again, slowly.

            Another thought struck him.  He leaned back and caught her eye.

            “Yes?” she asked.

            “I know you’re never happier than when you’re the centre of attention,” he said slowly, “and that you love to cause a tumult.  But it would not help either our house or our cause if word were to get ‘round that evil undead fiends dog my every step.”

            “After your fight in Novaposticum, my love,” she said drily, “I think that ship has sailed.  But for what it’s worth,” she added with a wink, “what happens in Domus Casia, stays in Domus Casia.”  She kissed him softly on the mouth.  He sighed with relief; her lips were warm again.

            “And I must say,” she added seriously, “that I’m glad that you’ve begun to think of it as our house, Bræagond.”

            He started back.  “Does that mean you’ve come to a decision about the question of names?  About how we are to be wed?”

            “Of course,” she replied with a wry shrug.  “You simplified it enormously when you told me who you were.”

            The ranger glanced oddly at her.  “How did I simplify it, exactly?”

            She chuckled weakly.  “You’re the true-born son of Szælereyan Æyllian,” she replied.  “A legitimate scion of the royal House.  According to the Codex, when two Houses intermarry, the spouse from the junior takes the name of the senior.  There’s no choice in the matter, my darling.”

            “None?” he asked, alarmed.

            “None whatsoever,” she said firmly.  “ ‘Beck of Æryn’ could have become ‘Beck Olestyrian’.  But when the priest, whomever it is to be, speaks our new-married name three days hence, unless you order him to use an alias I shall be proclaimed to the assembled company as ‘Amorda Antaíssin Olestyrian Æyllian née Excordia’.

            “Actually,” she added, blanching suddenly, “I suppose it will be Princess Amorda Antaíssin, et cetera, et cetera.”

            She sucked air between her teeth as all the implications of her prospective lifemate’s identity finally began to sink in.  “Oh, my,” she whispered.  “Oh my, oh my…”

            “ ‘Oh my’, indeed,” Breygon muttered.  Then he shook his head.  “Your…your middle name is ‘Antaíssin’?”

            Amorda nodded.  “My mother’s idea,” she said with a weak smile.  “Something about giving me an heroic example to follow.  Obviously, that didn’t turn out at all as she intended.”

            “I beg to differ,” Breygon chuckled.  “But...are you named after Anja Antaíssin? The…the lifemate of Fineleor Orkarel, the ancient hero?  The one who defeated the undead balrog, Gryshgranax?”

            “Yes, of course.  Whom else?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think it mattered,” she said, surprised.  “What’s wrong?”

            Breygon realized that he was scowling, and struggled to smooth his features.  “Nothing’s wrong,” he said.  “Nothing at all.  It’s just…an odd coincidence, I suppose.”

            “In what way?” Amorda asked, puzzled.

            “Well,” he said lamely, “Ally – the Duke’s daughter, I mean, Allymyn – she was called ‘Allymynorkarel’.  After Fineleor.”

            “I know,” Amorda shrugged.  “It’s common for children to be given a hero’s moniker as a second name or a use-name.  I understand Allymyn even truncated her maid-name, and used ‘Orkarel’ as her nomen virago – her war-woman’s name.”

            “She did,” Breygon confirmed.

            Amorda was watching him closely.  “I think I understand,” she murmured.  “You find it odd that your new lifemate, and the love you lost, bear the names of two ancient heroes who were themselves bound to each other as lifemates.  Is that it?”

            “In a word, yes,” Breygon admitted. “You don’t find that a little…odd?”

            “Hardly, my heart,” she said, all seriousness.  Non fors occursus inter Elvii.  This was fated to be.  As if some greater force were guiding our steps.”

            Breygon said nothing.

She looked closely at his eyes.  “Do you miss her?” she asked carefully.

            “I do,” the ranger admitted.  “I do.  Mostly, though, I feel guilty.”

            “For not saving her?” the elf-woman ventured.

            Breygon closed his eyes.  He couldn’t bear to look at her and say what he had to say.  “For not…for not having the courage, to…to tell her…”  He stopped, unable to go on.

            She gave his fingers a gentle squeeze.  “Tell me.”

            He shook his head.  “Some other time, perhaps,” he murmured.  “When I…understand it better.”

            “Very well,” the elf-woman nodded.  “When you’re ready.”

            He bent down and gave her a quick peck on the forehead – a gesture of thanks for her comprehension.  “Can I ask you something else?” he said suddenly.  “About your house?”

