Oh my God. Why did I start this when I was seventeen? And why semicolons? Why? :throws her computer across the room:
Ahem. As before .... More minor editing. Sometimes I read the first three or so chapters and want to throw my computer across the room, then convince myself it gets better as it goes along. I hope I'm right. But I really shouldn't focus too much on this, and finish the rest of the damn thing. I just always end up back here occasionally ....
If I ignored some of your advice, or don't seem to have noticed it, feel free to point it out, but don't expect me to take everyone's ... especially since some of the advice I got on the first draft I posted here directly contradicted other advice. Can't please everyone, right?
I'd appreciate it if you could read the warning before sending me comments -- just in case you skipped over it. But it does contain a plot spoiler, so you may want to read the Prelude in its entirety first.
For God's sake don't print this out. It's incredibly long. If you want me to send it to you as a .txt, .rtf or .pdf file, I'll be happy to, but please please don't make me responsible for wasting paper by printing it. (Okay, so I have a guilt complex about the environment.)
This is the Prelude. I handed this in (in very slightly less well-written form, but not significantly changed) as my thesis in 2004, preceded of course by the Introduction I wrote for it, which contains more than enough self-absorbed character-type navel-gazing / analysis of the experience of roleplaying / rantings about the nature of games and the fantasy genre to satisfy any cravings you might have for such.
Book I follows in a link at the bottom.
Skia / 12 point / double-spaced / 1" margins (my personal default): 159
Times New Roman / 12 point / double-spaced / 1" top margins, 1.25" side margins (Word's default, I believe): 194
Prelude (perhaps to be renamed Prologue)
Realm Year 766
Occasionally, one finds irreverent, misinformed fools -- especially outside the Realm -- who claim that the Dragon-Blooded Exaltation is a matter of blood, and those to whom it is granted have merely benefited from the "luck" of being born to the right line. These are often the same heretics who claim that reincarnation is a matter of chance, and that the Immaculate Dragons have no hand in which body the soul comes to after death.
True believers, of course, understand what foolishness this is. Of course the blood has an effect upon the mortal shell, but if a soul is bound at birth into a body with a chance of Exaltation, then it is because the Dragons found that soul worthy. And remember always that there are some with the best blood, who do not Exalt and become Dragon-Blooded: their deeds, in their past lives, were stupendous enough to grant the luck of possible Exaltation -- but they committed some sin they have failed to redeem. Thus the Exaltation is denied them; and they must always remember that they have none but themselves to blame.
-- from the Immaculate Texts, commentary
Mnemon Lin Shataina looked out over the crowd and took a breath. Her class sat arrayed before her, Dragon-Blooded students sitting in the front seats, with parents in the centre section and teachers at the back. She had their attention; there wasn't even any fidgeting. Taking another breath, she summoned the old words, the story she'd heard over and over since birth.
"The Scarlet Empress," she began, "at first, was a dedicated soldier, a woman of the very best bloodlines, whose command of her troops and concern for her soldiers was a matter of legend. Her parents had both been Dragon-Blooded, their lineage traced far back to the ancient Houses of the First Realm, and her Exaltation came upon her when she was young. She rose quickly through the ranks, becoming an officer in the armies that strove to hold back the invading Fair Ones. It is said that her legion was also one of those that battled against the the terrifying power of the Anathema as the demons fought to preserve themselves from the wrath of the Shogunate. In the desperate madness of the Great Contagion, when the populace of Creation was dying in droves of the disease none could understand, she was a part of the forces of order."
Her audience had relaxed a little, settling back, knowing the tale as well as she did. She could see the Instructor in Masterful Performance at the back, standing straight in his sombre dark-edged kimono, watching impassively. Straightening, she modulated her voice and spoke more loudly, projecting her voice the way she'd been taught.
"But, as everyone knows, her destiny was far greater than merely to be another hero. She alone understood that the cure for the diseases that ravaged the world lay in the forgotten, buried wisdom and great machines of the First Age. And so while her comrades fought a glorious, losing battle, this incomparably brave, astonishingly brilliant woman broke down the great defenses of the Imperial Manse. Her understanding of Essence was, and is, unparalleled, and she used it to control the war machines of the Imperial Manse and drive back the Fair.
"With the Fair Ones gone, the Empress, in her supreme compassion, turned her attention to the Contagion. This too she destroyed, saving every living thing in Creation. And at the end of the day, as the people looked fearfully up from the blackened fields and pits of the dead, the Scarlet Empress used her magic to appear, a shining saviour, in skies across Creation and announce, to all and sundry, the establishment of the Second Realm -- our Realm."
Too fast -- she'd gone too fast and inappropriately come to the end first, when, in this story, it would have been better to simply tell it through. Shataina remembered the lessons on the structuring of a tale, the tricks she'd picked up from countless histories and retellings. I should have left the mention of the Empress's appearance for the end, she reflected -- well, too late, and paused to collect herself before continuing.
"It is the taking of the Manse that I shall tell you of, the burden that the Empress chose to take upon her own shoulders, the mission her own superiors told her could never succeed. 'Turn back,' they said to her. 'The threats we face must be fought today, and we cannot afford to lose you in a fruitless errand. The Imperial Manse has resisted all efforts to penetrate its walls. The tricks and traps upon it were created by the ancients, and are beyond our capacity to defeat. Though it contains the greatest of ancient weaponry, we cannot use it in this fallen Age. It is beyond us.'
"For a time, the blaze-haired woman who would become the Empress considered the words of her elders, asking the advice of the Immaculate Dragons in her prayers, seeking the right, just and humble path in every waking hour. Her wisdom, even so young, was incomparable; and she soon understood that the battle against the Fair could not be won without drawing upon the great war machines of the Imperial Manse. For the legions of the Fair are innumerable, and they fed upon the agonies of those sent against them, growing strong as those who fought became fewer. The only solution was to force them back, force a barrier inimical to their Essence, as the savants of the First Realm had done so long before."
She was beginning to fall into the rhythm of the story now, but Shataina detected awkwardness in her own telling, flaws in the cadence of her words, and considered carefully the way she would introduce the Empress's taking of the Manse. Conflict and danger, she recalled. Make the danger clear.
"The young Dragon-Blood knew of the threats of the Manse. She had heard of those who had attempted the same mission. Those who tried to invade the Imperial Manse were cut down by flying scythes of silver and jade; dissolved, screaming, in pools of boiling acid; eaten alive by bound guardian demons. No two ever died the same way. Those of the First Realm who had constructed the Manse had never dreamed that someone with the good of Creation at heart might need to get in; they had thought to always have someone alive to control it. But all who had known the secrets of the Manse had died in the fall of the First Realm, leaving the world unprotected and vulnerable to the screaming fury of the Fair.
"The woman who would become Empress also knew that none had found the passwords that would force open the outside doors and allow brave souls inside the Manse, to defeat the further terrible traps within. But her resolve was untouched; she knew, for the good of Creation, that she had to try.
"She researched; she laboured upon the puzzles set by the tomes and scrolls she read -- though, of course, never did she neglect her duties, every day risking her life to command her forces. Her unparallelled brilliance enabled her to solve the riddles, decipher the password. From there she knew she had to depend upon her prowess, and the gracious favour of the Five Elemental Dragons, to get her through."
The advice of the Instructor came back to her, resounding in her mind as if he stood next to her. One must be very careful with this story, he had explained, for although it is the story of the Empress herself, at times it seems to espouse a course of action she would abhor. Remember that she respected her elders and heeded their advice, every step of the way; she knew, in her youth, the value of the Celestial Hierarchy. Never, never imagine that she would approve of impulse, of disorder, or of disrespect. And keep in mind that she succeeded because of her virtue, causing the Dragons to favour her -- and because of her perfect, unshakable faith. Do not think she would thank you for implying that she succeeded merely because of her unsurpassed brilliance and skill.
"Only four others were brave enough, and willing, to accompany her on her quest. Every night the blaze-haired woman prayed to the Dragons for help and guidance, consecrating each moment to their service. She waited for a lull in the Fair Ones' attacks, ensuring that Creation would not lack her skill in battle when it was needed. And it is said that when she went at last to her general to beg permission for her quest, he saw the glory of the Dragons shining in, through, and upon her; and he understood that he must not stop her. 'Go, and keep the faith,' he said to her, seeing the hand of destiny at work."
Description, Shataina thought as the words rolled off her tongue. Don't forget description. She lowered her voice, still projecting it, but making her audience lean forward, as if imparting great secrets rather than a story as old and familiar as the Realm itself.
"The dawn sun sparkled on the young Dragon-Blood's scarlet armour as she approached the Imperial Manse with her companions. The sky was clear, the air cold and crisp. They had journeyed miles across the sea to reach the Blessed Isle, then continued on their horses, riding tirelessly to reach their goal. The Contagion had spread all over the land; the fields and roads were scattered with bloated corpses, and raitons circled above the dead, cackling. Those few left alive wept and tore their hair, tended pyres, looked up hopelessly as the young Empress and her companions passed, and stopped in wonder and in awe. Perhaps they had an inkling of the fate that guided her, for it is said that many of them bowed down before her on that day, the morning of her greatest triumph.
"At last, the five came to the forbidding walls of the Imperial Manse. This was the place they stood or fell. The guardian demons, clad in obsidian armour, stood ranged before the marble walls. 'Halt,' the creatures said to the party. 'You may come no further,' smirking behind their clawed hands at the agony of the world.
"But -- 'No,' that greatest of heroes said clearly, coming forward on her blood-red horse. 'I order you to let us through. By fire and water, earth and air and wood do I command you,' and she bowed her head to pray before reciting the string of phrases she had puzzled out from her ancient texts. Then did the demons growl and snarl, helpless before the words they were forced to obey, and stand aside as the blaze-haired woman passed with her companions."
Shataina allowed a pause there, as was traditional, before continuing.
"None know what happened in the Manse that morning. None know what terrible traps she outwitted, what threats she fought. But only the Empress, of her brave company, came out alive. With the guidance of the Immaculate Dragons, she conquered the Imperial Manse of the First Realm and took control, reinstating the barrier that had protected the First Realm, tearing asunder the Fair Ones. And the Fair, feeling the agony of decisive loss, fled Creation, weeping blood.
"So the Scarlet Empress defeated the Fair. And that day, through her power, was also the last day of the Great Contagion. The disease that had killed nine-tenths of the world was cured with the arcane secrets only the Empress possessed.
"How magnificent that day was -- the first day of the first year of the Second Realm! For it was the beginning of the Second Age, an age of order and law, in which the Dragon-Blooded of the Scarlet Houses rule justly over their lessers and the greatest threats to Creation weep helplessly. Their teeth have been blunted and their claws torn out. For when the Scarlet Empress, on the evening of her victory, appeared in the sky all over the Realm, all knew her glory, and evil despaired. Even the Anathema, not yet forced away, drew back uneasily; they knew that here was a hero who would keep them away from Creation. And indeed, one of the new Empress's first acts was to create the Wyld Hunt, to seek and destroy the Anathema as they came into their unholy power. So the Empress keeps Creation safe; in her boundless mercy, she protects even the rebellious Threshold kingdoms from such threats, though they shift uneasily against her power, and do not properly reverence the Immaculate Dragons."
Shataina paused again, wet her lips with her tongue. She had contemplated the way to end the story a great deal. It was difficult to tell in the current day, with the Empress ... away. "On sabbatical," she thought wryly. "On sabbatical" from ruling the Realm. For three years. Mustn't say "gone", and never, certainly never, "disappeared".
"Soon the Scarlet Empress will return," she declared. "Even now she understands the difficulty the Realm has in her absence. Her boundless compassion will not allow her affairs to keep her away for long. And the task of the Great Houses of the Scarlet Dynasty is to keep Creation safe for her return, to fight the Anathema and observe the Celestial Hierarchy, and to aid the Realm's citizenry in seeking spiritual perfection -- as she would wish."
And if by "keep Creation safe" one means "jostle for position and plot to gain the throne", then the Dynasty is doing a great job, she couldn't help thinking as she bowed to respectful applause.
Far in the back, as she came down from the stage, Shataina spotted the Instructor giving her the faintest of nods, a nod of appreciation. Not bad, she thought, walking down the aisle quickly, and took her seat in the back section of the students -- the section for mortals, behind the Dragon-Blooded.
Hours later, Shataina watched the end of the graduation ceremony with numb disinterest. The last student was giving her own performance: the recital of a passage from the Immaculate Texts. Shataina had read the passage several times, and it was just as boring coming from the mouth of the girl onstage, who'd clearly failed to pay attention during her public speaking course. Fortunately, it was almost over. After this, only a few more speeches from faculty were scheduled; then the ceremony would be done and she would be out of school.
She sighed, shifted on the hard wooden bench, then glanced over to where her parents were sitting, wondering what her father had planned for her. She'd begged him to send her on to secondary school, but doubted it would come to pass. Perhaps she'd become a tutor or a bureaucrat, serving the family as best she could. She might even be expected to attend parties and try to attract powerful suitors, though she had very little to offer; she was only mortal, after all.
The bitterness rose again, and she gritted her teeth against it: only mortal. The Elemental Dragons had passed her over; her birthright had failed to manifest. She'd known since birth that she would become one of the Dragon-Blooded, had taken it for granted, and then it had simply never happened. All her training had focused on making her into one of the rulers of the world, and now -- now, she was one of their subjects. No matter how brilliant, skilled, or charismatic she was, she would never make policy, command armies, or explore the reaches of Creation. She could only serve the interests of House Mnemon, and the Realm, to the limits of her limited capacity, for the few years she had left.
The ceremony was ending. Shataina stood gracefully with the rest to applaud, then began working her way through the crowd towards her parents. Her mother, as usual, looked impeccable, lovely even with advancing years; she, too, was mortal, and age showed itself in the fine crow's-feet around her eyes. Emeralds glinted in her hair, setting off its rare, coppery hue.
Shataina had inherited her mother's red hair, but for her, its colour had taken on a new depth and richness. It coiled loosely down her back; she rarely restrained it with ties and combs. Her skin was pale, almost translucently clear, and her oblique, jade-green eyes were large and long-lashed. A silver torc, pearl-set, shone against the paleness of her skin, and silver bracelets coiled up her wrists, stopping just short of the sleeves of her white silk dress. She'd done her best to dress well today, playing up all her most striking features; the green of her eyes and blaze of her hair stood out, she knew, from the dark eyes and straight black hair of most of her fellow students. She'd wanted to impress her father. He hadn't seen her for some time, away on a diplomatic mission for years.
She felt encouraged when she saw him do a slight, well-disguised double-take at her approach, eyes narrowing in appreciation. Setting her face in a polite smile, Shataina bowed, then waited for him to speak first.
"Well-performed," he said briefly in his rumbling deep bass, and shook her hand. His skin was rough beneath her fingers; he was Earth-Aspected, like most of House Mnemon, and the advancing years showed themselves in a stony texture to his skin, a scent of freshly turned soil. "Congratulations," he said, then turned and walked away.
Shataina opened her mouth, then closed it. She looked at her mother.
"He has important business to conduct here, with Tepet Marina," said the older woman, almost sympathetically. "You're to return to the estate with me. Do you have everything packed?"
Wordlessly, Shataina nodded.
"Good. We'll leave as soon as the servants come around to the main entrance. Make your goodbyes now."
Goodbyes -- there was no one left, Shataina thought, to say goodbye to. The important farewells had taken place during the parties the night before. Most of her friends were Dragon-Blooded, and going on to more important things; she would probably never see them again. The few unExalted she associated with looked forward to lives much like hers would be, working hard for their families at the jobs a mortal could be accepted in.
She felt hemmed in, trapped, and useless. Her dreams of learning sorcery, of exploration and discovery, were hobbled by her failure to be Chosen. Life, she knew, would go on, but it was so hard to look forward to fawning on those half as smart, half as skilled, whose only virtue lay in their Exalted nature.
She was only fifteen, she thought, and closed her mind against the unreasonable hope. She'd heard of Exaltations as late as seventeen, but somehow -- she knew, she had to tell herself, it wasn't going to happen. Glancing at her mother, Shataina wondered: had she, too, felt this way -- this trapped, desperate feeling -- when she failed to Exalt and was married off to Shataina's father? Did she resent her Dragon-Blooded husband, parents and sisters, her own powerlessness, and the way her life had turned out, the way Shataina resented her own future?
Better not to ask, she decided.
She went around to the entrance to meet her carriage.
Shataina sat, riding in her carriage with a maidservant, staring out the window at the landscape as the slave did needlework. Her eyes skipped over the peasants in their round, pointed sun-hats; they'd paused from their work in the fields to kowtow to the carriage's Mnemon crest as it went past. She watched the mountains beyond the fields of barley, purple with distance, and thought of her father's Manse. Good thing it has a library, she thought. I can at least read about other places.
"This would be a nice dress for your marriage," remarked the maidservant.
The sudden comment made Shataina start. It took a moment for it to register, and when it did, she caught her breath. Her heart in her throat, she turned quickly. "What?"
"Oh," said the woman, "you didn't know? You're to be married next year, to an Exalted officer of House Ledaal. He's said to be handsome," she added encouragingly.
Looking at the slave, it was obvious that the woman had known Shataina didn't know; her father, Shataina realized, had instructed her to find a way to break it gently. Too busy for a mortal, father? Shataina thought angrily, but the emotion was quickly replaced by numb depression. It makes perfect sense, really ... I should have thought of it myself. They don't need to shop me around looking for someone to marry me for beauty. Everyone wants a political liaison with House Mnemon, and my blood is good enough that my children are likely to Exalt. Even if I didn't.
The slave was looking at her expectantly. Shataina forced a smile. "Oh," she said, and racked her brain. "What good news. I'll look forward to it."
Satisfied, the woman went back to her sewing.
Even if she had Exalted, Shataina told herself, she would have had an arranged marriage -- but she would also have had decades to come to terms with it. Arranged marriages between the Dragon-Blooded weren't often hurried, but those few that involved mortals had to be; mortals didn't have any lifetime to waste. And she might have even had some say in it, had she been Chosen.
She would have a year, she calculated, spent on the estate, and then she would be shipped off to her fiancé's household; she wondered, in fact, why they had given her so long. Her future husband had probably insisted. He wouldn't want her any more than she wanted him -- in fact, his marriage to a mortal might be a punishment. She remembered, wincing, late nights of laughter, mocking Dragon-Blooded doomed to marriage to the unExalted. Her friends had been so confident that they would Exalt and go on to honour and glory, making their families proud.
Shataina saw the path her life would take: it was plotted out before her, and she flinched from it.
A year -- she had a year. Twenty to thirty years beyond that, if she was lucky. What can I do with such a short life? she thought in despair. It was as if she had heard her own death in the slave's words. Her vision darkened as she contemplated her future.
It's not so bad, she told herself, but it seemed to her that she'd never felt so hopeless. She laid her head back on the velvet seat-cushion and closed her eyes, biting her lip to keep back the tears. She would not weep like a child in front of the slave. Even if the Dragons had seen fit to withdraw her destiny, she could at least keep her pride. It's not so bad.
She knew she'd be telling herself that a lot, in the years to come.
At this, Pasiap spoke, and as he did, the people fell silent. Not enlightened enough to see through his mortal shell and recognize the Immaculate Dragon of Earth, they felt that his words contained infinite power, the power to strike the most eloquent dumb.
"This is the root of your troubles," said Pasiap, and his voice reverberated like thunder. "You have not observed the Celestial Hierarchy. You rise against the Dragon-Blooded; do you not understand that you only destroy yourselves? Just as the beasts of the earth are subordinate to mortal humans, so humanity is subordinate to the Dragon-Blooded. Can you not see the evidence of their spiritual superiority in their magic, their stature, their power? The Dragon-Blooded have been Chosen by the Immaculate Dragons of the Elements. This is not just their power, but their duty to us. And in return for their graciousness and protection, their spiritual awareness and help in our travails, we serve and obey them, now and forever."
-- from the Immaculate Texts: Fox Parable
Sunlight fell into the square room, illuminating its ostentatious simplicity. The bed and furniture seemed plain; but one who looked closely would find that the sheets and cushions were of the best silk, the wood expensive and polished mirror-bright. No decorations adorned the walls save one long scroll with an Immaculate passage: House Mnemon made sure to be devout, in the home as well as out.
Shataina sat by the window, reading. The sunlight picked out the brilliant scarlet and copper highlights of her hair, giving it a shimmer like beaten, polished metal. She'd read this book -- a history of the South -- a hundred times, but it never lost its fascination for her. The writer was particularly good, with an evident love for his subject, and she loved his descriptions: glass cities, gem mining, the desert. This was the book that had interested her in history, years before.
Glancing up at a sound outside her window, Shataina squinted down, putting a hand carefully on the book to mark her place. Below her was the road leading up to the Manse that was at the heart of the estate, and the courtyard at its front. The great iron gates had opened, letting in a train of carriages.
So. Her half-brother had arrived. She'd heard that he was coming home, having graduated a few weeks before she did and gone on an extended vacation to some friend's house in Chanos Prefecture. He was several months older than she, the son of her father by some peasant mistress, quietly adopted just in case his father's blood came through in him -- as, in the end, it had.
It was ironic, she thought, that she, the truly legitimate child, had not been Chosen, and Kan had.
They'd been terribly competitive as children. This was encouraged in the Great Houses, always aiming to give their scions an edge. She'd beaten him at everything, from Gateway to fencing contests, despite her youth and smaller stature; he had always been set on trying to prove himself better than she, the legitimate child, the one everyone knew was going to Exalt. Well, the situation was reversed now -- save that she wasn't going to challenge him if she could help it.
She'd wondered if the Dragons were trying to punish her for her pride, but by that token, Kan ought to have been punished as well, along with most of her peers. The doctrines of the Immaculate Faith said the Dragon-Blooded were the most enlightened souls, their ability to harness Essence the sign of their greatness. She'd once thought that this meant that the Dragon-Blooded were virtuous; that if she tried her hardest to be kind and just, and trained with a will to make herself the best possible servant of the faith, then the Dragons would see the nobility of her soul, and she would be Chosen. But it had become increasingly difficult to believe that the Dragon-Blooded were the most enlightened, or indeed enlightened at all. Shataina's pet cat Rishi was more virtuous -- she grimaced -- than most of the Dragon-Blooded she'd known. As for skill ... she herself had demonstrated her superiority before, time after time. How could it be that she could outstrip her betters, if they were truly her betters?
It was impossible to take the Immaculate Philosophy seriously, but it wouldn't do to make it obvious. She still attended services and said her prayers. Everyone around her would be watching her for signs of instability, and she had to persuade them that no resentment lingered. If she didn't do a good enough job, she might be shipped off to serve in the legions -- or worse. Her father had no use for a tool he couldn't trust, and mortals were easily disposed of.
She'd deal with Kan carefully. Fawn, smile, give him the respect he didn't deserve. It left a sour taste in her mouth, but she couldn't afford any enemies.
The dinner bell rang, and Shataina closed her book softly and went downstairs. At least sitting at the unExalted table would spare her Kan's presence, for now.
A breeze swirled through the garden, playing with Shataina's ivory kimono, stirring her unbound hair and flicking it in wisps around her face. It would be wickedly hot later in the day, but for now the temperature was perfect. Rishi gamboled with a butterfly off to her left, and the antics made Shataina smile as she walked.
She considered what to do with her day. By managing her time carefully, she'd managed to avoid confronting Kan alone, in the weeks since he had arrived. There were circumstances in which she couldn't get away from him, but then there were always others around. She was polite as possible, letting his barely-veiled gibes roll off her back without a sign of the rage they inspired.
Kan was on a hunt today; that meant she wouldn't need to limit herself to the library, or her room. In fact, Shataina realized with pleasure, she could use the training area. She'd been avoiding it because he spent so much time there, and felt the effect on her underused muscles. Perhaps she could spar against one of the house guards. It was an uneven match, but she needed any practice she could get.
Rishi took an ill-advised leap at the golden butterfly and missed, landing with a splash in an ornamental pond. Laughing, Shataina fished her out and passed her to one of the garden slaves. "See that she's dried off and fed," she instructed the girl, then set off at a trot for the training ground.
Stepping onto the circle of packed earth, she heard Kan's voice. He was exiting the armory with two of his friends, followed by a slave loaded with hunting equipment. Of course -- he would have slept late, then come here to stock up before setting off on the hunt. She stopped, thought about turning around, but it was too late -- he'd already seen her.
"Shataina," he said jovially. She smiled politely. "I take it you're here to practice."
"Yes," she answered, "I'm a little out of shape."
"You were never much good in the first place," he said, and grinned. "Why don't you go back to the library and those old books you seem to like so much?"
It was more than she could bear. I'm better than him, damn it, she thought in fury. "I may not be much good," she flared, "but I could beat you any day of the week."
Dead silence. Kan's eyes narrowed. Oh no, she thought. I've done it now.
She saw the expressions on his two friends' faces. They said what the two -- both Exalted, and no doubt amused at her daring -- would never say aloud: are you going to take that from a mortal, Kan?
"Really?" he said softly. "Any day of the week? Maybe when we were children, Shataina, but now I think it's clear who's better." He smiled faintly. "Maybe I should teach you a lesson, sister."
Desperately, she tried to think of a way out of the mess she'd put herself in. The faces of his friends paled slightly, and they glanced at each other. One of them, a muscular woman with crew-cut dark hair, started, "Kan, I don't think --"
"I know just what you don't think," said her half-brother. "You don't think I should waste time with a girl who puts herself above her betters." He looked her over. "Maybe you're right. It's clear she's only good for breeding."
How dare you! she thought, rage flooding through her. She threw caution to the winds.
"I could beat you," she hissed, "in a second. Maybe your magic makes you better, but if you didn't have that, I'd win with one hand tied behind my back."
He laughed, a short, harsh sound that had nothing to do with humour. "Fine," he said. "We'll spar. Here and now. I won't use my Charms, and by the end you'll still submit." He turned to the slave. "Fetch some practice swords, quickly," he snapped. The man put down the hunting equipment carefully, then left at a run.
His friends were beginning to look even more worried. "Kan," said the second one, "your father --"
A smirk settled on Kan's lips. "Don't worry, I won't damage the merchandise. We wouldn't want our Ledaal soldier to get a bad deal, now would we?"
Shataina turned away as the slave came back with two long practice blades. Her half-brother took one, tossing her the other. She caught and examined it -- no doubt it was the worse of the two, but she didn't care. Binding her hair so it wouldn't get into her face, she considered her morning-kimono; she certainly wasn't attired for a duel, but at least her garments were weightless and unconstricting.
"Observe," Kan told his friends as he stripped his hunting armour down to his own kimono. "She has every conceivable advantage." The two had, apparently, decided there was nothing they could do, and watched with vague interest. The man, a Water Aspect with green-tinted skin, glanced at her quickly, then away; Shataina saw that he pitied her, and it fueled her anger.
Kan stepped into the middle of the circle, facing her. "Begin," he snapped, and immediately attacked. Shataina parried easily, and they circled each other.
She saw immediately that he was practiced; he'd trained more since last they met, which made sense, because that had been years ago. But she'd been one of the best fighters in her school. Her tutors had taken special time with her, seeing her inborn skill. Hoping that the Dragons would finally see her worth, she'd trained alone late into the nights -- later, even, than Exalted children. Often, she hadn't bothered to sleep at all.
Seeing an opening, she beat him back with a flurry of blows till she managed to flick the katana out of his hands. It landed with a clatter on the nearby earth.
The friends blinked. The slave stared, open-mouthed.
"Again," Kan said, his smile rigid.
This time she managed it even faster.
He was getting angry, and starting to get slipshod. Shataina, in contrast, had learned the trick of using her anger, forcing it to aid rather than hinder her; her favourite release had always been the practice ground, and the fury lent her a kind of white-hot intensity. The sun beat down overhead. Sweat streamed down her sides and her hair came loose, falling damply across her shoulders.
His sword hit the ground.
Through the battle-focus, Shataina was aware of people gathering: slaves, house guards, servants from across the estate. His friends were watching too, and she saw Kan beginning to understand that his reputation might be on the line.
With a shock that purged the anger from her system, she spotted her father pushing his way towards the front of the crowd. He must have heard the clang of metal and the murmur of the crowd, and come outside to investigate. Kan hadn't seen him yet. She waited for the reprimand, the order to stop and come inside, but no such order was forthcoming -- instead, her father stood and watched as she disarmed her half-brother for the fourth time.
"Again," grated Kan.
If she held back now, she was certain her father would know; he might even have seen the entire match from a window. If she surrendered, her brother would look bad in front of his friends -- as if he depended on his father to protect him from a mortal; and she would suffer for it. Kan would make her life miserable until he proved himself against her. Her only option was to keep going and see what happened.
Her opponent had seen their father as well, and she could see the panic he was trying to hide. His position was even worse; he couldn't defeat her, and he really couldn't surrender. If he fought till he dropped, that was just as bad.
His friends were whispering to each other. He had to do something fast.
Out of nowhere, he came up with a perfectly placed blow, forcing her back. Then came another, and another. In a beautifully timed and executed move, he spun her blade out of her grasp so that it flew up and landed in his other hand. Shataina stumbled and blinked, shocked, then bowed in the gesture of surrender.
"You're good, sister," he said, and smiled maliciously, clearly enjoying the moment before he added delicately, "... for a mortal."
All of a sudden Shataina understood -- he'd used a Charm, even after his vow. His anima hadn't displayed itself, so he couldn't have used much Essence; there was no evidence, save for a sudden improvement too great for coincidence. Her face heated, but she remaining bowing, twining her hands through her skirt to keep herself from clenching them into fists. The servants were beginning to disperse, afraid to be caught in the coming storm between the master of the Manse and his children; Kan's friends stood back, observing with interest and some trepidation.
Her father watched them for a moment, expressionless. Then he asked, so quietly she had to strain to hear him, "What is the meaning of this?"
