“So,” Breygon said, tapping a finger impatiently on the table.
“So,” Amorda murmured. She gave him a long look. When his expression changed not at all, she sighed softly and glanced down at her hands.
They were sharing a late supper at Domus Casia, and were alone. Thanos and Joraz, with Karrick and Valaista along for the ride, were still out in town, engaged on some errand or other; while Lööspelian, to Breygon’s astonishment, was still in the garden. It had begun to snow in late afternoon, and the half-elf had thought to check on her; but when he had ventured near, he had found her precisely where they had left her earlier that morning, sitting on a grassy mount near an ancient morbannon tree. She was still contemplating the tree with an easy, expressionless stare – and despite her protestations of mortality, showed no evidence of discomfort at the chill slush that rained down upon her, soaking her thin clothing, and drenching her hair into a sodden, dripping mass.
Her obvious plight notwithstanding, the ranger was loathe to disturb anyone who looked to be so deeply at one with the green...or with something, anyway. Since she was evidencing no signs of distress, he decided to leave her alone, and returned to the house’s master suite.
Which of course brought him face to face with his sponsa. And with the ghost from her past that had, for reasons which still boggled his mind, roused them from their shared dreams of the morning.
“We were lovers,” Amorda said suddenly – almost arrogantly, as if defying him to take offence. “Szyel and I.”
The half-elf wasn’t fooled; he heard not hauteur behind her words, but fear. “How long?” he asked. “And when?”
“A little more than thirty years ago,” she replied stiffly. “And for…for a little less than a year.”
“Not much of a dalliance, considering who she was,” Breygon replied evenly. “You topped my idiot uncle for ten times as long.”
Her face drained of all colour. “You...how dare you –”
“And yet,” he interrupted, deliberately overriding her outrage, “knowing that, I still passed you the rose.” He shrugged. “I don’t understand why you’re so reticent about this. If Bræagond didn’t matter to me, then why should Szyelekkan?”
That left her goggling, open-mouthed, completely disarmed by his lack of ire. “You...this doesn’t bother you?”
“Not especially,” the half-elf shrugged. “It didn’t look like you were interested in rekindling things with her. Are you?”
“No,” the elf-woman replied, as if in a daze. “No, for...for several reasons. The foremost being...well, you.”
“Fine, then,” Breygon said. He reached for a loaf, tore it in half, and offered her the larger. “Hungry?”
Amorda didn’t move; she simply regarded him in astonishment.
“I’m sorry,” he said, all contrition. He dipped the half-loaf in the dish of oil and offered it again. “Better?”
“You’re really not upset,” she murmured, dazed.
He put her half of the bread down on a plate, pushed it toward her, and, shaking his head, took a large, somewhat untidy bite from his own half. “Nmpf.”
As if in a dream, the elf-woman reached for the plate, tore a small piece from the loaf, and held it, dripping, over her plate. She didn’t speak.
Breygon swallowed. “What?” he asked.
“What manner of man are you?”
The ranger cocked his head. “I don’t understand the question.”
“This...I...” She took a deep breath, making an obvious effort to steady herself. “Among my...among the elite of the Third House,” she said, with obvious reluctance, “there is a...a connotation, to...to...”
She tried again. “When a woman takes a...another woman, as her lover...it...it often is taken to mean that she is...dissatisfied. With the...uh...performance. Of her man.”
“Couldn’t it mean,” the ranger asked reasonably, “that it was desire, and nothing more?”
Amorda’s hands were trembling, and she clenched them in her lap to still them. “Y-yes,” she stammered. “Perhaps. That...it happens, of course. But often...it is done to deliberately. To send a message. An insult. A statement, by the wife, that the husband is...is...”
She paused; then, looking defiant, said, “Insufficiently attentive!”
The half-elf barked a laugh. “How could I possibly be offended? I had fewer years than you have fingers when you two were an item! If you were insulting anyone, it was my half-wit uncle. Weren’t you coupling with him at the time?”
“That had just ended,” she admitted. “But no…no, it wasn’t anything like that. He couldn’t have taken it amiss. We…our…” She paused and took a deep breath. “What Szyel and I shared…no one knew about it.” A tremor ran through her, and she shivered. “Well,” she amended in a whisper, “almost no one.”
“So, then, why should I care?” the ranger asked reasonably.
The elf-woman looked at his face, watched his eyes closely. She was beginning to understand his moods a little better. “You do care, though,” she murmured.
“Not about the means, no. But the motive concerns me.” Breygon said, twirling his goblet between thumb and forefinger. “You suggested a moment ago that it is customary, here, to use pleasure as a weapon. Against those whom you ostensibly love. Is that true?”
“Who doesn’t?!” she exclaimed.
“I don’t,” he replied evenly. “And henceforth, you don’t either. There’ll be none of that pecqskid between us. Truth, only and always. Or we’re done. Understand?”
Amorda looked mortally offended. “Who are you,” she said, outraged, “to tell me how to act?”
“I’m your three-day lord and husband,” he snapped, “who doesn’t care a tinker’s damn about the past. What you did before we met is irrelevant; it’s what you do from now on that matters. Nothing else is worth an orc’s turd to me.”
“And that’s your final word?” she exclaimed heatedly.
“As final as it gets.” He took another bite from his loaf.
She was silent for a long, long time. Then she smiled quizzically. “How very...uncomplicated, of you.”
“Once in a while, I’m an uncomplicated sort of fellow. Of course,” he went on, filling a glass from the decanter that stood beside his plate, “if anyone else instigates that sort of nonsense from now on, that’ll be a different matter. You’re mine now, and we’re mated, and that’s that. Anyone touches you now, be it man or woman, and I’ll gut them like a First-Day capon.”
He slid the glass to her and filled his own. “Just so you know,” he added.
She took the goblet, nodding. The tiny smile didn’t disappear.
“Here’s to us.” He raised his glass. “Amor omnia induxit.”
“That’s not correct,” she said in sudden seriousness. “Ceorlinus said, ‘Amor omnia vincit’.”
“I’m not quoting Ceorlinus,” Breygon growled. “I’m quoting me. This isn’t a conquest, it’s a partnership, and it starts with clean slates. The past is done; the future, we’ll write together. Placitus est?”
He was still holding his goblet up. Amorda shook her head in wonder, and raised her own. “Placet, dominus.”
“Good,” Breygon laughed. “I must say, domina, that I like the sound of that.”
“I’ve never used it before,” the elf-woman murmured, still smiling in silent wonder. “It’s never been appropriate before. But I think I can get used to it.”
She still seemed distracted. Breygon let her stew in silence for a while before prodding her. “What is it?”
The elf-woman replied with a tiny shrug. “You haven’t asked me about the nymphaliceor.”
“I was going to save that for later,” the ranger replied. “But now’s as good a time as any, I suppose.” He put an elbow on the table and grimaced. “That said, though...I thought it wasn’t meet for we two to discuss it.”
“The...ah, negotiations, as such...no. Of course not,” Amorda said. “But there’s a protocol to it that you need to know about. Especially if you’ve never been Court.”
He tapped the table with the tip of his knife for emphasis. “That’s what I wanted to seek your advice on. I’d like to leave the royal presence with both my bride, and my head. Let’s hear it.”
“Well,” she began, “it’s at the same time more formal than when someone seeks the hand of one of the Ancillulae, and less so. Traditionally, the royal handmaidens can only be sought on high holidays. But I’m not one of them. When the orphaned head of one of the Houses weds, the political ramifications usually override the romantic, so the discussions are held as part of the Queen’s Court of Lauds.”
“When’s that?” Breygon asked.
“Every morning,” the elf-woman smiled, “at Lauds. The Hour of Prayer. You’ll hear the bells; this time of year, it’s generally about two hours before noon. The Queen opens the court to petitioners, her chaplain leads the assembled mass in a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to the Grace of the Day, and then the Chamberlain summons all petitioners to present their case, and seek the counsel – which is to say, the command – of her Serene Majesty.”
“Hang on.” He held up a hand. “What’s the ‘grace of the day’?”
She rolled her eyes. “In the Realm,” she said patiently, “each of the days of the week is watched over by one of our gods.”
“I thought the week-days were already named after the Powers,” Breygon objected. “Tîansday, and so forth.”
“We’re the Third House,” Amorda said without a trace of a smile. “We know better than everyone else. Hadn’t you noticed?”
The ranger snorted a laugh. “Very well. What’re these graces of the day, then?”
“Myrransday is Gemmo’s,” she replied, ticking each off with a raised finger. “Tîansday belongs to Hutanibu, the Forest Mother – or Shanyreet, as she’s called in the traveling tongue. Vorwennasday – she’s Bræa’s avatar of protection, remember? – is the day of Larranel, Defensor Sylvanus, naturally.”
“Naturally,” Breygon murmured.
“Tîorsday is Hara Sophus,” Amorda continued. “Freasday is already named for Feynillor Freagan, so that’s his day, of course. Sîan Barraj is watched over by Csæleyan, the queen of the Wood-Maidens; and finally, Sîan Varrasday belongs to Istravenya.”
“The ‘White Fire of the Woodlands’,” the ranger quipped. He ran through in his mind what he knew about elven customs and traditions, and frowned. “You left out Miros,” he noted, surprised.
“There are only seven days in the week,” Amorda replied, holding her hands out helplessly, “and there are eight powers the Elves look to. My people tend to leave her to the dragons. What can I say?”
“She seems to get overlooked a lot,” the ranger muttered. “As do her descendents.” He addressed himself to his plate for a moment, sorting among the various greens for something that looked familiar. “Does the choice of day affect my petition?”
“Not really,” Amorda shrugged. “There’s a popular superstition that the Queen’s decisions reflect the nature of the grace who watches over the day in question. So she makes wise decisions on Tîorsday, for example.”
“What sort of decisions does she make the rest of the week?” the ranger asked with a laugh.
“Like I said, love, it’s a superstition,” Amorda grinned. “She’s wise pretty much all the time. When were you planning on presenting your case?”
“Well,” he said around a mouthful, “it’s Tîansday today. According to your list, today’s ‘grace’ is the Forest Mother. That would’ve been appropriate, I suppose, but I guess it’s a little late.”