            Our house,” she reminded him.

            “ ‘Our house’.  Why did you want me to bring you in here?”

            She patted the chaise-long.  “I needed to lie down, lupino.  I thought that was obvious.”

            “I meant, what was wrong with your bedroom?”

            Amorda’s eyebrows climbed.  “Are you serious?”


            She frowned.  “No man has set foot in there since Domus Casia came into my possession.”

            “Ninety-one years ago?” he exclaimed.  “Really?”


            Breygon blinked.  “Ah…not to seem rude, darling…but what about your thirty-seven suitors?  And the others, who…er…who didn’t make the grade?”

            “I take my pleasure where and as I please, but I keep to the Codex,” she replied.  “Dîor’s Law states that no man but her husband may enter the bedchamber of an unwed woman.”

            The ranger raised a mocking eyebrow.

            “You don’t believe me?” she asked.

            “If even half of what I’ve heard about the denizens of this city is true,” Breygon observed mordantly, “then if that’s a rule, it’s one that’s observed mostly in the breaking.”

            “By others, perhaps,” she said sternly.  “Not by me.”

            Breygon shot her a dubious look.  “It still seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.”

            “Sometimes distinctions – even seemingly minor ones – are important.”  She fixed him with a frank stare.  “An enemy who crossed you path on the battlefield would feel your blade, would he not?  And yet if you saw his face at a festival, would you not stay your hand, rather than gut him?”

            “I don’t see the comparison,” Breygon complained, frowning.

            “Different circumstances require different responses, love,” she said.  “The difference lies in the law.

            “I’m three hundred and seventy-seven years old, lupino,” she sighed.  “You already know me as well as any man has ever known me, so you know that I couldn’t even begin to try to number how many liaisons I’ve enjoyed.”  Her eyes were cold, as if challenging him to make any off-hand remark.  “And believe me, I thoroughly enjoyed a very great many of them.

            “But,” she shrugged, “I’m an old-fashioned girl at heart.  That door,” she nodded at the bedchamber, “is sacrosanct.  Behind it there’s naked sword, and a dagger under my pillow.

            “And,” she went on, a hint of steel creeping into her voice, “when you finally do enter that room as my bound lifemate, so that you’ll know I’m serious, look down.  There’s an old carpet immediately inside the door.  The stains on it are exactly what they look like.”

            “Stains?” the half-elf asked.

            “You recall I told you that I killed one of the suitors I rejected?”

            Breygon nodded.

            “That wasn’t business,” she said harshly.  “It was personal.  He didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer.  Some months after we parted company, he had the temerity to enter my house uninvited.  He found his way to this suite, which he had never seen, and he crossed the threshold of my bedchamber.”

The half-elf’s lip twitched in an unconscious snarl.  “What’d you do?”

“I killed him,” Amorda said without expression.

            “Hand to hand?” the ranger exclaimed.  “Really?”

            “Of course not,” she said scornfully.  “He was in my bedroom uninvited, love.  He had given up the right to that courtesy.

            “And, of course,” she added with a wink, “from a pragmatic perspective, he was half again my size.  So I caught and held him with magic, cut his throat with my knife, and let him bleed out on my carpet.”

            Breygon stared at her.  “You’re joking.”

“Not in the least.”  She frowned.  “It was a little unnerving.  The spell I used only works on living creatures, but it works as long as they’re alive.  He died standing up, choking on his own blood and goggling at me the whole time.  It was only when the light went out that the magic ended, and he keeled over like a felled fir-tree.”  She shivered at the memory.  “I don’t think I’d do it that way again.”

Gods be praised, the ranger thought.  “What did you do with him?”

            “I had Cayless and a couple of the lads from the kitchen toss his body out into the street.” 

            Breygon said nothing.  He was stunned.

            Amorda took his silence for shock.  “There’s plenty of precedent,” she exclaimed.  “Plenty!  I’m not the only one who observes the law!  The Queen herself killed an unwanted suitor!”

            The ranger blinked.  “Really? Ælyndarka did?  When was that?”  Nicely done, great-grandmama! he thought.

            “It’s legendary,” the elf-woman said.  “I’m surprised you don’t...well,” she amended in mid-sentence, “maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.  It was eight hundred years ago, after all.

            “As the story goes,” she said, “Ælyndarka, while still only a princess, was given the task by her elder brother, King Callaýian, of finding a diplomatic solution to the rebellion of House Perfidelis.  The Perfidelii are not terribly powerful these days, but back then, they were the second House, behind the Crown.  Like the Drývanteii are today.