Kan opened his mouth. She couldn't let him answer -- he would get them both in too much trouble. Thinking quickly, Shataina raised her face, smiled brightly, and said sweetly, "Oh, father, I'm so sorry. I'm afraid this is all my fault."
Turning to her, her father raised his eyebrows. Concealing her nervousness, she prattled on gaily. "I was visiting the grounds to train, and I found Kan here getting his things together for the hunt. So naturally, we fell to talking, discussing old times, and I challenged him to a match like we had when we were children -- just for old times' sake," she said hastily as she saw his expression, "I didn't mean to cause this disruption, Father --"
Her father raised a hand, and Shataina stopped in mid-sentence.
"I see," he said. He observed them both for a little while longer. Kan had the good sense to keep his mouth shut.
"A good match," said her father. Shataina fought to keep the astonishment from her face. "Kan," he continued levelly, "there is no dishonour in conceding a practice match to an opponent who is clearly superior to you in skill." Her half-brother's face paled, and he opened his mouth. "But," her father overrode his objection, "there is dishonour in defeating such an opponent through use of a weapon you agreed not to use at the outset. And Charms, my son, are weapons. The greatest weapons."
He'd heard their argument, then. Shataina's heart sank. All the rage she'd tried so hard to hide was right out in the open. She kept her face neutral as he turned to her.
For a moment he paused, studying her. She lowered her gaze.
"My son might benefit from your instruction," he said abruptly. "But I warn you: eschew your arrogance. You are well-trained, and you may surpass your brother in one field, but remember always that he is Chosen and you are not. The Immaculate Dragons do not make mistakes."
"Yes, father," she murmured obediently, and kowtowed. "I am honoured that you think me worthy to teach him." She was too weary to be angry again. All she could think of was a cool bath and the privacy of her room, away from the stares of the Chosen who surpassed her.
"You are dismissed," said her father, and turned back to the house. After a moment, she followed, turning away from her brother and his silent companions. The slaves quickly dispersed about their business, several of them trailing after her, obviously uncertain about how to act.
Someone caught at her arm, and Shataina looked up to meet the eyes of the Water Aspect. Glancing back, she saw that her half-brother and the woman had disappeared back into the armory.
"Lady Shataina," he said smoothly, "it was nobly done."
She managed to pull off a dazzling smile through sheer will. "I thank you," she murmured, "and I am glad that my poor efforts pleased you. Now I'm afraid I really must be going to clean myself up. I'm sure I'm quite a sight."
"A lovely sight," he said gallantly, but stood aside and let her pass. Shataina walked into the Manse without a backward glance and headed straight for the bath. She had to learn to control her temper, she thought; there was no telling how it could end in the future.
A few days later the Water Aspect sent her an assortment of exotic flowers, with a card signed Peleps Jikor. She accepted the gift, because the sender might be useful, but kept him at arm's-length, as was her wont. He was extremely persistent, dropping by at least once a week; Shataina was impervious. After four or five months, he gave up.
It wasn't that he wasn't attractive. He was nice enough, a decent conversationalist, and played a good game of Guardian Gate. But Shataina, in a move that often amused her friends, had long before decided not to choose a lover till she felt that she was truly in love. She wasn't sure why she made the decision; it wasn't a common one. It was something that seemed natural to her, though those few who knew had bluntly told her that it was not. She still remembered one friend who had, in a late-night, enraged argument, shouted at her that it was throwing away the gifts the Dragons had bestowed.
When she eventually married this man from House Ledaal, she knew that the choice would be made for her; she would bear him children as quickly as possible. Her objections to sharing a bed with a man she hardly knew were immaterial and immature. She tried not to think of it; her upcoming marriage marked a boundary she did not wish to contemplate. Shataina knew that ignoring the problem wouldn't solve it, but she didn't care -- it seemed easier, for the time being, simply to wait and see.
Many complain of the arranged marriages of members of the Great Houses. "We are the Princes of the Earth," they say. "Can we not marry whom we choose?" But the wisest among us see the purpose. Ask yourself why the Scarlet Empress used her children to establish the Dynastic Houses. Remember that we must keep the blood of the Dragons as pure as possible. And if, to this end, one must marry a person one would not have chosen, one must not complain; for the sacred blood you carry is more valuable than your life.
-- from History of the Realm, Part V
Chapter X: Advice for Young Dynasts
Rishi lay purring in her mistress' lap. They'd been riding in a little carriage for weeks, which was, of course, just fine with the cat -- but the journey was driving Shataina crazy. She'd gone through a considerable number of books within a week of travel, and now had nothing to do but watch the landscape and talk to the slaves. Both activities had quickly palled, the view rarely changing, the slaves ill-educated and dull. But the long time spent enclosed in the carriage was nearing its end; she'd almost reached the city in which her fiancé's family lived.
She would stay with her grandmother, the matriarch of her household, and make the rounds socially, meeting her fiancé and his family. If all went well, they'd be married in less than three months, and her husband would take her with him to his post: a legion stationed in the North, near Cherak. Her children would be sent back to the Realm and raised in her husband's household.
It was more travel than she'd had the right to hope for, and she knew she ought to be grateful; she'd always wanted to explore Creation. Instead, once again, she felt numb. At least, Shataina thought resentfully, if she'd been in line to marry a bureaucrat, she might have had some sort of life -- this way, she'd spend most of her life in the rustic, frozen wastes.
It's not so bad, she repeated to herself.
She sighed, leaned her head against the window, and watched the endless fields of rice.
Her grandmother met her in the front hall of her Manse, to Shataina's surprise. The woman was well over three hundred years old, and her unwrinkled skin looked just like polished grey marble. Her hair was strikingly black, held back with combs of white jade, and a white jade bracelet adorned her wrist, set with the Manse's irregular amber Hearthstone. Mnemon Lin was a powerful minister, and Shataina had assumed that she'd have more important tasks at hand than to meet a mortal grandchild.
Her surprise, though she politely attempted to conceal it, was naturally obvious to her older relative. "Yes, child, I do have better things to do than meet you," said her grandmother with asperity. "Much better things. However, I am attending the gala tonight, and thought I ought to see that you were well-done up. Hmm." She stood back and surveyed Shataina minutely. "I see that the rumours of your beauty were not exaggerated. Impressive. And you're well-blooded, too .... A pity, really. I could have arranged a far better match for you than my son has. There are many easily swayed by a pretty face ... ah, well, I suppose he could have done worse." She turned and swept off down the hall. "I shall send for a good cosmetician," she called back over her shoulder. "We'll have you stun the city tonight."
Several liveried servants came to assist her own, and one escorted her to the white-furnished room she'd be sleeping in. Three handmaidens awaited; one immediately took custody of Rishi, who was watching with alert curiosity, and the other two ushered her out of her clothing and into an immense bathroom. Shataina pressed back her shock at the water that poured from the taps as they bathed, oiled, massaged and perfumed her till her skin practically glowed. Combing her hair, they brought her back into her room to meet the cosmetician her grandmother had summoned.
The man, dark-haired and sharp-featured, looked her over and smiled. "What am I to do with you?" he asked rhetorically. "You're too beautiful. Paint would only mar you." But he set to with a will, arranging her hair with spectacular jewels, ringing her eyes with kohl and giving her skin a dull shine with powdered pearl. He dressed her in gold silk heavy with diamond beads, and brought her to observe herself before a mirror, beaming.
The handmaidens all sighed, and one said, with awe, "You do look lovely, miss."
Shataina regarded herself. Gold dust had been spread over her eyelids and shimmered slightly in her hair, bringing out the bronze tones. The man had somehow made her eyes even bigger, and accentuated their slight, natural slant, causing them to seem attentive and mysterious. Diamonds sparkled at her throat and in her hair. She did look ... shiny, she decided, but whether she also looked better than usual, she wasn't sure.
Twenty minutes passed, Shataina sitting as still as she could to save wear on her ensemble. The man gathered up his brushes and departed, and her new maids fluttered around her, chattering about the upcoming party. Apparently, everyone -- absolutely everyone, one said confidently, as Shataina pressed back a smirk at the girl's pretensions -- knew about the gala to come. It had been planned for months, not simply thrown for her arrival; all the local Dragon-Blooded would be there, and a fair number of patricians. Shataina sighed inwardly; her father hosted the bare, socially necessary minimum of parties, and despite her occasional loneliness on the estate, she'd liked the respite from such formal, dull gatherings.
At last the elder arrived, attired in sober black. "Hmm," she said, looking Shataina over again. Her continued, blatant appraisal was beginning to make Shataina nervous. Shataina was used to people staring at her, and although she always acted with the socially-required modesty, she had long since ceased to feel it. Her looks had been discussed, conjectured about -- even taken as a sign of divine favour -- since she was a child. Once, she'd heard from a visiting tax collector that there were actually whispers among the peasants calling her a changeling, unable to hide her inhuman beauty within a disguise.
But Mnemon Lin's cold evaluation was unpleasant -- more disturbing than rube's attempts to ward Shataina's "Fair glamours" off with iron talismans, more unnerving than jealous glares, and far more awkward than badly-hidden attractions. Her grandmother was making it plain that Shataina really was nothing but an object; the way she looked at her granddaughter indicated nothing of emotion, not even aesthetic appreciation. Shataina pressed back the ever-present anger, knowing that this, too, signalled her worthlessness.
"A bit ostentatious, but it will have to do," commented Lin, and swept out again, gesturing impatiently to drag Shataina in her wake.
They arrived at the gala slightly late, but it didn't seem to bother her grandmother. Shataina didn't let herself feel embarrassed. She didn't feel much, in fact. She'd felt sure she would be nervous, unhappy, anything -- that the numbness would finally go away when she confronted her future. Even the attempt to imagine her betrothed failed to inspire emotion.
She'd been told he was handsome, and an officer in one of the Ledaal legions. Nothing else had been mentioned -- she hadn't asked much, preferring to avoid the topic.
Well, I'll find out soon enough.
They passed through the outer gate of the townhouse, alighted in the courtyard. A servant took their coach; her grandmother gave the doorman her invitation, and they were inside.
A lot of people milled around within, and almost all of them were Dragon-Blooded. The torchlight caught the facets of a thousand different expensive jewels, reflected off the best silks and brocades, and the air was heavy with the scents of wine and perfume. Her grandmother walked forward, and Shataina followed, keeping her eyes lowered while monitoring the scene. The crowd hushed as she passed. Eyes from all directions were upon her; Shataina endeavoured not to look up, concentrating on her grandmother's back. It felt as if she were passing down a long corridor; everyone seemed too close, the air too thick. It took concentration just to keep her breath steady.
A man stepped forward to meet her grandmother, bowed low, and murmured a greeting. She saw his boots, ornamental katana at his belt, military trim -- a uniform for special occasions. Her betrothed. A woman was with him, an elegant society lady in a deep blue dress that shimmered with emerald beading.
She couldn't bring herself to look up. Her grandmother was saying something polite and inconsequential, an excuse for their lateness. The older woman turned to her and said, "Now let me introduce you to your fiancé, Shataina. Come now, don't be shy."
That did it -- Shataina had never had a shy moment in her life. She raised her head, lifted her chin and looked him straight in the eye, managing a decorous smile. "My lord," she murmured, and offered him her hand.
He was handsome enough, strong-looking for an Air Aspect, a slight tint of pale blue to his skin. A gentle breeze stirred his dark hair, even within the closed, stuffy room. He took her hand and bowed over it with a smile similar to her own, one that never reached his serious dark eyes. The woman next to him watched them benevolently; her eyes, a peculiar shade of aquamarine, dominated her thin face, and her skin shimmered without the aid of cosmetics. Water-Aspected, beyond doubt.
"Ledaal Kevoc Tarin," her grandmother was saying, "Mnemon Lin Shataina. So good to have you two meet each other at last. Shataina, this is Mnemon Sara. She's engaged to Tarin's brother Arlan. I'm sure you'll meet him later."
Shataina heard herself say something appropriate, and the woman nodded to her. Her grandmother had moved to talk to someone in the corner. She had never felt so unsure of herself. Anxiously, she watched Tarin; her future depended on whether he found her satisfactory.
He seemed to, or if he didn't, he put up a good show. He introduced her around to family and friends, and she did her best to be charming and likable. It seemed to work -- she found herself thoroughly welcomed, and soon relaxed into the familiar games of coquetry, give and take, snide remarks and hidden smiles. She might not like these parties, but Shataina knew she was good at them.
Tarin didn't appear to have all that much interest in talking to her; he was so obsessed with the military it was positively cliché, and after he realized that she wasn't much for discussion of specific tactics or board games, he confined himself to small talk. At the earliest possible opportunity, he extricated himself from her and went off to talk to some other officers, leaving her in Sara's hands.
And there were worse ways for a marriage to work, Shataina thought. At least she and Tarin didn't dislike each other at the outset. They could probably get a very civil arrangement going; he probably won't even need to speak to me outside the bedroom -- if there.
She shook off that thought and turned to Sara. "I haven't met your fiancé yet," she said, for lack of any other topic.
"Oh, Arlan," said Sara. "Yes, he probably isn't even here yet. He said something about a meeting before this party, which has probably run over. I don't inquire into his business very much ...." She paused significantly. "He's a sorcerer."
Shataina allowed herself to look as impressed as she felt; Sara would enjoy it. "You must be --" she started.
Sara interrupted her. "There he is now," she said, with a proud smile and a little wave to someone beyond Shataina's shoulder. "You should come meet him."
"Of course," said Shataina, relieved that she wouldn't have to make more conversation with Sara. The woman was charming and sweet-voiced enough to make Shataina wary, and she thought she detected a hard, uncompromising edge that would make her difficult to work around. It was similar to the unquestioned dominance of most elders; Shataina covertly glanced at Sara's eyes again, sought traces of age and found none. Still, appearances were deceiving, especially with the Dragon-Blooded.
Arlan had stopped at the end of the hallway, talking to Tarin. The two of them looked very much alike, with deep blue eyes and black hair, but Arlan's skin showed no trace of the blue in his brother's; he was thinner, too. The combined winds around the two brothers contrived to knock over a wineglass on a nearby table, and slaves scurried to mop up the spreading stain.
Shataina had never met a full-fledged sorcerer before. She'd hoped to persuade her father to allow her to become one, back when she still thought she would someday be Chosen. Sorcerers had a reputation for ambition, for knowledge, and -- above all -- for power. She wasn't particularly ambitious for power -- after all, obvious power, in the Great Houses, was more dangerous than it was worth. But the knowledge -- she'd heard the Heptagram contained libraries so large it took longer than a day to walk across them, and she'd dreamed of what she could discover among distant, forgotten shelves. A mortal, of course, couldn't channel the Essence required for sorcery, and she'd let go of those dreams as she lost the rest.
Arlan didn't look particularly powerful or imposing, but strength and stature were not required for the sorcerous arts -- only learning. As Sara took the ten minutes to introduce them, Shataina smothered a yawn; more introductions, she thought, had happened this evening than the rest of her life combined. She'd have to be careful not to offend anyone with a forgotten name. At least Arlan would be easy to remember.
Sara and Arlan greeted each other politely, not touching. It would be a heartless, political match, Shataina knew, just like her own. It was a rare thing to marry for love -- most called it more trouble than it was worth.
The flurry of greetings died down, and there was a brief pause. Shataina noted Arlan watching her, and dropped her eyes in simulated modesty.
Tarin said apologetically, "It's good to see you again, Arlan, but I left a game of Guardian Gate hanging, and I should get back before Cathak Ekama thinks I've slighted her." The two brothers bowed to each other, and Tarin disappeared through a doorway. Sara -- glad to get a mortal off her hands -- also made her excuses and moved away. No one, after all, would fault her for leaving Shataina alone with her fiancé's brother; he could take up the burden of the endless introductions for the rest of the evening.
Her fiancé's brother -- who was still staring at her. He wasn't even hiding or disguising it. It was really quite rude. Still, Shataina thought, it was nice to meet someone who didn't conceal their every emotion. And Arlan didn't come across as uncouth, somehow; he just seemed ... unsure. Unexpectedly, she warmed to him, and gave him a small smile, trying to think of something she could say to break the silence.
He spoke first.
"You're from Jadra Prefecture, aren't you? I think I've heard of you."
"Really?" she said, surprised. "Before my engagement to your brother? That's strange."
"Not that strange," he said, and smiled. "With a face like yours, the word gets around."
From anyone else, it would have been a meaningless gallantry, something easily dismissed; on his lips, it took on a new earnestness. Shataina found herself at a loss for words. "Would you like a drink?" he asked, and she nodded.
They moved towards one of the tables, Arlan pausing to introduce her to more people every few steps. It took a while for them to get there, and when they did, they were alone again.
"So," he said, pouring her a glass of wine from an exquisite crystal decanter. "How was the journey? It must have been long."
"Yes," she replied lightly, "but at least I got off the estate. I've hardly been allowed off for almost a year."
His eyes met hers. They really were astonishingly blue, she thought. Like sapphires. "That's terrible," he said.
Once again, she was taken aback by the sincerity in his voice. "Oh, well," she faltered, "I suppose it's only to be expected ... we couldn't really spare any guards to escort me, after all. It wasn't so bad. My father bought some new histories recently, and they kept me occupied."
"Histories?" Arlan smiled. "Forgive me, but you ... don't seem the type."
Shataina laughed ruefully. "Maybe not," she answered. "What type do I seem?"
He seemed to be reining in embarrassment, looking away, then back at her. "I don't know," he murmured.
"Well, my type, then," she said, and laughed again to let him know she wasn't offended, "is history, particularly that of the late Shogunate and early Realm. I especially like to read about the Threshold, and the South. Sometimes," she added, "I do admit to reading poetry and fiction. Was that the type you'd guessed?"
The look he gave her -- new respect, real liking -- warmed her. He was so transparent -- easier to read than anyone she'd ever met; or, she thought, the best manipulator she'd ever seen. Shataina mentally compared him to her father and Lin, to her instructor in diplomacy, to other elders, and decided that it wasn't possible. Arlan was simply ... genuine. She couldn't remember meeting anyone like that before.
At the end of the hall, the great clock chimed; Arlan glanced over in surprise. "Oh, no," he said, "I was supposed to get back to my meeting half an hour ago. I'm afraid I'll have to take my leave, my lady."
"Call me Shataina," she said quickly, and gave him her best smile. "I'm going to marry your brother, after all. We shouldn't address each other by honorifics."
"I hope I'll see you next time, then, Shataina," he said. He looked like he wanted to say something else, but instead he turned and left the room.
She drank the last of her wine, then glanced around the room, trying to decide where to insert herself. This time, she knew, would be best used to get to know the local figures, since getting to know her fiancé was out. The option wasn't left up to her, however; an eager young woman she'd managed to put off earlier saw her alone and came over to talk.
Shataina charmed her, of course. She was getting really good at it.
"Granddaughter," said Mnemon Lin a week later, "I question whether you understand what an impression you've made."
Shataina glanced at her quickly; no sarcasm was apparent. She remained respectfully quiet.
"You've received a record number of invitations since you attended your first gathering here," her grandmother informed her. "And I've seen the way you manage your admirers -- especially young Arlan. Well done."
She didn't add the words that Shataina knew she was thinking: for a mortal. She wondered if she'd missed some other, less obvious criticism in her subtle relative's words.
"I do wonder, however, if you understand your own potential. You may not be Dragon-Blooded, but that does not mean that you can be of no use to your House and the Realm. There is nothing to be done about the marriage. However, there are other ways to make allies and gain influence, especially for one of your extraordinary beauty and appeal. Do you understand me?"
Her grandmother had come to visit her in her room and had sent the maids away. Now Shataina understood why. What she was saying was too blatant to be said tastefully before others, and above all things, Mnemon Lin valued taste.
She took a deep breath. "Respectfully, my lady, I remind you that after my marriage, I will move to Cherak, and the usefulness of such manoeuvres will be ended."
"Ah yes -- the move .... I think that I shall arrange for your Tarin to be given a mandatory leave of absence from the legion, so that he may better enjoy his time with his lovely bride. He's been working so hard lately; he should take some time off, or he'll burn himself out. It will be my wedding gift to you both. Five years, do you think?" Her fingers drummed on the table beside her, with the clicking sound of marble on marble. "Perhaps ten. After all, there are no notable threats near Cherak. They have no need for all their men. He may, of course, be recalled in case of emergency, but really, in an emergency, he shouldn't bring his wife along."
Shataina opened her mouth, then closed it. She felt suddenly sorry for Tarin, who obviously wanted nothing more than a life on the battlefield with his fellow troops; but she also felt much better about her own future. Tarin had hundreds of years -- he could spare a decade.
"Excellent, then. I recommend that you continue your friendship with Arlan especially. He seemed particularly captivated."
"My lady," Shataina said carefully, "is he not to marry Sara? That would put him already at the service of our House, for all practical purposes."
"The Water Aspect. Yes." Her grandmother said nothing for a long moment. "Well, it can't hurt to bind him two ways." She rose. "Don't disappoint me, girl. You show a good deal of promise. I think that you may be of great service to your House."
It was high praise. What could Lin hope to gain from a mortal? It seemed probable that she was simply moving to control a pawn that she thought might otherwise go in some unpredictable, possibly dangerous direction.
Shataina rose and bowed, and her grandmother took her leave. Well, she thought, at least even if she's manipulating me, I'm useful for something. It made her feel obscurely better.
In his travels through the East one day, Sextes Jylis came upon a spirit of the road. This was no uncommon occurrence, but one thing was different: this spirit had taken control of a crossroads, and was forcing all who passed to sacrifice to it, paying great taxes for the upkeep of its path.
"Is this not outside your domain?" asked Sextes Jylis gently when the spirit blocked his passage. "Should you not merely be caretaker of the road? It is the job of the Dragon-Blooded to keep the road, so people may pass along it -- not you. You must respect their power, and wait for them to fulfill their duty."
"The Dragon-Blooded have not kept my road clean," snarled the spirit, who took the form of a great dog-like beast. "And why should I be subordinate to them? I am no low-status elemental, to be compelled by their sorceries. They cannot control me."
At this, Sextes Jylis stood tall and let his true form shine through for but a moment. As he did, the air all about smelled of growing things, flowers and leaves and forests after rain. "Great Dragon of Wood!" gasped the spirit, falling back in dismay.
Still Sextes Jylis's voice was gentle as he addressed the spirit for one last time. "The Dragon-Blooded have not yet cleaned your road because they are occupied with matters far greater. You do not fall beneath their notice; they will fulfill their duty; do not fear. But if they hear of your antics, they will come and destroy you, with my blessing. Aspects of Wood are my servants, as Aspects of the other Elements serve my fellow Dragons, and although they may not bind you, still they will enforce our displeasure. You must keep the road properly because it is your place in the Hierarchy of Heaven; anything else will only lead to sorrow."
At this, the spirit bowed its great head and submitted; and so its destruction was averted.
-- from the Immaculate Texts: Traveller Parable
Shataina surveyed her face in the mirror and turned her head, watching the dark-jewelled pins in her hair glitter. "Very nice," she said approvingly. "What's your station now?"
The slave behind her bowed. "I'm a chambermaid, Lady. I took your normal hairdresser's place for today because she's sick."
"Well, consider yourself promoted, and notify the seneschal," said Shataina, smoothing her blue gown as she stood. "You're dismissed."
"Thank you, my Lady," said the slave, beaming, and backed out of the room, almost running into another as she exited. The other slave bowed and waited.
"My Lady, Lord Ledaal Kevoc Arlan begs your presence in the front parlour."
"Arlan? But he's not supposed to return until tomorrow."
The slave looked unnerved for a minute, then, for lack of any response, bowed again. Shataina sighed. Really, she thought, what is it with my grandmother's slaves? They lack initiative. "Did he give you any message explaining his early arrival?" she prompted.
Shataina shrugged. "Tell him I'll be down in a moment."
She waited for the slave to leave, then sent her chambermaids away and crossed the room to her bedside table. Arlan had lent her several volumes on the Old Realm before leaving on a week-long trip for a sorcerer's meeting, and she was looking forward to discussing them with him.
It was amazing, Shataina reflected, how much she liked talking to Arlan; perhaps it was the fact that he didn't talk down to her the way everyone else did. And it didn't hurt that he was so incapable of hiding how he felt -- though it made some things harder, it was a breath of air in a stifling world. It was a good thing he was so smart; he was too kind, too transparent, and if he hadn't been brilliant, it was anyone's guess what would have become of him. His family would probably have simply thrown him into the legions and forgotten about him. How lucky for him, she thought; as a sorcerer, he wasn't required to function effectively in society.
Carrying the books in the crook of her arm, Shataina left her room and descended the white marble stairs, absently running a finger along the dragons worked into the iron railing. Arlan stood in the front hall, playing with an orchid from one of several vases on the black table against the wall.
Quickly, Shataina looked down at the books, pretending not to be observing him. That way, she wouldn't have to acknowledge the expression she knew would pass over his face when he saw her.
As she reached the bottom of the staircase, Shataina looked up and simulated surprise. "Arlan," she said with a smile. "The doorman said you were waiting in the parlour .... You're back early, aren't you?"
"Yes," he answered, "the meeting was shorter than expected." Delicately, he placed the orchid back into the vase. "Many orchids," he observed. "Do people send them to you often?"
Shataina nodded, setting the books down next to him.
"What is it Rain Falling on Lilies said about orchids again ... 'the greatest possible homage to beauty in a flawed world'?"
"Oh, Arlan," she said, shaking her head. "Stop trying to embarrass me."
He laughed. "I'm sorry. Anyway, that reminds me. The meeting was in Tuchara, which as you know is famous for its artists, so I stopped by a few bookstores and spotted this. I know Falling Rain is your favourite poet, so ..." he held out a slim volume in embossed white leather.
Accepting the book, she opened it and leafed through the pages. Her eyes widened as she scanned the dark red lettering. On a hunch, Shataina flipped to the inside front page and read the calligrapher's name.
"Graceful Scarlet Sweep," she said in awe. "The best calligrapher of our time! Arlan, I think this may be the single best gift I've ever received. It's beautiful. I really don't know what to say."
"Repay me with a walk in the garden," he suggested. "I'm interested to hear what insights you've come up with from those books I lent you."
"Well ..." she said reluctantly, "I did promise someone I'd play Gateway with him today." She watched the disappointment wash over Arlan's face and concluded, "But you're more interesting." Turning to the doorman, she ordered, "If anyone stops by for me, you're to tell them that my fragile little mortal body is in bed with a migraine."
"Might want to skip the 'fragile little mortal' part," added Arlan. The slave looked back and forth between them, then nodded. Arlan took her arm; his smile felt like a reward.
"Garden?" he asked.
"All right," she said, tossing her head, "but you have to promise to play Guardian Gate with me later. I haven't had a real challenge in a whole week."
Mnemon Lin called Shataina into her office a few days later. It was small, panelled in dark woods, the Manse's white marble floor carpeted in black. The office struck Shataina as a grim, unpleasant room, but her grandmother spent most of her time there.
"There is to be a masquerade ball three days from now," her grandmother informed her after the obligatory bows. "House Peleps."
"Your parents will arrive tomorrow, and your brother the day after. They will remain through the party and until your wedding gala, after which they will depart."
"My brother is attending my wedding?" Shataina had hoped that Kan would be busy somewhere else. Visiting a friend, perhaps; at the bottom of the sea -- even better.
"Yes," said Lin drily, "and he's made it clear he's no more pleased about it than you are." Shataina scolded herself for being so blatant as her grandmother continued, "The party is to be hosted by two Water Aspects -- brothers. One of them, Peleps Arden, has just been appointed to the Lesser House of the Deliberative."
Peleps Arden, Shataina thought. Where have I heard that name before? Then something else occurred to her. "The party is three days from now? Doesn't that place it on Calibration Eve?" The idea of going to a party during the Calibration Period made her press back a shiver. Calibration, the five days that bridged each year to the next -- the time of supernatural influences, ill happenings, and omens ....
Mnemon Lin looked down her nose at her. "What of it?"
"I hope that you have not been infected by the superstitions of the patrician class," her grandmother said severely. "I expect better of a child of my household."
"Of course, my lady," Shataina murmured.
"I have a case to review," said Mnemon Lin. "Let me know what your costume choice is within a day."
As Shataina reached the door, Mnemon Lin said suddenly, "One more thing, Granddaughter."
"I understand that you chose to ignore an appointment the other day in favour of Arlan's company."
The man I stood up -- he found out? Shataina thought, surprised.
"The flimsy excuse you instructed the doorman to give was surprisingly effective," Mnemon Lin said coolly, as if reading her granddaughter's mind. "You are lucky that it was, and that you did not offend anyone. In the future, I suggest that you spend your time more wisely."
By force of will, Shataina prevented her cheeks from reddening. "Yes, my lady."
Later, her slaves dressing her for bed, Shataina remembered where she'd heard the name Arden before. He was Peleps Jikor's only brother.
So Jikor would be there. She hadn't seen him for some months. His last visit had been brief; he'd said only that he would be gone for some time. Secretly, she'd been a little glad of his departure, though she'd missed his company. His persistence in the face of her indifference had been a little wearing, though, and her brother had resented his friend's obvious interest in her; often his taunts were more viciously barbed after a visit from Jikor.
The slaves finished their tasks and took their leave, and Shataina stared at the bed. She wasn't at all interested. Instead, she picked up Rishi from her basket and sat down by the window, gazing out on the gardens. Only the light from a few windows illuminated the orderly, trimmed hedges. For a moment, she was tempted to take a walk in the twilight, but the thought of having to persuade the guards to let her out was too discouraging. And the last few times she'd managed to get out this late, the house guards had insisted on an escort -- being alone in her room was better.
Shataina opened her window and leaned out, breathing deeply. The air had a faint chill; Descending Water was coming to an end. In her home province, the frost would already be riming the windows and the first snow only a week distant, but it rarely snowed here.
I'm getting married in two weeks, she knew.