“It is,” she replied. “But tomorrow’s grace is –”
“The Protector,” Breygon nodded. “My patron. And we wed on the Slaughter, which is the thirteenth day of this month – which falls on Freasday...whose grace is Feynillor, to whom I swore my oath.” He shook his head in wonder. “Oddly appropriate. It’s quite a series of coincidences.”
“There are no coincidences, love. Szyel used to say –” She broke off in mid-sentence, looking down at her plate.
Breygon raised an eyebrow. “What did she say?”
The elf-woman took a deep breath before replying. “She used to say,” she said softly, “that we should look to the Powers if we seek explanations for the strangeness of the world, and a reason for all of the things that make life the oddity that it is. That ‘there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will’.”
“That sounds familiar,” the ranger frowned.
“Ceorlinus,” Amorda shrugged. “Szyel knew his works inside and out. The Ancillulae read a lot of poetry.” She grinned feebly. “Helps keep them away from the men of the court.”
“Not if it’s love poetry,” he said mordantly. “I know what you lot are like.”
That earned him an embarrassed grin as she acknowledged the point.
“Well.” He thought for a long moment, tapping a finger idly against the table. “If I must ask for your hand tomorrow, you’d best tell me how to go about it. Do I need to make an appointment?”
“Not as such,” the elf-woman shrugged. “It’s simplicity itself, really. You simply present yourself at the Palace Gate at Matins. That’s dawn, or thereabouts. There’ll be a junior chamberlain there, taking names. You give him your name and tell him your petition. He’ll pick a dozen or so cases to be heard, and will conduct the successful applicants inside.”
Breygon frowned. “Will that suffice? Remember what I am, love. Will I have to threaten him, or bribe him, just to get in?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” Amorda dimpled. “When you tell him you’re there to offer the nymphaliceor for Amorda Olestyrian née Excordia, Baroness of Arx Incultus, I suspect that the fact that you’re a half-blood will guarantee not only that you’ll be admitted, but that your plea will be the first to be heard! The Queen is going to want to meet the half-blood sell-sword who had the bloody cheek to offer the rose and cup to a lady of the Realm!
“As for your status,” she went on, her eyes twinkling, “you need only produce Kaltas’ commission. Even if you use your nom de guerre instead of your true name, my prince, I think you’ll do fine. No petty bureaucrat’s going to screen out a messenger from the Dux of Eldisle and the Lord General of the South.”
“By the way,” the elf-woman warned, holding up an admonitory finger. “No trying to sneak through the gate on your own! The Great Wards will pick you up in half a heart-beat, and you’ll be struck stiff as a board until somebody from the College can be called in to un-stick you. Only those with the Queen’s authorization can pass them freely. Understand?”
Breygon nodded. “I understand. No sneaking. After I’m admitted, then, where do I go?”
“Nowhere on your own,” the elf-woman warned. “You’ll be escorted by a troop of the High Guard. That’s also a good reason not to threaten anyone, dear. You’ve the fastest hands I’ve ever seen, but there are a hundred-score guardsmen in the Palace. Quite apart from the fact that, if you got in a scuffle, you’d miss your chance with the Queen, I’d like to get you back in one piece.
“In fact,” she added hesitantly, as if she feared his response, “you’d best leave your bow. No missile weapons of any kind are permitted in the Queen’s presence. It’ll be safer here with me than it would be wherever the High Guard would stow it.”
“I’ll consider it,” the ranger said drily. “Where do they escort us to? Astraprytaneum? The Starhall?”
“Not usually,” Amorda replied. “That’s a little too grand for day-to-day administration. Really, it depends on the Queen’s mood, and where she’s in residence at any given time. Usually, if she has a lot of business to attend to, she holds the Court of Lauds in the Presence Chamber at the Sancalidor. That’s Tîor’s old palace, the one that’s used for the Council and royal offices and such. It’s not as big as the Starhall, but still very impressive. The Presence Chamber has one of the highest domes in the world.”
“Very nice,” Breygon sighed. “Other possibilities?”
“She also uses the Receiving Room at Arx Magnificus,” Amorda shrugged. “If she’s feeling ill, for example, and doesn’t want to stray too far from her quarters. Or if she just got up late. And if she’s ‘vacationing’ at Pax Lymphus – that’s the royal retreat – she has a small presence chamber there, too. Not much room, but it’s big enough for her and a few dozen lickspittles.” She sniffed.
“Where’s this Pax Lymphus?” Breygon asked, suddenly alarmed. What if the Queen wasn’t in residence? Was he going to have to track her down?
“On the same island as the rest of the Palace,” Amorda said, eyeing him strangely. “At the south end of the Royal Isle, in fact, overlooking the rapids where the two branches of the Lymphus rejoin.”
“Ah,” the ranger said, relieved. “Good. What then?”
“Well, you’ll be set somewhere to wait,” the elf-woman said. “A hall, or a sitting room, or a library. Petitioners are called forward in whatever order the Queen desires. When you’re called, you enter alone, accompanied only by a chamberlain who announces your name and titles.”
“And my plea?”
No,” she said. “She’ll know what it is, of course, but petitioners are expected to speak for themselves.” She tapped a finger against her teeth. “Protocol is important. Foreigners generally bow at a hundred paces from the throne – that only applies to the Starhall, it’s the only place that big – at fifty, and at twenty. At ten paces you stop, bow again, and genuflect.” She smiled. “If it’s at Pax Lymphus, it’ll be easy. The presence chamber in the summer palace is only about ten paces long to begin with.”
“Go down on one knee?” he snapped, ignoring her jest. “Really? I’m not sure I consider myself a subject.”
“Subject or no, you’re there to ask her a favour,” Amorda replied firmly. “It’s courtesy, not submission. And it’s common sense, too, for someone approaching the throne with hat in hand.”
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I’m a little –”
“A little too sensitive?” she interrupted. “Yes, you are.” She reached down the length of the small table and grasped his hand. “Please, lupino, I beg you – do this for me.”
“I certainly wouldn’t do it for anyone else,” he growled. “What else can I expect?”
The elf-woman flushed prettily, and grinned. “Well,” she said, “assuming you haven’t been thrown out yet, next comes the part where the Queen asks you to present your petition. That’s where you have to pull out all the stops.”
“You’re expected,” she giggled, “to tell Her Serene Majesty – and the assembled court too, beloved, whoever’s there – how much you adore me. How you’d move mountains, stop the stars in their courses, and make the pillars of heaven shake to win my hand.” She patted his fingers sharply. “How are you at poetry?”
“I’ve read some,” he said in a strangled voice. “Wait a moment. I thought I was just paying a bride-price for you?!”
“You are!” she replied merrily. “But this is how the price is set, love. Your name and my name are just the starting factor. The real determinant is how well you make your pitch. If you fumble and stumble your way through your declaration, the Queen’ll be dismayed, and she’ll set a high price. If you move her to tears with your words, though, she’ll go easier on you.”
“That sounds less like a negotiation,” he said nervously, “than a performance.”
“Precisely,” Amorda laughed. “And gods, how I wish I could be there to watch!”
Breygon rolled his eyes. “Can I undertake any other business while I’m there? Without announcing it to all and sundry?”
“Certainly,” the elf-woman replied with a smug smile. “So long as you can work it into your sales pitch. Once you’ve begun proclaiming your love, the Queen and the Court are bound by tradition to hear you out. One suitor, a few centuries back, used the occasion to declare that his county was seceding from the Realm. Another spoke for more than thirty hours without stopping. He kept proclaiming his love until he passed out from exhaustion.”
“Great forest gods,” the ranger muttered. “What happened to the first fellow? The secessionist, I mean?”
Amorda grimaced. “He won his suit, and his lady-love,” she replied glumly. “Then the Queen raised the Guard, invaded his lands, laid siege to his castle and pulled it down stone by stone. Then she had his head taken off, and stuck it, and him, on a gibbet as a warning to other traitors.”
Breygon shook his head. “And what about the marathon speaker? Didn’t anyone have to...you know...” He waved in the general direction of the water closet.
Amorda dimpled prettily. “We’re elves, husband-to-be. There’s no limit to what we’re prepared to endure when somebody’s rattling on about love.”
“Marvellous.” He put his head in his hands. “So once the price is set,” he said, his voice muffled, “do I have to pay cash? Or diamonds? Or will she accept a bank draught?”
“Good heavens! Don’t you dare!” the elf-woman exclaimed, scandalized. “I know what you adventurers are like with money! If you start dumping bags of gold on the floor, she’ll think you’re a bandit or something!”
“You just give her a gift,” Amorda said sternly. “Anything you like, the more artistic the better. The older the better, too. It should be intended to impress her, and if possible, to increase her glory and the glory of the throne.”
“Gods above and below!” the ranger swore.
“And it would help if it were something she would have to display in a public place,” Amorda added. “That would force people to think of you – and me – every time they walk past it.” She bared her teeth in a savage smile. “I like the thought of my enemies walking past my bride-gift every day.”
Breygon did his best not to shake his head in wonder.
“The value of your gift,” the elf-woman went on, “will be deducted from the price set, of course. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for the gift to be worth more than the bride-price itself. In addition to making any further transactions unnecessary, that’s often what happens when the petitioner is a great lord who is also a great speaker. If he floors the assembled company, the Queen will set a low price – one so low that, if he pays it and nothing else, he’ll look mean. So instead, he’ll offer a gift that constitutes overpayment, often by an insane margin. That does the throne honour, and reflects credit on the petitioner as well.”
“That seems to be a great way,” the ranger said drily, “for the crown to increase its revenues.”
“Congratulations,” Amorda laughed. “You’re part of the secret, now.”
“What did Kaltas pay?” he asked suddenly. “For Myaszæron?”
“Nothing, yet,” Amorda replied, her eyes sparkling. “He was under proscription when they wed, so he couldn’t make an offer. Technically, their marriage was an act of rebellion by both of them. The Queen’s going to demand that he cough up a truly epic bride-price and gift when he gets here.” She grinned. “Of course, he’s a magnificent speaker, so he’ll be able to talk her down, too. It’ll be fun. I’m going to do everything I can to be at court the day he comes in to make his pitch.”