            “The head of the House,” she said, “was its Duke, Percorian Perfidelis.”

            “You mentioned him last night,” Breygon reminded her.  “The Queen’s long-dead lifemate.”

            He blinked.  Gods, had that only been last night?  Not even a full day, yet?

            “I know,” Amorda nodded.  “To settle their dispute and bring House Perfidelis back into the fold, Ælyndarka decided to pass the rose and the cup to Duke Percorian.”

            “She married him to solve a political problem?!” Breygon exclaimed.

            “Isn’t that what we’re doing?” she asked, all innocence.

            “That’s different,” he snapped, colouring slightly.  “It’s not the only reason!”

            “It wasn’t the only reason for her, either,” Amorda grinned.  “Percorian wasn’t just the most powerful warlord in the kingdom; he was a capable general, a renowned adventurer, and something of a rake.  He was known far and wide as a seeker, and a maker, of trouble.  And he claimed to have slain more dragons than he had sundered maidenheads.”

            Breygon snorted derisively.  “Sadly, I can say the same.  Recently, anyway.”

            She flicked his nose with a fingernail.  “I am obviously in no position to condemn Ælyndarka’s taste in lifemates!”

            The half-elf nodded, smiling and shaking his head.  Concedo.  Do continue.”

            “Percorian asked her for one month to consult his family,” she went on obediently.  “She granted him a month’s grace.  He brought her proposal to his house, and told them that he planned to accept.  But his two younger brothers objected; they didn’t want to lose their birthright to, as they put it, ‘a covey of Æyllian bastards’.  They even wrote that phrase into their counter-proposal, which they sent to Callaýian.”

            “Oh, dear,” Breygon winced.

            “They made a counter-offer,” Amorda said.  “They agreed to join the Houses – but only if Ælyndarka agreed to take the three brothers together.  As trimaritus.”

            The ranger sat up straight.  “What?  All three of them wanted to wed her?”

            The elf-woman nodded.  “It’s uncommon in the realm, love, but not entirely unknown.  And remember, she was the most beautiful woman in the realm; any nobleman would have cut off his right hand to have her. 

            “I doubt the duke was very keen on the idea,” she went on, “but his brothers were most insistent, and he likely had to placate them to avoid splitting his House.  In the end, they forced Percorian to escort them into the palace, betraying the welcome that Ælyndarka had extended to him alone...and then they crossed the threshold of the Princess’ bedchamber together.  Supposedly, in a demonstration of the power and prestige of House Perfidelis.”

            “All three of them?”

            “No,” the elf-woman grinned.  “Percorian let his brothers go first.  He refused to violate Ælyndarka’s sanctum.  That’s probably why she let him live.”

            “ ‘Let him’…what happened?” Breygon asked, appalled.

            Amorda’s eyes shone with admiration.  “Ælyndarka killed the two younger brothers with her own hands,” she said proudly.  “Then she ordered Percorian – at knife-point – to take up her rose, or die on the spot.”

            “And he took it up?” he marvelled.

            “You’re here, aren’t you?  Of course,” she added with a sniff, “that’s only one version of the story.”

            “There’s another?”

            She nodded.  “The other version tells that Percorian agreed to the trimaritus, but only as a ruse; and that when his brothers tried to cross Ælyndarka’s threshold, he killed them himself as a demonstration of his fealty to the Codex, and his dedication to his new lifemate.  According to that version of the story, he took up her rose of his own free will, and oathed her while standing in a pool of his family’s blood.”

            “That’s not much better.”

            Amorda spread her hands.  “It’s believable, though.  Percorian wasn’t renowned for sharing.”

            Breygon scratched his cheek.  “I’m not sure which of those tales I prefer.”

            “You can take your pick,” the elf-woman shrugged.  “No one knows which one is the truth, if indeed either one of them is.  The Queen long ago prohibited any mention of her dead lifemate’s name in her presence.  But it’s a fact that the bodies of the second and third sons of House Perfidelis, Percorian’s brothers, were found the next morning outside the palace gates, leaning against each other like a pair of fence-posts, their heads torn off, and their mouths stopped up with the banner of House Æyllian.”

            The ranger’s nose wrinkled involuntarily.  “That’s a fairly pointed message.”