Tarin had made it clear that she was only a trivial detail, and after a few attempts she'd given up on him. If he hadn't been her betrothed, she'd never have wasted the time. The two of them were impressively mismatched. Usually Dynastic families would at least try to find fiancés to suit their children's temperament, but his parents had apparently not bothered (and naturally, Shataina knew, her own opinion was irrelevant). She was surprised Tarin hadn't complained; they probably would have dissolved the betrothal if he'd been vehement enough. Well, there was always adultery, and Tarin was probably looking forward to committing it. How did the saying go ? -- "The only thing that makes marriage bearable is adultery"?
She stood to light a candle, gently putting Rishi down again, then took the book Arlan had given her from its place on her dressing table. There was no sense dwelling on irrelevancies. Falling Rain could soothe her into sleep.
The party was held on a yacht, in true Peleps style. Shataina and Mnemon Lin shared a carriage on the way there, Mnemon Lin retreating into silence for nearly the entire journey. Lin's masque was a simple one, depicting no one in particular; long-nosed and with pointed ears, it was burnished black steel with red enamel detailing and lips. Shataina, in the end, had elected to go as Rain Falling on Lilies, and white lilies had been woven into her hair over a net of silver drop-shaped beads, with only a simple white domino masque on her face. She'd chosen slaves to match, bringing only those with perfectly lily-white skin.
The boat, when they arrived, was busy with sailors preparing to cast off, looking uncomfortable in their elegant livery. Exquisite teal glass lanterns hung along the rigging, and a thick, cobalt-blue carpet had been laid over the entire upper deck. Guests had already arrived, and were being ushered onto the ebony-panelled staircase leading to the lower decks. Most of the guests here were patricians; Mnemon Lin ignored them magnificently as she swept out of the carriage and onto the boat, followed by Shataina and their slaves. In a rare gesture of generosity, a celebration of the ending year, the festivities were thrown partially open to underlings, and the slaves had ornamented themselves in what they seemed to think was finery.
A man with a stylized, smiling masque met them with his arms out. "My Lady, Mnemon Lin, always a pleasure," he enthused. "And this must be Miss Mnemon Lin Shataina. I'm so happy to meet you." Shataina dismissed her slaves with a gesture and they scattered, whispering excitedly.
"Peleps Arden," her grandmother said regally. Her marble neck was very straight, chin high. "Thank you for the invitation. Congratulations for your appointment .... I take it we'll be casting off soon?"
"Yes, yes." Arden's voice was a pleasant tenor, and he accented his upbeat tone with excited, sweeping gestures of his hands. "Refreshments and dancing are downstairs, and we're having a little Guardian Gate tournament on the lowest deck -- I hope you participate. We have the most extraordinary band tonight, and the very best honey mead imported straight from Whitewall. I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself .... Allow me to show you to the stairs." He seemed eager to please, overly worked up, as if unused to all the attention he was getting.
Mnemon Lin suffered herself to be led to the staircase and Shataina followed, head lowered, covertly deciding who to speak to and who to avoid. After a few moments she spotted Arlan and Tarin across the deck, their masques doing little to disguise them; their relative height, and the frenetic activity of the surrounding sea breezes, gave them away instantly.
Arlan, face hidden beneath a blue porcelain dragon masque, saw Shataina as she and her grandmother reached the stairs. The dragon's head turned to watch her intently as she went down, only turning back when his pink-masked brother nudged him surreptitiously. Shataina pretended not to notice. She nodded, smiled to a few acquaintances, and picked up her skirts to descend after Lin.
The eddies of the crowd and the susurrus of voices were all routine; Shataina had been to gala after gala in the weeks since she had arrived, and she had fallen easily back into the swing of things, though she still sometimes thought wistfully of the rare, small parties at her father's estate. A faint humming thrill seemed to lie over the crowd; everyone was talking a little too loudly, smiling a little too brightly. Calibration, she thought. They're trying to prove that they're not afraid.
Even apart from the generalized nervousness, though, there was an off note, something odd about the familiar background. After a moment, Shataina realized that it was the music -- a soft, high voice singing too quickly for her to understand the words. The instruments that underscored the singer were beautifully played, but after a few moments of listening to them she began to understand that they were also subtly dissonant, as if the players didn't wish to harmonize perfectly with each other. She had never heard anything like it. Fascinated, she scanned the glittering crowd, ignoring the insane mix of costumes in favour of locating the peculiar musicians. They were across the room, standing out by virtue of their drab, dark garb and plain black masques.
Detaching herself from her grandmother and Peleps Arden with a quick excuse, Shataina slipped through the throng, introducing herself into a cluster on the edge where she could listen to the music more closely. Absently, she traded compliments and sweet, false smiles with the other guests, observing the entertainers from the corner of her eye.
A black velvet rope separated the musicians from the rest of the room. The singer, a young woman with the chocolate-dark skin and black hair of the far South, stood in front, head back and eyes closed. Her skin was almost waxen in the torchlight, too shiny -- a sharp contrast to her hair, which seemed to reflect no light as it fell in thick waves to her knees. Trying to make sense of the lyrics, Shataina suddenly understood that the girl was singing in a language she couldn't understand -- perhaps a dialect she'd never studied.
The eye-holes in the musician's masques had been cut large and slanted, allowing them full range of vision; yet they never even looked at each other, merely staring into space. All nine of the players had long hair as well, skin dark as their leader's. They were very still. Only their fingers moved upon their instruments -- they did not even seem to breathe. Did someone train these performers specifically in being unnerving? Shataina was amused by the thought, particularly when she considered that it might very well be true. A special deal for Calibration, perhaps?
Something tugged at her mind. She focused on the harpist's fingers; the nails seemed very sharp, and -- was that a red stain beneath them? Her startled eyes flew up to meet his, which were unfathomably deep and, she realized now, did not shine.
Shataina had to stop herself from skipping back. A demon -- the performers showed all the signs of being demonic, or possessed by such an entity; they could never have entered Creation without a summons. A sorcerer must have called some ... thing ... to play for tonight's party, she thought, a little shaken, then collected herself and met the creature's gaze. Its expression didn't change. How tacky, she considered. Overstated. I'll bet Grandmother Lin is sneering over her wine about it even as I stand here.
Maybe she was wrong. After all, it seemed a bit far-fetched that Peleps Arden would have gone to the lengths of finding a sorcerer to call a demon just for a party. I'll ask Arlan, she decided, and glanced over the room for him -- but no, he wouldn't be down here. He'd stay on the top deck for as long as possible -- the wind was strongest there.
She began to navigate the crowd, offering quick, yet gracious greetings to those she passed, taking great care to offend no one important. Kan was across the room from her, talking to another Dragon-Blood, and Shataina chose a route that circled him completely. Reaching the stairs, she almost breathed a sigh of relief at leaving the bulk of the crowd behind her, inhaling deeply of the stairwell's fresh breeze.
"Shataina," came a sweet contralto from behind her as she took the first step up. "Good evening."
Shataina suppressed her irritation, and turned. Her mother's unmistakable hair had been bound up in a complex style featuring braids and gold hairpins. She'd chosen a masque that covered most of her face, an angular creation of iridescent white leather that had been stiffened to keep its shape. Rosy cheeks and bright patterns around the eyes effectively distracted the viewer from her mother's plain gold silk kimono, which hid a figure spreading with age. Her mother had begun to wear more and more clothing; paranoia about the passage of the years had set in. It must be difficult, Shataina reflected, for her to see my father so often, who has centuries of life left to him.
"It's good to see you, Mother. You look wonderful," she said sincerely. "Did you arrive today?"
"Yes." Her mother took a long drink of her mead. "Have you greeted your fiancé yet tonight?" The words were a little slow, and Shataina could see that she was moving a little awkwardly. Her mother had gotten drunk earlier than usual this time, but as always, she hid it masterfully.
"Not yet," said Shataina, stepping down and moving to the side to allow others to pass. "I was just about to."
Her mother nodded. "I wonder if you know what you're getting into," she said, sipping again.
Shataina raised her eyebrows, and her mother wagged a finger sagely. "Marriage is a very important thing," she pronounced. "As your spiritual superior, your husband will steer the rest of your life. How do you two get along?"
"Fairly well," Shataina lied, "although we haven't talked much recently." She tried to remember the last time she'd spoken to Tarin. A week ago? More? She wasn't sure.
"Well, that's good. Good. As long as you know what you're getting into."
What in Creation is she trying to say? Shataina thought. "I'm sorry?"
Her mother sidled closer. "It can be difficult for us, not being on the ... spiritual level ... of our husbands," she said softly. "But if you keep yourself occupied, you should be happy. There are things we can do, even as mortals. Don't undervalue yourself."
Oh, Mother, Shataina thought, feeling suddenly sympathetic. Is this how you keep yourself from being resentful? "Maybe you should sit down," she said gently.
"Oh, no," said her mother, backing up as if she'd been stung. "I'll see you later." She vanished into the crowd.
Looking after her, Shataina sighed.
She found Arlan upstairs, still with Tarin, discussing irrelevancies with a brace of patrician women. The yacht had taken on its last passengers, and the wharf had already receded into darkness.
As she approached her fiancé and his brother, assessing the group, she noted that the youngest one, a pretty girl in a low-cut pink dress, was trying to flirt with Arlan. Her every action, from her deliberate inhalations to her over-wide eyes and air of utter fascination, bespoke a clumsy seduction attempt. Even with the masque obscuring his features, Arlan looked completely ill-at-ease; he shifted from foot to foot awkwardly, staring down at his drink. Ah, the old patrician game, she thought in amusement. Trying to secure a position as the mistress of a Dynast. I wonder if he's even glanced at her yet?
"Good evening," she said as she approached. Arlan perked up instantly, smiling at her from beneath his dragon half-masque as he bowed. Tarin was being followed by several slaves, and he turned to them as she approached, saying something in tones too low for her to hear. His masque was of a flushed, plump, jolly man's face, and he'd padded his clothing to make himself seem fatter.
Shataina acknowledged the patricians' murmured greetings, skillfully disregarding the simmering resentment that the girl completely failed to conceal. "Have you signed up for the Gateway tournament yet?" she asked Arlan.
"Dragon-Blooded don't have to until the second round, tomorrow morning," he replied. "You?"
Of course, she thought. They automatically win through the first round. "No." She stepped closer, effectively closing out the girl in pink, and heard the girl's breath hiss between her teeth in anger. Arlan didn't even notice. "Good evening, Tarin," she said again, trying to keep her tone from being too pointed.
"Good to see you, Shataina," he said blandly. "I was just about to go get a drink. Would you like anything? Arlan? No? All right, I'll see you later."
"How have you been?" asked Arlan as his brother took his leave, followed by the remaining patricians. "I haven't seen you in a few days."
"Fairly well," she said absently. Lowering her voice, she leaned forward. "Did you notice the demon?"
"The band. Did you see it? Their eyes don't even reflect any light. I was wondering if you knew anything about it."
Arlan shook his head. "I didn't notice, but I never really studied demons very much. My classes at the Heptagram didn't focus on them. I never even learned how to summon them. I did learn about them -- we all did -- but I was trained as a battlemage."
"A battlemage?" she said incredulously.
He laughed. "Shocked?"
"I just -- I mean, I can't picture you fighting."
"I can't picture you fighting either, but you train your sword-arm at least twice a week," he pointed out.
"Serves me right for my stereotypes," she said wryly.
"Yes, it does," said a tall, green-cloaked dragon, appearing suddenly at her side. "Arlan was at the top of his class. He's probably one of the best of our generation." The man pulled off his masque and bowed to Arlan, then to Shataina. "It's been a long time," he said. It was Jikor, smiling sardonically. His hair had grown out, and was bound back in a long black queue. In the dim blue light of the lanterns, his greenish skin took on the colour of the ocean's depths.
"So it has," the two of them said in unison, and looked at each other. "I met him through my brother," Shataina said. "You?"
"Oh, Jikor and I go way back. We studied at the Heptagram together. He's flattering me, though," said Arlan cheerfully, raising his glass in a salute to the other.
Jikor shook his head. "No flattery. I overheard the Most Honoured Instructor in the Nuances of Slicing Spells discussing you one day, and he said that you were the best student he'd had in more than a century. But I suppose it's a moot point. Shataina, you look beautiful tonight, as always. What's your costume?"
"The poet. Rain Falling on Lilies," said Arlan. "Right?"
"Of course." Shataina couldn't help smiling. "You know me too well, Arlan." He looked pleased, a very faint flush appearing on his pale cheeks.
"So what have you been doing lately?" Jikor asked.
Shataina shrugged. "Oh, you know," she said. "Nothing ever happens to me. What about you?"
"I've just been away to the Threshold for a while," he said. "Around Nexus."
"That's right," said Arlan, looking at Jikor with interest. "I heard that you took care of one of the Anathema out there."
"Oh, it wasn't me," said Jikor smoothly. "I just found it and reported it. The Wyld Hunt killed it. We were lucky; it was a weak one -- the Hunt only lost five or six soldiers. It had a few of the Dragon-Blooded laid up for some time, though, and one of them lost a leg."
"That reminds me," said Shataina. "I've been meaning to ask you, Arlan. That book I was reading had a chapter on the Anathema, too, and I was wondering -- can they actually be summoned? I've never seen it mentioned."
"Anathema aren't like that," said Jikor.
"I don't understand."
"The Anathema don't ... work the same way other demons do," Arlan explained. "They appear to possess people, but they don't do it in the same way as a demon or a spirit would. Nor do their powers manifest in a demonic manner."
As he continued to speak, Shataina spotted Mnemon Sara, in a black kimono with towering black feathered wings, making her way through the crowd towards them, and tensed. She really didn't feel like dealing with Sara. Every time they spoke, the very air sparked; even Arlan could sense the tension.
When Arlan paused for breath, Shataina said quickly, "That's very interesting, but I'm afraid that I just remembered that I told my father I'd speak to him as soon as I got here. I'll see you both later. Great to see you again, Jikor." Sketching a hasty bow, she fled to the lower deck, avoiding Sara by seconds.
She nearly ran into Kan at the stairwell and had to move away again, only to be forced to abscond across the room when she spotted an overly forward patrician making towards her. Really, it was amazing how they seemed to entertain their little hopes of making contact with a Dynast, even in the face of the evidence. The demonic spirit was still there, and its eerie music rippled over the crowd, permeating the room like a scent. Her father and Mnemon Lin stood to one side of it, away from the group. Might as well go pay my respects, Shataina reflected, and wandered over.
Both of them looked up, watching her approach. Her father raised his glass to her, and Shataina bowed deeply. "Shataina," he rumbled. It had always amazed her how much his voice sounded like a rockslide. His masque was plain, carved of actual granite, with a glowering, slablike brow. It was huge, and looked heavy, but her father didn't even seem to notice the weight. "We were just talking about you. Are you enjoying the party?"
"Certainly," said Shataina.
"What do you think of our host?" inquired Mnemon Lin.
Shataina hesitated, glancing around. This was a test of her observation, and she knew her grandmother wanted her to be honest. No one was within hearing distance, but she spoke softly anyway -- one never knew, with Dragon-Blooded and their magic around. "He seems to be rather unused to social circumstances," she said, considering every word. "Not practiced in entertaining people. An odd candidate for the Deliberative."
"The Lesser House," said Lin dismissively.
"So," said her father. "How are you getting on with your fiancé?"
Shataina bit her lip. She had to tell the truth, even though it demonstrated her own failure. "We aren't at odds or anything," she confessed, "but Tarin doesn't seem overly interested in me."
"Why not?" asked Lin, raising her eyebrows.
"I don't know," said Shataina. Her grandmother's look was a punishment.
"Well, try harder," instructed her father. "There's no reason for him not to like you."
"Indeed," said Mnemon Lin. "Your father and I were just discussing the Ledaal legions in the North. Tarin knows a number of people in influential positions. He will probably know how the troops are set to move."
There was nothing to say. Shataina nodded mutely.
"Well," said her father, "I should go see to your mother. She doesn't like parties very much."
"I think I'll get another drink," said Mnemon Lin. "Would you like anything?"
"No, thank you," said Shataina.
Standing alone by the band, dismissed by her elders, she felt tired and listless. The night was nowhere near over, but her head was beginning to ache. She wanted to go home and lie down.
A glass of mead, smelling tantalizingly of honey, inserted itself into her field of vision. Shataina blinked, and looked up. Peleps Arden stood there, his masque grinning. "Shataina," he said ebulliently. "You look tired." As she watched, his masque briefly changed to a tragic grimace, then suddenly reverted to happiness. Magical, she realized. "Have a drink."
There was no polite way to refuse. Shataina didn't like drinking at parties, especially with her grandmother there to observe her behaviour, but she accepted it anyway. "Thank you," she murmured.
"Have I told you about the band?" asked Arden. "It's quite amazing. These musicians possess the power to intensify your emotions, and I'll be instructing them to begin their magic song soon. So you'll want to make sure that you feel good, because then you'll feel great." The masque's stylized eyebrows raised, then lowered.
"Oh," said Shataina. "That's very interesting."
"I'd better go warn the other guests," he said happily. "Enjoy your mead."
Shataina looked over at the performers as Arden went over to the next cluster of guests. One of them seemed to be staring at her. She shuddered. I guess I'll have to avoid this, too, she thought gloomily. I'm certainly running out of options.
Half an hour later, having made the obligatory rounds of the party and socialized with all the patricians too rich to ignore, Shataina saw Arlan standing with Sara and his brother in one corner, arguing. Arden had announced the beginning of the magical music ten minutes before, and although Shataina's vaguely melancholy boredom seemed to have been unaffected, the party was definitely heating up. So was the argument, from the looks of it; it had actually attracted a small audience. Picking up a glass of water from a nearby slave, Shataina headed over. Arlan and Tarin nodded to her; Sara didn't even acknowledge her presence.
"... House Ledaal has interests in the South that it simply cannot afford to ignore," Sara was saying heatedly. The enormous wings, tied with jewelled straps across her chest, had cleared her a personal space of nearly four feet. "It is clear that the tributary kingdoms need disciplining; half of them are trying to avoid their taxes and grow fat at our expense, and the other half are wasting their resources in pointless warfare."
"But those interests can't be served at the expense of the North," snapped Tarin. "The Bull of the North has already united over half the Ice-Walker tribes. They haven't been such a force in hundreds of years! He is the perfect example of what happens when you allow one of the Solar Anathema time to harness their power. If we give him more time, he will only become a more terrible threat, and if we allow him the North, he will inevitably strike at the Realm in the end."
"I think that House Tepet has shown us that the way to deal with the Bull of the North is not through armed men," said Sara drily. "How many of their legions has he destroyed now? Two? Three?"
"They were sent one at a time and without proper leadership," said Tarin angrily. "We have two up there right now. His followers' guerilla tactics may have worked a few times, but ten thousand Realm-trained men could defeat those barbarians easily if they had our best strategists at the head."
"The Bull of the North is a job for the Wyld Hunt or our best Dragon-Blooded assassins," said Sara reasonably. "You don't throw untrained mortal legionnaires at a supernatural problem. But the South is a problem of mortals, mortal kings and kingdoms."
"What about our interests in the East?" Arlan said suddenly. Sara and Tarin both turned to him. "We have explorers doing dangerous jobs out there. Everything from investigating ruins guarded by ancient spirits to transporting valuable artifacts back to the Blessed Isle."
"What use could a legion possibly be to an explorer?" asked Sara.
"Well ... if we assign a group of soldiers to each, they could guard the explorers."
"Split up the legion? Don't be ridiculous," said Tarin in irritation. "Really, Arlan." He turned back to Sara. "As I was saying ...."
Arlan shrugged and turned to Shataina. "What do you think?" he asked quietly. He'd taken off his masque and held it, forgotten, in one hand; Shataina reflected, as she often did, on how intent he seemed while speaking. It's probably just because he bothers to make eye contact with me, she thought, and glanced over at Tarin, who was speaking so loudly he seemed almost on the edge of shouting. Well, he's very interested in this debate ... I'll talk to him later, she excused herself, and looked up at Arlan.
"I'm really not qualified to judge," she said gracefully. "But I do have a match scheduled for the Guardian Gate tournament right about now. Come with me?"
He smiled. "I'd be happy to."
Threading through the crowd, they had to walk right past the demonic troupe in order to get to the ramp leading to the lowest deck. "Those things are so weird," Shataina remarked to Arlan under her breath.
"I know," he said, glancing back at them briefly. "Not a good idea. Especially on Calibration."
"You believe the stories, then?" she asked. "My grandmother told me they were superstition."
"Oh, no," he said positively. "Spirit sightings and other supernatural occurrences increase tenfold during Calibration. I don't think it's a malevolent time per se, but it's definitely a chancy one."
"I've heard that the Scarlet Empress ... went on sabbatical ... during Calibration," she commented.
"Really? I'm not surprised. That is a worrying rumour, though. It certainly dramatically increases the ... possibilities." He thought for a moment, then laughed softly. "Not that the Empress couldn't take care of most threats entirely by herself. I pity the terrible monster that tries to threaten her."
The ramp, as they reached the end, opened onto the cobalt carpet of the third deck. This room was not as enormous as the top or the center decks; perhaps half the size, it was lit by paper lanterns in the shapes of water dragons. Five Gateway tables, uniformly carved of ivory and richly inlaid with lapis and onyx, were scattered across the carpet, each surrounded by candles.
Shataina's opponent was a patrician, an older man with salt-and-pepper hair and a neutral grey masque. He bowed as she approached, beaming. "An honour," he pronounced as they sat down to play, complimenting her costume with a gravity and respect she quite liked; he didn't seem forward at all, very conscious of his place. She was almost sorry when she defeated him in four moves, but he just laughed and bowed again, returning to the party.
"That was impressive work," said Arlan, surveying the board. He had stayed to watch the match. "It really didn't seem quite fair. I think that man was a little drunk."
Shataina threw one of the ivory counters at him. "You're just amazed at my brilliance," she said cheerfully. "Trying to excuse it. I challenge you. The next match on this board isn't for another three hours, so it's free."
"Well, if you insist," said Arlan, sitting down and arranging the pieces.
Ten minutes later Shataina was sitting, open-mouthed, staring at her shattered defenses. "That was quick," she said weakly.
"I think I play this game with you too often," he observed as he set his side back in order. "I'm beginning to be able to predict your strategies."
"I guess so," she said, and shook her head. "I want a rematch. How about tomorrow? I can come over in the afternoon."
Arlan leaned back in his chair and looked across the white expanse at her. "Sure," he said. "I love playing Gateway with you."
"Why?" she asked. She brushed an errant hair back from her face with a self-deprecating smile. "It's clearly too easy for you."
"It's only when we play Gateway that I know what you're thinking," he said quietly.
His earnest words, and the way he looked at her, left her a little breathless. Shataina averted her eyes and hastily finished fixing up the board. "Upstairs?" she suggested. "Drinks maybe?"
Wordlessly, he stood and offered her a hand up. They were quiet as they ascended. The music had changed, and now it had a driving rhythm, seeming to synchronize with the heartbeat. Dancers in the middle of the room were becoming more enthusiastic, dishevelling clothing, masques, and nearby people. Shataina sneaked a glance at Arlan; he was still staring at her, unabashedly, unaware of the way he looked. It was almost more than she could stand. It's the music, she thought frantically. Just the music. She caught herself wishing that she could give him a hug, and bit her lip, hard, to distract herself.
"Let's get some fresh air," she said quickly as they passed the performers. Arlan, not taking his eyes off her, nodded, and Shataina nearly ran to the stairs.
Abovedecks, it was a beautiful night. The stars were out, reflected all around in the black, rippling water. Some of the blue lanterns had been extinguished, and the people up here were quiet, many of them merely catching their breath or seeking a haven from the wildness below. Sailors called softly to each other in the rigging.
Shataina felt calmer as soon as she stepped into the breeze, and as they moved away from the demon-song, Arlan turned from her to look over the water. Together they stood at the prow. With a little sigh, Shataina unpinned some of her hair from beneath the silver net and let it down, feeling only faintly guilty for disarranging the careful style. People would just assume she'd been dancing, anyway.
"Look at this, Shataina," Arlan said softly, staring downward. Moving forward, she could see a glow beneath the waves, a long ribbon of fiery light that seemed to undulate with the currents. Leaning over, she could see that it was moving lazily, circling the yacht slowly.
"It's alive," she said in surprise, looking up at him, then turned automatically as, from the corner of her eye, she caught a little flicker of light. On the rail a few feet from her sat a little bird -- rather, a winged creature about the size and shape of a hummingbird. It seemed to be the same colour as the thing below the boat, or perhaps a little darker -- orange-red, like banked coals. It brightened as she looked at it, becoming yellower, with a blue tinge at the corners of its wings. Little bird-eyes, not black but electric-white, regarded her from a little bird-head that seemed, somehow, more expressive than a bird's could be. "Arlan," she whispered.
Following her gaze, Arlan murmured in surprise. "That's funny," he said, tilting his head to one side to regard it. "I wonder what that's doing here."
"What is it?"
"A spirit," he said, sounding intrigued. "Or rather, an elemental. A fire elemental called a sun-ray. No need to whisper." Taking his hands from his sides and spreading them, palms up, he said something to the bird in an language Shataina couldn't understand.
"What are you saying? Is it dangerous?" Shataina drew back. The bird didn't react to Arlan's question, merely ruffling its wings and blinking at her.
"I don't think so. It's not responding to me, though. I wonder what it's doing here? They aren't native to this area, and they certainly don't like water." Arlan came forward, leaning near.
The sun-ray trilled, a high-pitched sound that made Shataina jump, then spread its bright wings. From beneath each one came a shaft of clear light, sunlight, piercing the blue-tinged dimness; it revealed the bright azure of the boat's side, the white of Shataina's dress. Launching itself into the air, the sun-ray hurled itself at her.
So close -- she could see the sparks that flew from its wings, vanishing before they reached the carpet. Its beak was like a golden dagger. Shataina cried out and flung up her arms, protecting her face. The sun-ray banked right before her, shafts of sunlight flaring around the deck, then flew around her five times before darting away and disappearing into the sails. After a moment, the sunlight vanished.
"Shataina," Arlan said anxiously. "Shataina, are you all right?" He reached for her, checking himself and stopping his hand in midair.
Steadying herself on the railing, Shataina stood still for a long moment, catching her breath. The rush of air imparted by the sun-ray's flight had been warm; she felt circled in warmth, streaked with it, as if it were a tangible substance that had been drawn across her skin. Within, she could feel a peculiar warmth as well, as if in answer. It was unnerving, but also, somehow, comfortable.
"I'm fine," she said, taking his hand for a brief moment, then dropping it. He looked up at the sails and shrugged.
"I guess it liked you," he said.
"I guess so," she murmured. She tried to hold on to the warmth as it faded, but it was quickly gone.
Towards midnight, Peleps Arden called everyone to the top deck, where Arlan and Shataina still sat, talking. The last of the cobalt lamps had long darkened; slaves had brought the two of them wrought-iron chairs and light cloaks to ward off the chill. In the breezy peace, under the stars, they had remained for two hours, knowing that they ought to return to the lower decks, but unwilling to disturb the moment.
It was completely disrupted by the flood of guests as they stumbled up the stairs, laughing, mostly roaring drunk. The excitement and chatter were loud and boisterous. "I guess the performance was effective," Shataina whispered to Arlan; he grimaced.
"Please, please," Peleps Arden was saying in the front of the crowd, waving his arms for silence. The people ignored him. Helplessly, he stood back, glancing at Jikor beside him, who shrugged.
After a few moments, Mnemon Lin came to the front, spoke a few words to Arden, then turned to the crowd and raised one hand. Instantly, there was quiet, only a few stray, fading giggles remaining, scattered among the younger Dragon-Blooded. Arden bowed to her and called out, "My brother and I have arranged a little display for your amusement. I hope that you enjoy it," as he brought up his arms like a conductor.
Shataina's gaze skipped to Jikor, who had receded behind his brother. He was looking at the sky intently, and as the crowd began to murmur in confusion, there was a great flash, a blazing splash as if of molten gold, and the entire deck was flooded with firelight.
No, she realized after a confused moment, it had just been water that had spattered the deck, disrupted by the fiery ribbon as it arrowed out of the sea and into the sky. It was enormous; it had to have been very far down to have looked to be a few feet in width, swimming in the depths under the boat. Her dazzled eyes could see no features or changes to it -- it was merely a long streak of flame as it dove over the boat, then came up into the air and dove again, and again. Gasps and cries subsided as the people began to watch it in fascination, only to gasp and cry out again as sunlight, too, began to pour over the deck.
It was the sun-ray, but more than one; an entire flock of the elementals flew up out of the sails and swooped back and forth in the air above the yacht. The elementals coasted and fluttered, the rays of clear light that they produced sweeping back and forth across the deck in a dizzying array, making rainbows of the sea-spray and bringing out the colours of the crowd as if it were day.
It was beautiful. Shataina stood transfixed in her thin cloak, ignoring the sounds the other guests made as they watched, ignoring even a patrician who jostled her and then cringed back in terror. She had never seen anything like it before. Admittedly, she considered wryly, Jikor is showing off like mad, but at least he's doing a pretty good job of it.
After a long time, immeasurable, she brought her gaze down, finding the crowd thinned; most had returned below. Blinking and shaking her head to clear it, she almost laughed in delight. Arlan met her eyes as she looked up from the floor. "Beautiful," he said softly. She nodded.
Behind him, Jikor was watching her, turning away as she glanced at him. Suddenly embarrassed, Shataina looked back up at the glowing birds. She heard Jikor's voice intoning a command; the sun-rays swooped into formation, creating a V-shape. Jikor kept chanting for a moment, then said one word quite loudly, and the flock turned as one entity and flew across the waters to the south. The fire-ribbon fell back into the water with a final splash and did not come up again.
"Interesting banishing ritual," said Arlan, turning to Jikor. Jikor waved a hand.
"I always find it better to order elementals with an iron fist," he said. "Especially such small, flighty little things as sun-rays. They respond better to sharp commands, and they're not powerful enough to be a threat later, when they're freed from the summoning ritual."
Arlan nodded a little, and took a long drink from his water. "Still," he said, "I prefer not to offend them."