“Let me know how it goes,” the ranger said drily. “Although when he shows up with an army at his back, that might affect the Queen’s price.”
“It might indeed,” she agreed. “One thing more, lupino: if she agrees to give you my hand, and you’re able to meet her price, she’s going to ask you to name the date, the place, the rite and the mode. That’s to allow her to decide upon an appropriate representative. You can decide them on the spot, if you like. But tomorrow’s the last day we can let that decision go unmade. We need to start preparing.”
“I understand,” he replied. He scratched an ear. “Will I have to surrender my arms?”
Amorda grimaced. “I don’t know, love,” she said hesitantly. “Foreigners must; they lay them down at the twenty-pace mark. But you’re not a foreigner, you’re a nephew of House Aiyellohax. Common citizens of the Realm aren’t allowed to bring weapons past the Palace Gate – but nobles are obliged to carry their arms at all times, even in the sovereign’s presence. And knights aren’t allowed ever to go unarmed. Ever.”
“I’m not a knight,” the ranger reminded her pointedly.
“I know, I know.” She nibbled distractedly at a thumbnail. “Really, love, I don’t know for sure. But...you know, this could be a golden opportunity for you.”
“You mean,” he deadpanned, “it gets better than winning the hand of a rich, beautiful baroness?”
“Yes, better even than that!” she exclaimed, slapping his hand where it lay on the table. But she blushed prettily even as she said it. “What I mean is...nobody’s certain what your status really is. This is a chance for you to establish it in everyone’s minds.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” she said carefully, “if you were to leave your arms at home, folk would assume you’re a commoner. If you lay them on the flagstones twenty paces from the throne, they’ll assume you consider yourself a foreigner. If, however, you bear them confidently, and genuflect to the Queen – that’s what nobles must do – then, people will assume you’re noble, your descent notwithstanding.
“And,” she said nervously, “if you really want to...to let the hellcat out of the bag of holding, and set all the tongues in the realm a-wagging,” she whispered, “then wear your arms openly, approach the throne with your head held high, and don’t genuflect at all.”
“What?” he asked, perplexed. “What would that mean?”
“The only nobles who aren’t obliged to kneel to the Sovereign,” she said softly, “are the other members of the Royal House.” Her fingers were trembling, and he could see her fight to still them. “It would be a way of...of revealing who you are, but...but without saying it, out loud and irrevocably. To see what...what happens.”
“Ah,” he breathed. “Yes. Yes, I understand.” He fell silent, looking pensive.
She let him brood for what felt like an eternity. At last she could stand his silence no longer. “What are you going to do tomorrow?” Amorda whispered.
She looked terrified. Breygon took her hand, held it gently in his own, and shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t know yet. I’ll decide in the moment, I guess; that’s always worked out well for me.
“I know what I want to do tonight, though,” he said, giving her a direct look.
“Oh?” She flushed again. “Does it involve me?”
“You,” he confirmed, “and the library.” He stood and offered her his hand.
“Ah,” she grinned, taking it and rising with him. “The library! Excellent! I have an extensive poetry collection. If Ceorlinus can’t inspire you to glorious rhetoric, my love, then nothing can.”
“You misunderstand me,” he chuckled, sweeping her into his arms, and returning her look of sudden shock with a grin of his own. “I’m not interested in books.”
He reached for the ties at the throat of her gown, tugging them loose with practiced fingers. “I have all the inspiration I need...right here...”
Some hours later Breygon, staring up at the carved ceiling of the library, said, “You know, this settee isn’t all that uncomfortable. I may sleep here for the next few nights.”
“Gnomes make good, solid furniture,” she agreed. “So long as you give them accurate measurements. And this is the closest couch to my – our – bedchamber.”
She leaned back into his arms – there was enough room on the cushions, if only barely, for them to lie together – and sighed heavily.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m a little...oh,” she sighed again, “never mind.”
He gave her a gentle squeeze. “What happened to ‘total honesty’?” he chided her. “Spit it out.”
“All right, then.” She glanced over her shoulder at him. “I’m angry. That you disbelieved what Szyel told us, about...about how the Queen killed her brother.”
“She’s the Grim Duchess’ daughter,” Breygon observed carefully. “She’s hardly an unbiased source, love.”
“That’s not it,” Amorda disagreed. “I don’t mind you doubting her. What bothers me is that you doubted me! I...I have good reason to trust her,” the elf-woman sighed. She was obviously uncomfortable. “You know that.”
“And I have good reason to trust the fellow she accused,” Breygon said quietly.
“I ought to know her heart!” Amorda exclaimed. “We...we were...as close as two people could be, for nearly a year. We had no secrets!”
“You had a secret from her,” Breygon reminded her. “You were using her, remember?”
“She had no secrets from me!” the elf-woman hissed, growing increasingly agitated. “I trust her! She was my confidante!”
“I know that. But Vyeresh Veyeyallen,” the half-elf replied softly, “is my grandfather.”
Amorda nearly fell off the couch. “W-what?” she gasped.
Breygon sighed. “I was going to tell you this eventually, but I suppose now’s as good a time as any. Szæronýla, my grandmother, was a warrior of the White Fire, yes? A captain of the Defensores?”
“Yes,” Amorda replied, sounding dazed.
“Well,” the ranger went on, “she was wounded in battle in the woods. Centuries ago. Her whole troop was killed. A servant of the Protector found her and nursed her back to health at his grove. She fell in love with him, and he with her; and when she returned to Starmeadow and the man to whom she was promised, she was carrying his child.”
“Why didn’t they wed?” the elf-woman asked, surprised.
“He was Second House,” Breygon replied. “That’s where my mother’s golden hair came from. And these,” he added, pointing at his violet eyes.
“I thought your mother died when you were young,” Amorda said. “How...did she tell you all this?”
He shook his head. “I never knew. We met in the Bjerglands of Zare. I’d been bitten by a revenant, a lamiatus, and Vyeresh restored my strength. When it was done, he asked me to come visit him at his grove. When I did, he told me the whole story: who he was, where I’d come from, what my true name was. And that he’d been keeping an eye on me, since my mother’s – his daughter’s – death.”
Amorda was silent for a long moment. At last, she said, “How do you know he was telling the truth? Couldn’t he have been lying?”
“He had my mother’s kin-coin,” Breygon sighed. “Szæronýla had willed it to him. When she perished fighting the dragon Tychsyrreth near Mons Lacrimosa, it was sent to him from her estate. I’ll show it to you later.” He shrugged. “Why else would he have had that?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, appalled.
“And why would he lie to me?” the ranger went on. “He could’ve just let me continue on my way. Why tell me a tale that would all but guarantee that I’d end up here, one day, trying to find out the truth of what he’d told me? If he were guilty of such a monstrous crime, wouldn’t he have been better served by silence?”
“I don’t know, love,” Amorda admitted. “That makes sense, I suppose. But...you said he had a kin-coin?”
“And this,” he added, reaching over his shoulder to his sword belt, which he had hung carefully on the arm of the couch during preparations for the evening’s festivities, drew his grandmother’s dagger from its scabbard, and held it out before her. “You’ve seen me using it. As recently as yesterday, in fact. This is Szæronýla’s knife, called Acernadentis. ‘Ash Fang’. It’s twinned to her sword – I don’t know what that’s called – which, according to legend, is still stuck in the dragon’s back.”
He slid the knife back into its scabbard. “I’m going to go get it back.”
“Acernareddo,” Amorda whispered. She took his hand in her own and pulled his arm around her shoulders. She was trembling, and not with cold.
“Spaðacódru’s blade,” the elf-woman said distantly. “It’s why your grandmother was called ‘the longsword of the woodlands’ by her enemies. Her sword...it was legendary. Said to be crafted by Istravenya herself, from an ancient ash tree that was struck by a bolt of skyfire and turned into star-silver. It’s called Acernareddo. ‘Ash Justice’. It’s said...” she paused, shaking her head in wonder. “It’s said that, when the Spaðacódru wielded her two blades together, her enemies were consumed by holy flame, as if the White Fire herself had come to earth.”
“Acernareddo, eh?” Breygon murmured. “I like the sound of that.”
“All right,” Amorda conceded. “Perhaps Szyel’s lying. Thanos, though, seemed fairly certain about the spell that was set on those bones – the thorns one, I mean. That didn’t look like an illusion to me. Why would she make up some tale about some druid giving the Queen an evil spell?”
“ ‘Corrupt’ spell,” Breygon corrected her. “I know about those; I’ve been...I’ve run into them before.” He was silent for a moment. Then, reluctantly, he said, “Because it might be believable. If he did flee Starmeadow right after Bræagond’s death, then even if he wasn’t guilty, he would look guilty. And...he probably had access to that sort of magic.”
“How?” Amorda breathed, horrified.
“Because he’s a healer of the earth,” the ranger snapped. “When I met him at his grove, he was trying to break the black magic of one of the Dark Queen’s ancient underground temples. A pit of blood and terror, where thousands upon thousands of lives were once spilled out to Ekhalra’s glory.” He sighed. “Vyeresh might have...found something there. Something like that spell.”
“So Szyel could be telling the truth, no?” Amorda pressed.
Breygon ground his teeth. “Yes. It’s...it’s possible.”
“And he’s really your grandfather,” the elf-woman said, astonished, “and he really mated with the Spaðacódru?”
She whistled. “That makes your legitimacy a problem again!”
“No, it doesn’t,” Breygon disagreed. “They were both servants of the Forest Gods. He told me that they were wed in the eyes of Hutanibu, according to the ancient rite.” The ranger shrugged. “He’s a priest, love. He could have sanctified their union himself.”
“So it’s really true!” she whispered, stunned. “You really are...who you say you are!”
“You still had doubts?” he asked drily.
“Well,” she laughed miserably, “you have to admit, lupino – it’s a pretty unbelievable tale!”
“I don’t disagree. And yet,” he said, stroking her hair, “you were still willing to take me as your lifemate? Even though you were uncertain about my identity?”
“You idiot!” she said, exasperated. “I was half-hoping you’d take up my rose and blow out my candle the first night we met, when I hardly knew your name! And moreover, I agreed to wed you even though I knew you as nothing more than ‘Beck, the sell-sword from Æryn’.”