            “Ælyndarka was less subtle in her youth,” Amorda chuckled.  “Callaýian was reportedly displeased, but he had made his sister responsible for resolving the dispute.  He certainly couldn’t argue with her results.”

            Breygon glanced sidelong at her.  He said nothing.

            “You disapprove?” she asked stiffly after a long moment of silence between them.

            “Not at all,” the half-elf averred.  “Not at all!  I was just wondering why you – and for that matter, the Queen – left your assailants on your doorsteps, and didn’t have them…oh, I don’t know.  Delivered to their homes.  Or buried, or burned, or obliterated.  Or at least tossed in the midden, or the river, or something.”

            “What would be the point of that?” Amorda asked crossly.  “A body on one’s doorstep is the best sort of message.  Halisterio – the suitor I slew – was a fool, and he was no use either as an aristocrat or as a lover.  The realm got collectively smarter when he died.  But, despite all his faults, at least he served me well at the end.  Indeed, he proved to be more use dead than alive.  He made a lovely warning flag.”

            She wrinkled her nose.  “At least until he started to smell.  Then he had to go.”

            Breygon sighed.  “I need to learn a lot more about elven law.”

“It’s sufficient to know,” the elf-woman said firmly, “that while infidelity may indeed be rampant here, lupino, it is a pastime that is fraught with hazards.  If a woman keeps to the Codex, then you enter her bedchamber uninvited at your peril.  No man has ever entered mine and lived.  The first and only one to do so will be my bound lifemate.  You.

“And even then,” she added with a grin, “I’ll not allow you beyond the threshold until the banns have been thrice cried, and we’re wed, and our union sealed in the old way, with the coniunctum undertaken in the living embrace of the green.  Until then, when we seek the clouds and the stars together – and  believe me,” she breathed with sudden intensity, “we shall, for I long for your touch, as a desert plant longs for rain! – for the nonce, we must do so otherwhere.”  She patted the couch upon which she lay, and winked solemnly.  “Here, for example. 

“As for trance or sleep,” she shrugged, “you may do so anywhere else that you please.  Is that clear, my love?”

“Yes,” Breygon replied, nodding.  “Absolutely clear.  But…”

“But, what?”

“Well...would you really kill me?” he asked, worried.  “Just for crossing your threshold?”

“What do you think?” she asked.  Her face was completely devoid of expression.

“Honestly?” He looked deep into her eyes.  They told him nothing.  “I’m not sure,” he muttered at last.

“Good,” she said with a fiendish grin.  Then she laughed.  “Oh, my dearest heart!  How I do love tweaking you!”  She gave his cheek a gentle slap.  “I’ve waited my whole life for you to find me.  Do you think I’d throw it all away now? For nothing more than a matter of law?”

“Again,” he said cautiously, “I’m not sure.”

“Uncertainty is life’s spice, is it not?” she chuckled.  “Try it, if you like, and see.  Be warned, though; I’d definitely have to give you a good nick, if only for propriety’s sake.  To prove to the gawkers that I’m serious about the Codex.” 

She grasped his hand again, her eyes sparkling.  “And to prove to you, dear heart, that I’m serious about this.”

            The half-elf smiled at that.  “My lady, and my love,” he said with a deep bow, “I will obey your rules, if only to keep my hide intact.  And I applaud your dedication to the law.  You’ve waited nearly a century to fill that bed; the least I can do is wait three days.”

            “Well said,” she murmured, dimpling happily.  “As for me – I’ve found that when you’re waiting for something worthwhile, lupino, time flies, and the march of years has no meaning.”

Breygon shook his head in wonder.  When she wanted to, the bloody woman could be absolutely adorable.


             “So, what’d you think of the High Priestess?” Joraz asked idly.

            “Lovely,” Thanos shrugged.  “As expected.  A little strange,” he added thoughtfully, “what with the weeds and vines and all.  But that’s also to be expected, I guess.  And frankly, she was no stranger than Breygon is these days.”

            The warmage glanced around.  “Where is he, anyway?  We need to talk.  I need to find out where the embassy is.”

            The monk’s face was unreadable.  “He and his lady are still unpacking, I believe.”

            Thanos pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers, and sighed.

            They were enjoying a badly-needed rest and the exquisite hospitality of Domus Casia, Amorda’s residence in the capitol.  The monk, the warmage, his shield-bearer, Valaista and Lööspelian had each been assigned a large, luxurious room facing onto an interior common room – a combination salon and pool.  All of the chambers were light, airy and pleasant; although the walls were solid, the house, as a single-story structure (an incredible extravagance, Thanos thought, astonished, in an island city where space must have been at a premium for millennia), boasted a vast number of cupolae – one per room, in fact.  The effect was a wondrous luxury.