"You're too kind to them," Jikor said acerbically. "They should learn their place in the Celestial Hierarchy."
"Why Arlan," interrupted a voice simply dripping with sweetness. "Here you are. You haven't been avoiding me all night, have you?" Sara materialized at his side and took his arm. She didn't bow to Shataina, though she nodded to Jikor. "I've been meaning to introduce you to someone."
Reluctance stood plain on his face. He glanced at Shataina, then back to Sara. Sara turned slightly, looking Shataina straight in the face, and Shataina could see the poison in her eyes. She looked back steadily, neutrally. I could win this one, Sara, she thought smugly, and shifted her eyes away from the other woman's. It wasn't worth antagonizing her.
"I guess I've been monopolizing you too much," she said to Arlan, smiling. "We'll have to discuss demons some other time. I'll see you later."
"Later," was all he had time to say as Sara yanked him away. Following with her eyes, Shataina spotted Tarin across the deck, instructing one of his servants. Her father was several yards away, standing alone with her mother by the rail. Time to reassure Father that I'm working for the benefit of House Mnemon, she thought.
"Do excuse me," she said to Peleps Jikor, who was still standing with her, "but I really must go speak to my own fiancé. It's good to see you. You should call on me sometime."
"Naturally," he murmured, and as they bowed to each other she was already plotting out ways to avoid his visit.
Tarin didn't notice her until she was right next to him, and couldn't conceal his surprise and dismay as he glanced around and noticed her. "Shataina," he said.
She bowed, smiling at him so sweetly it practically made her face ache. "Tarin," she said. "It occurs to me that we've hardly spoken in weeks. I was hoping I could have the next dance."
Ugh, his expression said, but he put a brave face on necessity. "Of course," he said smoothly, leading her downstairs to the floor.
Shataina was a good dancer, and she didn't need to concentrate on it. It gave her the opportunity to study Tarin's face, trying to find an opening, but she couldn't think of any topics of conversation that weren't tired and contrived. He wasn't even looking at her. Shataina wasn't sure whether it vexed or confused her; she couldn't remember a time when someone had ignored her so completely. What am I doing wrong? she wondered in frustration.
Every conversational gambit she tried was ignored, or dismissed. Tarin seemed to fix his gaze on a point above her head, responding to her questions with platitudes or dull observations that stopped the interchange in its tracks. Only when, in desperation, she tried to ask him about how his military comrades were faring, did he warm; but he seemed to also understand that she wasn't asking out of genuine interest, and the topic died as the others had.
The dance drew to an end, and they paced carefully through the final steps and off the floor. Shataina racked her brains for something to say, but he pre-empted her.
"That was lovely, Shataina," he said insincerely, bowing to her. "Now I really ought to see to my servants. There's no telling what they're getting up to."
Speechless, Shataina stared after his retreating back. The padding in his costume bounced slightly as he moved; it would have been amusing, in other circumstances. Servants? she thought in bewilderment. Surely he must know how he just insulted me!
How can I be expected to charm such a man?
She could feel a blinding headache coming on. I'm done for the night, she decided suddenly, and began to collect her slaves in preparation for the yacht's return to port.
Mnemon Lin took the carriage back to the Manse with Shataina, leaving the party a little early. Her elder relative's disapproving glance made Shataina embarrassingly aware of her disheveled hair. Lin, of course, was immaculate, and seemed completely unfazed by the length of their night.
Settling into the carriage's grey-cushioned seats, Lin leaned back and affixed Shataina with her adamant black stare. "How did you enjoy the party, Granddaughter?" she asked.
"Parts of it were entertaining," said Shataina truthfully. "I thought that the light display with the sun-rays was really quite amazing."
"Yes, fairly pretty," said her grandmother, "although perhaps better suited to one of the Fire-Aspected Houses, rather than Peleps." She sat still for a moment, still as only Mnemon Lin could, looking almost as if she'd been hewn from living rock. "And how is Lord Arlan?" she asked abruptly.
"He's doing well," Shataina answered, feeling slightly unbalanced by the sudden question.
"I do hope that he and his brother haven't any sort of ... rivalry," said Lin. "It's so awkward when brothers fight." The warning in her tone was faint, very faint, but unmistakable.
"No," said Shataina. "Nothing like that." Her grandmother seemed on the verge of opening her mouth again. Oh no, thought Shataina, she'll tell me not to spend so much time with him. "I spoke to Tarin about the legions a little bit," she said hastily.
"Really," said Mnemon Lin. The steely glint in her eyes said, I know what you're up to, but I'll let you get away with it, just this once. Shataina turned to the window as if she needed air, focusing on the black dragon motif painted on the carriage's walls; still, it felt as if she could feel Lin's gaze boring into her.
"Yes," she said, affecting an air of nonchalance. "He seems very preoccupied with the North, especially with the Anathema running rampant. I suspect that if he has any input in the legion's movements at all, he'll put himself squarely behind remaining near Cherak."
"I'll try to talk to him more soon," said Shataina, masking the distaste as best she could.
There was a long pause. Lin seemed wrapped in thought. "Did you enjoy the party, Grandmother?" Shataina inquired at last.
"No," said her grandmother shortly, "but that wasn't the point."
The rest of the way to the Manse was spent in silence.
It is said that during the time in which the Scarlet Empress was deciding upon the laws of her Realm, she was sitting alone in her garden, contemplating the greatness of the Elemental Dragon of Wood; and of a sudden, she was overcome with exhaustion, falling asleep there upon the grass.
When she awoke, a great scroll lay beside her -- a scroll not of paper but of five interlocking pieces of jade, one of each colour, sacred to the Dragons themselves. Her guards swore that no one had entered or left the garden as she slept, and when the Empress lifted the scroll, she found that it was so light that the very grass that had lain beneath it was unbent. Calligraphed upon the scroll, in letters of gold and carnelian, were the punishments that the Great Dragons demanded be visited upon those who defiled their worship. The scroll can still be seen in the Empress's throne room, and all agree that it is so finely crafted, and its punishments so great in their wisdom and justice, that it must certainly have come from the hands of the gods.
The laws of defilement apply to all, be they the lowest of the slaves or the highest of the Dynasty. None are immune to the wrath of the Immaculate Dragons, though if one of the Dragon-Blooded chooses to pervert their heritage and destroy a temple, then they are to be declared outcaste and exiled, not killed.
If one sets fire to a temple, perverting the Element of Hesiesh, then that one is to be burned.
If one floods a temple, perverting the Element of Danaa'd, then that one is to be drowned.
If one causes a rockslide upon a temple or collapses it, perverting the Element of Pasiap, then that one is to be buried alive.
If one diverts the winds, whether by use of a Wind Tower or by persuading renegade air spirits, and brings a temple down, perverting the Element of Mela, then that one is to be hung by his wrists at great height, naked, and left to freeze.
If one allows a temple to become overgrown and ill-kept so that it can be no longer used for worship, perverting the Element of Sextes Jylis, then that one is to be bound with withes of young wood, staked out in a great forest, and left to starve.
For other defilements, which do not result in the destruction of a temple or the death of any Immaculate Monks, the Dragons grant the criminal a chance at redemption: they will merely be stripped of all rank and privilege, declared outcaste, and thrown upon the mercy of the streets, to do penance for the rest of their lives.
-- from the Immaculate Texts, commentary: the Laws of the Realm
Shataina was exhausted the next morning, but Mnemon Lin had no tolerance for laziness, so her servants were sent to awaken her at the usual time. Sitting mazy-eyed before her great jewelled mirror while the slaves brushed her hair, she nearly fell asleep again several times. The handmaidens had nearly finished when she finally noticed in the glass that her hairdresser was using a plain, wooden slave's brush.
"What's this?" she asked sharply, sitting up, suddenly awake. "Where's the antique silver and amber hairbrush my grandmother lent me?"
The slaves fell back, looking at each other. At last one -- a pretty azure-skinned battle-captive from the Western archipelagoes -- said, reluctantly, "My lady, we can't find it. It's gone."
"Gone!" Shataina stood, facing them down. "What do you mean, gone?"
"It isn't in the room," the unfortunate girl cried, cringing back. "We searched all morning when we we setting out your clothing."
Shataina took several deep breaths. I'm sure it's just been mislaid, she reassured herself. "Well, finish my hair and then search for it again," she said, sitting down again. Trembling, the slaves rushed to obey.
By lunch, Shataina was forced to send a servant to the seneschal with a message apprising him of the situation. He replied within the hour, stating that it had been discovered that her hairdresser had stolen the brush and sold it in the marketplace; the slave would be punished in the appropriate manner. Mnemon Lin appended a note that informed her that no blame attached to her in the situation, although Shataina had been the one to promote the slave. Shataina felt a little better after that, though she cursed herself for her own failure to judge the girl's character and keep her properly in line. She could only hope that her grandmother wouldn't take responsibilities away from her in light of her shortcoming here.
She ate lunch alone, in a little sitting room she had for the purpose, reading a book on the side. The only formal meal at Lin's Manse was supper, and Shataina took advantage of that to do things during her other meals that had never been allowed in her father's household. She loved the sitting room, too, which had several enormous windows and a skylight, letting in sunlight at all times of day.
Lingering over a berry torte with the faintest hint of rose-scent, she was deep into a chapter about the Eastern kingdoms when there was a respectful knock at the door. "Come in," she said, and looked up as one of her personal slaves answered it.
The doorman entered, followed by a liveried courier from the city. "What's this?" Shataina asked.
"A message for you, my lady," said the courier, bowing, and placed a paper on the table.
Picking it up, she saw that it had no address written on it, nor any seal. Shataina frowned. "Who is this from?"
"It was given to me by a tall man in a dark cloak," answered the courier. "A gentleman."
Her frown deepened, and she opened it. It had been written in obvious haste, the scrawl messy and slanted. S -- it ran. Divest yourself of your servants and meet me at the waterfall to the east of your Manse within the next half hour. Tell no one. Destroy this message. A.
Shataina bit her lip and toyed with her gold fork. The writing didn't look like Arlan's, but it could simply be that he had written it too quickly for the normal identifying characteristics. "Did you see his face?" she asked.
The man shook his head.
"Do you remember what his voice was like?"
"High-class accent. He sounded like a patrician or a Dynast," said the man.
Grimacing slightly -- couldn't everyone tell the difference between a patrician's accent and a Dynast's? -- Shataina read the message over again. It was extremely suspicious -- it didn't sound like Arlan's style, neither writing nor speech. And she was due to meet him in the evening, for Gateway; what could possibly have happened since the previous night that required such haste? But she also couldn't think of any reasons why someone would be trying to tempt her out into the wilderness. Could this be an attempt at a kidnapping for ransom? Yet -- surely everyone knew the punishment for harming a member of the Dynasty. And she was of House Mnemon, no less.
And if it had been from Arlan, it had to be important. But why would he need to see her so quickly? There were others more useful than she. And why would he need to see her alone?
It could be some kind of bizarre trap, she thought. But -- it might be genuine.
"That will be all," she told the courier.
It would take twenty minutes to get to the waterfall. If she had to be there within half an hour .... Without a word to her slaves, Shataina went to her room and picked up her katana, concealing it under a cloak. Hesitating over the message, she toyed with the idea of leaving it on her dressing table to be found if she went missing. But it said to destroy it.
Folding the letter neatly in half, Shataina tucked in into a cloak pocket and left the Manse, telling her servants that she was going for a short walk. She made sure to emphasize the word "brief" -- if she wasn't back that afternoon, she wanted them to panic.
Shataina walked quickly through the rose gardens and navigated the hedge-maze easily, hardly paying attention. With every step she took towards the forest path and the waterfall, her unease intensified. Maybe I should go back and get a bodyguard or two, she thought. But she had to be there soon, and if he needed her ....
The path was small and quiet, and she reached the waterfall in record time. No one was there. A quick glance around told her that if anyone was hiding, they were doing it extremely well.
Irresolutely, she stood by the rocks, staring down at the foaming rapids as they flooded over the edge of the thirty-foot cliff. She and Arlan had walked here before, more than once. She could remember sitting on the grass beside him, watching the water, and pretending that she couldn't properly read his expression, as she always did.
Don't think about it, she told herself.
Looking around again, Shataina backed herself up against a tree and drew her sword, making sure that she was in the most defensible possible position. If this was a trap, they wouldn't take her unawares; from where she was standing, she could be away on the path fairly quickly at the first sign of danger. And if Arlan had sent the message, then he would be here soon. Hopefully.
Arlan still hadn't arrived half an hour, then an hour later. The minutes ticked by and Shataina began pacing anxiously. He isn't coming, she thought, but couldn't get herself to leave; anxiety had curled itself into a tight ball in her stomach. Maybe he was delayed. Maybe he was in trouble.
After an hour and a half, Shataina at last let her misgivings get the better of her and rushed back to the Manse, running through the gardens flat-out, arousing odd looks from the garden-slaves.
There was nothing new in her room. Panting from the run, Shataina searched the heavy ebony dresser, looked behind her mirror, even sorted through the silk sheets on her bed, but couldn't find anything out of place. Why had someone tried to get her out of the house? She searched again, practically ransacking her own room, but found nothing. And there would have been easier ways to plant things in her room, anyway.
She went to the seneschal and requested to see Mnemon Lin, who demanded that Shataina make appointments as everyone else did, but he told her that she was in court. "I'll make an appointment for you shortly after she returns," he said, raising his eyebrows at her nervousness. When she asked the doorman if there had been any visitors since her departure, he informed her that aside from the normal deliveries, no one had come by.
Lin returned home fifteen minutes before Shataina's scheduled appointment, in the middle of the afternoon. Shataina waited outside the office in the iron chairs of her grandmother's receiving room, wondering what to say. She was beginning to think that she ought to just let it drop; nothing seemed to be out of place. ... But if she did that, she'd have to consider the fact that it might have really been Arlan, and that something terrible could have happened to him.
Perhaps it had just been a practical joke ... but that was hard to believe. Entire scandals have been manufactured in just such a way as this, she knew, and there's any number of ways my absence could have been turned to someone else's advantage .... Shataina wondered if she'd searched her room thoroughly enough, and half-rose to go look again; someone could have planted "secret missives" between her and some outrageous "lover" in her dresser, or ... she forced herself to sit down. Her grandmother would blame her if something shameful came of this, but Shataina thought she stood the best chance of avoiding censure by waiting quietly, meeting her grandmother promptly, and explaining her own side of the story as quickly as possible.
Another city courier was conducted in as she sat ruminating. He looked as if he'd been running; he was winded, and sweating. Bowing to Shataina, he went past her and into the office. She could hear the brief rise and fall of voices; then her grandmother and the courier came out, the courier departing instantly.
Mnemon Lin stood in front of her office's black door for a long moment, regarding Shataina. Her face was completely expressionless. Suddenly frightened, Shataina asked in a hushed voice, "What's wrong, Grandmother?"
Her grandmother didn't answer; instead, she left the room. Shataina fiercely resisted the urge to run after her, trying to think of something, some harmless cause for her grandmother's behaviour. Tensely, she sat on the edge of her seat, massaging her temples.
Lin returned a quarter of an hour later, striding through the room quickly and going to her office. Shataina could hear her sorting through files. After what seemed like an eternity, her grandmother came out of the office and looked at her again.
"Are you aware of what happened today?" her grandmother asked.
"No," Shataina whispered. She felt rooted to her seat.
Coldly, her grandmother stared her down. Shataina tried to look back, but she wanted to curl up and hide her face. "Please, Grandmother," she said in agony. "What's going on?"
Mnemon Lin's voice was freezing and remote. She sounded as though she were summing up a case. "Today," she said, "you were seen by no fewer than a dozen people, several of them Immaculate monks, entering the main temple in the center of town. You went through your normal ritual -- burning offerings, prostrating yourself -- and then, during your prayers, you began to scream. You cursed the Immaculate Dragons of the Elements, swearing them to be your eternal enemies. You fell and had fits on the floor. As the onlookers stood, unable to move in their horror, you spat upon the great jade-scaled statues of the Dragons themselves and declared that they did not, and had never, deserved your love and respect."
Shataina felt as if the floor had dropped out from under her. She had never even considered anything as bad as this. Someone really hates me, she realized in horror, more than I ever imagined ... and I've been a fool and let them destroy me .... Her breath caught in her throat, the beginnings of tears burning in her eyes.
"What have you to say for yourself?" demanded Lin.
Willing herself to be calm, Shataina bowed, then drew the letter from her pocket. Passing it to Mnemon Lin, she breathed steadily for a moment, then tried to match the remoteness in her grandmother's tone. "At lunch I received a messenger who gave me this message. Fearing that it came from Arlan, I went to the meeting place and waited for an hour and a half. After that, I returned home. I have not left the Manse since then, waiting for you so that I could relate these odd events."
Lin re-folded the letter and placed it in her pocket. "Why didn't you destroy the letter, as it asks?"
"It was too suspicious," Shataina said, striving to keep the plaintive note out of her voice.
"I see," Lin said, regarding her granddaughter thoughtfully. "Hmm." She appeared to come to a decision, and snapped her fingers. Several of the liveried house guards came through the door to the hall, and kowtowed.
"You are confined to your room until further notice," Lin informed her. "This is for your own protection, against further accusations as much as anything else. These men will be on duty outside your door until further notice. Your meals shall be brought to you."
"May I receive visitors?" Shataina asked immediately.
"Who did you have in mind?"
Her grandmother's lips thinned. "I shall have him informed of the situation. For now, it is your duty to stay in your room."
"Yes, Grandmother," Shataina murmured. "Thank you."
As soon as she reached her room, Shataina dispatched several handmaidens, demanding a list of the slaves that had been present when she was eating lunch. She also sent a messenger to every courier's company in the city, asking whether a man matching the courier's description worked at any of them. "And bring me some books," she ordered her last slave.
"What kind of books, my lady?"
"Any books! Something to keep me occupied!"
Eventually, she was brought a wide selection, but as she sat down to read, Shataina found that she could not concentrate on any of them. The slaves and guards gave her a wide berth, staying still and silent in their corners when they could. Even Rishi seemed to sense that something was wrong; she didn't jump or play the way she normally did, remaining in her basket, as if frightened of the change that had come over her mistress.
Shataina pressed down her own fear and rage. She paced back and forth, establishing a complex pattern across the carpet; when that palled, she practiced her unarmed martial arts, cracking block after block of wood and stone.
It was the helplessness that made her angriest. Shataina couldn't stand the thought that her grandmother was taking care of all the details in the investigation without even consulting her. Of course, it was only to be expected, and it made sense; Lin was a judge, familiar with the process. Still, Shataina fumed.
There was no evidence. Even the note was suspect; Shataina could easily have arranged to have it sent to herself. Breaking another plank in half, she tried to think of supernatural causes. Could something have possessed her -- a renegade spirit, perhaps? But why would a spirit care about her?
She picked at her dinner, sending most of it back, and when Lin was announced at the door, she came up from her seat like a coiled spring.
Her grandmother, austere as ever, was followed by Arlan, his hair completely disheveled. The clean scent of freezing air hit her as soon as he came in; the normally breezy winds about him had whipped into a little storm. He was dressed haphazardly, obviously hadn't paid much attention to his clothes.
"Grandmother," Shataina said quickly, bowing. "Lord Arlan. I've been getting a list of the servants who were here when the courier arrived -- I have it here. And I sent a message --"
"Calm yourself, Granddaughter," Mnemon Lin said coolly. "And leave the investigation up to us. It is none of your affair."
"Shataina," her grandmother said sharply.
Shataina felt the blood drain from her face. "Yes, my lady," she whispered.
Arlan pulled the note out his pocket and offered it to her. "I didn't write this," he said. His eyes sought hers, and he held her gaze for a moment, the connection broken as Lin plucked the letter from his fingers before Shataina could take it.
"We have determined that the woman who invaded the temple resembled you in every particular," announced her grandmother, "even her voice. There are several witnesses prepared to swear under oath that it was you."
"But it wasn't," Shataina cried. "That would be suicidal!"
"It would be remarkably stupid," Lin said. "I thought you more intelligent than that."
Shataina swallowed. "I've been thinking," she said, adding hastily, "I know you said not to interfere with the investigation, but I was remembering my hairbrush -- it was stolen this morning. Anyway, Arlan lent me a book two months ago that discussed the basic principles of Essence, and it has occurred to me that if someone were to have possession of my hair, they might be able to control me."
Mnemon Lin raised her eyebrows and glanced at Arlan, whose face took on the inward, thoughtful look that came when he was solving a puzzle. "Maybe," he said slowly. "I'll have to research the possibility further."
"Or it could have been spirit possession," Shataina went on desperately. "I remember being in the woods, but could a spirit have simply made me think I was in the woods, and taken control of me?"
"It is Calibration," Arlan said absently. Lin gave him a dark look.
"Spirit possession is too easy a defense to hold up in court," she said, but her voice had lost some of its chill. "One needs substantial evidence in order to prove it, else every petty criminal would use it as a shield."
"Just an idea," Shataina said, hating the lack of control she had over her voice. It should be steady, she thought angrily. Why can't I keep it steady? She waited for a response, staring down at her hands, fearing what Mnemon Lin would say. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that Arlan had his eyes closed, his lips moving as if he were trying to remember something.
"I'll hire an investigator tomorrow," said Lin abruptly. "There may be no certain evidence of your innocence as of yet, but perhaps we can find some. It will not do to have a member of my household in such disgrace."
"And I'll send a message to the Heptagram tonight," Arlan added, opening his eyes. "To one of my old teachers. It's a busy time, but they may be able to tell me something, or give me an idea about where to begin my research. I swear I'll do everything I can for you, Shataina."
She hadn't known she wasn't breathing until she exhaled. "Thank you," she said weakly.
"Now get some sleep, Granddaughter," Mnemon Lin ordered. "You may need to answer a lot of questions tomorrow. Come, Lord Arlan." Without a second glance, she strode out, Arlan trailing behind her, looking back. Shataina managed a smile for him as well as a confident wink, and he smiled slightly back as the door closed behind him.
I'm never going to be able to sleep, she thought, and sighed. "Fetch me the first eight books from the library on spirits," she instructed one of her slaves, and sat down at her desk. "And some coffee." Maybe her grandmother would let her become more involved in the investigation if she could find something useful to contribute first.
Outcaste: lowest of the low. Even slaves spit upon outcaste. Wherever they may go, let no pious one offer them succour. They deserve no mercy and no care.
Though the Dragon-Blooded are above others in all else, in this they are lower. For one of the Dragon-Blooded who chooses to become outcaste is maligning the holiness of his Essence, granted him by the Immaculate Dragons. To be Dragon-Blooded, and to become outcaste -- to refuse the Immaculate Faith of the Realm -- is to spit upon the very gods who gave favour to one's soul. So let those outcaste Dragon-Blooded be treated even as the demon Anathema: shunned by all, cursed by many, and hunted by those who see fit.
-- from the Laws of the Realm, commentary
Shataina was even more exhausted the next morning than she had been the day before; she had only given in to sleep half an hour before her handmaidens awakened her and rushed her through her morning preparations. To her drowsy protestations, they answered that her grandmother had ordered that she be ready for a meeting with the investigator within the hour. Dressed in white and pale with exhaustion, she was escorted down the stairs and into her grandmother's receiving room by four guardsmen, fortified by more of her grandmother's imported coffee and some fruit juice.
Mnemon Lin stood, as if posing, beside one of the narrow window-slits that marked the lowest rooms of the Manse, tall and forbidding in her usual black. Peleps Jikor was across the room, wearing a plain teal silk robe and sipping at a steaming mug. Jikor -- the investigator? Shataina thought in surprise as she bowed automatically, waiting for their return bows and for Mnemon Lin to take her seat.
Her grandmother remained standing, not even gesturing for them to sit, and Shataina gritted her teeth as Lin went through the formal welcome for Jikor. She wanted desperately to relax into one of the iron chairs, despite their discomfort, and for the thousandth time she despised the forms of courtesy and hierarchy that forced her to obey Lin's whim and stand upright.
She focused on the ivory dragon motif worked into the marble walls and fought the urge to close her eyes as Lin asked Jikor, politely, for help with the case, summing it up with all the succinct expertise of her years of being a judge.
"You see, Lord Jikor," her grandmother concluded, "my granddaughter is in great need of help. It would be excellent if we could enlist you in our efforts to prove her innocence. You will, of course, be recompensed if you choose to take the case. I have heard a great deal about your success as an investigator." Shataina noticed that Jikor hid a faint grin at the last sentence, taking a sip in an attempt to disguise it. His green-blue sleeves contrasted oddly with his green-tinted skin; his colour seemed out of place against the stark white, black and occasional dark red-brown of Lin's Manse.
"Well," he said, "I can do my best, but I'm afraid that I'll only be here till the end of Calibration. I'm accompanying my brother as he goes to the first Deliberative meeting of the year, and I've made appointments in the Imperial City that I simply cannot postpone."
"Of course. All this is understood."
Jikor nodded, and glanced at Shataina. "Did you commit the crimes your grandmother has listed?" he asked.
Shataina wondered if he had mastered the Charm that detected lies. "No," she said, hoping she sounded honest. She was beginning to feel more awake, the coffee finally affecting her with an electric, nervous energy.
He studied her for a moment, then nodded again. "Either you're telling the truth or you're a very good liar," he said, and smiled at her slightly. "My lady, Mnemon Lin: I request that you allow you granddaughter to accompany me on my investigations. I'll act as her chaperone, if you wish."
"You think that her ... insight ... would be helpful?" Lin's tone indicated that she found the prospect unlikely.
"Indubitably," Jikor said firmly. "If she is being framed, then her viewpoint can, perhaps, lend me some understanding of who would wish her harm. In addition, she may be able to tell me something that can help prove her innocence -- some detail that might only come out when we're going over the scene."
"As you wish," said Lin. "I shall expect reports every day."
"Naturally." Jikor bowed. "I ought to send a message to my brother -- would you mind ...?"
"Of course," said Mnemon Lin. "Tell the doorman to send it."
Jikor brushed past Shataina and out the door, nodding to her, and left the scent of seawater hanging in the air behind him, with an almost-unpleasant tinge of fish.
"Sit down," Lin said when he was gone, and narrowed her eyes slightly as Shataina gratefully sank into a chair. "I told you to sleep last night. Well, I suppose that the exhausted, distressed look may at least make Lord Jikor feel sorry for you."
"I didn't expect him to be here," said Shataina, suppressing a yawn.
"He does a lot of investigating around the Threshold kingdoms for House Peleps," said her grandmother dryly, the emphasis almost too faint to be noticed. "Best in the area right now; our House investigator is, I'm afraid, on the other side of the continent. -- I believe I shall go look over some of my case files. If Jikor takes you out of the Manse today, as I expect he shall, then be sure to be back in time for dinner. And do not leave his line of sight if you can possibly help it. We must not allow even the smallest opportunity for any more incidents."
Investigating, thought Shataina as her grandmother stalked out. Of course. I should have seen it before. Jikor obviously did spywork for his House. What a ... polite ... word for it.
A servant brought her some chocolate-filled breakfast pastries, and she ate them where she sat. She had just finished, and requested some more coffee, when Jikor came in, wearing a fine traveller's cloak. "One for me too," he ordered the servant, then addressed Shataina. "Would you like some time to prepare, or are you ready to go to the temple?"
"The sooner the better. Time is short." He offered his hand to help her up. "I had assumed that you would want to come with me, since you seem to otherwise be restricted to the house -- I hope this wasn't presumptuous?"
"Not at all," Shataina said hastily. She smiled at him, lowering her lashes and tossing her head; her hair was loose, and her handmaidens had perfumed it so that when the locks shifted, they released the scent of honeysuckle. Probably best to play the flirt with Jikor, she mused, but not to be too blatant. I need him on my side, after all, rather than merely doing this for the money -- but he knows me. He'll know it's deliberate if I suddenly press myself all over him. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," he murmured, gesturing for her to walk ahead of him towards the front of the Manse. They drank their coffee quickly at the door, then mounted the steps into his carriage. "I hope you're feeling better," he said solicitously as they settled into the velvet-padded interior. "You looked exhausted all through that meeting. Have you been having trouble sleeping?"
"A bit," she said, deciding not to mention her research. She didn't want him to think that she was infringing on his area of expertise, after all. At all costs, she had to cooperate, and to seem pliant and unoriginal, unable to commit such a crime. He knew she was smart; but she'd always acted, with him, the same way she acted around the vast majority of the Dragon-Blooded -- submissive -- and so he probably wouldn't think she was acting out of character. Then again, he'd seen her challenge her brother to combat .... Shataina folded her hands in her lap, lowering her chin so that she could gaze up at Jikor becomingly. Just act attractive, she told herself, and don't be too analytical. That should be easy enough.
"I don't mean to subject you to unnecessary strain," he said, "but I do need you to answer a few questions, and some of them may seem to be rather forward." To Shataina's nod of assent, he asked, "How do you feel about this marriage?"
Shataina blinked, and turned to look out the window at the passing buildings so she didn't have to look at his face. Seeing her hesitation, Jikor said gently, "Really, I don't mean to intrude, but I should know. This was obviously a personally motivated crime, and I need to know everything your friends would know about your personal life in order to solve it."
"I don't discuss my marriage. Not even with my friends," Shataina hedged. There's no way you need to know this for the investigation, she thought. Trying to get close to me, Jikor? It occurred to her that perhaps she ought not to flirt so much, but rather to subtly discourage him. Even as the thought came to her, though, she rejected it; she was too likely to offend him with such a course.
"Still, I'm sure they know you well enough to be able to guess how you feel."
I really can't avoid this question without annoying him, Shataina thought. Well, what harm will it do? She sighed and lowered her head, doing her best to give off an aura of modest reticence rather than irritation. "Honestly? I'm not too pleased about it. Tarin and I don't get along very well. I would really prefer not to get married at all for a little while, but I have to serve my family, of course."
"Of course," said Jikor softly. "I'm sorry to hear that, but you must understand that this gives you a motive for the act."