“The dragon-slaying sell-sword,” he corrected, sounding wounded.
That made her laugh. She grasped his fingers and squeezed them tightly. “Who you are never mattered to me. I loved you – I love you! – for what you are.”
Breygon chuckled quietly to himself. “So why are you so nervous tonight?”
“Because, frankly, I keep waiting for the other slipper to drop,” she sighed. “You haven’t asked me about...about Szyel.”
“I didn’t want to press you,” he shrugged. “I was waiting for you to unfold.”
“I don’t know how much more folding and unfolding I could take tonight,” she chuckled weakly, poking him playfully in the ribs. Then she sighed again. “So. How much do you want to hear?”
“You know my quest,” Breygon shrugged, “and you know my heart. Tell me what you think I need to know.” He shot her a meaningful glance. “And not a jot more. I’d rather not disturb any skeletons that don’t need to be disturbed.”
Amorda shivered suddenly.
The ranger frowned. “What is it?”
She made a dismissive gesture. “Nothing, love. It’s just…odd, I suppose. Portentous. That you should put it that way.”
She twisted in his arms until she faced him, speaking into the hollow of his shoulder. “It began,” she said, “about five-and-thirty years ago, when the Bird-Catcher informed me that my friend Inscia Insecuba, the ‘Double Duchess’, was at last returning from Ekhan, and that I would finally be allowed to dispose of your – how did you put it? Oh yes, ‘half-wit uncle’.
“The Auceps...he had a new mission for me. And when it was over…” She drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I would never want another.”
Domus Casia, Starmeadow, Heitsommer, 1018 (35 years ago)
Amorda leaned back into her pillows, tapping the scroll against her teeth. It had arrived only moments ago, borne to her gravely by one of the maids on the customary silver salver, and she had already digested its contents. It was a notice from one of her brokers that a gnome-weave carpet that she had ordered on consignment had arrived at
Southport, and was ready for delivery once the brokerage
had received payment in full.
There were only two problems with the message. The first was that she couldn’t recall ordering a gnomish carpet. Amorda loved most gnomish crafts, but she positively hated their weaver-work. The centralized heating system of Domus Casia, from the monstrous caloriferium at the heart of the cellar to the tiny brass knobs that controlled the flow of heated air to each of the rooms, had been crafted and installed by gnomes. She respected their expertise; she just despised their artwork. Everything they made looked like one of their schematics – and eye-wateringly complex jumble of lines, colours and shapes that made her want to gag.
She had paid more than a thousand-score aureae for her water-clock, a gnome-made monstrosity of silver, gilt and crystal that stood in one corner of her study, gurgling, clicking and humming away the hours and the years. She adored the thing, and had kissed the hand of blushing, giggling craftsman who had designed, fabricated and installed it – but she had sworn a solemn oath never to allow one of their weaving projects, or any other short of gnomish artwork, into her house.
The second problem was the request for payment. Amorda always paid in advance – and she always paid cash. She concealed her true reasons for doing so with a casual admission of avarice, invariably haggling with shop-keeps and merchants to reduce their prices, or refund some of the various taxes imposed by the crown; anything to disguise her motivations. She had learned, over the course of many long years of grifting, that folk were far less likely to believe protestations of innocence than they were to accept venal motives. When accused of a crime, she always tried to make the evidence point towards a lesser offence. Nobody would believe a claim of innocence – but people being what they were, they were generally willing to accept an admission of some lesser guilt.
In her case, the lesser guilt was greed. The greater guilt was a simple desire to avoid a paper trail. By paying cash, she left no traces. She could afford it, so she did it. It was as simple as that.
Rolling the scroll back up, she tossed it onto the bed and tried to think. The weather wasn’t helping. Heitsommer was Starmeadow’s unloveliest season; the heat had come in with a vengeance some months back, and had settled in for a good, long stay. It had brought the rains and humidity with it, leaving the capital feeling like a Gasparri stone-bath, and as a result she’d been avoiding her social responsibilities, spending the days hiding in the shadows of the House, padding around its corridors in the flimsiest of attire, or lounging in a tub kept running by sweating servants with buckets.
Epitechan, one of her contacts at the College, had told her that it had something to do with the bowl-shape of the Lamboris valley, which held the great city like a pair of cupped hands; she had waved his explanation away. She wasn’t interested in meteorological phenomena. If it hadn’t been for the fact that her current task – keeping an eye on Bræagond, the Queen’s grandson and her long-time cisamor, her ‘side-love’ – she would have long ago fled for the breezy comforts of Arx Incultus, where the desert air bled away the moisture; and where she could have ice brought down from the towering slopes of Mons Nivis, the mountain that lay at the great castle’s back.
Her eyes slipped back to the scroll. Something, she mused, is out of joint.
She flipped the letter over and examined the scrawled inscription in the address block. It wasn’t misdirected; ‘H.E. Dame Amorda Olestyrian née Excordia, D.G. Baroness of Arx Incultus, The Domus Casia, in the Via Alnus’ was as precise a set of directions as could be wished. There was no doubt about it; the letter was for her.
That, she mused, a shiver tracing its way up her spine, leaves only one other possibility.
Sighing nervously, she unrolled the scroll and rerolled it, backwards and forwards, several times in order to flatten it out. Epitechan had shown her how it was done. Once the paper was laying more or less flat on the bed-covers, she centered herself, let the ripples of the flux flow through her, and muttered the words that she had been taught. The power surged up in her hands, obedient as always to her command; and when it was ready, she drew her fingers across the paper in an odd, brushing motion.
Most of the words dissolved away, the ink turning instantly into a fine, charcoal-coloured dust.
When she was done, she released her pent-up breath in a whoosh, and examined the letter. The spell seemed to have worked – which meant that she knew that it was for her. And what was more, she knew from whom it had come. The chill reasserted itself, and she found herself shivering. It had been ten years since she had last received such a missive.
Picking the paper up carefully, she leaned over the side of her bed and blew the accumulated ink-dust carefully onto the floor, brushing the last few specks away with her hand. The words that were left formed a message, and the message was brief.
The first few words made her sigh with relief. The Bird-Catcher had had word from the Palace that her old friend Inscia – Bræagond’s lifemate, the head of House Cælestis who was known to the common folk as the ‘Double-Duchess’ by virtue of holding both her own fief, and also controlling her husband’s Duchy of Lamboris, and the woman that Amorda had been unabashedly cuckolding for a ten-year – had completed her mission in Norkhan, and would be returning to the capital at summer’s-end. Amorda raised her eyes to the ceiling tiles and offered a mute prayer of thanks to the Protector; she’d grown increasingly weary of her target’s ineffectual caresses and his clumsy efforts to evade her scrutiny whenever he sallied off in search of more…biddable bed-mates. Her missions had been fruitful; the information she had managed to weasel out of the Duke had led to the apprehension of innumerable felons, including a number of particularly vile slavers; and she had also helped the Bird-Catcher uncover a handful of dangerous traitors among the Queen’s personal staff.
But she had long ago wearied of playing the pillow to an idiot. To that extent, the message – which terminated her mission with respect to the Duke of Lamboris and the Palace – was a relief.
The rest of the missive, however, was not. By the time she had finished reading it, her eyes were bugging out. Eldarcanum? She nearly squealed in outraged terror. The
College of Bone
Gods above! How was she supposed to penetrate that dread place?
Leaning back into her pillows again, she reached for the pitcher of chilled liquor that stood at her bedside, pouring a healthy portion into a low, broad bowl, and chuckling weakly at the clinking of the ice-chunks caused by the shaking of her hand. She drained most of the bowl in a single swallow, feeling the soothing burn of the cordial. She knew that it was going to worsen her sweating, but she didn’t care. She had never needed a drink more badly than now. How…?
The man, she decided, is mad. The Auceps knew that she was an inborn caster, not a schooled wizard; that her delicately-inscribed certificates of achievement from the
were nothing more than an elaborate forgery to conceal the unbound arcane
powers that had erupted within her two centuries before. There was no way that she could fake the
knowledge and skill necessary to concoct a genuine reason for visiting the Priscossium. In addition to being all but unable to pass
as a wizard, she had an innate terror of revenants that made her flesh crawl,
and that unlocked her knees whenever the subject came up. She would have been happier if the
Bird-Catcher had ordered her to take a bath in a pit of vipers. College of Stars
Orders, however, were orders, and there were other ways to flay a hellcat. She didn’t have to get to the College as such; her task – she reread the note – was to get close to the Duchess Æloeschyan herself. That meant that she only had to infiltrate Eldarcanum and the Baccaturis, the ancient fortress of the Eldarcanum dukes.
There were not, she realized, a great many options. She ran through them in her mind. Her barony, Arx Incultus, was independent, not right-bound to Eldarcanum; there were no existing political links between her fief and the Grim Duchess’ much larger and vastly more influential province. She did not share military responsibilities with Æloeschyan; indeed, she had never even met the woman. The Duchess was not a regular at court; and her seat at Council, whenever Amorda had managed to attend, invariably went unfilled.
Trade was a possibility; Eldarcanum was the closest city of any size to Arx Incultus, and the two enjoyed a lively commerce (although not as large as her barony maintained with Duncala, Portacaminus, and Skywaters, to which cities Arx Incultus was connected by the
Caravan Route). But using
trade as an excuse might compromise her carefully-crafted cover; she had
factors to deal with such things, and if she suddenly developed an interest in
it herself – beyond the amounts that it added to her coffers, of course – that
fact would likely raise eyebrows.
No, what she needed was a something that played to her forte. She needed a social reason to visit the capital of the northern vales. A plausible excuse to pay the Grim Duchess a visit, and to stay for awhile. For that, she mused, I need someone from the city itself. Someone from Eldarcanum. Someone of her own class, or close to it, who would be easy to manipulate.
And that, she sighed, is the problem. She didn’t know anyone, anyone at all, who hailed from that ancient, cliff-bound fortress.
Fretting, she nibbled nervously at a lacquered thumbnail. It was impossible to pry open a door without some sort of lever, something to insert into the smallest of cracks. That was what she needed. Someone with…
Amorda froze. She did know of someone who hailed from Eldarcanum. Someone perfect. The trouble was, the whole capital knew about this person, too. There was no way, no way on earth, to make an approach and an offering undetected.