            The warmage, surprised by the amount of light and fresh air that his bed-chamber had to offer, had spent a good ten minutes examining the elaborate geared mechanism that allowed the occupant to open or close any of the windows facing the cardinal directions, depending on the direction of wind and rain.  It was a perfect compliment to a simply exquisite dortoir; the room, which was easily twenty feet on a side, boasted a luxurious stragulum on a raised dais of stone directly beneath the cupola.  The mattress, equipped with linen sheets dyed a shocking purple and a vast collection of woven throws and down-filled blankets, was easily big enough to sleep four humans, or half a dozen elves.  Around the walls were chairs, a chaise-long, a serviceable desk, a water closet, and a pair of shelves stuffed with bound volumes, scrolls and the sort of disposable poetry books the elves preferred, and that he had seen many times: loose sheaves of paper bound at one corner with coloured ribbons.  They were designed, he knew, to allow new poems to be added as the whim struck.

            Because of who and what he was, instead of unpacking his kit or looking for refreshment or a bath, he’d spent a good half-hour pawing through the literature.  There was nothing of a mystical bent; but the shelves boasted, amongst other things, a variety of tomes of history and descriptions of ancient events – including, to his surprise, a small volume recounting the battle at the Field of Oldarran, and the Gloaming of the Wyrms.  He flipped through this for a moment – it consisted of better than two hundred closely-written pages, in an archaic elven script – then tossed it onto the desk for further investigation.  As a scholar, he was always astonished, annoyed and gratified in equal measure whenever he came across a military treatise he had never seen before.

            His literary perambulations were interrupted by a feminine squeal.  That had prompted him to replace the scroll he had been reading – a dense and pithy discourse on the applicability of the first three articles of the Codex to common law involving foreigners to the realm, a topic that had recently become of interest to him – and venture out of his room to investigate the source of the cry.

            The first thing he realized was that, after more than forty years of strictly appropriate conduct, he was – for the first time in his life – going to have to accommodate himself to someone else’s cultural habitudes.  His room, he frowned, had no door; merely a light curtain of silk, to which had been stitched decorative plaques of what looked like painted ivory.  It blocked sight, but nothing else.

            Sweeping the curtain aside, he emerged into the common room of what he had begun, subconsciously, to think of as the “guest suite” of Domus Casia – the dozen or so rooms facing the larger sitting and dining area, with the sunken pool in the centre.

            He glanced up; the room boasted a larger version of the same cupola that graced his bedroom.  Sunlight – late afternoon sunlight, if he had correctly interpreted the directions that Breygon had pointed out shortly after their arrival – poured in through the open windows, along with a stiff, invigorating spring breeze.  He took a deep breath, inflating his lungs and feeling his recently repaired inner being relax towards something resembling ease.

            Then he looked around the room, and tensed up again.  Immediately.

            The pool was occupied, explaining the distaff squeal that he had heard.  Close by, Joraz was lounging easily along the stepped side, his chest and shoulders protruding from the water, leaning back on his elbows with a blissful, utterly peaceful expression on his face.  To his left, Karrick had taken a similar pose, although his attention was on the pool rather than on the infinite.  Both men were – to the warmage’s consternation – without attire.

            So, to his infinitely greater consternation, were the pool’s other occupants.  One of them was Valaista, as naked as she would have been in her natural form, cavorting and splashing like a dolphin.  Karrick was watching the dragon-girl with a wide grin on his face.

            The other was a woman he did not recognize.  She was clearly Third House, possessed of the same fair, refined features as Amorda, but Thanos instinctively recognized that she was not of the same social caste.  Deconstructing his impressions, as he always tried to do, he realized that he had formed his instantaneous opinion on two bases.  First, the woman’s hair – a jumble of lengthy braids that looked a little worse for wear – was piled atop her head, caught in a leather thong that was obviously intended to keep them out of the water.  Second, her skin was marked with a monstrously complex tattoo – a garish jumble of colours that began at one hip, circled her midriff, ascended between her breasts, looped around her neck, and descended again over her left shoulder.

            The strange woman was talking quietly with Joraz and Karrick.  The warmage did his best not to stare as he approached the trio, but it was difficult; the newcomer was rather more voluptuous than the slender Amorda, and her state of undress left nothing to the imagination.  Thanos was very glad that he was still fully clothed.