"How?" Shataina tried to think of a way it could do so, but she was bewildered.
"If you were confident that you would be found innocent, you might have committed the blasphemies in an effort to postpone the wedding. The Kevoc Household will certainly ask for an extension in view of recent events."
"That seems like a rather esoteric chain of reasoning," she said dubiously. "Besides, doesn't that equally indicate that Tarin might have done it?"
"It might, but how would he have taken on your appearance and voice? I can't think of any Charms that could do that."
"Well, someone did it, so there must be a way. Arlan's been researching it -- maybe he can help your investigation." Charms, she thought, and remembered an earlier question. "Why don't we just find someone who knows that Charm that can determine if I'm lying, and use their evidence in court?"
Jikor raised an eyebrow. "You don't know?" he asked. "You're so well-read! I'm surprised. -- I myself have learned that Charm, but it isn't infallible. It's difficult to use it effectively on magical beings. Of course this isn't a problem with you, but there's another weakness: if I were to use it on you, and you concentrated hard enough, you could defeat its effects. I'm really shocked that you never heard about this."
Shataina shook her head. "Never." Of course, she thought wearily, I could just be telling you this in an attempt to convince you that I didn't know earlier, when you questioned me while using that Charm. After all, wouldn't I try to make it look as if I didn't know, if I had concentrated and defeated your Charm? Wondering whether her confessed ignorance made her seem more or less suspicious, she leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes. She was so tired of dealing with the lies and traps of everyday discourse. Can't hurt to shut my eyes for a moment, she thought. The coffee will keep me from falling asleep.
Someone was shaking her gently. Shataina turned her head away from the light that pressed redly against her closed eyelids, and swore. "Leave me alone," she muttered. Her grandmother's handmaidens always awakened her too early.
"Interesting vocabulary," said Jikor's voice. He sounded almost amused.
Shataina gasped and sat up, blinking. She was still in the carriage, Jikor standing at the door beside her. Behind him she could see the carved dragons and archway that led the way into the grounds of the city's major temple. The tall pagoda had been painted in the colours of the Dragons -- white, green, red, black, blue -- and each of the five tiers had been decorated with stylized patterns representing each Element, one for every tier, from the painted white marbling at the lowest to the blue clouds at the top. Monks, shaven-headed and neatly attired in their undyed, pale cotton robes, moved in stately, silent groups between the pagoda's pillars. She caught a whiff of incense as Jikor climbed past her and into the carriage; he would naturally have burned offerings while inside the temple.
"I'm sorry I had to awaken you," Jikor said, folding himself into the seat, "but while I was inside the temple, you somehow managed to entirely block the door by stretching your legs out across the seats in your sleep. Don't worry that you were alone; I left several guards to watch you."
"How awkward of me," said Shataina, chagrined. "I'm so sorry I fell asleep." She felt much better from the nap, although she was still tired.
"It's just as well," he said. "I'm afraid that you wouldn't have been allowed into the temple anyway. I'd forgotten."
Naturally. They can't have a blasphemer in their temple .... "I should have thought of that," she sighed. "Well, what news?"
"Nothing much." Jikor rapped sharply on the roof of the carriage, and they began to move. "Several of the monks have seen you before in the marketplace and while praying, and they were all prepared to swear that it was you. Whoever did this knew how you normally act in the temple, as well -- they seem to have imitated you as well as anyone could. Of course, they could easily have found that out from just watching you one day at the temple, or even questioning someone who worked there, although no one recalled being questioned in such a way."
"So what you're saying is that we don't really know anything new."
"It's true." Jikor leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers. "The first stage of an investigation is always hard going, but it gets easier. What I need to know now is who your enemies are. I'll be interviewing people in the area this afternoon, and it'll be useful to know who I ought to concentrate on."
"Enemies?" Shataina bit her lip. "Well ...." She thought of a few people she'd offended and named them, a few others she might have slighted, a few she'd insulted behind their backs. "But they're all -- mortal," she wound up. "No one who dislikes me is capable of doing anything like this .... Except Mnemon Sara."
Shataina averted her eyes. "She doesn't like me," she said neutrally. "Still, even if she could do it, this doesn't seem like her style. I'd think she was more subtle than this."
"I'll try to look into it nonetheless," said Jikor. He smiled suddenly. "But I don't have to return you to your grandmother's Manse quite yet, do I? Allow me to take you to lunch."
"Thank you," she said, lowering her eyelashes again. Lay it on thick, she urged herself, and gifted him with her most recently perfected charming smile. "It will be an honour."
Mnemon Lin had a message waiting for her when Shataina got back to the Manse; See me immediately, it read, and Shataina sighed as she walked the corridors, trailed by several guards; the message probably meant nothing good.
Lin laid aside the book she was writing in as Shataina tapped on the open door. "Shataina," she said without preamble, acknowledging her granddaughter's obeisance with a wave of her hand. "Your father has sent me a message for you."
Of course he couldn't be bothered coming himself -- even when staying in the same town, thought Shataina, keeping her expression carefully blank and questioning.
"He tells me that unless the case is solved by the last day of Calibration, for the Peleps' final party -- three days from now -- he will cut off your household allowance."
It was almost a shock, but not quite. She'd expected something like this. Shataina bowed her head in acquiescence. Well, at least I'll get to travel once I'm outcaste, she thought sardonically, though I won't have a jade bit to my name. In the back of her mind, she began to count up her salable skills. I could move to the Threshold and work as a translator. I certainly know enough languages, and they don't set much store in the Immaculate Philosophy outside the Realm -- being outcaste wouldn't matter that much .... I could go North or South or East or West -- probably South, I've studied the Southern dialects -- as long as I never returned to the center of the world. I could work as a bodyguard or a fighting teacher, a tutor or a hired expert in etiquette, politics, geography, history, mathematics, or philosophy --
Her grandmother cut off her ruminations; she had gone back to writing in her ledger, and didn't look up as she spoke. Her glossy black hair seemed cut from obsidian. "I take it that Lord Jikor took you to lunch."
"I hope you understand how important it is that he think well of you."
"I dislike using a man I know so little about," Lin mused. "I don't suppose you've discovered anything useful about him."
Shataina thought for a moment. "He went to the Heptagram," she ventured.
"Everyone knows that."
"Yes, but I don't think he did very well. He only stayed for a few years, and then went off to work for his family. We talked a little bit about the Anathema he brought to justice, too. I don't think he's very brave -- he said that he only came face to face with the demon once, and had to use trickery to get away so he could call upon the Wyld Hunt."
"Keep in mind that such judgments as to his valour may be uncalled for, child. After all, a fully capable, fighting Anathema would be far more than a match for young Jikor." Mnemon Lin wrote a few more lines, then glowered at the book coldly, as if it had personally offended her. "Not bad on the information, though," she said judiciously.
Well, maybe if you'd told me I was supposed to dig it up, I could have done better, Shataina thought resentfully. "Thank you, Grandmother."
"I have decided to let you out of your room," Lin informed her, still apparently addressing the ledger, "but you are confined to the Manse and its immediate grounds, and still are allowed no visitors. Be sure that you are invariably accompanied by at least two guards. Dismissed."
Very generous of you, Shataina didn't say as she backed out of the room. She tried not to let her grandmother's rudeness bother her. Not even looking at me, she thought glumly. It's not fair, I didn't even commit the crime -- she bit her lip and tried to concentrate on thoughts of her researches.
Heading straight to the library, she ordered a slave to fetch her notes. There were still a few books on spirits to skim; then she'd go on to her grandmother's impressive collection on demons.
For the theft of a small item, a less valuable jewel or a work of art procured with relative ease, the penalties are as follows:
If the item is stolen from a member of one of the Great Houses --
A slave's penalty will be decided by her owner; as is traditional, the normal punishment shall be the loss of a hand, and a beating, but should the owner prefer not to damage the slave, this punishment may be changed.
A hired servant will be beaten for her insolence, fifty strokes each day, for one month.
A soldier in one of the Imperial Legions will be beaten fifty strokes, deprived of her pay for two months, and stripped of her rank.
An artisan, or a merchant, will be beaten fifty strokes, required to return the item, and required to pay the item's value both to the offended House and to the Imperial House.
A patrician will be required to return the item, and required to pay the item's value both to the offended House and to the Imperial House.
A member of one of the Great Houses will be required to return the item and pay the item's value to the Imperial House. If the member is Dragon-Blooded, then the Exalt is requested to return the item; no fee is necessary.
-- from the writings of her Imperial Majesty, She Who Walks in Glory, the Scarlet Empress
Shataina rubbed her eyes and concentrated once again on her notes, trying to organize what she'd learned about demons. The great twin threat of the Solar Anathema: they attempt to spread a false faith and they plague the children of the Dragons, she read, and, sighing, flipped a page. Again, she hadn't slept much, and she'd done little else since she'd awoken, but it felt as though all her researching had taught her nothing. Anathema, renegade spirits, demons -- all were apparently bent on specifically plaguing the Dragon-Blooded, as if none of them had anything better to do. But why, she wondered for what felt like the millionth time, would one of them come after me? I may be a member of the greatest Dragon-Blooded House, but I'm not even Exalted!
"Lovely calligraphy," said a voice from over her shoulder. Shataina jumped.
"Thank you," she said, turning to look up at Jikor. "You move so quietly -- I can't believe I didn't notice you."
Smiling slightly, Jikor put his hand on her shoulder. Shataina tried not to tense. How familiar of him, she thought distastefully. "I thought I'd stop by before questioning the slave," he told her, then, seeing her confusion, explained, "The slave who stole your hairbrush. Your grandmother said that I ought to question her, and it does seem like a good idea."
Shataina stood quickly, dislodging his hand. Smoothly, he folded his arms into the sleeves of his black kimono. "Can I come?"
He shrugged. "If you wish."
They descended through several stairwells to the slaves' quarters, the lowest floor of the Manse. Though the white and black marble walls, with their running motif of coiled dragons of Earth, didn't change, the decor became much more drab as they walked, passing the small, shared rooms of servants and then the larger, fuller bunks the slaves used. Unused to visitors of such status, the inhabitants kowtowed desperately, some of them not daring to rise till Shataina and Jikor had turned the corner.
Jikor asked after her health, obeying all the forms of courtesy, and Shataina replied in kind, not really paying attention till she finally got the chance to ask, "How went the interviews?"
"Not well." Jikor shook his head. "None of the Dragon-Blooded around here seem to have much motive to have done it. Tarin's excuses aren't provable, but it seems likely that he's telling the truth -- I can't read him, so I can't be sure. Sara's alibi is untouchable."
It would be, Shataina thought, and frowned a little. "So ... what now? Are you going to look into the local spirits?" She wondered, briefly, how Arlan was doing, and if he was still researching for her.
"Yes, and other supernatural beings. Have you, perhaps, offended any Anathema?"
"Of course not! I've never even seen one!" She considered for a moment, then amended, "Well, as far as I know, I haven't. But why would it care about me?"
"They're tricky. It might have complicated motives of its own. And one that managed to get this far onto the Blessed Isle would have to be tricky indeed; perhaps one of the Wretched. Still, that doesn't seem very likely either. I'll make inquiries about spirits later today."
"Speaking of inquiries," Shataina began, and took a moment to collect herself, working past the embarrassment. Jikor turned to her, quirking an eyebrow, but waited for her to speak. "I was wondering if you could do me a favour."
"It depends on the favour."
"Well. Um." Shataina lowered her head and stared at her feet as they passed over the marble floor. "I told you that Tarin and I don't get along."
"I've been thinking that perhaps he has a particularly well-favoured mistress, and that's why he's not -- interested -- in me." She took a breath, humiliated. Jikor likes me, she assured herself. He won't look down on me for this.
"I see," said Jikor after a short pause. "You want me to look into it."
"I was hoping you might have a little bit of extra time, yes."
"Of course. It should be easy. I'll need you to distract him for a little while, though, with conversation." He gave her his little smile. "You can stop looking so embarrassed now."
Shataina relaxed. "How long will you need?"
"Oh, fifteen minutes, ten," Jikor said casually.
"If I'm in his house? Certainly. We'll just go to call on him, and I'll leave the two of you alone for politeness' sake."
I guess he's done this a lot, she thought. Useful man, aren't you, Jikor. "Thank you."
"Here we are," he said, opening the infirmary door for her. It was a small room, smelling of blood, a scent almost covered with a cloying perfume; a white cotton curtain closed off a small bed, the table beside it covered in cheap steel implements kept scrupulously clean. The medic in charge saw them and fell to his knees, dipping his forehead to the floor. He must never have seen one of the Dragon-Blooded up close, Shataina knew; a slave medic could very well have never even been within fifty yards of one. "O Prince of the Earth," he quavered, "Chosen of Danaa'd, and my lady -- please forgive --"
"I'm here to question your patient," Jikor said, and walked past the quivering man to the white curtains.
"Yes, my lord." The medic scuttled to his feet and backed to the corner, sitting on his heels, seemingly trying to recede into the wall. All the while, he gazed at them worshipfully.
Jikor pulled aside the curtain and sat down beside the bed on a little stool. Shataina's former hairdresser was asleep, stirring fitfully at the faint noise he made. The girl sighed and turned over, dark hair falling across her face, raising the bandaged stump at the end of her arm. She waved it vaguely, as if trying to brush the hair away from her face with the hand that wasn't there anymore, and emitted a little cry of pain as the bandage bumped against her cheek. As Shataina came forward, she opened her eyes.
"My lady," she whispered, and tried to sit up, looking very pale. Shataina sat and looked down at her. She almost felt sorry for the girl; losing a hand would make her useless for most of the tasks she'd been good at. How could she have been so stupid as to steal from me? she wondered. She knew the penalty.
"Lie back," Jikor instructed. The girl lay obediently back against her thin pillow. "In your state, you cannot bow; the Dragons will forgive you the slight if you do proper penance later. Now. We are going to ask you a few questions."
The ex-handmaiden closed her eyes, and nodded. "Yes, my lord."
"What did you do with the hairbrush?"
"I took it and sold it in the city," said the girl in a small voice. "At a pawnshop. Then I took the money and gave it to my sister."
"Why did you steal it?" asked Shataina. Jikor cast a glance her way, but said nothing.
"She needed the money, and didn't have any way to get it," whispered the slave. "I didn't think you'd ever notice that it was gone. You have so many beautiful things, I thought it wouldn't matter."
Shataina frowned. The girl was obviously trying to make her pity her, but there was something else about her tone, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"Did anyone ask you to steal it?" Jikor asked.
"No. No one."
It was the way she answered the questions -- too certain, as if she'd rehearsed the lines in advance. But then, Shataina thought, she's probably been anticipating this line of questioning, and worrying about giving the wrong answer. Still, if the girl had been warned that someone might question her who could detect lies, then she might have been coached in what to say.
Or she might not have been asked directly; perhaps someone had manipulated her without ever even mentioning the hairbrush outright. It was clear that she wasn't too bright. "Did you discuss your financial problems with anyone?" she asked.
"Financial?" The girl sounded the word out uncertainly.
"Money." Definitely not too bright, Shataina decided.
"No. I didn't talk to anyone about it."
Again, the rehearsed quality. Shataina bit her lip and tried to think of how to phrase her next question.
"I think we're done here," Jikor said.
"Not yet," Shataina said distractedly. "Just a few more questions .... Did you ever discuss the things in my room with outsiders? You, and the other handmaidens? It's all right if you did -- I just want to know."
"We always talk about your things, and tell people about them. They're so pretty." The girl sighed a little. Still trying to make me feel sorry for her, Shataina thought in irritation.
"Were there any times when you mentioned my hairbrush, and maybe someone said something like how valuable it would be if you sold it?"
"No. Nothing like that."
And still too certain, Shataina thought. She's not smart enough to have anticipated that question. Someone must have done it for her .... "Who helped you practice your answers?" she asked abruptly. Some of her anger crept into her tone.
The girl looked frightened. "No one."
"Shataina," Jikor said, standing, "come on. I think she's telling the truth."
Shataina forced herself to sound perfectly reasonable. "Maybe," she said, "but there's something she's not saying."
Jikor looked down at the slave. "Tell me what you're holding back," he ordered.
"Nothing," the girl wailed, and began to cry.
Staring down at her, Shataina frowned again. "I guess it's nothing," she said reluctantly. Jikor strode to the door and pulled it open for her.
"What was that?" he snapped when they were out in the hall.
Shataina glanced at him in surprise. "I'm sorry," she said uncertainly. "It just seemed like her answers were too rehearsed --"
"Well, wouldn't you rehearse your answers if you knew you'd be questioned?" he demanded.
"Yes, but --"
"You have to make sure not to turn any witnesses against you," he said, still upset. His sardonic face had taken on a forbidding aspect; he walked down the hall quickly, kimono flapping with his speed. Shataina had to hurry to keep up. "This is a difficult enough case as it is."
But she's just a slave, Shataina wanted to say. "I'm sorry," she said again. She wondered if Jikor set himself against slavery. He didn't seem like the type, but that would explain why he had gotten so mad over nothing.
"Just keep it in mind," he said sternly.
She nodded obediently.
By the time they reached her room, Jikor seemed to have regained his equanimity. "I'm sorry I got so upset," he said, standing in front of her door. "I just don't want you to get hurt, and witnesses are important."
"Of course," she said politely. "I haven't thanked you enough for your help. I'm sorry if I interfere with the investigation."
"Once I'm done reporting to your grandmother, we can go call on your fiancé," Jikor said. "Is that all right?"
He's actually asking about my timetable and not forcing me to work around his, she thought, amazed and flattered. "Of course," she said warmly.
He bowed to her, the faintest of smiles upon his lips, and watched her as she went into her room and closed the door.
Shataina hadn't been sure what to wear for her visit to Tarin; she'd eventually settled on a simple long-sleeved dress in pale blue jacquard. Tarin was an Air Aspect; he would like blue. Amazing, she mused as she and Jikor mounted the stairs to the white-and-blue Kevoc townhouse, that I don't even know his favourite colour.
After the doorman let them in and went to inform Tarin of her arrival, Jikor turned to her and inquired, deliberately, "Would you like to be alone with your fiancé, Lady Shataina?"
She noted the two servants watching them covertly, and responded, "That's very kind of you, Lord Jikor. We haven't been able to speak since the beginning of this whole ... unfortunate ... affair. I do hope you won't be bored?"
"I'll just wait here," he said, for all the world making himself sound painfully sacrificing, as if he would be bored, with nothing at all to do. "Perhaps wander around a bit .... I've heard that the Kevoc household has an amazing collection of Slender Jade Stylus' calligraphy, so I can look at that. Or go talk to Lord Arlan about his researches."
"Lord Arlan is at the city library," interjected a new voice coldly. Mnemon Sara walked forward from where she had stood unseen in the shadows of the hall before them. She cast only a glance at Shataina, bowing to Jikor as she came to a stop before a beautifully-carved white wooden screen.
"Ah," said Jikor. Shataina tried not to feel too disappointed; she'd been hoping to see Arlan as well. "Well then, I'll just hang around a bit."
"I'll try not to get too lost in conversation," Shataina promised to him.
"Take your time," he assured her.
"Visiting?" asked Sara, her voice dangerously flat.
"Why, yes," said Shataina. "Jikor was kind enough to ... escort me here."
Sara looked at Jikor oddly. She, too, was wearing black, and she stood across from him in the white foyer like the balancing element of a painting. "How goes the investigation of Shataina's case?" she inquired, as Shataina tried to decode the meaning of her expression.
She didn't even give me a title! Shataina realized as Jikor replied, "The Lady Shataina is, I believe, quite innocent and will soon be cleared."
"Yes. The Lord Arlan seems to think so too," Sara said freezingly. "He's spending a lot of time researching. Well. Enjoy your investigation of the calligraphy here. It is certainly an excellent collection." With a brief dip of her head, she took her cloak from a waiting slave and left, just as another slave came to conduct Shataina to Tarin's sitting room.
That look she gave him was so strange, Shataina mused as she was led through the wide, large-windowed halls. As if she doesn't like him, but finds him ... amusing?
Tarin kept her waiting for five or ten minutes. Shataina arranged herself in a chair by the window, making sure to sit so that every angle of her was to good advantage, and practiced her breathing exercises for the martial arts till he came in.
He bowed as he entered and sat. "Shataina. What a pleasant surprise."
"Oh, thank you, Tarin," she said, batting her eyelashes. "I thought I ought to come by and see how you were. Everything's been so strange lately, you know, what with one thing and another, and I've barely had time to see anyone important."
"Yes," he agreed uncomfortably. "I was sorry to hear about your ... situation."
"Well, it's not so bad. It's made me reevaluate my life, really," she said, injecting a healthy dose of earnestness into her voice. "It occurred to me that I almost never speak to you, and we're due to be married. I thought that perhaps you might be able to spare some time to talk to me today, and maybe some more later -- I'd really like to get to know you."
"Of course, of course. Well, I've got to do some training in half an hour, but until then my time is yours."
Training? she thought in near-amusement. Surely you could come up with a better excuse than that. "Thank you so much," she said, and leaned forward, resting her chin in her hands, with a half-lidded gaze that she knew was flatteringly direct. "So ... Arlan told me once that you studied at the House of Bells. I haven't studied much strategy myself, but I've always been interested in it ... is it true that advanced students there actually help construct the battle plans for some of the legions?" Ah, there it is, she thought as his face practically lit up. This I can draw him out about. And it'll be easier to act interested in this .... She recalled asking her father to send her to the House of Bells when she failed to Exalt -- even mortals could get in, if they were smart enough -- and tried not to wince at the memory of his crushing dismissal.
She had to be careful about what kinds of questions she asked -- she had the feeling that Tarin would lose any respect he had for her if she said something stupid. But Shataina found during the next half-hour that although her grasp on actual warfare had always been a little tenuous, her studies had imparted a knowledge of technical tactics and strategy that allowed her to sound halfway intelligent during the conversation. He even seemed almost sincere when he bid her good day thirty minutes later.
"So," Shataina said to Jikor at lunch. They'd chosen a secluded table in the restaurant, at least two tables between them and the other customers. She hadn't asked anything in the carriage, waiting till they got there, and she was practically itching with curiosity -- but first things first. "Do you know Lady Mnemon Sara?"
"No," he answered. "She was rather rude, wasn't she? You were right when you said she didn't like you. That look she gave me at the end -- as if I were some form of insect. I suppose she must despise me merely for helping you."
"Oh, really? I did notice that look ... I wasn't sure what it meant. I'm sorry if I've made you an enemy." She waited for a moment, then leaned forward. "So ...." She let it trail off, meaningfully, and raised her eyebrows.
Jikor seemed slightly uncomfortable, unwilling to meet her eyes. "I think I've found out why Tarin isn't ... interested in you," he said hesitantly.
"He doesn't have a mistress," Jikor said slowly, "or at least I don't think he does. But he does have an awful lot of attractive male servants."
"Oh," Shataina said after a moment.
"His brother, Lord Arlan," Jikor continued, contemplating his plate, "is only his half-brother ... were you aware? Lord Arlan has ... better blood than Lord Tarin does."
"Oh," she said again. There didn't seem to be anything else appropriate for the situation. Her mind seemed a little slow, but she could feel a sort of smouldering heat that she knew could erupt into fury later. His family probably thought they were doing Tarin a favour ... she thought clearly. They knew he'd have to sleep with a woman eventually, but at least they could keep the duty from being too onerous by making her beautiful. Reinforce his heterosexuality a little bit. After all, he ought to be breeding as many little Dynasts as possible. But even if I make a nice toy for the lover of men, I'm certainly not good enough for Arlan, no matter how much he likes me. Since I'm just a mortal, and all.
Just a mortal.
His parents must be so very distressed at the turn events have taken -- the wrong son liking me too much.
How sad for them.
The meal seemed to pass in a kind of fog. Shataina knew she was talking to Jikor, even amusing him -- could even have remembered what he said if she'd tried -- but it was hard for her to concentrate. It was a good thing she'd learned how to talk to people coherently while thinking about something else. Probably the most important social skill, she thought sadly. Right up there with lying and flattery.
She found herself on her doorstep soon enough, Jikor promising to call the next day -- where was he going? Oh, to find out about local spirits. Shataina looked up at the forbidding façade of her grandmother's Manse as Jikor's carriage trundled away. A huge mural of precious stones had been crafted around the door thousands of years before, when the Manse was built. It was as perfect as only something from the First Age could be, and protected from the elements by impenetrable First Age glass. The Immaculate Dragon of Earth was the subject, eyes flashing diamonds, scaled in agate and carnelian and coral. Why have you condemned me to this? she wanted to shout at it. What sin did I commit?
Followed at a distance by the ubiquitous guards, Shataina made her way to the training ground, sending a slave to request some time of the captain of the guard. He'd offered his help training her, and she'd found that he was actually good enough to teach her; of course, her grandmother would tolerate no less than the very best. She had a tight rein on herself for now, and maybe if she wore herself out she would be too tired to lose her temper later.
It was the captain who had to call a halt, hours later, as daylight began to edge towards evening. "You're doing wonderfully, my lady," he said, breathing hard as he unlaced the stiff leather practice armour. "I think you're a match even for some of the Dragon-Blooded, now."
"Thank you," Shataina said tightly, her breath coming harder and faster than his. It's a shame they don't agree with you, she didn't add.
"I must get back on duty." He bowed, a rare smile on his weathered, scarred face. "It is always a pleasure to be allowed to train you, my lady."
She was left alone -- but for her guards -- as she finished changing out of the armour. Her plan had partially worked: she was, indeed, worn out, but the anger was still there, underlaid by something like despair. Why am I so upset? she wondered, taking the stairs slowly to her room on legs that shook with muscle fatigue. It's not like I even care about Tarin.
Absently, Shataina petted Rishi as she walked into her room. The cat wound around her legs, mewing, and climbed into her lap as she sat down at her desk. Shataina made a neat stack of her books, flipped through her notes, picked up a pen, put it down again, put her head in her hands and cried, as Rishi mewed uncertainly and her slaves traded glances behind her back.
It is hard to deal with the passing of a loved one, but all of us must do so eventually. When it happens, we must resist the urge to give our beloved a funeral of great pomp, to burn them with favoured items, or otherwise to unduly mourn their departure. Take heart! For they will have already rejoined the cycle of reincarnation; tears and prayers, or worse, sacrifices -- to take after a death-worshipping heresy in such a way is sinful, and removes time from contemplation of the Immaculate Dragons. Burn incense only to the Dragons; bow and pray only for the Dragons. There are no other gods, and your ancestors would not, even could they appreciate them, approve, if you were to grant them even a fraction of the prayers that are not their due.
-- from the Immaculate Texts, commentary: how to advise those who may fall to a Death-Worshipping Heresy
Allowed to sleep later the next day, Shataina nevertheless felt drained when she awoke to the message that she had been invited to visit the Lord Ledaal Kevoc Tarin. Dressed in blue again, she was escorted only by her grandmother's guards as she took a shuttered carriage to the townhouse.
She knew as soon as she saw Tarin's face and stance what the news would be, and stood numbly as he explained that, regretfully, their engagement had been cancelled due to recent happenings. "After all, the reputation of my household must be upheld," he told her. "It is a great shame, but unavoidable." Glad to have an excuse, Tarin? she thought wearily as she took her leave, reassuring him that of course, no offense was taken, it was perfectly understandable, and she hoped that she might see him again sometime.
He did not bow to her as she walked out.
Arlan wasn't home today either. Returning to her hated little room, she glanced over at her notes and elected to take a long bath instead, soothing muscles that still ached from the exercise the day before, and drifting off into a nap till the water cooled too far and awoke her with its chill.
A slave tapped on the door as her handmaidens rinsed her hair. "Yes?"
"Lady Mnemon Lin and Lord Peleps Jikor request your presence in Lady Lin's office," announced the disembodied voice.
"Tell them I'm in the bath, and will attend upon them presently," Shataina called.
"Yes, my lady."
Lin was sitting, ramrod-straight, behind her desk, with Jikor before her, as Shataina entered. Her wet hair was still dripping down her back, and her grandmother's brief glance was full of irritation. Jikor was attired unusually well; his blue silk shirt and trousers were edged in silver embroidery; his hands, usually devoid of rings, were decorated with several sapphires and aquamarines; and a black jade torc circled his throat. He smiled at her -- a full smile, for the first time she could remember -- as she bowed; it looked, somehow, strange on his face, and made her feel obscurely uneasy.
"My Lady, Mnemon Lin," he said as Shataina sat. "I asked that Shataina be here for this because it somewhat concerns her as well. Over the course of my work with your granddaughter, I have come to admire and appreciate her greatly; so much so that I deeply desire to turn Lord Ledaal Kevoc Tarin's loss into my gain. In short, my lady, I ask for a betrothal."
The surprise was dull; Shataina had an easy time showing nothing.
Mnemon Lin folded her hands together and regarded Jikor expressionlessly. "She has not been cleared yet," she said.
"No," he answered. "But I believe she is innocent; and if she is not cleared, I am willing to lend my name as a shield to her, and to support her in her life away from the Blessed Isle. I travel a lot, so it would be easy for me to see her, even should she have to live in Nexus."
I've always wanted to see Nexus, Shataina thought. Why am I not overjoyed?
Her grandmother hmm'ed. Shataina dared say nothing in the pause that followed; Lin seemed inaccessible, lost in thought, and she really didn't want to look at Jikor.
"Allow us some time to consider your proposal," said Mnemon Lin at last. "We will speak to you again later this afternoon. Make an appointment on your way out."
"Yes, my lady," said Jikor, bowing very deeply. He smiled again at Shataina as he passed her.
"Well," said Lin when the solid iron door had closed. "What do you think?"
"I am entirely at your disposal," said Shataina respectfully.
"Yes," said her grandmother. "You are." She drummed her fingers on the desk for several minutes. Shataina wished she could go back to sleep.