The night’s heat gathered unnoticed as gooseflesh stippled her chest and arms. If stealth was impossible, the only other option was a brazen, frontal assault.
Sancte Mater! This was going to be dangerous.
“So, my uncle’s wife was coming back, and you had a new task,” Breygon said evenly. They were still cuddling on the settee. Breygon had found a blanket and they were sharing it against the evening’s chill.
“And to execute it, I needed a new target,” Amorda nodded. “Tell me, beloved…what do you know about the Ancillulae Solium?”
“ ‘Slave-girls of the Throne’?” the ranger raised his eyebrows. “Never heard of them.”
“Oh, you’ve heard of them,” the elf-woman laughed. “You just know them as the pupillae regnum. The wards of the crown. That’s what they’re called today.”
“Yes, that term I’d heard before,” he nodded. “They’re the Queen’s hand-maidens, aren’t they?” He was thinking of two girls – one with black hair, one with white. One he had seen only in a dream; the other he’d seen in Vejborg, and again that morning.
“All the high-born girls in the realm,” Amorda nodded. “All the daughters of the Duodeci, and of the Great and Lesser Houses. From the age of threescore years until their majority at six-score years, all highborn girls live at the Palace, and serve the Queen.”
“There must be hundreds of them,” Breygon muttered.
“One hundred and ninety-one, at present,” the elf-woman replied.
“That’s a lot of mouths to feed.”
“The Queen can afford it, I think,” Amorda smiled. “They’re all of them, every one, well-educated and capable. Ælyndarka uses the younger ones as servants – pages, hand-maidens, bath-girls and what-not – while the older ones are her go-betweens, ladies-in-waiting, scribes and ornaments of the Court. She has dozens of them on hand at any given time.” She pursed her lips. “Of course, none of those is their most important function.”
“And that is…?”
“They’re hostages,” she said coldly. “To ensure their parents’ good behaviour.”
Breygon blinked. “That’s…incredibly cold-blooded.”
“It’s tradition,” the elf-woman shrugged. “Backed up, of course, by law.”
The ranger rolled his eyes. “Dîor again?”
“Actually, his wife,” Amorda laughed. There was no humour in it. “Anyarra, as I’ve already told you, was of peasant stock. She saw the nobility as immoral, dissolute and depraved, and resolved to get a grip on things. She convinced her lifemate to require all noble families to send their daughters to Starmeadow, to serve the Queen, and learn right conduct.”
“ ‘Right conduct’?” Breygon chuckled. “What does that mean?”
“What doesn’t it mean?” the elf-woman chuckled. “Dress and cosmetics. Etiquette and protocol. Lines of succession and orders of precedence. Dancing, poetry, history, familial interconnections, ancient heroes, ancient scandals. Riding, fencing, falconry, horse-breeding, weaving, painting, pottery, sculpture. Service at temple, service at table, service at court. Singing, recitation, the harp, the shalm and the lyre. How to lay a table, how to choose a gown, and how to serve a husband.”
“Great forest gods,” the ranger murmured. “Really?”
Amorda nodded. “Anyarra was said to be a terrifying mistress. She’s the one who named her servants ‘ancillulae’, which actually translates as ‘little slaves’. But whatever her motives, her methods worked; the product she turned out was formidable. Her court was nicknamed ‘The Wife-Works’.”
Breygon burst out laughing.
“It’s no joke, love,” the elf-woman frowned. “Anyarra’s curriculum was enshrined in the Codex. It’s still used today. Noble-born girls arrive at the age of sixty, and thereafter see their parents and their homes once a year, until they pass without the walls at one hundred and twenty. Any time after that, they can marry, with a generous dowry from the royal treasury – and a thorough education in what it means to be a lady of the Realm.
“And even then,” she sighed, “they’re not free.”
“Not free?” Breygon cocked an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
“Highborn girls, even after coming of age, technically remain wards of the Court until they’re wed,” Amorda explained. “They’re still required to present themselves at the Starhall on high holidays; and they still have to take orders from the Queen. She can command their attendance for five months out of ten, assign them whatever duties as she sees fit…even order them to live at the Palace.
“And, of course,” she added, colouring slightly, “they must maintain the decoris aptum. Until the Queen finds them a husband.”
Suitable decorum? “What on earth does that mean?” Breygon asked, puzzled.
“Chastity,” Amorda replied, blushing. “The Ancillulae are required to remain virgins, my love. Another part of Anyarra’s campaign to stamp out depravity.”
The ranger wrinkled his nose. That didn’t accord at all with everything he knew about High Elven customs and culture. “And how well,” he asked expressionlessly, “does that work out?”
“It varies,” the elf-woman admitted blandly. “But when applied with vigour, it can make life hard for the wards. Ælyndarka takes the Law seriously. That presented me with the opening that I needed.”
The ranger’s eyebrows climbed to his hairline.
Amorda’s flush deepened from pink to scarlet. “Don’t you dare!” she whispered.
“I said nothing,” he replied, struggling to control his grin. “Tell me more about the op…er, the opportunity, that you exploited.”
The elf-woman took a deep breath, eyeing her intended carefully, as if daring him to make an off-colour remark. “While only a few of the girls breach the prohibition fully,” she said carefully, “most of them find a beau, one who’s willing to wait, especially as the Saltatio nears. Girls from the Great Houses often pass without the walls to find a husband, selected for them by their parents, waiting for them; they step out of their vestal whites, and into a wedding gown.
“For most of the other girls,” she shrugged, “a suitor will find them. The Queen’s wards, after all, are the most prized catches in the kingdom. Even though they’re considered poisoned fruit by many.”
“Excuse me?” Breygon exclaimed. “What does that mean?”
“I’d’ve thought it was obvious,” Amorda shrugged. “By the time they leave the Court, the Ancillulae are equipped to be perfect wives, in every sense of the word. They’re trained to do everything from mix beverages and bake bread to decorate a house, deliver infants, plan a castle’s stores, finance a military campaign, or run a barony.”
He spread his hands. “I’m missing your point.”
“The most effective way to control a man,” the elf-woman said pointedly, “is to give him everything he wants. Everything. That’s what they’re trained to do. And that’s why they’re trained to do it.”
Breygon blinked. “Ah,” he said at last. “I think I see.”
“It’s the core of Anyarra’s teaching,” Amorda said, shaking her head. “Look at Inscia; she’s a gilt and gem-encrusted example of the type. She looks like nothing more than a beautiful, brainless flower – yet she runs two duchies, one her own and the other her husband’s, and if she were to walk away, they would both be in ruins in a year.
“Of course,” she added with a slight smile, “some of us have to learn these skills on our own. We don’t have the benefits of a courtly education. And yet, somehow, we manage.”
“Lucky me,” the ranger murmured.
His fiancée’s smile widened into a grin, and her dimples reappeared. “Would’st thou not prefer a professional, my love? The perfect wife, court-trained, master of everything she sets her hand to, queen-certified, calculating, confident, and chill as winter?” She fluttered her eyelids the most idiotically brainless manner possible.
“The very notion terrifies me,” he replied in utter seriousness. “I’m more of a catch-as-catch-can sort of fellow; that kind of dedication to decades of formation strikes me as madness.
“What I don’t understand, though,” he scratched an ear, “is how such a system could provide you with an…ah…opportunity. To do the Bird-Catcher’s bidding.”
“Well, as I said,” Amorda explained, folding her hands on the table, “most of the Queen’s girls find themselves surrounded by potential suitors. There was one girl at court, however, who did not.”
“I see,” Breygon murmured. “Szyelekkan, yes?”
“Szyelekkan,” Amorda nodded.
“It can’t have been because she was ugly or stupid.”
“No! Gods, no,” the elf-woman breathed. “No, she was brilliant. And…beautiful. So beautiful. She still is, in fact,” she added with a wistful sigh. “As you saw this morning. But still, the girl you saw today…she’s nothing compared to what she was then. Before…before all that happened after.”
“She was that pretty?” he said, sceptical. “She’s always struck me as a little grim.”
Amorda sighed. “Love, you have no idea. When I first met her, had she wanted to, she might have broken every heart in the Realm. The grimness...that came later.”
She halted then. Breygon waited, watching her carefully, struggling to keep his expression neutral.
Finally, Amorda took a long pull at her goblet and continued. “It was sad, lupino. Despite all of her beauty and brilliance, no one pursued her. Eight years after her Saltatio, she was still at court, still alone, still a hostage. No prospects, no future, no hope of escape. Growing more lonely, more bitter, and angrier with each passing year.
“All she needed was a friend. Someone who cared about her for her own sake. Someone...” she swallowed heavily “...who didn’t mind that her mother was the Queen’s mortal enemy, and one of the most powerful necromancers in the realm.”
Arx Magnificus, Starmeadow, Lastreap, 1018 (35 years ago)
“Bona vespera, ancillulae primae.”
The two girls were standing before a particularly striking bust, one of many that lined the Great Hall of Arx Magnificus, and had been deep in conversation. They turned in surprise at the unexpected interruption.
Amorda smiled pleasantly. “And how are we this fine evening, ladies?”
Both of the girls were high-born, young and achingly beautiful. They bore the same complexion, and even shared a certain commonality of features, with the arched brows, high cheekbones and gracefully pointed ears of all their race. They were even dressed alike, in long, loose-fitting gowns of white satin, with demure necklines, and a hint of green showing at the collar, cuffs and hem. Both were wearing a brooch fashioned of dried oak leaves and acorns. Amorda was wearing one herself, albeit one that had been set in gold. It was, after all, the harvest festival.
There, however, the resemblance ended. The girl on the left, the shorter of the two, had the midnight hair that was typical of the Third House; but her eyes were a bright, icy blue. Despite the girl’s obvious youth, those eyes glimmered with a serious, consuming intellect that Amorda found rather formidable. Her counterpart, two or three fingers taller, by contrast had hair of startling silver-white, and matching brows, and eyes of brilliant, piercing emerald. Her eyes radiated nothing but suspicion; hostility, even.