            To his surprise, the woman spoke first.  Even more surprisingly, she used the Traveling Tongue.  “You must be the caster.  Thanos Mastigo, yes?”

            “Yes,” the warmage replied.  “And you are?”

            “Cayless.  Matrona of the House.”  She nodded, and her clustered braids waved.  “Welcome to Starmeadow, son of Empire.”

            “I thank you.”  Thanos sketched a bow, then looked for something to sit on.  He found a stool in short order and brought it to the pool side.

            “Cayless was just telling us about the city,” Joraz remarked when he returned.

            “Indeed?” The warcaster’s eyes narrowed suddenly.  “Joraz, are you well?”

            “I feel fine,” the monk replied.  “Mistress Shaivaun’s spells were most efficacious.  Why do you ask?”

            “You look a little pale,” Thanos shrugged.  He turned back to the elf-woman.  “I’m most interested in the city, lady.  Please continue.”

            Cayless was looking at him oddly.  “You do not inquire after the health of your scutator?” she asked, nodding at Karrick.

            “Yeah,” the warrior rumbled.  “Thanks for the concern, boss.”

            “Him?” Thanos laughed.  “No point.  Nothing much bothers Karrick.  If he was wounded he wouldn’t tell me, and if I asked him, he’d lie.  I’ve learned to just wait until he keels over before I call a priest.”

            The elf-woman looked shocked.  She glanced at Karrick, her eyes wide.

            “He’s got me there,” the warrior shrugged.  “Anything to drink around here?”

            Cayless opened her mouth as if to say something, then shut it again with a snap.  Thanos took that as further confirmation that she was someone accustomed to taking orders, rather than giving them.  “The city?” he prodded gently.

            The elf-woman nodded.  Domus Casia – the House of Cinnamon, in your tongue – is so-called because it was built by a spice merchant.  That was an age and more ago.  It was acquired by the Olestyriani some time during King Callaýian’s reign.”

She nodded towards the private suites through which they had arrived.  “We lie along the east bank of the great island, and back onto the east fork of the Lymphus, just within the Mura Xîardathi.  If you like, we can ascend the parapets later on, and you’ll get a better view, both of the river, and of the city proper.  And the College.  And the Palace.”

            “Can’t we just go upstairs?” Thanos asked.

            She shook her head.  “There is no ‘upstairs’.  Domus Casia, like many of the great dwellings along the east bank, is what was once called a ‘low house’.  They were built when the island’s lands were first being parcelled out, and living space was not as costly as it is today.”  She waved a shapely hand at the walls and ceiling.  “This is a relic of the old world, friends.  Such places are no longer built.  Not in Starmeadow.  Not anymore.”

            “Expensive, eh?” Karrick asked.

            Cayless nodded.  “Four years ago, one of the counts of House Hastafraxinus offered milady twelve and a half thousand, thousand aureae for the property.”

            The warrior’s jaw dropped.  Even Joraz looked impressed.

            Thanos whistled.  “Why didn’t she take it?”

            The elf-woman smiled.  “Then where would she live?” 

Bending forward, she scooped up a double handful of water and let it run down the back of her neck.  The gesture was unconsciously erotic, and the three men exchanged a meaningful glance.  Karrick, however, was the only one who flushed. 

“Well, I’m done!” he said suddenly.  Leaping from the pool, he grabbed the bathing sheet he had brought from his room, knotted it quickly about his waist, and strode off to his chamber.

            Cayless watched him depart with a smile.  When he had disappeared through the curtain, she said, “He is very funny.”

            “Karrick?” Thanos asked.  “Yes, he’s a riot.”  He hesitated for a moment, then decided to plunge in.  “Lady, before we continue about Starmeadow, may I ask – what’s the significance of your tattoo?”

            “This?” she glanced down.  “This is – or will be, one day – a tribute to the First-Born.”

            Thanos looked closer.  He didn’t see it.  “The Elves, you mean?”

            “No, not my people,” she laughed.  “It’s more obvious from the back.”  Rolling over in the water, she moved a few trailing braids out of the way and braced her elbows on the edge of the tub.  “Can you see it now?”

            Her new posture brought other assets into view.  They were positively magnificent. 

            Thanos shot a glance at Joraz.  “You doing okay?” he whispered.