"I suspect that Jikor does not understand quite how low your status will be," Lin said soberly. "I am greatly surprised that his household agreed to this. Not that they are a very good family ... but his proposal is better than nothing. I will send our acceptance to him later today." Click, went her grey marble fingers on the wooden desk. "I suppose we shall have to take him off the case, since his motivations for proving your innocence are sharply reduced. It is probably not worth the effort of hiring a mortal investigator to continue his work. If you were framed, and Jikor could not uncover the culprit, no mortal will be able to." Click click. Click click. "You will be expected to go with him this evening, to witness the papers that officially break the betrothal with Tarin. Be sure that you are presentable by then."
"Yes, my lady," Shataina said quietly.
She allowed her slaves to pick out her clothes and make her up, asking only for white. White was Arlan's favourite colour, and she was hoping to see him.
I'm leaving tomorrow with my new husband, she thought, staring at the mirror as her handmaidens dusted her skin with pearl-powder.
Her room was silent as the grave, the slaves caring for her as unobtrusively as possible. Shataina could tell that none of them wanted to be the one to make her lose her temper. She felt a vestige of pride, that she could still hide her emotions well enough for them to think her merely angry.
Tarin signed the papers gladly, later, and handed them over to Jikor to sign as gladly. Neither of them were so impolite as to act jubilant, of course. Shataina stood watching, feeling like a ghost as they discussed the changes in terms of her marriage, the plans, the expected course of the Peleps yacht when it left after the final gala.
"I hope neither of you mind if I go see Arlan," she said finally, as they reached the last page of the document.
Jikor glanced up and smiled. "One moment, and I'll go with you," he said.
She couldn't ask him not to.
A slave conducted them up to Arlan's door, knocking very softly and drawing back a little.
"Who's there?" called Arlan. His voice sounded ragged.
"It's me," Shataina said.
Arlan's room, normally large and airy, was claustrophobic with scattered books. The delicate white desk was covered with them, as was the bed and the floor. Arlan was lying on his back reading a text covered in complicated runes. He put the book face-down on his chest as Shataina came in, Jikor hanging back at the door.
"Arlan," she said. You look awful, she almost added. He was even paler than usual, with a sallow cast to his skin that she didn't like. Shataina knelt beside him on the floor, her ivory-coloured skirt picking up dust from an ancient, yellowed tome that looked to be at least a thousand years old.
"Shataina," he said. "I've been doing research as fast as I can. I think I found some things about spirits that might help. The Heptagram still hasn't gotten back to me ...." He stopped, glancing at Jikor. "How goes the investigation?"
Shataina sighed. "We've stopped it," she said softly. "It was a dead end."
"A dead end? But you're innocent!"
"I know. But there's no proof." She looked down into his eyes. "I'm to marry Lord Jikor. I'll leave with him after the gala. Tomorrow."
Arlan's gaze flicked back to Jikor, then to her again. "Oh," he said. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," she whispered. Her throat seemed to have closed.
"I won't give up," he said, looking straight up at her face. "There's got to be a way to clear you, and I'll find it for you."
Shataina blinked rapidly. "I hope I see you again," she said. I would have married Tarin gladly just to be able to see you, Arlan, she realized suddenly. The best friend I've ever had.
"You will," he said positively. "Don't worry."
Jikor, from the door, coughed discreetly.
"I should go," Shataina murmured. She felt caught by Arlan's gaze, wished she could sit down beside him the way they had rested on the grass at the waterfall, talking about anything, nothing -- something besides her imminent departure.
"I'll see you soon," Arlan told her.
She nodded, and stood. "Goodbye."
As soon as the door had closed behind them, she heard the rustle of pages. Jikor took her arm. "Would you like dinner?" he asked.
Not really, she thought. "Yes, that would be wonderful," she said.
If Jikor saw through her, he didn't show it.
Mnemon Sara passed them on the stairs, coming up as they went down, and paused to congratulate them on the engagement. Shataina tried her best to mask her hostility at the triumph in Sara's eyes; but some of it, she knew, leaked through nonetheless, and Sara only seemed to gloat a little more at it.
"Nicely done," Sara murmured to Jikor, smiling like a cat at Shataina. "You've gained a most lovely fiancée."
"Thank you," he said politely, and guided Shataina down the stairs after the smallest of bows.
He took her to dinner and then to the shops, to choose jewellery for their marriage. Shataina couldn't help seeing how the people around her drew back, the shopkeepers polite but unwilling to come near her, as if she were made of poison. Even the fact that he was being paid by one of the Dragon-Blooded couldn't make the jeweller take her ring measurement, or touch her neck to clasp a necklace. She was practically outcaste already.
In the carriage, sitting across from her, Jikor took her hands in his. "Shataina," he said, "I'm sorry you're so unhappy. -- No, don't deny it, I can tell." He looked at her for a long time, seeming unwilling to speak, then sighed. "I think I have an idea that will prove your innocence."
"What is it?" she asked, not daring to hope.
"I can't tell you yet," he said seriously. "But ... I need to know ... if I clear you of these charges, will you still marry me?"
Oh, Jikor, she thought sadly. Do you really think the choice is up to me? "Of course," she answered.
Relief spread across his face like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. He was still holding her hands; his were cool and a little damp. Don't show distaste, she reminded herself. "Thank you," he said.
Smile, she told herself, and did. Jikor seemed satisfied, allowing her to be quiet until they reached the Manse again, where he kissed her cheek and told her to sleep well.
In her absence, many of her possessions had been packed. She walked into a maelstrom of boxes, paper, and an overly excited Rishi, who leapt upon her the instant she was within three feet. Stroking the cat, Shataina surveyed the mess; the slaves were certainly doing an efficient job.
"Everyone out," she ordered. "I'm going to bed. Finish packing tomorrow." The alacrity with which they obeyed her was truly astonishing.
Her notes had already been packed, the books returned to the library. Shataina sat down on the bed, a few handmaidens pinning up her hair, and noticed that all the books on her shelves had been packed as well. Would her father even allow her to keep them?
Out of the faintest curiosity, she opened the drawer of her bedside table. It was still there. Some unknown impulse led her to draw out the white leather book, but she didn't open it, instead curling up with it in her hands. She wished she could see Arlan alone, just once, before she left; seeing him at the Peleps party wouldn't be the same. It seemed as if she had a lot to say, although she could think of nothing specific.
She closed her eyes, trying not to think about it, and fell quickly into dreamless sleep.
Shataina was given her own carriage to the party the next night, Lin electing to travel with her father. Their procession of carriages was like a little caravan, piled high with boxes; her father, unexpectedly generous, had allowed her to keep an entire crateful of books, reclaiming the rest for his library. Her clothing, as well, she was given, since it was fitted to her; but all the spectacular jewellery her family's money had paid for had been taken, and most of her slaves had been reassigned. She'd been afraid that they might even take purebred Rishi until the cat, seemingly understanding the situation, had scratched up three of the slaves who had tried to touch her, allowing only Shataina to handle her. Bad-tempered, they'd said, and useless, and left her alone.
The yacht was still strung with the cobalt lanterns and covered with liveried sailors, but there seemed fewer guests than before. People trying to avoid me, she understood; the party had become, effectively, her wedding gala. But the cleverer among the invitees were attending, knowing that offending one of the Dragon-Blooded was foolish even if he had chosen to wed an outcaste defiler.
Jikor met her as she boarded, slaves carrying her boxes. He was wearing white -- an unlikely colour for a Water Aspect, and one that looked too bright on him, like his smile.
"Shataina," he said softly, touching her hands briefly. He was trying to comfort her, she knew, and so she let him take her aside and embrace her quickly. "I'll clear your name tonight," he said once they were out of earshot of the rest.
"So -- you can stop being so sad."
Shataina considered denying it, but said nothing.
Once he had left her alone, Shataina went to the prow of the yacht, sitting beside the rail and looking down at the black water. She thought about the party five days before, when she and Arlan had talked together in this spot, and tried to remember their conversation. Had it mattered what they spoke of? She couldn't seem to recall anything but his face.
More guests boarded. Shataina watched them idly as they circulated, forming little groups, and tried to predict what they'd be saying. No one came over to speak to her, keeping away from her little end of the boat, casting surreptitious glances her way. Kan was holding court over in one corner, and favoured her with a supercilious sneer as she looked at him. She could imagine what he was saying: things like, I always knew she was trouble, or Well, you had to expect this from someone like her.
Why am I so depressed? she asked herself. Jikor had promised to clear her name, but she felt only a leaden sort of oppression, no hope or excitement. Shataina leaned her chin on her palm and wondered just what she'd miss about the Realm, when she left with Jikor. Certainly not the politics. But there must be a reason I'm unhappy.
It couldn't just be Arlan.
She noticed Jikor winding through the crowd towards her and stood as he came near, smiling. He took her arm. "Walk with me a moment?" he suggested, and Shataina let herself be guided across the deck and down the stairs, then down the ramp to the lowest deck of the ship. She waited in puzzlement for him to speak, but he did not.
The Gateway tables had been cleared away from the wide dark-panelled room. The room had been refurnished as was, apparently, normal, with a table bolted to the floor in the centre of the dark blue carpet, surrounded by chairs. The table was lit only by a few candles, and Arlan sat there alone, his breezes making the little flames flicker and fluttering through the pages of a book as thick as her waist. He looked up, and their eyes met.
"Excuse me," murmured Jikor, and exited up the ramp quietly. Shataina glanced after him, confused, and after a moment, felt a faint surge of goodwill. He's letting me have time alone with Arlan, she thought. He must have known I wanted it .... Shame swept through her for disliking him, disliking the idea of marrying him; he had only been kind to her.
Hesitantly, she moved forward, sitting down across the table from Arlan. The book, she recognized, was written in the ancient script of the First Realm, which she had never learned; a language dead save for spirits, for demons, for sorcery. She'd always expected to learn it when she studied to be a sorceress ... but even the familiar litany of regret seemed not to affect her now.
What to say, she wondered. Arlan still looked tired.
"Tarin told me that Jikor plans for you to have a home in Nexus," said Arlan, breaking the silence. "Congratulations."
Congratulations. I should be overjoyed, she thought again. "Yes," she said.
"It's said that there are some really amazing libraries in Nexus."
"I've heard that too."
A pause, as they gazed at each other. Arlan's breeze flipped a page in his book, and he absently turned back to it without looking.
"I'll miss you," she said at last, aware that the statement didn't seem like enough. Arlan looked down, then back up at her again, wordless.
The quiet lay between them like a malignant entity.
We've always been comfortable together, Shataina thought. Why not now? She reached her hand across the table and touched his. The winds jumped a little, ruffling her white dress.
"My Lady Shataina," -- from behind her, a light tenor. Shataina almost sprang to her feet and turned, feeling as if she'd been caught at something. Peleps Arden stood there; she knew him from his ocean-blue flesh of his arms, though she had, she suddenly realized, never actually seen his face, which was a little rounder with eyes wider than his brother's. He bowed and smiled, then reached out his hand; Shataina recognized also the mix of over-friendliness and uncertainty. "I was hoping to speak to you," he said cheerfully. "I'll only be a minute, I'm sure. Walk with me?"
I was talking to Arlan, she wanted to say, but couldn't think of a polite way to phrase it. Really, Arden was the impolite one, but under the circumstances, she had to defer to him. "I'll be right back, Arlan," she said, smothering the reluctance, and went with Arden as he wandered amiably up the ramp.
In her peripheral vision, while turning the corner, she saw a flash of pale blue, and glanced back. A sudden blue -- winged thing -- had materialized in front of Arlan. Shataina blinked, and bent down, pretending to adjust her shoe as she observed. A moment let her resolve what she saw: a little winged child, a baby-blue cherub, was hovering, its wings as blurred as a insect's, before Arlan, who had set down the book and was regarding it seriously.
"This is a message from the Heptagram," announced the cherub in a deep, man's voice, all out of keeping with its appearance. Fascinated, Shataina subtly de-adjusted the silk laces on her shoes, then pretended to adjust them some more. The thing was eerily ridiculous, glowing as faintly as a firefly.
"Arlan," it said in its bizarre bass, "this is the Lecturer in Advanced Spells. I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to you."
Standing beside her, Arden shifted from foot to foot, offering her a hand up. "One moment," she hissed to him, trying to pay attention to the cherub. He kept fidgeting -- rather rudely, Shataina considered.
"Yes," the glowing blue thing was saying, "I've heard of a spell that matches the criteria you described; we teach it here, at the Heptagram, to students who are going into fields that require a degree of subtlety. The spell is exceptionally rare, and it allows the user to imitate a target perfectly: face, body, and voice; but it requires a part of the target. A lock of hair, as you suggested, would work. I hope this aids you in your efforts," and the winged creature was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.
Shataina finished relacing her slipper and dutifully allowed Arden to help her up from her kneeling position and lead her to the upper deck. A spell, she thought. A spell too specialized for Arlan to know about. A spell that could use a lock of hair --
"So," said Arden. "I don't recall speaking to you much when last we met. Jikor tells me you're a great reader."
"Oh," said Shataina politely, "yes, I do a bit of dabbling. History, mostly." This is not going to take "only a minute", she thought, annoyed. What does he really want?
"Do tell me more," said Arden encouragingly.
Shataina wished she could go somewhere quiet and think. She could feel something at the corner of her consciousness, something important bothering her, as she began to tell Arden about her studies. His was a very penetrating mind, she thought in frustration as he asked for details; normally it would have pleased her to have a chance to expound on her hobby, but she didn't want the distraction just now.
The spell was significant, she knew it was. I ought to tell Jikor, she thought, and then remembered that he had already told her that he would clear her name tonight. Maybe he already knew about it. He did go to the Heptagram, after all ....
Mnemon Sara was approaching, from behind Arden; blue light reflected on a pale viridian kimono that went particularly badly with her shimmering skin. She's coming to gloat, Shataina realized, irritation swamping out her train of thought, and tried to move aside a little and encourage Sara to pass; the woman didn't take the hint.
"Lord Arden," Sara said as she drew level. Shataina noted a faint frown on the other woman's forehead, which smoothed as she turned to Arden. Not even bothering to hide her emotions from me anymore, she seethed. "I've been looking for your brother. Where is he?"
Arden shrugged. "I don't know," he said, turning back to Shataina, but Sara laid a hand on his forearm to forestall him. He looked down at the hand, then at Sara, clearly astonished at the familiarity.
"I really would like to talk to him," Sara said.
Shataina contemplated the tension and decided to absent herself. Now I can go talk to Arlan, she thought in relief, pulling back a little and starting down the stairs.
"Wait, Shataina," Arden said, giving Sara an unfriendly glance. "I was enjoying speaking to you. Please stay and tell me more about your ideas on history."
Carefully not looking at Sara, Shataina came back over. "Well," she began, "I --"
"Have you seen much of Arlan lately?" Sara asked.
"No," said Arden, but she was looking at Shataina.
Perhaps you should acknowledge me before you ask that question, Shataina thought, and said coldly, "No, I haven't. I'm afraid I've been just a little occupied with the investigation. Lord Jikor and I didn't spend much time at the Kevoc household."
"Really. Not much," said Sara, her voice like greased silk. "How many times did you go there?"
Shataina narrowed her eyes. What in the world does she care if Jikor and I visited Arlan? What kind of aspersions is she trying to cast? she wondered. "My lady," she said icily, "I fail to see what business it is of yours." She felt only slightly rewarded by the raising of Sara's eyebrows, the sudden focus of the aquamarine eyes. Didn't think I had the spirit for that, did you, she thought. She turned pointedly to Arden. "As I was saying," she said, and picked up where she'd left off.
Sara remained, sipping her wine and staring into the distance, for several minutes; Shataina excluded her from the conversation as obviously as she could. The other woman seemed not to notice, and finally departed without a word, going downstairs.
Her absence was a huge relief. Shataina relaxed into the conversation, casting her mind back to what she'd been thinking before Sara's interruption. The spell, she thought. I was thinking about the spell. And then I thought of something important, something I should be considering even now ....
There was an incoherent shout from below, then the sound of running feet, and a moment later a blaze of shifting light erupted from belowdecks. Guests came up the stairs fast, flinging themselves out of its path.
Anima display, Shataina realized, and found to her surprise that she was already running towards the stairs. The light shimmered as if it were shining through water, making rippling patterns against the sails. Such a sudden anima display could only mean an Exaltation -- or a battle. Someone recklessly using their magic -- a Water Aspect, from the looks of it. Sara or Jikor?
Arden caught up with her at the top of the staircase and grabbed her arm, pulling her back. "No place for mortals," he panted. "Dragon-Blooded are fighting down there -- you have to stay back." He started down the stairs, and after a pause, Shataina followed him.
She could see the ramp from here, though not into the room beyond; the watery light illuminated everything as it shone up from the third deck. As she got closer she could smell brine, fish, and it seemed that the light was somehow wet -- her skin was already covered in a fine coat of moisture. There was the sound of objects crashing, and a door slammed. Arden dashed to the middle of the ramp, in clear view, and paused, irresolute, looking down at the room where Arlan had been sitting. He glanced back up and saw her.
"Stay back," he called desperately. "Please, my lady! The Elemental anima can be harmful to mortals."
Shataina stopped on the second deck and glared down helplessly. She could feel what Arden meant -- even this far away from whatever Water Aspect was emitting it, the storm of water within the light had a physical force, whipping in stinging droplets against her skin, like hard rain or even hail. Water was running in little rivulets off the walls, and objects in the room were buffeted by its power. It was difficult for her even to walk against it, but Arden seemed immune. Fighting, she thought desperately. Why would anyone be fighting?
Her father pushed past her as she stood there and strode down to Arden, who was still standing in the middle of the ramp. "What are you doing?" he growled.
"They're behind that door," said Arden uncertainly, and pointed.
"Well, open it, then," snapped her father.
"I didn't want to get involved --" Arden looked at her father's face, and paled slightly; it did not suit his complexion. Withdrawing a key from his pocket, he passed it to her father, who charged down the ramp; there was the sound of a door slamming open.
The light intensified, and Shataina was forced to back up to the foot of the stairs, her hair and clothing soaked as if by heavy rain. Anxiously, she tried to lean over and see down the ramp, but its curvature prevented her. Only a Water-Aspected anima display, she thought in anguish. No Air-Aspected one -- which means that Arlan either deliberately isn't using any of his magic, or -- can't --
More sounds of running feet. The light, and punishing storm, seemed to fade behind her, but going in a direction -- whoever had burned through so much Essence was racing to the other end of the yacht. Shataina approached the ramp slowly, then heard a great splash, behind her -- at the prow.
Turning, she ran up the staircase, past the terrified patricians, who cowered back as she went past, showering them with droplets. Mnemon Lin had already reached the other side of the yacht -- or perhaps had never moved -- and stood there calmly, looking down at the water, her face utterly straight. Kan stood there as well, not nearly so calm, but seemingly struck speechless. The rest of the Dynastic attendees, including Tarin and her mother, stood around in a little circle, trying to hide their confusion, while the patricians pulled back into frightened little groups.
Shataina rushed straight through the circle of Dragon-Blooded. None of them tried to stop her; none even looked offended as she forced her way to the rail and leaned over, seeing the shine of the anima, dulled by distance, deep under the waves. A Water Aspect -- underwater. Out of reach. Whoever it was.
"Who is it?" she asked, looking at Lin.
Her grandmother, so inscrutable, let a rare smile touch her lips. "You," she said.
Shataina sagged back, panting slightly, and stared down at the glowing waves. "Oh," she said.
A spell taught at the Heptagram, she thought. Taught only to those who would go into "fields that require subtlety". Like spying. How could I have been so slow?
Jikor. Jikor, the "investigator". Jikor, the man who didn't want me to question a handmaiden too assiduously. Jikor, who did all the work, and came no nearer to solving the case ....
But why did he take on my form here?
The mortal flock, bleating and clustering, parted. Shataina saw, coming up from the stair, Arlan, her father on one side with a cowed Arden, and Sara, dimly shining, on the other. Sara's skin, under the force of her magic, was deepened from mere iridescence to a dark blue-green shimmer, and a light akin to Jikor's stretched for a few feet around her; not nearly as large a display -- she hadn't had to use as much of her magic as Jikor had. The ugly viridian kimono was torn and damp, but Sara seemed unhurt.
"Shataina," Arlan said as he came near, and looked out over the water. "Was that -- Jikor? It looked like you ...."
She had to smile. "Well, last I checked, I wasn't a Water Aspect." A bruise was developing on Arlan's temple, and he held one arm gingerly; a jade masque was held, carelessly, in the other hand. "What happened?"
"You came in," he said uncertainly, "or rather, he did -- he was holding this, and he asked me about it. I told -- him -- that it was a magical masque to change a face, that it could be used to imitate someone, that Peleps Arden wore one just like it to the gala five days ago. Then I asked him what he thought of the message I'd received from the Heptagram -- because I saw you stop, and listen, when you left the room -- that was you, wasn't it? Then -- he was close enough to grab me and throw me across the room. And then Sara came in, and I tried to get back to cast an attack spell, but they were too close together -- I was afraid I'd hit them both."
Shataina glanced at Arden. He was focusing on his own clasped hands, as if he'd never seen anything so fascinating.
"I see," said Mnemon Lin. She walked forward a pace and took the masque from Arlan. "A message from the Heptagram?" she asked, and listened closely to the explanation.
There was a pause, everyone assiduously avoiding looking at everyone else. It made, Shataina reflected, for an interestingly oriented gathering. She almost felt like laughing.
"An interesting man, Peleps Jikor," said her grandmother at last. She showed her teeth in what was almost a smile, turning the masque over in her long fingers, then raised her voice to address the audience.
"It appears," she declared, in a tone that stilled her listeners utterly, "that we have been fooled by a clever subterfuge. In an attempt to gain my granddaughter's hand, Lord Peleps Jikor framed her, committing crimes that soon, I think, will have him declared outcaste. Later, he intended to frame Lord Ledaal Kevoc Arlan in turn, deflecting the blame from his new fiancée, and was thwarted by the suspicions and vigilance of the Lady Mnemon Sara.
"Naturally, Lord Peleps Arden is blameless in this incident. His brother, clearly, stole the masque from him." She passed the masque to Arden, who accepted it gingerly, looking relieved, but not particularly happy.
But we all understand, thought Shataina, observing Arden, that you gave the masque to your brother, knowing full well that he would kill Arlan and then use the masque to frame his corpse. Best not to offend a future member of the Deliberative, though -- Lin might want a favour from you later.
What would Jikor have said, had he succeeded? Something like, "I found this masque in Lord Arlan's quarters during a search of his home; I suspected him all along, and when I confronted him with the proof, he attacked me and I had to kill him"?
But I would have known that Arlan wouldn't do that.
And no one would have listened to me.
And -- perhaps Jikor thought he could eventually persuade me that he was right. She shivered a little at that.
I wonder where he's going to go now that he's outcaste?
Shataina looked up to meet Arlan's gaze again, let herself smile a tiny bit, tried to tell him with her eyes how glad she was that he was alive. In her peripheral vision, she was aware of Sara's furious glare. How unfortunate for her, Shataina reflected. She saved her fiancé -- and saved me from a crazed lover, keeping me safely in the area to hang around with Arlan. I bet that burns her up. In fact ... she turned a little and winked deliberately at Sara, who paled with anger -- I'll bet you guessed all along that Jikor was behind this, didn't you, Sara? "Nicely done," you said on the stairway when you saw him with me -- amusing yourself, playing one of your little games, pretending you meant congratulations on the wedding when really you knew what was going on. You saw through all his orchestrations. But you only saw fit to interfere with the investigation when it threatened Arlan -- you don't want your little wedding plans interfered with.
Too bad you had to help me too.
Her mood, Shataina mused, was really quite unreasonably good.
"I think," said Mnemon Lin, her words dropping heavy as lead into the crowd, "that we may now consider this matter at an end."
Once again, she stood within the claustrophobic dark walls of Mnemon Lin's office. Shataina presented herself to her grandmother confidently, sure that she knew what Lin would say.
Her grandmother cleared her throat and tapped the sealed marriage contract on the desk before her.
"Granddaughter," she said. "You acquitted yourself well in recent ... events."
"There have been several more offers of marriage, but with due consideration, I have decided to accept the Kevoc household's ... apology. Their offer is extremely good."
What are they offering? Money? Land? Sorcerous expertise? Shataina wondered. I suppose it isn't important.
"Your wedding," continued her grandmother, "has been rescheduled for three months from today. I trust that you have no objection."
You expect me to seduce Tarin, as you told me to, thought Shataina, smiling inwardly. You have no idea that I don't stand a chance, do you? And I don't think I'll tell you, Grandmother. I have a better use for that information.
"I am, as always," she murmured, "entirely at your disposal."
Mnemon Lin stared at her from across the desk. Of course her grandmother did not appear at all discomfited, but Shataina fancied that she had been thrown off a little by recent events. You didn't like having someone a fraction of your age put one over on you, did you, Grandmother. Are you reconsidering the way you treat your lessers?
"You are," said Lin at last, "dismissed."
The slaves at the Kevoc household welcomed her with a little confusion, apparently uncertain what her status was. Shataina could see them, from her peripheral vision, signalling frantically to each other behind her back. Someone should just tell them that the defilement never even happened, she thought. But then, maybe the cognitive dissonance would make their heads explode.
Tarin did not keep her waiting this time, meeting her promptly in his sitting room. "How good to see you," he said, stopping five feet away from her. "What can I do for you, Shataina?"
Shataina glanced around at the slaves, said sweetly, "I was hoping for a more private meeting, Tarin." One of them, a lithe young Northern boy, was glaring at her with absolute hatred, and Shataina couldn't help being a little amused by Tarin's warning glance to that one as he dismissed them. Allowing your servants to get too attached to someone of your spiritual level? she thought acidly. I'd have thought you'd know better, Tarin.
She'd done a little surreptitious asking around, and found that Tarin's father, Lord Ledaal Kevoc, was an unreasonably prejudiced man in one important area. It had lost his household several opportunities; the man had a hard time being civil to those who preferred the company of their own sex, and had offended several key members of some of the other Great Houses.
No wonder Tarin was so secretive. Had he, perhaps, promised his father to change his habits? She had to feel a little bit of pity for him. But his father's cruel bigotry made, she admitted, an excellent opportunity for her.
"I'll get straight to the point," Shataina said to Tarin when the last slave had left. She pretended to examine her nails, looking up at him from hooded eyes. "It has come to my attention that certain ... aspects ... of our marriage will not be to your taste."
Wariness came all at once to Tarin's face, his eyes hooding like her own. "I'm afraid that I don't know what you mean," he said stiffly.
"Oh, I'm afraid that you do," she said coolly. "Regardless, I came here to assure you that I'm sure that we can work out some sort of ... arrangement."
He raised his eyebrows. "Shataina," he murmured solicitously, "are you sure you're all right? It occurs to me that your recent ... problem ... may have been quite a strain."
Funny how you never cared while it was happening, she thought. "I'm fine, Tarin," she said. "And you're ignoring what I said. Do you want me to spell it out? Or are you satisfied that I know just exactly why you don't want to marry me -- and why you don't want anyone else to know?" She paused, then said cruelly, "That was a very handsome little boy-slave, by the way. With the grey eyes."
Tarin turned abruptly to the window and stared out, his lips thin. The wind around him blustered, rattling at the pale blue glass windowpanes. Shataina waited several moments, then said, in a conciliatory fashion, "I don't want to make an enemy of you, Tarin. I think that, to be blunt, this marriage isn't what either of us want, but that we can make the best of it ... if we're willing to cooperate."
I bet you don't like a mortal talking to you this way, she thought. I'm afraid you'll just have to get used to it, Tarin. Maybe after a while you'll even start treating me like a person.
"Are you quite finished?" her fiancé asked tightly, after a few more moments.
"Yes," Shataina said, bowed very slightly, turned on her heel and left.
"So," Arlan asked her later, too casually, as they wandered through the hedge-maze of Mnemon Lin's Manse. "Are you sad to have missed Nexus?"
You never could fish for compliments subtly, Shataina thought cheerfully, and smiled up at him. "Of course not," she said, and linked her arm through his.
The Anathema, some say, are the single greatest threat to the Realm. Allowed to run unchecked, there is the risk that they could regain their former power, the power to bend men's minds and subjugate kingdoms to their will. Even in the days of the First Realm, pitted against the wisdom of the ancients, the Anathema were a vast and awful menace.
This is why the Anathema must be destroyed as soon as they are found, in the moments when they stand revealed, the mark on their brow blazing with their unholy light. Most terrible among their powers is the fact that, after this moment, they can walk unknown among men -- though, when they call upon their power, they may shine again; and then they are yours, for they cannot hide their blaze.
And they are cunning. They engineer and exploit pagan faiths and folktales to support their unholy agendas, in much the same way that renegade spirits may demand worship from the unenlightened masses if not held in check by the Immaculate Order.
These are lies, and must be recognized as such, eliminated so that those under your protection may never be swayed. If you hear of a faith that reveres the Anathema, you must stamp it out without mercy. If you find literature of that same faith, no matter how old or how valuable it appears to be, it is best in ashes -- naught can be learned from filth. If, by vast misfortune, you should happen to meet one of these creatures, kill it immediately and without remorse, though it cries and sobs as if human. Anathema exist only to bring down the Realm and the Immaculate Philosophy; and the demons must never, ever be given a chance to carry out their purpose, for the sake of Creation itself.
-- from History of the Realm, Part V
Chapter X: Advice for Young Dynasts
Shataina stood at the entranceway to the pavilion, welcoming her guests with warmth and vivacity as Tarin stood, smiling through his utter boredom, beside her. The wedding, finally, had been set for a week from this day; this was her wedding gala, better-fated, Shataina thought, than the previous one. Tonight, she knew, her grandmother would announce the date of the ceremony, as well as the "gift" arranged for her betrothed -- the gift of remaining in the Realm for an extra decade of his life.