Their cosmetics were expert, but carefully understated; designed, Amorda knew, to make them look attractive, but also unobtrusively demure. Nothing, after all, could be allowed to detract from the attention due the one they served. Both also wore their hair long, bound back by broad ribbons of royal emerald. The silver-haired girl’s brushed the floor; the other’s stopped at the back of her knees. This was unsurprising; the taller girl, Amorda knew, was older than her comrade by perhaps three or four decades, having enjoyed her saltatio limenis a ten-year or so ago, while the younger girl still hadn’t passed the century mark.
Amorda gazed happily at the pair, blinking like a startled owl. She held a long-stemmed, empty glass in one hand, and radiated the air of someone who was gently, but quite happily, inebriated. It was a ruse, of course; she had rinsed her mouth with wine to acquire the proper scent, but had thus far emptied only a single glass. Unlike the two girls, her own floor-length, midnight hair was bound up, piled into a magnificent structure more than a foot high, secured by an elaborate riot of gilt wire and foot-long pins. At the other end, she had donned high, gilt boots that gave her several inches even on the taller of the two girls. In between, she had squeezed herself into a gown that she had purchased more than a decade ago – a gleaming confection of scarlet silk interwoven with gold thread and lace, that narrowed her waist and emphasized the womanly assets both above and below it. She had first worn the thing to ensnare Bræagond – the paramour of whom she had divested herself a few months back, in preparation for her present mission – and it had worked a treat. She was wearing it now for a number of reasons, only one of which was how it made her look. The thing had worked once, and she was hoping that it might work again. Amorda believed in preparation and skill, but she believed in luck, too.
And also in technology. She was also wearing, invisibly, a potent perfume; a concoction, dwarf-made of all things, of floral essences, spices…and the oil drawn from a certain Deepdark mushroom. She had used it to great effect many times, and was praying that it would serve her again this night.
Grinning in what she hoped was an open, friendly fashion, she stuck out a hand festooned with bracelets and rings, and gushed, “Girls, what an honour! I’m so happy to meet you. I’m –”
To her astonishment, the dark-haired girl dipped in a brief curtsey. “Introductions are unnecessary. You are Amorda, of Arx Incultus. Enchanted, lady. I am Laranylla.”
“Princess Laranylla,” the taller girl interjected before Amorda could say anything. “Laranylla vel Æyllian. First off the Fourth.” She eyed the older woman oddly. “Her Serene Majesty’s great-grandchild.”
“ ‘Princess’?” Amorda squeaked, wondering if she were laying the unction on too thickly. “Oh, how wonderful! Where have you been hiding, child?”
“Here in the palace,” the taller girl said drily. “With her family.”
Amorda swung her gaze to the silver-haired beauty. “And you are?”
“Szyelekkan,” the girl said in a frosty voice. “Of Eldarcanum.”
“Ah!” Amorda breathed. “Æloeschyan’s little girl!”
“I am,” the girl replied coldly.
“And so, Countess of Eldarcanum,” Amorda corrected.
“Yes.” A single, clipped syllable this time.
Amorda stretched out her free hand to touch the taller girl’s silver-white locks. “Your hair,” she breathed as if mesmerized, “it’s simply magnificent!”
The shorter girl, the princess, raised an eyebrow. “It is unique. Among the ancillulae, we call her Floraquilonia Candorvallis.”
“ ‘White Flower of the Northvale’,” Amorda murmured approvingly. “How lovely.” She was looking directly at the girl as she said it.
When Szyelekkan frowned, Lara prodded her indelicately with an elbow. “It’s meant to be a compliment, you know,” she muttered.
“It’s ridiculous,” Szyel growled. “I only tolerate it because it was your idea.” She turned her back on the two women and strode a couple of paces away.
“It’s better than the alternative,” Lara muttered.
Amorda glanced down at her. “What’s the alternative?”
“Twenty years ago, or so,” the princess explained, “one of the girls from the southlands – Sinaustrinus, I think – tried to hang a different moniker on Szyel. She started calling her ‘Nivosa’.”
“Snow-White, eh?” Amorda said, nodding. “Pretty. I like it.”
“Szyel didn’t,” the girl replied, not smiling. “And it didn’t last long.”
Laranylla pointed her finger and cocked her thumb. “Zap! Electric orb,” she whispered. “I hadn’t even known she knew that spell. I’d never even seen her spellbook!
“Little Miss Southlands spent a couple of nights in the infirmary, and Szyel took a score of the Head-Mistress’s best across the backside.” The girl coloured slightly, wincing at the memory. “Frankly, I liefer have endured the spell. Chandaloryn was an absolute terror with the ferula. Rumour was that she practiced on an anvil.”
Amorda didn’t have to feign surprise. “Surely you’re not switched, here? You’re all noble-born, aren’t you?”
“That didn’t matter to Dîor, or his bloodthirsty lifemate,” the princess said glumly. “No privileges for the high and mighty. I’ve felt the cane myself.”
“You? A princess?!”
Lara nodded. “I found out the hard way that Chandaloryn didn’t like it when her charges corrected her grammar.”
Amorda did her best to stifle a snicker.
“As for Szyel,” the girl continued, “she didn’t sit down again until after her victim was out of hospital, and slept on her belly for a week. But,” she added with a shrug, “she never made a peep. Neither during the correction, nor afterwards. She’s got a heart of iron.”
“Or a backside of stone,” the elf-woman muttered under her breath. “And this other girl, the one your friend attacked...she didn’t defend herself?”
“Couldn’t,” Lara shrugged. “Not a chance. Szyel’s very, very fast. Think about that, Lady, before you prod her too hard.”
“Hmm,” Amorda murmured again. Taking Lara by the elbow, she steered the princess over to where her comrade was standing alone, staring at nothing in particular.
“Well!” she exclaimed when all three were together again. “A countess, and a princess, too! I guess that makes me quite the junior in our little trio!”
“In rank, perhaps. Certainly not in years,” Szyelekkan muttered. She slid her hands into her sleeves and turned pointedly away from the other two women. She made a show of studying a bust that stood nearby atop a marble pillar.
Laranylla flushed, embarrassed at her companion’s obvious rudeness.
Amorda felt a little grin creep across her cheeks, and struggled to squelch it. Any moment now…
Yes. One of the palace servants, a junior chamberlain by his livery, sidled up to the princess, caught her attention, and whispered something in her ear. The girl’s eyes widened slightly.
Dismissing the messenger with the flick of a finger, she curtseyed again. “If you’ll excuse me, lady, I must attend upon my mother.”
“Of course,” the older woman said soothingly. As the taller girl turned to accompany her companion, Amorda laid a hand, gently but firmly, on her arm. “I’m sure,” she said, “that her Excellency, the Countess of Eldarcanum, will remain and keep me company.” She swung her eyes onto Szyelekkan again.
The silver-haired girl stared back for a long moment. “Of course,” she said at last.
Laranylla, ignoring their exchange, hurried off. They watched her go, Amorda smiling. It was amazing what a fistful of aureae could accomplish.
When the princess was out of sight, Szyelekkan turned back to Amorda. There was something flinty and unpleasant in her eyes. “All right, my lady of Arx Incultus,” she said in a low voice. “What was that all about?”
Amorda made a show of inspecting the bust, imitating the girl’s actions of a moment earlier. “What was what?” she asked, all innocence.
“That. That little…performance.” She stepped to Amorda’s side and mimicked her actions, pretending to study the statue, and keeping her voice low. “Lara may be brilliant, but she hasn’t a jot of guile in her. I’m no fool, though. Why did you want to speak to me alone?”
“What makes you think I wanted to speak to you at all?” the older woman exclaimed, straightening up.
“Hara’s love!” Szyelekkan hissed, nodding towards the statuette. “Be discreet, would you please? I have enough enemies in this city! I don’t need to give them any excuse to distrust me further.”
“Why would anyone distrust you?” Amorda replied, feigning astonishment. “A lady of an ancient and noble family, a great-niece of Ælyndarka herself, and daughter of both a duchess, and a powerful mage – one whom, it is rumoured, is first in line to replace Ostramortikan at the College.” Amorda winked. “I understand you’re something of a mage yourself…although, perhaps not the sort that the
might approve of.” College of Stars
“If you know all that,” Szyelekkan snarled, “then you’ve answered your own question, haven’t you? Between my mother’s chosen profession and her claim against the throne, I’m surprised that the Queen hasn’t shipped me back home in a trunk. Or several trunks!”
“I’m certain Ælyndarka has complete faith in your good will, your loyalty, and…” she reached out and took the girl’s hand, and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze. “And your discretion,” she whispered.
Szyelekkan turned to gaze at the older woman, her eyes wide. “What do you mean, ‘discretion’?” she asked. “What do you want?”
Amorda lowered her voice and dropped all remaining pretence. “I need an emissary, Szyel. Someone who can act as envoy, on my behalf. To speak to the other girls, here, among the Ancillulae Solium, whose parents look to your esteemed mother. And to be my voice, in Eldarcanum.”
The silver-haired girl glanced nervously around the hall, trying to determine whether any of the hundreds of other guests appeared to be paying them an unusual amount of attention. She looked back at Amorda. “To what end?” she asked, surprised.
“To carry my words, when I choose to speak them,” Amorda replied firmly, “to your mother’s ear.” She took the girl’s other hand, holding them both in her own, exerting gentle pressure. “Can you do that for me?”
The girl blinked several times, struggling to sort out the implications of agreeing to such an overtly political role while still theoretically bound to the Throne. She was, she found, having difficulty focusing; Amorda’s emerald eyes were enormous, their glorious light artfully enhanced by exquisitely-applied cosmetics. She thought she detected a glow in the older woman’s cheeks, too, and a quickening of the breath. Not surprising, she reflected worriedly, given that she’s apparently contemplating an alliance with Eldarcanum – and, therefore, treason – while standing under the Queen’s own roof.
Maybe, Szyelekkan allowed, there’s more to this woman than the flea-brained fortune-seeker everyone takes her for.
Amorda let a tiny grin decorate her lips. “Child?”