            “My mind and body are as one, and at peace,” the monk replied.  His eyes were wide, and he was smiling happily.  “But...I think I’m going to like Starmeadow.”

            Shaking his head, Thanos knelt at the poolside and took a closer look at the elf-woman’s decoration.  He saw her point immediately; almost her entire back was covered by an enormous gold dragon.  Its tail began by her right knee, and the creature’s shape undulated across her  posterior and lower back, rising along her spine.  Its wings spread out across her shoulder blades and upper arms.  The beast’s long, sinuous neck looped over her left shoulder; it was the very end of this figure that Thanos had spotted from the front.

            The needlework was indescribably intricate.  It looked as though the fabulous creature were alive, and about to leap off her back and take flight.

            “Well?” she asked, glancing at him.

            “It’s Oroprimus,” he said slowly.  “Isn’t it?”

            “It is!” she cried.  “Do you like it?”

            “It’s astonishing,” the warcaster murmured.  “I’m no expert, but I’ve never seen anything that even comes close.”

            “That’s not true!” the woman cried, rolling to her back again.  “You bear a similar work yourself!  And so do your two companions!”

            Leaning forward, Joraz reached over his shoulder and tapped the stylized dragon wings that decorated his own back.

            Thanos blinked.  He often forgot about the tattoo he had received in the Deeprealm.

            “That is Divine Andhra’s work,” the woman asked.  There was a peculiar fire in her eyes.  “Is it not?”

            “Yes,” the warcaster replied.  “We were given these by the Wandering Elf minstrel, Andhra Chitrakhaara, in Elder Delvin.”  He nodded at the dragon-girl splashing happily at the other end of the pool.  “Our meeting was arranged, in fact, by Valaista’s mother.”

            “Then that is a bond between us,” Cayless replied, suddenly solemn.  “These –” she touched the long, slender pattern running up her midriff “- were done by one of his students, Palendendalor of Capavallis.”

            “I don’t know the name,” Thanos admitted.

            “Nor should you,” the woman smiled.  “He went to wind more than half a century ago.”

            “Duncala?” the warcaster asked.

            Cayless nodded.  “He was my lover, and I was his canvass.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “You were not even born then,” she shrugged. 

            “And he never finished?” Thanos asked.

“He did not, and never will, now.  This one –” she touched her midriff “- this one was to be Niðhoggr.”

“The ‘Eater of the Slain’?” Thanos asked, shocked.  “Gods, why?”

“She is the elder sister of Oroprimus,” Cayless replied.  There was a rebuke in her tone.  “You cannot honour the one without honouring the other.”

“You certainly can!” Thanos objected. 

“Palen wanted to commemorate both,” she said, reproof clear in her voice. “I agreed with him.”

“So…what, then?” the warcaster asked.  “Will you go through life with these half-finished?”

“Certainly not!” the elf-woman replied, shocked.  “No.  I’m waiting for Astior, Palen’s apprentice, to be skilled enough to complete them.”

“ ‘Palen’s apprentice’?” Thanos repeated, confused.  “But…”

“He learned all that he could, before my darling died,” Cayless said.  “For two of your generations, Astior has been wandering all the lands of Erutrei, perfecting his skill.  He has sworn to me that when he is ready – when he is certain that he can do proper credit – that he will return, and together we will complete his master’s work.

“I might even take him as my lover, too,” she said with sudden dimples.  “He’s a simply delightful boy.”

Shaking his head in wonder, Thanos leaned closer and stared at the sinuous serpent.  It was just as magnificent as the gold dragon etched into her back; a dark, terrifyingly malevolent presence that glowed with purpose and power.  The wings and head were missing, though; the latter was obviously intended to curl up and over her right shoulder, while the wings could only have been meant to cover her...

With a red-faced harrumph, he leaned back again.  Valaista, he noticed, had joined them, and was listening intently to their conversation, as well as regarding the elf-woman’s tattoos with interest.  “So,” he said, clearing his throat.  “You were telling us about the city?”

            Cayless lay back against the tiles.  “What is it that you wish to know?”

            He thought about that for only a moment.  “Where’s the Ekhani embassy?”

            “And the Teocalli Mirosata,” Joraz added.

            “And the nearest forest,” Valaista piped up.

            Thanos glanced at her, frowning.  Forest?  Why a forest?”

            Grinning fiercely, the girl cracked her knuckles.  “Karrick’s been teaching me how to fight dirty.  I think I’m ready to take on a moose.”