It was the fifth day of Ascending Fire, and very warm. The party had been arranged at a large pavilion on a hill overlooking the port, surrounded by a well-tended garden of exotic flowers; the cooling sea breeze would alleviate the discomfort of overheated attendees. It was also set to start later than usual, when it was dark, in the hopes that this would make things cooler as well. A platform had been set up, and a group of performers famous across the Realm were due to show off their talents. She'd heard that her grandmother had hired them to do an entirely new routine -- something involving a musical retelling of the life of Pasiap, the mortal incarnation of the Immaculate Dragon of Earth.
Shataina herself was dressed as perfectly as possible. A well-known designer had been hired to make her a dress specifically for tonight, and the result was, everyone agreed, a superlative piece of art. Deep red silk, light as gauze and fine as gossamer, drifted around her, lending new grace to her movements. Her grandmother had lent her a priceless ruby pendant the size of an egg. Strings of rubies bound up her hair and were sewn onto the hem of her dress. She was fairly certain that she would outshine all competition by glitter alone.
The performance was due to start soon. Shataina, accompanied by Tarin, began to make her circuit among the guests, now comfortable and self-confident among them. Tarin, as always when they were together, left most of the social burden to her, which worked out well. Although they hadn't become even faintly close, at least he'd become less overtly rude to her, and they'd wordlessly worked out a system of social interaction that allowed them to see and speak to each other as little as possible.
Sara, Shataina noted, appeared particularly self-satisfied tonight. She was probably pleased that the wedding was so soon; it would keep Shataina away from Arlan for a good while. They restricted their conversation to formal greetings, both of them not even bothering to smile, and then avoided each other till the performers humbly announced the beginning of their drama.
Shataina frowned a little as she took her seat in the front row, between Tarin and her father. Arlan was late -- very late; in anyone else, it would have been a grievous social slight. She suspected, for a brief, infuriated moment, that Sara had kept him away; he hadn't been around much for the past few weeks, and Shataina was sure that Sara was trying to keep him away from her. But Sara was here tonight; and Arlan could not possibly avoid his own brother's gala, no matter what his fiancée might try to force him into. Even Kan was attending this -- and if Kan hadn't found a way to escape her wedding gala, Sara had to be unable to keep Arlan away.
The harpist began to play a soft opening melody, and Shataina tried to focus on her technique, but found herself more often glancing at the door. The performance went on for several hours, a story retold thousands of times, of how Pasiap had converted a pagan population in the South and defeated one of the Anathema through wits alone. Arlan arrived at last towards the end, discreetly and quietly, and Shataina let out her first full breath when she spotted him. Hardly anyone else noticed his entrance.
But -- there was something wrong; she saw it immediately in the set of his face, the way he moved. The continuous winds that surrounded him were more agitated than she had ever seen them. Whatever it was, it was worse than just the fact that this was her wedding gala; he'd had months to acclimate himself to that.
He turned and saw her, looked at her for a long moment, then walked out the other end of the pavilion. A few seconds later, his voice came to her ears, seemingly out of nowhere. She started.
"Meet me in the garden," it said, sounding as if he were just beside her. "After the show, as soon as you can."
Nervous, she looked around quickly. Her father was scowling fiercely at the stage; perhaps he'd taken issue with the representation of Pasiap. He probably thought it wasn't solemn and holy enough. Tarin had covertly lowered his eyelids, and appeared to be napping. No one appeared to have heard the message, everyone seeming absorbed -- including Sara, right behind her, which was a blessing. The show deserved the attention; it was extremely well done. Shataina went back to watching, but she couldn't keep her mind on it, and was glad when it ended.
She was surrounded by people the instant it was over, and had to smile her way through interminable chatter, inwardly furious, wishing she could just push them all aside and run out. She was terribly, sickeningly worried. At last she managed to make her excuses, saying she was too warm and needed a walk -- no, there was no need for an escort, a little quiet would do her good, thank you. She got out as quickly as possible, even managing to leave Tarin behind; he was as glad for a break as she, and made a beeline for the drinks.
Arlan was outside, alone, leaning up against a tree. The breezes pulled leaves down around him and spun them around his feet, kicking up further when he saw her.
"Shataina," he said, and stopped.
"What is it, Arlan?" She came to him quickly, looking him over anxiously. He didn't seem hurt, or ill; that only left a thousand other things it could be.
He reached out, blindly, and took her hand. "Sara's been posted to the South," he said in a rush. "She's been assigned to a satrapy near Yane. I'm to go with her. Tomorrow."
Oh, no, she thought. And then: no wonder she's been so smug all night.
"I might never see you again," he whispered.
She said nothing, willing the tears away. It's not so bad, she began telling herself fiercely, not so bad -- at least he's not hurt, he's not in trouble --
"Shataina," he said again. The wind was going berserk. "I love you," and he touched her face in the dimness. "More than my brother. Leave with me, tonight."
Shock. The words he had left so long unsaid felt like a slap in the face. "What?" she whispered.
"I've arranged transport," he said desperately. "We can be gone within the hour. They'll never know what happened. The entire world is open to us, everything you've always wanted to see -- come with me. Please."
"Arlan --" she realized that she wanted to, more than anything. "We can't. You can't. Your family, everything -- you'll leave it all behind, and for what? For me?" She drew a ragged breath and forced the hated words out. "I'm not worth it. I'm not Exalted. Even if we escape them, I'll die, Arlan, I'll die in only a few decades, and you'll have abandoned everything --"
"I don't care," he cried, and lowered his voice. "It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Nothing but you. I don't care what happens in forty years. It's all in the hands of the gods anyway."
Shataina looked at him, saw the hope in his eyes. He loved her, so much that he was offering to become outcaste for her. He was offering her almost everything she'd ever wanted, an escape from duty, the chance to explore ....
Do I love him? she wondered, and then, with a sudden, racing insight, Does it even matter? Even now she was imagining the Threshold, the places she had read of and never seen, all the glorious ruins that she had longed desperately to explore -- and she could think of no one better to do it with than him, her closest friend.
Is this really what I want? she asked herself, amazed. Can it be that all I really wished for, all along, was to leave the Realm and see the world with Arlan? Won't I miss anything?
She heard a sound nearby, soft as a breath.
Instantly she turned, looked around, but saw nothing. Arlan was watching her with near-painful intensity, holding her hand tightly. "There's someone here," she whispered.
She turned back to him. My life hangs on this thread, she thought. The hands of the gods ....
For a moment, time seemed to stop, the moment caught, slowed, like a butterfly trapped in amber. She remembered the day in the carriage, the day she'd discovered her betrothal to Tarin; the day she'd thought she'd never again have anything to look forward to. But if I leave now -- I'll be free of it. Free to make my own way -- with Arlan. Forever.
No time to consider. No time to regret. Only this choice.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Yes, I'll go with you, but we have to leave now, because someone's hearing this."
Incredible joy lit his eyes. He leaned forward and kissed her, briefly, no more than a touch. For a moment she breathed in his scent: clean breezes, and static, and ice. "I'll go in first," he murmured against her ear. "Follow me in a few minutes, and find some excuse to leave. Meet me at the docks." He released her hand, stepped back; she watched him concentrate slightly, taming his winds so that he appeared no different from usual, then move forward into the pavilion.
She looked around again, but saw no one. Maybe she'd imagined it. Rearranging her disheveled hair -- it had been whipped quite out of order by the wind -- she turned to take a different route, around into the pavilion, and came face to face with Mnemon Sara.
Involuntarily, Shataina stepped back a pace. Sara's face was a mask of rage, her hands clenched at her sides. She stepped forward, and Shataina moved back again, bringing herself up against the tree.
"Who do you think you are?" Sara snarled. "Do you know who I am?"
"Yes," said Shataina mildly. There was no point in dissembling; Sara had clearly heard it all. She might as well get in the insults she'd been holding back for months. "You're the woman whose fiancé I just stole out from under her nose."
Sara glared at her in fury. "I have friends in the All-Seeing Eye," she said, voice low. "And in the Wyld Hunt. Do you think you'll get far? Think again. I will find you, you pathetic mortal, and I will destroy you. I'll destroy you both."
Shataina smiled in contempt. "And show all the world that your fiancé preferred a mortal to you?" she asked. There was a kind of hot, sparkling joy in this defiance, a joy that was a lot like anger. It made her want to laugh out loud. "You're the pathetic one," she sneered. "And everyone will know it."
The other woman reared back as if she'd been slapped, then moved forward again. She seemed to tower over Shataina, who knew a moment of real fear.
"Arlan!" she cried, afraid that Sara would fight her, even cripple her in her fury. She had been good at her hand-to-hand training, but she surely wasn't good enough to defeat an enraged Dragon-Blood, or even escape her should she choose to make an example of an uppity mortal. But he was too far away to hear her, and the music in the pavilion kept her voice from the rest of her guests as well.
Sara put her own face nose to nose with Shataina's, her eyes slitted. "Know your place," she hissed.
Know your place. It seemed to echo in her ears.
It was the message she'd had thrown at her, ground into her face, over and over for years. You may be good, you may be perfect, you may even defeat the Dragon-Blooded, but always you should know your place. Below them -- always below them -- and there is nothing, nothing you can do about it.
Shataina felt as if her emotions had reached some transcendent peak. They filled her, and a rush of incredible energy swept through her. She stood tall and stared at Mnemon Sara, who fell back with something like terror on her face.
There was light all around her, light illuminating Sara's face and the colourful flowers of the garden. It was as bright as day. Shataina looked around, seeking the source, and realized it was herself.
Exaltation, she thought in utter disbelief, but the light was -- wrong. She'd seen some of the Dragon-Blooded Exalt before, and she knew that she ought to be surrounded by a maelstrom of her Element. But there was nothing even remotely like that, just pure colourless light -- daylight. Sunlight.
She reached up, with a kind of dread. Light poured through her fingers as she touched her own forehead. Her skin seemed warm, feverish, and she knew -- she could feel a circular mark there, burning bright as the sun.
The mark of the Anathema.
She closed her eyes, then opened them, and saw that the scene before her had changed. It was the same hill, a little less weathered, looking down upon a great city that shone under the sun. She'd read enough to recognize a city of the First Age when she saw it, but this was no modern-day ruin -- this was a living city, thronged with the people who had lived in the Age of Splendour. The people wore fabulous silks and gems with apparent carelessness, as if they were the most common of fabrics. They walked on streets paved with marble and conducted their business in slender towers of gold and ivory. And above the people, on the very hill upon which she stood, she saw the rulers of the city.
The rulers: so perfect it was like a dream, an impossible ideal. All of them stood with unconscious nobility and pride, beautiful, exquisitely graceful. And every one of them bore a blazing circle on their foreheads, under a crown formed of the crystal-clear daylight itself, shining proudly out over their subjects.
Every one of them -- Solar Anathema.
No, Shataina thought frantically. How can this be? The Dragon-Blooded ruled the First Realm. Everyone knows it. What creature of darkness has granted me this vision?
Desperately, she wanted to speak to the people before her, but she discovered that she was mute. When she tried to move, she was unable. A passive observer, she could do nothing but cry out within herself for an answer to her questions; and it came.
A thunderous voice answered her inner turmoil. So glorious was it that she could not at first recognize it as a voice at all; it was as if it went straight through her ears, impressing itself directly upon her mind and heart. She found herself instinctively drawn to look at the sky. It was high noon in this other city; the sun blazed down on her with a brilliance unequalled by anything she had ever seen. She knew, without being told, the name by which to call it -- Him: the Unconquered Sun.
"Know yourself," said His voice, indescribably terrible, but so beautiful that Shataina nearly wept to hear it. She fell to her knees. "You were given life among heretics, but I have raised you up to be a priestess. Know yourself: one of the Solar Exalted, made to rule. Long ago, I abandoned Creation and my children, and the world fell into madness and sorrow; but the time has come for the return of My glory. By My will, you shall destroy the unrighteous and work to restore the Celestial Hierarchy. My blessing will always be upon you."
Shataina bowed her head in awe, and the bright vision faded back to the quiet night in the garden. Sara cowered before her, hands shielding her face from the light that still streamed from her rival. The scene seemed, otherwise, utterly normal, flowers nodding in the night breeze, and faint music coming from the party. How could everything look so unchanged? Shataina felt as if the world ought to have rearranged, or unbalanced, or cracked straight across like a broken mirror, to match the change that had come over her.
Anathema -- she was Anathema. Solar Exalted, she thought. Not Anathema -- Solar Exalted. The name resonated, familiar as if she'd been born with it. Made to rule. Given life among heretics.
Heretics -- who would call the Solar Exalted "Anathema" -- and kill them on sight. Kill -- us. Kill me.
Anathema. At least that was what the Immaculate Philosophy named her; and she was on the Blessed Isle right now, bastion of the Immaculates, with at least fifty Dragon-Blooded less than ten yards away. She was sure that if they saw her, they wouldn't pause to debate matters of religion; it was surprising, in fact, that Sara hadn't regained her courage and attacked yet.
Shataina looked down at the terrified woman, who cringed, squinting against the brilliance. "I do know my place," Shataina said to her softly, and laughed. "And it is far above yours."
Amazing, that she didn't feel bewildered, or even unnerved, lighting the garden in the middle of the night. I must be visible for miles, she realized -- as if the sun were rising upon this hill. The cries of "Anathema" will even now be sounding in villages all around. Why am I not afraid?
But there was no room in her for fear -- not now. The energy roaring through her like a tide, the magic blazing from her against the darkness, were her answers, her reason and her justification. I must survive, she understood -- a knowledge deeper than thought, deeper than instinct. I must survive -- to serve the Sun. This is my purpose and my fate.
She considered her options. There weren't many. She could stand and fight, and, inevitably, die; she could stand and die without fighting; or she could run. If she wanted to live, she had to get off the Blessed Isle, as far away from the Realm as possible. But where could she go? All that was nearby was the town, the neighboring forest, and the port.
The port -- which was just down the hill. She blessed the fate which, on this night of all nights, had caused her Exaltation -- yes, it is an Exaltation, she realized in sudden wonder. Against all the odds, I've been Chosen at last. And she could survive her Exaltation, if she could only make it to the port.
She looked around one last time at the silent garden, then stepped over Mnemon Sara and began to run. After a few moments she began to hear shouting behind her, but there was nothing she could do but keep going. Blazing like a torch, she would make an easy target; she prayed that none of her guests had brought a bow.
A white mist began to rise from the earth and gather around her; glancing back, she saw it surround the pavilion as well, gathering quickly -- too quickly to be natural.
Arlan, she knew. It had to be he, conjuring a sorcerous mist, and she briefly wondered at how much he must love her, to cover her escape even as she stood revealed as Anathema. Thank you, she thought to him, wishing that she could see him one last time before she ran, explain away the terrible confusion he must be feeling.
Could he think that she had lied to him, that she had known her fate all along? Would he understand that she had never known what she was till at last it had come through on the hill tonight? The idea that he might see her as a demonic traitor -- and still love her, even so -- made her close her eyes, briefly, and brought a lump to her throat. Arlan, she desperately wished she could tell him, I never lied to you -- I never did.
No time to consider. No time to regret.
Everything was obscured within seconds, but she knew her way well enough to keep running. Behind her, the shouts were growing fainter and more confused. Wind rushed against her, chilled and damp from the fog.
It was impossible to fully encompass how she felt. Shataina had imagined Exaltation countless times, but never had she thought about how the Essence would feel within her, a spreading warmth that coursed through her veins and suffused her mind and senses. She'd kicked off her ridiculous party shoes back at the top of the hill; the earth was cool and dry beneath her bare feet, and she could sense the magic resting there as well, taste it in the air around her, the currents of it brushing faintly against her skin. Rubies slipped from her hair and fell away, sparkling; Lin's pendant swung against her chest. It was exhilarating to run, even though she knew she was running for her life; the power flooded through her like a drug, leading her to take greater and greater strides. She slipped, fell slightly, tearing the diaphanous skirt, and as she rose someone loomed up out of the mist before her.
Her heart almost stopped.
It was a guard, terrified, staring as a demon from the stories of his childhood came towards him. She took shameless advantage of his fear; she had no choice. "Give me your sword," she snapped. He didn't move. "Give it to me!" she shouted, the mist around her filled with rainbows of refracted light, and the weapon dropped from his nerveless fingers.
Shataina snatched it from the ground, stood up, and kept going.
She reached the dock faster than she'd dreamed possible, and looked around desperately. She'd never had a chance to learn to sail in her landlocked province, but Arlan had said he'd arranged transport, told her to meet him here; there had to be a crewed ship here.
There it was -- a smallish boat, she thought, though she really knew little of such things. Sea Princess was painted across the prow in the trader's tongue. The sailors had seen her come out of the mist and were dashing back and forth in disarray, calling for their captain. Shataina ran forward, up the gangplank, and onto the deck just as the captain came up the stairs and stopped, her eyes wide.
"Get out of port," Shataina said grimly.
The captain had more nerve than she'd given her credit for. "Why should I?" she snapped.
"Because I'll kill you if you don't," Shataina snapped back.
The other stepped toward her. Shataina brought up her sword and deliberately, instinctively, burned through her Essence, bringing her light to a nigh-painful level. It bleached the wood of the ship's deck and shimmered off the water. Some of the nearby sailors shielded their eyes, and some began, desperately, to pray.
She'd hoped to intimidate the captain back with her eye-searing glow, but it didn't work. The woman held her own sword at the ready, and with a shout, she rushed her with it. But Shataina was far faster, and she came around with an elegant sweep of her blade that sent the other out into the water and put the point at the woman's throat.
"Sail the ship," Shataina ordered, her voice like iron, looking slowly around at the faces of the crew. "To the port at Chiaroscuro. And do it now." The blade flicked a tiny bit to the left, and a drop of blood appeared. "I'll reward you well for your labours if you do. And if you don't ..."
It was a desperate bluff. She could pay them with some of the rubies, but if all the sailors came at her at once she wouldn't stand a chance. Hopefully, the legends of the demonic power of the Anathema would overpower their ability to calculate odds, and keep them from remembering that the Dragon-Blooded would be coming for her in minutes.
The captain nodded, very carefully, and the sailors began their tasks, nearly falling over each other in their haste. Shataina kept her at swordpoint, looking back occasionally at the white mist that covered the hill, and wondered what was happening. The sudden revelation that the bride-to-be was Anathema was sure to have thrown everything into utter confusion. Every Dragon-Blood for miles had been atop that hill, and they were almost all weaponless, drunk and stuck in an impenetrable fog, so she had a chance; but with every minute that passed she expected someone to plunge out of the mist, armed with a bow or some terrible sorcery, and cut her down where she stood.
She thought of Arlan, wondered how he would explain away the spell he'd cast, and her heart fluttered with fear. If he were judged to have consorted with Anathema, he would die fast, probably at the hands of his own family.
The ship began to pull out. Her glow was fading slowly -- incredibly slowly; with luck it would be gone by the time ships began to come after her. If she was really lucky, none would even be sent; it was barely possible that they wouldn't see her on the water, would think she'd escaped on land. The wind filled the sails and they moved, away from the shore, with Shataina like a fallen star at the prow.
She heard Arlan's voice again, one last time, when the Blessed Isle was a receding line on the horizon and the night was drawing to an end.
"Shataina," he said to her, sounding further away than the last message, as if he were speaking to her from across a long hall. She gripped the ship's rail, hard, aching with the pain in his voice. "I've done what I can. Good luck. Don't ever come back." A pause, and then, fading away on the wind: "I love you."
There was nothing she could do. She hadn't chosen what she was, but the sure knowledge was there -- deeper than thought, deeper even than instinct -- that she was nevertheless bound to do the will of her god for as long as she lived. Is this faith? she wondered briefly. Where did it come from?
She could not serve the Unconquered Sun if she returned to the Realm and died at the hands of the zealots of the Immaculate Order. Arlan was right; she could never go back. Whatever might have been between them was over, before it could begin.
Just as well, she reflected. They would have had no future anyway, a mortal and an outcaste wandering the Threshold. She tried to convince herself of that, rubbing her eyes sharply. Why should she shed even a tear? She'd wanted to explore the world her entire life, and this was her chance to escape the Realm.
She turned away from the view and faced out over the ship, taking a position on the highest deck, where she could watch the sailors at their work and guard herself from trickery as best she could.
A blazing light assaulted her eyes. Surrounded by people, Shataina spun around in fear and anguish. She twisted away from them, struck down two with a sword -- in a brief moment of shock, she could see that the two she had slashed through were Dragon-Blooded warriors. Blood slicked the ground beneath her feet, but she herself seemed unhurt. Then she was caught again, dragged, set down on a marble floor with an odd gentleness.
Shataina felt herself in a body that was not her own; she could not seem to look down at it. She was holding a beautifully crafted sword and shining dimly with sunlight, as she had at her Exaltation. A dream, she understood. And yet, not quite a dream -- too lucid, too clear. She could feel emotions winding through her, anger and pain, alien feelings whose origins she did not understand; and she could not seem to control her own actions. It was as if she were caught in another woman's body, forced to observe what she felt and did, unable to access the body's thoughts or affect the action herself.
A man, before her. Her body came to its feet, holding the sword out in front of her, breath rasping between her teeth. "What do you want of me?" a voice cried -- after some confusion, Shataina realized that the voice came from her; the body was speaking, and she could control its words no more than she could control its actions. She felt a brief moment of disorientation as she realized that she did not even know the language; somehow, whoever she was in this dream/experience understood it.
She was in a great room of carved white marble, pillars lining the sides as if she stood in the centre of a temple. The man in front of her was limned with light, standing before a stained glass window that shone gold behind him -- and he himself shone as well, a mark on his forehead round and bright as the Sun. And yet, though it was well-lit, his face was somehow indistinct, unclear. I'm dreaming of being a Solar, she thought. And talking to another. Where am I?
"You are one of us," the man said to her. His voice was deep and strong. "I had my Dragon-Blooded servants bring you here so that we could begin to teach you."
She looked around frantically, but there were no threats. Shataina tried to get herself to step forward, to modulate her own tone, but she was powerless. Be reasonable, she thought to herself in irritation. Being angry will get you nowhere with this man. But the body ignored her.
"Brought here by force," the voice -- her voice -- grated.
"Yes," said the man simply. "But you are a Solar Exalt, are you not? You belong here, in the Realm. I know that your petty little kingdom fights us, endeavours not to send the tribute that is our rightful due. Perhaps you have been raised to hate us. But the Unconquered Sun has Chosen you nonetheless. And it is here that you belong, with your brethren."
"I'm one of you," she said slowly. "So now I get to rule the world?" Shataina felt the caution, the calculation and interest in her own mind, and wished she knew what her body was thinking.
The man laughed indulgently. "Not quite yet," he said. "We must tutor you first, instruct you in your gifts. But yes. Eventually, you will rule Creation."
Danger. Shataina awoke, suddenly, to daylight and a raised knife. She saw the gleaming sharpness, saw four determined sailors standing around her -- but by the time she registered the scene, she was already reacting. Her sword was across her chest, her arms wrapped around it; they must not have been able to take it without waking me, she realized as she grasped the hilt, brought it up between herself and the falling blade.
The sailors sprang back. Shataina came to her feet and lashed out against one man, felling him with a graceful slash to the legs. One. Two others were coming forward; she parried one easily, then cut the other one across his knife-arm. Crying out, he dropped it and backed away. Two. The sudden sense of danger was upon her again -- she knew, somehow, that there was someone behind her, and she twisted away from the dagger, slicing the attacking woman's fingers off neatly as she spun. Several more sailors backed away, staying at a wary distance as she glanced around, sword ready.
I should kill them, Shataina thought, remembering lessons on keeping a rebellious populace in line. If you cannot be popular among the common people, then rule through fear. The sailors were indeed watching her in terror, all of them as far away as they could get, save the one man whose legs she'd cut open. He lay before her, bleeding; he would die without attention.
She stared down at the man, watching the fear in his face. He was whispering a prayer under his breath, raising his arms in a pathetic attempt at a symbol against Anathema. It's not his fault, she thought. He's just following the faith he was raised with. The idea of killing him made her feel -- terrible, unreasonable -- like a demon. Ignorant peasant, she tried to tell herself, he should be disciplined -- anyway, he should have known better than to attack one of the Anathema -- but I'm not Anathema, Anathema is a false name ....
The Unconquered Sun told me to destroy the unrighteous. And this man follows a false religion. Doesn't that make him unrighteous?
Shataina raised her sword. The sailor closed his eyes, his face grey, grimacing with pain. "Protect me, Danaa'd," he muttered, "grant me a kind rebirth. Protect me, Sextes Jylis ..."
"No," she said aloud. Reaching down, she grabbed his knife straight from his hand and threw it past the unmoving sailors, overboard. "Attack me and this man dies," she snapped at the others, kneeling and tearing strips from his rough shirt to serve as bandages, sword balanced across her lap. The situation, she could see, was bad; blood crept across the deck towards her, soaking into the skirt of her dress. She wished that she'd taken more courses in combat medicine. Still, he looked like a healthy man, and could probably survive, though he might never walk again.
At last she stood, hands wetly scarlet. "One of you, take him to the ship's medic," she ordered. "He should do well with proper care."
No one moved.
"Are you all deaf?" she shouted. "Take him! Take him and go!" The sailors inched forward cautiously, obviously ready for her to snap and attack at any moment. Shataina drew back, up against the rail, watching them pick him up hastily. "Slowly," she said harshly. "Be careful! He's badly hurt. And send your captain up here!"
The sails were full of wind, and Shataina could see that they were making good time. But to where? She'd stayed awake for several days and nights, managing to observe the sailors the entire time, before at last falling asleep where she sat on the deck. Knowing nothing of sailing, she couldn't be sure whether the ship was marking the proper course; she'd had to act as though she did, hoping that she could fool them.
How had she known about the attack? Shataina considered what she remembered, shaking flakes of drying blood from her hands. Fragments of dreams swirled through her mind; her sleep had been haunted by the experiences of someone -- herself -- but not quite. She had been in a body she couldn't recognize or control, glowing with the light of the Sun. It was hard to sort through the pieces, hard to latch onto them. The most she remembered was a snatch of her last dream, the man with the blurred face; everything else was merely flashes, sights and sounds with no context or meaning.
And then she had awoken. What had done it? The attackers had obviously been stealthy. She tried to recall what had happened as exactly as she could.
It was simply -- knowledge, she realized. She had known that there was danger. Almost, it had been the same feeling she had gotten at her Exaltation: deeper than thought, beyond instinct. A magical warning, she understood. My magic can tell me of things that are immediately dangerous. It must be a Charm -- because of course the Solar Exalted must be granted Charms the same way the Dragon-Blooded are. The Dragon-Blooded are, after all, like us -- Exalted; only lesser than we -- and she had to pause at that thought, wondering how she knew.
Sudden flash, blazoned across her mind --
The man with the indistinct face was beside her. Shataina -- or rather, her body -- was clean, not sweating or bloodied, wearing new clothing -- white robes like his.
"The Dragon-Blooded are the least of the Exalted," he was saying, speaking like a lecturer, slow and deliberate. She stood very still, head tilted as if the body she inhabited were paying closest attention. "And we are the greatest. Once, I had an immature student ask me if we were not all equal, rulers of men under Heaven; this is beyond absurd. Should you want proof other than the word of the Sun, there is a Charm we have in common, we Solars and the Dragon-Blooded.
"Both of us can learn to tell when people are lying. But the Dragon-Blooded can only learn it in such a way as to be unable to read people with certainty. They cannot have any inkling of the lies of those they question, unless the person is of lesser magical power than they; and even the lowest of mortals may still defeat their magic with the merest effort of will. However, the Charm that you can -- and shall -- learn is infallible, young Solar. If the one you question believes themselves to be lying, you will know. No known magic can block that knowledge -- because no known magic is meant to be able to stand against us.
"We, the Solar Exalted, are the greatest; we are meant to be able to know all. So the differences in our station are enforced by our very Charms, the magic given us by the gods."
Her body blinked --
The ship was sailing calmly, water lapping at the sides. Has any time even passed? she wondered, after taking a shaken moment to collect herself. What does it mean when my dreams intrude into reality?
The captain jogged up the stairs, halting at the other end of the deck. Shataina took a breath and faced her, shelving the thoughts of dreams. She seemed commendably resolute, for a woman approaching a demon; her face and back were straight, and, Shataina noted, she was unarmed. Overconfident -- or perhaps she'd merely realized that weapons would be useless. "How goes the voyage to Chiaroscuro?" Shataina asked.
"Well," the captain said calmly.
Shataina studied her face. "Really," she said.
"Yes. We're making fine progress."
She's lying, Shataina thought, then realized that she was more than thinking it. She knew, the same way she'd known she was in danger. In the past few days she'd become used to the feeling of the Essence of the world; and now she felt as if, by closing her eyes, she could sense the way the magic spilled into the Charm let her detect the little harmonies in the captain's words, determining that she lied.
Shataina walked closer, steadily, observing the captain closely. Sweat sheened on the woman's temples and forehead as she came. With a quick move, too fast for the other to escape, Shataina brought her sword up to her throat again. "We're not going to Chiaroscuro," she said quietly.
The captain was trying to stare her down. "Are you saying that you would like me to change course?" she asked.
"No," Shataina hissed, and pressed forward, forcing her back up against the wall. "Do you take me for a fool? I was raised by the Dynasty. Of course I know how to pilot a ship. You will put us back on course, Captain -- to Chiaroscuro -- or I will stop being so generous to your sailors. I should already have killed them, but I felt merciful today; and if you do not turn the ship in the correct direction right now, I'll kill you. And I'll kill one of your crew for every hour that passes, if I think you're deceiving me." She has to think that I know this because I can sail; I may be able to tell if she's lying, infallibly -- at least, my dreams tell me it's infallible. But if she knows about the Charm, she can simply twist her words, tell a little bit of truth that will deceive me as well as any lie.
The whites of her eyes were showing clearly against the captain's weather-beaten skin. "You need every one of us to get there," she said, and she was lying again, the Essence of her mouth, her tone, her words, jarringly wrong, every one of Shataina's senses screaming the deception.