Szyelekkan was about to snap back that she was no child; that she had passed without the walls eight years previously, and despite being still one of the wards of the crown, was a woman in every sense of the word. Well, almost every sense, she sighed to herself. Unlike most of her ‘sisters’ among the Queen’s handmaidens, she had never taken a lover. Her mother, the formidable Duchess, had been very clear on that point, threatening the most dire consequences should Szyel surrender her chastity to anyone but her mother’s choice of mate. Æloeschyan’s designs on the throne were most clear, and she didn’t want any indiscretion on her daughter’s part to muddle the family’s august lineage, and prevent her from succeeding in due course.
But none of those considerations mattered now. Amorda’s hands were warm, and at once soft and firm; and the bold look in her eyes spoke of friendship and trust, and the promise of…of…
…of fun. That was the right word, and it decided her. There had been very little fun in her life since she had come to live at the palace, more than half her life ago.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “I’ll do it.”
“Excellent!” Amorda exclaimed. “Then, come and visit me at Domus Casia, and we’ll speak some more. Whenever you want. Any time in the next few days.”
“Why?” Szyelekkan blurted. She drew her hands back, looking flustered. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I meant, ‘what excuse shall I use’?”
“I dropped my fan,” Amorda shrugged, “and you felt obliged to return it to me.”
“What – ”
Amorda slid a folded fan from the crumena at the small of her back – the only place where it wouldn’t spoil the voluptuous lines of her gown – and pressed it into the girl’s hands. “Oops,” she said with a playful wink.
Szyelekkan smiled involuntarily. “I’ll come,” she murmured. “As soon as I can. To ensure you get this back.” She was gripping the lacquered wood tightly in her both hands.
“Oh, you can keep it,” Amorda whispered. “And think of me when you use it.” She gave the girl a quick peck on the cheek. “Or rather,” she added with a sly grin, “try not to think of me!”
Szyel nodded, frowning. She had no idea what that last remark had meant.
Amorda spun on her heel and sauntered off. She was grinning to herself. The girl, if she opened the fan, would be unable to think of anything but its owner. The flowered silk with which its spines were covered was overlaid with a screen-painted image of flowers…and something else. More importantly, though, it was impregnated with her specially-formulated perfume.
Standing near the bust, Szyelekkan watched the older woman undulate gracefully away. Her eyes remained locked to the scarlet dress and heap of midnight hair until Amorda had vanished into the crowd.
Conscious of a bright, spicy, floral scent, she held the fan up to her face. Her heart gave a funny thump as she recognized the odour; it was, she knew instantly, its owner’s perfume. For no reason other than curiosity, she unfolded the fan.
And slammed it shut again at once, tucking it hastily away beneath her sash. Her face was flaming. Abandoning the Queen’s guests, she scampered away, heading for the private quarters of the palace.
Amorda, who had been watching from behind a curtain, grinned again. She wasn’t surprised by the girl’s reaction. That same fan had worked an absolute treat when she had used it on Bræagond ten years earlier.
“Mushrooms?” Breygon asked, curious. He had padded back into the dining room, returning with their goblets and a new bottle of wine.
“The Dwarves call them líchamáspanan,” Amorda replied. “ ‘Corpse-seduction’, I think, is the closest possible translation. They’re a deadly poison if you eat them; but if you extract their essence with distilled spirits of wine,” she explained, “then apply the resulting liquor to your skin, they absorb and magnify your natural scent, and make it potent and irresistible.”
She snorted a laugh. “It’s particularly useful for training animals, especially those with a good sense of smell. We use it to school cooshees, brixas...horses, even. A dab here and there on your person, and they automatically treat you like the pack, troop or pride leader. They’ll do anything you want, if you smell right.”
Breygon froze. “And this…you put this in your perfume?”
“Of course,” Amorda nodded. “It’s terribly effective on Kindred. Takes a bit more, though; our sense of smell isn’t as powerful. Why do you ask?” She wrinkled her nose at him playfully. “Are you wondering whether I used it on you?”
The was precisely the question that was foremost in the ranger’s mind. The problem was that he wasn’t certain he wanted to know the answer.
Instead, he asked, “What was on the fan? Besides your scent, I mean.”
The elf-woman flushed slightly. “Ah…yes. There was...a screen-painting. Of me. Er…en deshabille, as they say.”
The half-elf stared at her. “And you just happened to be carrying something like that around?” he asked, incredulous.
“I’d had it made years before!” Amorda exclaimed. “I’d used it when I was trying to seduce your uncle!”
“I’ll bet it worked,” he muttered.
“Oh, this is not going at all well,” the elf-woman sighed. She held out her goblet and shook it imperiously. Breygon obligingly topped it up.
“I think you’re doing fine,” he shrugged. “Just out of curiosity, where’s the fan now?”
“I don’t know,” Amorda shrugged. “Szyel…I never asked for it back. If she didn’t throw it out or destroy it when we...when I left, then she must still have it.”
Breygon filled his own glass again. “Well, just one more reason to visit Eldarcanum, I guess.” He dropped a sly wink. “I’d like that fan back.”
Amorda gave him an exasperated look.
“So,” he asked, ignoring her embarrassed stare. “How did you proceed?”
The elf-woman snorted. “That same way you track any prey that’s wary and skittish, lupino,” she replied levelly. “Carefully. Very carefully. By inches.”
Domus Casia, Starmeadow, Lastreap, 1018 (35 years ago)
Two days after the harvest festival, Szyelekkan, cloaked and hooded, and accompanied – as all of the Ancillulae were, at all times, whenever they ventured out of the palace – by a swordsman of the High Guard, presented herself at the doors of Domus Casia. She had Amorda’s fan tucked away in the crumena at the rear of her handmaiden’s gown. As custom dictated, her eyes were downcast, and her hands tucked demurely into her sleeves.
The door was answered by a serving girl. The chit was summarily thrust aside by the lady of the house who, dispensing at a blow both with propriety and tradition, swept her visitor into a smothering embrace, hauled her into the foyer, had another servant take her rain-sodden cloak, and ordered two more girls to see that her bodyguard was offered ‘all of the comforts of the house.’ The way Amorda said it, and the way the serving girls stared at the brawny warrior, made Szyelekkan wonder whether the guardsman would be offered more than just wine.
At Szyel’s request, Amorda gave the girl a tour of the house. Domus Casia was famous throughout the city, both for its prime location and due to the fact that it was one of the oldest examples of the Low House style still remaining within the span of the River Wall. The girl was suitably impressed. Amorda’s house wasn’t the Palace, to be sure, but it was soundly-built, spacious, luxurious, and decorated with the same sense of tastefully restrained opulence with which the elf-woman did everything. The garden, of course, was especially exquisite, and the view from the parapets behind the rear wall was nothing short of stunning. The house was just across the river from the College, and the five-fold spires of the Ludus Astralis – the monstrously graceful towers raised by Tîor himself – towered over the city proper.
“The Master Magister’s quarters are just there,” Amorda explained, pointing at a set of broad, glazed windows half-way up one of the nearer towers. “When the Lantern’s setting, the shadows fall across this yard, and you can see, just for an instant, into his chambers.”
With a grin, she added, “It’s worth it. Especially if you have a good glass. Kalestayne’s in very good shape, for a man his age.”
Szyel flushed. “You’re...you’re spying on the Master”” she whispered. “I can’t believe it! What would he do if he knew?”
“Close his drapes?” Amorda shrugged. “Or who knows, he might leave them open. According to the apprentices I’ve met, he’s still...ah, vigorous.” She shrugged. “Maybe, if I’m especially lucky, he’ll notice me watching, and invite me up.”
The white-haired girl gasped at that sally. “Would you really? Why?”
“In a heartbeat,” the elf-woman replied with a wicked grin. “He’s one of the most famous men in the kingdom, Szyel. In the world! I’ll bet I could put some wood in the old fellow’s wand. But even if it was like jousting with a rope instead of a lance, it’d be worth it for the bragging rights.”
She put a companionable arm around the girl. “Besides, who knows how it might turn out? I could be just what he’s been looking for. As for the ‘why’...you know as well as I that there’s no love potion like power, dear.”
“That’s…that’s...” Szyel said, flushing until she looked like a beet.
“I don’t know,” the girl replied, looking away. “Depraved, I suppose.”
“That’s stuffy old uncle Dîor talking,” Amorda huffed. “If it’s so ‘depraved’, as you put it, then why do you suppose every unattached man in the kingdom spends half his time swooning at the feet of you and your fellow Court-Lilies?”
Szyelekkan made a face. “I hate that name.”
“I didn’t make it up,” the elf-woman said apologetically. “But I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s sort of inevitable, what with you lot wearing white all the time.” She grinned suddenly. “And some of you blasting anyone who calls you any other name. Like ‘Nivosa’.”
The girl blushed. “That was years ago. Besides, nobody’s swooning at my feet.”
Amorda shrugged. “That’s your fault, dear, not theirs.”
“Excuse me?” the girl exclaimed, rounding on her. “How is it my fault?”
“For not telling them exactly what you want from them. And how you want it, and when, and where,” Amorda replied. She winked. “And how often. And how hard.”
The girl blushed scarlet. “I can’t do that,” she muttered.
“Why not? Men like to strut, dear, but they’re cowards,” she went on, giving the girl a comradely squeeze. “If we didn’t take the reins, nothing would ever get done. The race itself would probably die out in a generation.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Oh? What did you mean, then?”
A spate of emotions rippled across the girl’s face. “Even if...if someone were interested, I couldn’t. Mother forbade me from...from that. Explicitly. There were threats involved. Dire threats.”
Amorda shrugged. “Then she’s like every other mother since the dawn of time.”
“No, she’s not,” Szyelekkan whispered, shaking her head. “The other girls’ mothers...they’re not traitors. They’re not contemplating war with the Throne. And...” she took a deep, shuddering breath. “And they can’t make the dead walk just by raising a finger.”
The elf-woman felt a vast surge of pity well up in her heart. This girl...Amorda had never met anyone more truly alone. “Maybe not,” she allowed, striving for jocularity in an attempt to dispel the clouds of gloom that were gathering around the parapet. “Maybe not. But tell me...do you always do everything your mother says?”
“Yes,” Szyel murmured.
Amorda smiled. “Not even the tiniest acts of rebellion?”
The girl put her hands on the parapet, and looked down at her feet. “Well,” she said, smiling a little, “she told me to stay away from the ladies of the Great Houses. She said that you...all of you...were a ‘corrupting influence’.”
The elf-woman laughed aloud at that. “You mother’s a wise woman, dear. So, you’ve already started to take control, even if only a little.” She nudged the girl. “That’s good. Isn’t it what they’re teaching you lot to do, up at the palace?”
“More or less,” Szyel admitted. Then she blinked. “Wait…don’t you know what they teach us? Weren’t you a – ”
“No,” Amorda laughed. “No, and I thank Hara Sophus for that small mercy. I married into the nobility, mellis mea, I wasn’t born to it. I managed to obtain this, all of it, every inch –” she waved at the gardens and the house “- without ever having to wear that.” She pointed at the girl’s shapeless vestal gown.
Szyel glanced down and snorted. “I am a little tired of it.”
“I should think so,” Amorda agreed. “You’ve been dragging it around for…for how long, now?”
“Three-score years and eight,” the girl replied gloomily. “Nearly nine. And no end in sight. I’ll be hostage here so long as mother maintains her claim. Probably until the Queen stomps Eldarcanum into the ground, and kills her.”
That was the last sort of discussion Amorda wanted right at that moment. She desperately tried to shift the topic back to clothes. “Don’t you ever wear normal attire?” the elf-woman asked, feigning surprise. “When Her Serene Majesty sends you out adlegatio, for example?” She thought she knew the answer to that question, but she wanted the girl to confess it to herself.
“I’ve never been delegated,” Szyelekkan said darkly. “Ælyndarka wouldn’t rely on me to empty the chamber pots. I spend most of my time standing behind the throne, listening to peasants whine about sheep and goats, or noble ladies flirting brainlessly with idiot knights, all the while trying not to tear my hair out in frustration. Nobody even wants to be seen talking to me! I’m the daughter of the ‘grim duchess’, remember? No one trusts me.”
“They don’t trust your mother, more like,” Amorda said soothingly. “It’s nothing to do with you. Either that, or…”
“Or what?” the girl asked, frowning.
The older woman sighed. “Or,” she said slowly, “Ælyndarka considers you too valuable to lose. Not just a hostage, dear; a potential ally in her enemy’s camp. She can’t afford to let any harm come to you. Maybe that’s why she won’t let you out of her sight. Has she imposed a cancelli on you?”
The girl nodded glumly. “I’m not allowed to leave the
. I can’t pass the River Wall. Not ever.” Great Island
“I thought as much,” Amorda said, doing her best to sound comforting. “Well, then...we’ll just have to find some way to keep you entertained within the walls.”
She heaved an elaborately theatrical sigh. “I know it’ll be hard; after all, you’re stuck in the centre of a pig-stinking provincial backwater town, with no gardens, or theatres, or shops, or arenas...no dressmakers, no jewellers, no perfumers, no jongleurs or dancers or gladiators or drummers or skalds...no noble houses offering entertainments year-round, no great towers, no magnificent libraries, no tree-walks, no baths, no –
“Stop, stop!” the girl gasped, laughing at last. “All right. Yes. You’re right.”
“Good,” Amorda chuckled, patting her hand. “You should do that more often, you know.”
“Smile,” the elf-woman said, giving the girl’s hand a gentle squeeze. “When you do...it’s like the sunrise.”
Szyelekkan flushed. She looked down again, studying the parapet stones. But she didn’t withdraw her hand. Instead, she cast about for something to say. “All that...those things you mentioned...they’re expensive. And mother keeps me on a tight budget, on purpose.”
“It takes gold to get into trouble,” Amorda agreed. “Or at least,” she added with a diabolical chuckle, “to do it right. And I’ve got more gold than I know what to do with.” She patted the girl’s hand again. “I think we’ll manage.”
“That’s…that’s very generous,” Szyelekkan protested. “But it would be…it would not be appropriate for me to accept.”
“I have enough money,” Amorda replied evenly. “What I need is a friend.”
“I…you do have one,” Szyelekkan replied, dazed and blinking rapidly. “In me.”
“Do I?” the older woman asked with a happy smile. “I’m so very, very glad.
“Now,” she said briskly, turning on her heel, “to the wardrobe!”
“Excuse me?” Szyel looked confused.
“You’re far too pale for white, dear,” the elf-woman laughed, nodding at the girl’s vestal gown. “That horrid sack is an act of wanton cruelty, given your complexion. Let Domus Casia, House of Spices, be your refuge from bad fashion! I’ll set aside a dressing room off the foyer for you. Henceforth, your first act upon visiting me will be to lose that wretched table-cloth, and dress like a real lady. If only for the day.”
Szyelekkan looked dazed. “All...all right,” she mumbled.
“Excellent. For now, though,” Amorda laughed, “let’s just try to find you something presentable to wear for dinner.”
An hour later, they sat down together in Amorda’s private dining salon. The elf-woman was garbed as she had been earlier. Her guest, however, had doffed her formal white, and was wearing instead one of her hostess’s dresses – a long, snug gown of midnight silk with elaborate blue and silver lacework at bodice and cuffs, and a lengthy train that she had already tripped over twice. Amorda – with some assistance from the prima among her handmaidens, a capable but sarcastic girl who mixed insults with compliments until Szyel didn’t know what to think – had piled the girl’s hair into a snow-white crown, fixing the lot in place with a silver tiara, and a dozen long, needle-pointed hairpins.
For the first time, Szyelekkan felt like a great lady. She spent most of dinner – which was as exquisite as anything she had ever experienced at the Palace – avoiding her hostess’ admiring gaze, and staring at her plate with pink cheeks and a happy smile.
When the guardsman – who, she noticed, was smiling broadly himself – escorted her back to the Palace later that same night, she had the black gown, wrapped in waxed paper against the rain, tucked snugly under her cloak.
And Amorda’s fan was still in her crumena.
Domus Casia, Starmeadow - Today
“You set out to seduce her,” Breygon said. There was a marked chill in his words. “Just as you did with my uncle. Deliberately. Cold, calculating, cynical, planned. To make her your…your…”
He sighed. “I suppose I should take some comfort in the fact that I don’t even know what to call it.”
“The term of art,” Amorda said evenly, “is ‘consectatrix’. It means ‘secret friend’.
“And,” she added in an even more severe tone, “no, I did not set out to merely achieve that. What I did was, in fact, worse.”
The half-elf frowned. “Worse? How?”
Amorda rubbed her eyes wearily. “Szyelekkan, as I said, was young, alone, and terribly beautiful. Only Laranylla, the Queen’s grand-daughter, was acknowledged a greater beauty. And to my mind, Szyel had an edge, because she was at least a creature of flesh, blood and feeling, whereas Lara…”
She laughed tiredly. “Lara’s always perplexed me. Airæszyllan’s daughter is absolutely brilliant. Like her father in that; she’s a genius, in fact. A true prodigy. And she’s one of the most talented artists I’ve ever seen.”
“But...” the elf-woman grimaced, “but she doesn’t seem to…to relate. To people. Do you understand what I mean?”
“I know the type,” Breygon said blandly. “Believe me.”
“Szyel, though…” Amorda shook her head sadly. “If I had only sought her as my bed-mate, that would have been fine. Reprehensible maybe, stupid, and dangerous even, given whose daughter she was, and her mother’s explicit prohibition against dalliances. Although that prohibition was, for obvious reasons, directed mostly against men.” She shivered suddenly. “I learned how serious the Duchess was about that...later on. But in any case, it would’ve been understandable, if only because of her remarkable beauty.
“That’s not what I needed, though. I needed her to trust me. To talk to me. To see me as a friend, an ally...and, eventually, to bring me, openly, into her mother’s fortress. So I could at last put my hands on what the Bird-Catcher needed.”
Breygon nodded. “And that was what, exactly?”
Amorda looked uncomfortable. She was silent for a long time. “Love, I can’t!” she whispered at last. “That part of me...is separate. It has to remain separate. From this.” She made a gesture that included both of them. “I simply cannot betray my master’s secrets. Not even to you.”
“Will you betray mine to him?” the ranger asked quietly.
“Never!” she breathed.
“What if I discover,” he said, “that the Queen is guilty of fratricide? That under the law, Æloeschyan’s claim is just?” He was playing with his knife as he spoke, not looking at her. “What if, in the end, I declare for Eldarcanum?”
“Then Arx Incultus declares for Eldarcanum,” Amorda said firmly. “This is our pact, my heart. All that passed before you offered me the rose...that is done. Whatever comes next, I shall continue to live by the Codex. My lifemate first, before all other things. If the Realm must burn, and the Queen must die by my hand to save you, I’ll wield the torch and the knife myself. This I swear to you.”
“And I to you,” Breygon replied in the same tone. “Hopefully, though, it won’t come to that. So,” he went on, “you weren’t looking for a bedmate...you were looking for an informant. And a key, to unlock Eldarcanum to an outsider.”
“Not just Eldarcanum,” Amorda corrected. “I had to unlock Baccaturis. The ducal palace. The ancient siege that stands at the head of Shadowvale, astride the pass that leads to Ætilio, and Duncala, and the Empire beyond.”
“You were trying to turn Szyelekkan,” the ranger nodded. “Away from her mother, and towards you. Why is that so terrible?”
“Because...because of what she was,” Amorda sighed. “An outcast, like...like me. Bræagond, I chose her because she was vulnerable. Because she was young, and alone, and sad. I made her my target because she was hurting. I used her pain as a lever, to get what I needed from her.”
She sighed. “I could have helped her. I could have used my position, my influence, my contacts, to give her a better life at the Palace; to help her make friends, to feel accepted, even to win the Queen’s trust. Instead, I did the opposite. I used my skills to increase her isolation, to pry her away from everyone who might have accepted her. To build walls around us, just us two. To make her more vulnerable, not less, and therefore more dependent on me.
“I was using her, you see?” Amorda whispered. “I...I never expected her to...to fall in...”
Her voice trailed off. She was staring at her plate again, not seeing the untouched food that lay upon it. She couldn’t meet his eyes.
“That is reprehensible,” Breygon murmured. “Or it would be. Except for one thing.”
A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. “And that ‘one thing’ is…?”
“You 'fell', too. Didn’t you?”
Amorda glanced up at him. He was unsurprised to see a distant, haunted look in her eyes.