"I told you, Captain," she said coldly. Her muscles wanted to tremble with tension; she focused on the captain's face. "I know how to sail a ship, and I know that you don't need your entire crew. Now I can be generous, and let you go -- with payment -- when we reach Chiaroscuro. I think that's a good bargain, don't you? You can even run away to the Realm and report me to the Wyld Hunt afterwards." The woman's terror and rage was palpable, and that seemed to have its own sort of echo in the Essence all around, an echo Shataina could only barely feel when she concentrated as hard as she could. I suppose I'll need to develop another Charm to be able to infallibly sense fear, she thought, watching. Not that I really need one.
"Fine. I'll do what you want," the captain snarled, and at last it was true. Shataina stepped back, and she began calling commands to the crew, dashing past her to the tiller.
"And bring me some clean clothes!" Shataina called after her. Sighing inwardly, she sat back down against the side of the deck, making sure to sit erect, not daring to allow her exhaustion to show. The sailors spat and made occult signs with their hands when they thought she wasn't looking; she ignored them. Rule through fear, she recalled. She felt very alone.
I may be alone, but I have met my destiny, she reassured herself. I know what I am fated to do: destroy the unrighteous. Work to restore the Celestial Hierarchy. I've been Chosen by the Unconquered Sun, and I've been granted a vision. An odd prickling in her mind, at that thought; uncomfortably, she remembered everything she'd read of false visitations. Could it be that what she had seen was a lie, and that her powers really were demonic?
No; it was unthinkable. She would not consider it. Shataina remembered the incredible, stunning power of the voice she had heard. It seemed so clear, as if someone had etched it on her mind. Inconceivable, that something evil could be so glorious. And really, she mused, why should I be so quick to believe that the Dragon-Blooded really are supposed to rule the world, and I'm a demon? It's not as if the Dragon-Blooded have been completing their so-called honourable destinies with grace, with their idiotic, self-centred manoeuvres for the throne, each one battling for territories and tribute, and none of them paying attention to the welfare of the Realm. Princes of the Earth, indeed.
That, she knew, would be her chance: the Empress's disappearance. With her gone, the Wyld Hunt had become ever more inefficient; for the lack of one woman, the entire world was in disarray. The Realm's subject kingdoms struggled against its rule, and the independent cities and kingdoms were becoming ever-bolder in their defiance. Some even disallowed the Realm's forces and the Wyld Hunt from their borders, though this was rare; the Realm was still, even weakened, the greatest power in the world, and no one wanted trouble -- yet.
And the Wyld Hunt was known to have become ever-more badly funded as the Houses began to divert its money to their own causes. Before, Shataina had thought it to be a terrible thing, a shining example of the greed of the Dynasty and the cost of that greed to the Realm; now, it would save her life. Once she got to Chiaroscuro, biggest port in the South, the underfunded, overextended Hunt would never be able to find her -- unless she allowed herself to glow again, or made herself too obvious in other ways. Anathema, after all, had been brought down by single spies.
Not Anathema, she reminded herself. Solar Exalted.
It was funny; she was adjusting incredibly well to what had happened. It was as if her entire life had been a blank slate, waiting for exactly this. None of it felt foreign, or even improbable. I'm meant to accept it, she thought -- it's my destiny. Her mind spiralled back to the Sun's message, what he had told her was her fate: restore the Celestial Hierarchy.
What had He meant by the Celestial Hierarchy? It seemed a fair bet that it wasn't the same Celestial Hierarchy that the Immaculate Faith observed. They claimed that there was an innate order to the universe, which held the Dragon-Blooded as born rulers of the world, both spirits and humans their servants.
She remembered a moment from her last dream: the blurred man, his forehead blazing with sunlight, speaking. I had my Dragon-Blooded servants bring you here -- Dragon-Blooded, serving one of the Solar Exalted.
They couldn't be mere dreams -- not when they impinged on her waking hours. The feeling of immediacy, of reality, was too strong. Yet it was no personal dream; she wasn't even herself within them. Were they messages, somehow, from the Sun? Or -- could they be memories of past lives, lives in which she had also been a Solar? The Immaculate Order did preach reincarnation alongside the supremacy of the Dragon-Blooded -- but just because the Order espoused it didn't mean that it, too, was a lie.
Closing her eyes slightly, Shataina tried to feel for the right explanation, seeking the place the dreams had come from, trying to give a silent request for more information. She wasn't sure why she trusted the visions so implicitly. Careful, she warned herself. Not everything that feels good is correct. And yet now, with all her former standards shredded, Shataina could not think of a better way to measure her thoughts and actions.
She observed the sailors in the rigging, absently, keeping an expression of fierce concentration on her face, to intimidate them. I didn't like being so fiercely cruel to the captain, she reflected. And I couldn't bring myself to kill that man. I certainly don't feel that I was wrong to have let him live. And -- I had no choice about how to treat the captain; and I didn't hurt her. I went by what felt right -- but can I afford to live by what feels right or wrong? What if I really do have to kill someone someday?
There had been a poem in the book Arlan had given her (Arlan -- she recalled his face with a pang, then blocked the thought) that Shataina hadn't liked much. It was atypical of the work of Rain Falling on Lilies, very short: Honour / stands like a frail orchid / in the driving storm. A very bitter poem, and not too well-constructed; Shataina hadn't thought about it much, but now she came back to it, wondering.
Where have my ethics been? Now that I need to know how to act rightly, where has my basis gone? She could not seem to find a morality in her past actions; it was as if she had been blinded, following only the orders of her elders and, failing that, her own drives. Never had she worked for the good of the Realm she'd been raised in, not even trying to improve what few things she could, or do anything but work around what Mnemon Lin and her father had instructed her to do. Always, she had been filled with pride, and then in later years with resentment, feeling deprived of her birthright as a Dragon-Blood -- never thinking about what duties would come along with the right. In fact, not one of her peers seemed to had considered those duties -- they all took the riches and glory as their due, never considering that their Exaltation might give them responsibility as well. But she, with a different Exaltation, was forced to contemplate what she ought to do; and the fact that the Dragon-Blooded had lost their honour did not excuse her from following hers -- at last.
Now she had a chance to begin again. And as the Sun had Chosen her, so, Shataina thought, He must have known His purpose. Giving her no further guidelines, He had sent her out into Creation. He must have meant for her to follow her own conscience; else why would He have let her go with only the vaguest of instruction?
Instruction -- and she was back again at what He had told her to do. Her dreams had told her, whether a memory or a message, that the Dragon-Blooded had once served the Solar Exalted. Well, then: the Hierarchy meant that the Solar Exalted should be in power. So now I get to rule the world? she -- or whoever -- had asked the other Solar. Yes, he had told her. You will rule Creation.
So. Easy enough; she'd always, Shataina mused with the faintest of amusement, known that she was meant to be one of the rulers of the world. The only difference was that now she had to rule above the Dragon-Blooded. And to do that ...
... she would have to take over, or bring down, the Realm.
The enormity of the idea, now that she allowed herself to consider it, took her breath away. She'd been deliberately blocking it for the past few days, trying to plan ahead instead, coming up with ways to avoid the Wyld Hunt, knowing that she would eventually have to consider a real agenda, but unwilling to face what she knew it would have to be ....
No wonder they established the Immaculate Faith, she thought, her mind stunned into clarity. They did it to set themselves in power -- taught their children to believe in it ... and then taught that the Solar Exalted are Anathema. Taught it so well that the legends reached even the furthest corners of the world, became stories told even by those who have no faith in the Elemental Dragons, and no civilized place in Creation will shelter one of the Solar Exalted. And they did it because as we come back, as we begin to remember, we have to work against the Realm. It is in everything we are. It is what the Unconquered Sun knows must be done. And whoever established the Realm -- the Empress -- must have known the truth, known that left alive we would do whatever we could to reclaim our rights.
How can I bring down the Realm?
The thought seemed inconceivable, impossible. I must bring down the Realm. Shataina sat very still, watching the way the noon light glittered on the choppy water. Tell me how, she thought to the Sun. Can you hear me? Can't you at least give me a hint?
There was no answer, no renewed blazing vision; the Unconquered Sun shone benignly down, warming her softly even as He ignored her totally. Shataina felt paralyzed by the conclusion she had reached.
I was Chosen, she thought slowly. I. The Sun must have known His own intent. I come to it again: He must have meant for me to follow my conscience. And so, if He asks me to work against the Realm, it is what I must do; but He intends me to figure out how on my own, and I must do it as I see fit -- with honour, the way a Prince of the Earth should truly act.
It seemed absurd: one woman against the Realm, with only her own honour for a companion. I have no choice, she understood, as I suppose none of the Solar Exalted have had a choice, back through the centuries of our attempts to return. She recalled all the lessons she'd had on the tricks and traps the Anathema used against the Realm, remembered all the stories of their last stands and inevitable defeats. But it isn't inevitable -- it can't be. And I don't need to do it all at once, with insane directness. The Bull of the North may gather his little tribes together and attack the Realm's legions straight on, but all he has gained is attention. There must be a better way.
There must be.
And I will find it.
Why, many a student asks, does the Wyld Hunt take its name from the Wyld, domain of the Fair Folk? Should it not be called the Anathema Hunt? The Hunt never even journeys into the Wyld; never does it roam beyond the edges of Creation, where the shaped world dissolves into madness. Should it encounter one of the twisted Wyld-touched areas in the deep wilds, where the Fair have passed, the Hunt would not venture in, though surely the Fair might live there and surely the Fair deserve to die. But the Hunt's main job is to search for and destroy Anathema. This is not to say that there are not times when it will not take care of Fair Ones -- but only may it do so if it does not interfere with the main mission.
Its name is tradition. Long ago, in the First Age, the Anathema were not as much of a problem for the First Realm, and the Wyld Hunt was designed to patrol the edges of Creation and keep back those of the Fair who managed to get past the great magics of the machines in the Imperial Manse. Now, the situation is reversed: it is the Anathema who are the greatest threat to the Realm, and the Hunt must naturally focus on them. And, in purely pragmatic terms, it must be noted that the Fair menace mostly the edges of the world, and that these places do not often pay tribute to the Realm. Of course if the Fair Ones were to come among our subjects, we would be duty-bound to destroy them; but for now, we must concentrate on what is best for the Blessed Isle.
-- from History of the Realm, Part IV
Chapter II: Hunting Anathema
It was a gorgeous, sunny day as the Sea Princess pulled into port at the sparkling glass city of Chiaroscuro. Shataina stood on the top deck, arms crossed, dressed in plain sailor's clothing with her sword hooked through her belt. This was the last dangerous part of the journey; she would soon be free and anonymous among the thousands who lived in the South -- assuming the Realm had not somehow pulled strings and stopped up all the ports. It would be an unthinkable, probably impossible, act in any normal circumstance, but she was Anathema, and she had escaped Southward, so it was possible that they had managed it.
From here, the city looked as beautiful and strange as she had ever imagined it: the incredible crystalline buildings were a backdrop for cheap, modern construction, forming a jarring dichotomy. The glass spires had been built in the First Age, and though citizens of Chiaroscuro scavenged in the ruins for bits of ancient glass -- could even forge new things from them -- no one in these fallen times could fix the towers themselves. The few that still stood complete were the most expensive and high-status housing in the city, and all others who lived there made their homes in the wooden and stone houses built at their feet.
The voyage had been made in record time, the weather exquisite, every day clearer and breezier than the last; she had chosen their destination well, remembering correctly that Chiaroscuro was the closest major Southern port, her Southern studies finally coming to some use. Shataina had exhausted herself, staying up days at a time to watch the sailors. They had not tried to attack her again. Though their hatred did not seem to diminish, it sank below the surface. It was still there in the glitter of their infuriated eyes, the tone of their hushed voices -- everything about them betrayed how they despised her. It was, she knew, unsurprising.
What was surprising was how easy it was to acclimate herself to it; after a few weeks, it occurred to her how similarly they acted to her servants back in the Realm, and that she had fallen into the routine of treating them that way. Had those servants all hated her as much as these sailors did? Shataina had watched the sailors' behaviour, considered at length with the hours available to her, and eventually concluded that the servants had hated her so -- although, for some, the hatred was overlaid with a veneer of piety, respect for the Great House and the Dragons whose blood she supposedly bore. Perhaps, she had sometimes mused as she sat on the deck late into the nights, watching the constellations wheel above the water, the peasants and slaves of the Realm themselves didn't even know how much they hated their masters.
She had listened to the sailors speaking in the low-class dialects they probably thought she couldn't understand; they speculated as to her purpose in being there, in sparing their fellow's life, wondering whether they would be forever cursed for failing to give up their lives in fighting her. The sailor she'd injured, she'd heard, had healed well, crippled with a terrible limp, but otherwise hale. In the end, she'd been able to relax a tiny bit; they seemed to acclimate themselves, as she did, to their hatred and servility. After a while, they'd even stopped muttering curses every time she came near, although the ostentatious prayers to the Immaculate Dragons had never ended.
The dream/experiences had never ended, either; but they had slowed through the nights, and after a few weeks the visions during her waking hours had diminished. Now, the most she ever experienced while awake were instantaneous flashes, gone as quickly as she recognized them. Though she concentrated fiercely, considering the sequences for hours at a time, it seemed impossible to assign them any sort of coherence -- the only thing they had in common was that they all seemed set during the First Age. She recognized antique artifacts and even, once, a city -- a city that was a ruin in the modern day; and she'd long since concluded that they were, indeed, memories, although why she should only remember her past life as a Solar after her Exaltation was puzzling. Apparently, the Sun had wished her to remain ignorant of her heritage right until it came upon her.
Shataina felt lost and bewildered among the unfamiliar visions, unable to figure out the context. She could remember, barely, everything from enormous battles to ancient rituals and people, but nothing was really understandable at all. The best she could hope for was the few times when an image would come clear: the glimpse of a woman's face in starlight, a crowd before her cheering her on -- for what? She didn't know.
As the Sea Princess docked, she saw that there was no unusual activity; no one was stopped, or searched. I'm safe, Shataina thought, and just barely kept herself from laughing in relief. Safe as I'll ever be. All I have to do is get off the boat, now. Turning, she walked back down towards the captain, who was standing on the main deck. She regarded her warily, but didn't back down or blanch; perhaps, Shataina fancied, there was even respect in the woman's gaze. She might have been unable to convince the crew that she wasn't a demon, but at least she'd managed to show them that she was a fair demon.
"Now," she said calmly as she reached the captain, "here's what we're going to do. You will not report my presence to any authorities, nor will you, or any of your crew, speak of me to anyone. You will restock and sail directly from here to a port of your own choosing at least two hundred miles away. If you betray me," she leaned forward and looked the woman in the eye, "I will know. And I will find you."
She looked around at the rest of them and called, "That goes for you, as well. Don't underestimate me ..." she let the pause stretch ... "or my vengeance."
Frightened nods. The captain said steadily, "I'll do as you have told me."
Shataina's magic told her that she was speaking the truth. She couldn't be sure of the crew, but she'd be out of the city by the next morning anyway, and a few rumours wouldn't kill her -- she hoped.
Reaching into a pocket of her tunic, she pulled out Mnemon Lin's ruby. There were gasps, which she coolly ignored. "This," she addressed the captain again, "would cover your ship at least twice over, if carefully sold. And I expect you to share the proceeds with your crew, and pay for a top-notch medical examination of several crew members who ... ah ... had unfortunate luck in a bar fight. Will you do this?"
"Yes," the captain said, eyes on the jewel. Truth. Thank the gods, Shataina thought, for the cupidity of everyday non-heroes.
"Lower the gangplank," she said.
The sailors leapt to do her bidding. Shataina sauntered down it as if she hadn't a care in the world, then turned and tossed the captain the ruby. It sparkled madly in the sun, inner fires lighting and fading. The woman caught it in one hand and watched Shataina as she walked away, into the shimmering city.
Immediately she went to a tailor's shop. She'd removed the rubies from her dress as carefully as possible, and she got a good amount for the silk. It would be enough to live on for a little while; and, for emergencies, she had the jewels, which were discreetly sewn into the lining of her tunic. Her inexperienced stitches were large and clumsy, but should, she thought, serve. With the proceeds from the dress she bought herself a plain, concealing cloak; then she pawned her sword and got a lighter one -- the heavy sword she'd taken from the guard was not to her taste, and besides, it was decorated too gaudily, clearly part of the livery of a servant of the Great Houses.
Walking through the market, sweltering even under the thin cloak, Shataina thought about how she would accomplish what the Sun had told her she must do. Coloured glass flashed all around her; the veiled merchants of Chiaroscuro sold jewellery, ornaments, even weapons made of glass stronger than tempered steel. The ancient, shattered glass towers soared above her. Even the street below her feet was of glass, gleaming such a deep red that it was nearly black. Chiaroscuro was as beautiful as she had ever imagined it, and she had always been intrigued by the thought of a city whose men went shrouded, but she was too preoccupied to pay much attention.
Bring down the Realm, she thought, waving away a merchant. I could never do it alone. No one, she knew, could, even with the Empress gone. But she could work against it in a thousand ways, weaken it further.
There were hundreds of cities in the South paying tribute to the Blessed Isle, and they certainly didn't enjoy it. All around her, people were trying to bargain down the merchants, only to be met with the murmur of, "Taxes," -- and those with the paler skin, slanted eyes and straight dark hair of the Realm were observed with wary, half-hidden resentment. She remembered what she'd begun to understand about the peasantry of the Realm, and watched, fascinated, as something even worse -- a hatred unmitigated by faith to the Realm's false religion -- manifested itself all around her. I can almost taste their loathing, she realized, but even they don't seem to fully fathom it.
If she could unite that dissent, somehow, encourage a revolution, then she would at least be a thorn in the Realm's side; and if by some miracle a successful revolt were pulled off somewhere, then the Realm would be deprived of cash that it badly needed. Time was the key; time, and perseverance. She didn't know how long the Solar Exalted lived, but if their lifespans were anything like those of the Dragon-Blooded, it was a safe bet that she had time.
And she had the qualifications; she had, she was sure, been Chosen with them in mind. Seventeen years of the best training in the world had prepared her for everything from leadership to swordsmanship. Maybe she could accomplish a miracle. She was, after all, Exalted, and acting with the blessing of the Unconquered Sun himself. And, at the worst, if revolution was not her fate, then she trusted it would be revealed to her in the fullness of time. It was a strange feeling, to have faith.
Evening fell as Shataina approached the area of the marketplace where the caravans rested. The sunset's colours glinted off the broken edges of the nearby spires. As she went, between blinks, she saw for a moment that the towers were suddenly whole, shining in a different sunset, draped in banners, with laughing people leaning out the open windows -- and then, as suddenly as it had come, the flash was gone; she was back in the Second Age.
Her plan was to gain passage on a caravan, hopefully one leaving that night. The destination wouldn't matter as long as she could get away from the port she'd alighted in. Shaking her head quickly, Shataina blinked to make sure that the momentary vision was gone, then asked softly for help from the merchants around her. Luck was with her: a group was leaving within the hour. They were clustered at the base of the great citadel in the centre square of the city.
The enormous tower's translucent walls were coloured in a rainbow, fading from red to blue to yellow and back again. Shataina realized as she approached that the citadel stood without a scratch, the walls perfectly smooth, and wondered at the expertise of the ancient artisans who had built it. Chiaroscuro had been taken by the Fair Ones during their invasions of Creation after the fall of the First Age; their chaotic forces had destroyed nearly everything else, yet this building had been too strong for them. Or perhaps they had chosen to spare it. Who could know the motives of the Fair?
Two caravan guards, bronze-skinned native Southerners, straightened as she came forward into the column's vast shadow, and she smiled at them. Don't treat them like servants, she reminded herself, and bowed. "Have you a place I can take on your caravan?" she asked, enunciating carefully. "I am sorry for my late request."
They looked her over and exchanged glances. "For you -- maybe," one commented, and moved back into the circle of wagons.
The other one looked at her closely. "Not from around here, are you?" he asked, standing a little too nervously straight and looking at her a little too respectfully.
Of course not, I'm too pale, she thought, then realized: My accent -- it marks me plain as day as upper-class Realm. I could only be a Dynast. Cursing herself for not thinking of it earlier, she listened to her own voice as she replied, "I am but newly arrived," marking the little dips and sways in her inflection in order to eliminate them later. The last thing she wanted was questions about why someone with such a high-status accent was travelling alone, in cheap plain clothing, without a retinue. At the worst, they might even take her for one of the Dragon-Blooded, who did such things with impunity, knowing themselves well-able to take care of the threats that most wealthy people would hire guards against.
A plump man in fine silks came back with the guard, rubbing his hands together. Spotting his kinky pale hair, broad features and dark skin, Shataina felt relieved; he almost certainly wasn't originally from the Realm, and probably wouldn't ask for news from the Blessed Isle -- or be too reverent of her supposed high station. He bowed to her, low, and asked smoothly, "What can I do for you, my lady?"
"Do not address me so," she said hastily, and saw his eyebrows rise as she spoke. "I have no need of your honorifics. I am only a traveller, seeking a group to move with."
The merchant regarded her for a moment. Shataina knew his two options: either to consider her a wealthy, powerful woman who was slumming -- or an outcaste. I wonder which he'd prefer?
"As you wish," he said finally. "I must charge you if you wish to come on our caravan, however."
"How much?" she inquired, steeling herself, and couldn't help stiffening a little at the answer. At that rate, I'll run out of money in record time. For a moment, she considered walking and camping alone, but discarded the notion; perhaps once she'd been travelling for a while she could learn to do so with impunity, but she hardly knew the first thing about it, now.
"So much?" she asked weakly.
He shrugged. "It is, sadly, a necessity. Though perhaps you could earn your keep in another way?" The barely-concealed smirk made it clear that he thought she'd give in to his price at that suggestion; he thinks me too upper-class to work, she understood.
"I can fight," she offered, tapping her sword.
"I have more than enough guards," he countered.
"What need you, then?"
Again, he shrugged. "We had a troupe of dancers leave us when we reached the city," he murmured. "Perhaps you could offer us entertainment? Our nights have been long without them."
He can't possibly be suggesting that I prostitute myself, Shataina assured herself quickly to stave off the anger. He's merely trying to make all the alternatives seem unpalatable save payment -- trying to make me too angry to bargain. And he's certainly read me right -- I'd never dance for him. "I can play the harp and the lute," she said.
"Useless to us, unless you have your own instruments," he rejoined.
"I can tell stories," she said desperately, remembering the performance she'd chosen for her graduation.
"Ah," he said. She thought his surprise was genuine. "Truly?"
"I'll make you a deal, then, storyteller," the merchant said. "Give us a story, and if we like it, you can come with us and entertain us every night. We'll even feed you. But if we don't, I'm afraid you'll have to pay -- or go with someone else."
Shataina nodded, and the two guards stepped aside, allowing her to follow him into the circle of wagons. "Bessarita," she heard one of them whisper to the other, and tried to remember what the Southern word meant.
The company sat around in a small circle, some of them eating some form of cold stew as others packed up the wagons. "Can you tell your story in Flametongue?" the man asked.
"I fear that I know only this mere smattering of the Southern languages," she said apologetically. "Can you all listen in Riverspeak?" Surely they can, she thought. Surely a merchant's company will be able to speak the trader's tongue.
He made a moue, then sighed. "I suppose it shall have to do," he said, reluctantly, as if she were going back on their bargain. "Have a flask of water, and feel free to start when you will."
Swallowing the water in three grateful gulps, Shataina moved to the centre of the group, looking around at them. Well, she wouldn't need to work for their attention; most of them were already focused on her, staring as if she were some sort of fascinating monstrosity. It was strange -- not at all the usual reaction to her appearance. Even those loading things onto the wagons were glancing at her, often, unable to hide their unnerved interest. Again, she heard the whisper of bessarita. What could it mean?
"My name is Shataina," she said clearly. Best to cut off the family names, she knew. I suppose I shall never use them again. No regrets .... "I come from north of here," she told them, with a rueful little smile, "as you can see," gesturing to her alabaster-pale skin. They watched her, faces very still. "Tonight, I will tell you the story of the Realm, and its founding."
They didn't like that; it was more than obvious. Shifting among them, glances back and forth; the plump merchant frowned. I'll have to change the telling of the story, she thought. No divine right ought to be stressed for these people, who know the Realm and the Dragon-Blooded only as a tax burden and a threat. In fact -- I could even downplay the religious angle. Well, I'm willing to bet that the propaganda they hand us in the Realm isn't the true story anyway. They've lied about so much, and it always did seem a little impossible for one woman to defeat the Fair, cure the Contagion and begin the Second Realm, all in one day ....
None of the group looked to be Immaculate. The Philosophy was rare in the South, and some of the people before her wore amulets and totems she recognized as associated with various spirits and their worship. So she didn't have to worry about offending their religion by not granting the Dragon-Blooded Empress proper respect.
"The Scarlet Empress," she began, "at first, was a dedicated soldier, a woman of fierce intelligence and great honour. She was one of those who fought in the legions of the Realm, battling against the invading Fair Folk as they struggled to rip reality itself to shreds." No need to mention the Anathema; Shataina hoped the absence of them from her story wouldn't seem too strange.
It was odd, telling this story, something familiar in her drastically changed circumstances. Even the world she inhabited felt different, now -- and ... Shataina realized that the Essence around her seemed to be reacting as she spoke, coiling around her like a warm mist.
"The blaze-haired woman who would become Empress was brilliant," she continued, trying to keep her words from slowing as she attempted to sense what the magic was doing. It seemed to her that as she spoke, she somehow touched the invisible mist -- it was flexing and changing as she spoke, but she didn't know how to command it, or what it would do. Cautiously, she began to feed it from the inner repository of Essence that she'd gotten a feel for as she mastered Charm after Charm on the ship.
"She was, of course, an excellent tactician, but beyond that, she was a scholar of the ancient mysteries, the knowledge of the First Age that had been lost in its fall. Many a day, if not out on campaign, would the soldier spend studying antique tomes, seeking information on magical weaponry that she could use in the struggle for Creation."
Her words had a timbre she'd never heard in them before. Riverspeak was not a language meant for storytelling; it was a hodgepodge of words from all over the world, often awkward and strange-sounding -- and yet Shataina felt the words gaining a rhythm that sounded consistent, melodious, like poetry. Her audience seemed alert, everyone paused and watching her closely; the soft warm Essence seemed to wind itself around her voice and the story, making them right.
She hesitated; no one stirred, and she was glad of it, seizing the brief moment to concentrate, instinctively grasping the magic and taking control, pouring it into the story. Where to go from here? she asked herself -- and, all at once, she realized how to tell the tale, and further knew how she could use it to serve the Sun.
"In a vast library one day," Shataina resumed confidently, "as the sun shone down on the barely-used shelves, the young soldier accidentally came upon a book in a dusty corner that had lain unopened for years upon years. Curious, she laid it on a desk and looked through the musty pages. It took her days upon days to read the length of it, but as the importance of it came home to her, she spent longer and longer at that table in the library; and once she had finished, she had learned all the forgotten secrets of the Imperial Manse."
That, they noticed -- the departure she had chosen from the official Realm version of the tale. It was a fluke, Shataina was telling them, though she thought that only the most intelligent would really think about what she was saying: that it had been merest chance, not unsurpassed intelligence or godly favour, that had given the Scarlet Empress the key to control of the Imperial Manse.
"The blaze-haired woman considered what she had learned, and it didn't take long for her to reach a decision. The Fair Ones had to be expelled from Creation; and only the Imperial Manse contained the weaponry that could do it. Further, the young soldier was not immune to the glory she would gain by saving the world -- or to the seduction of ruling an empire." She was more human than divine, and liked the idea of power, Shataina was hinting -- just like you or me; an implication that could very well have earned her a sentence of treason, back in the Realm. But the people before her were paying close attention, eyes shining, one or two of them even nodding slightly at her words. There were more, she saw now -- others had come from neighbouring caravans, and a small crowd was forming around the edges of her original audience.
"So the woman who would become Empress spoke in undertones to her friends, knowing that her superiors would not approve. She told them of what she had discovered, and asked them to help her, reminding them of the honour and renown that awaited them if they would only seize their chance. And though many were afraid, and many shrank away from the opportunity, the blaze-haired woman found four like-minded soldiers who agreed to accompany her on the venture.
"During a lull in the battles, as the Fair drew back to replenish their ranks, the young soldier drew her friends together in a late-night meeting. 'The time is now,' she said to them, unable to conceal her excitement. 'All we need is courage and initiative. Fear will only make us miss our chance. We can leave the legion tonight and reach the Imperial Manse within six months. Why do you shrink back from opportunity?' she cried as they muttered in doubt. 'Our time is now!'
"She convinced them, the blaze-haired woman, firing them with her bravery. That very night, the four legionnaires stole away from their camps and met her on the edges, riding away in the darkness to destiny."
She had them. The audience was hers; their ideals and emotions lay in her hands. Shataina sensed the Essence flooding through her words; she felt the changes she was making, hardly even conscious of them, shifting every detail she could as she took the Empress's story and ruthlessly made it her own. Her blood sang with magic. I bet you never thought that we'd pull the same trick on you, Madame Empress, she thought, savouring the irony and pressing back a smile. You subverted a religion -- you tried to subvert the very Celestial Hierarchy to your ends. And now you pay the price: your life's story, the tale you built your empire on, will be used to fire the populace and help take down what you made.
"The woman who would become Empress led them through deserts, over mountains, across the ocean. Though they may not have said it aloud, her company saw that she was a great leader; they knew her vision, and they knew its power, believed in the force of her valour. They saw that she, in her courage and grace, had harnessed the power to change the world.
"Passing through the fields of dead from the Contagion, the blaze-haired woman and her followers saw firsthand the evils they had to defeat. They saw the vast, barren areas the Fair had left behind them. They saw the tainted, mutated places that marked the passage of Chaos, and the soulless, broken husks of men and women that the Fair Folk had ravaged. Following their leader, their hearts filled with conviction as they watched her march across the burned and weeping earth. This is our hour, they understood. The time has brought us forth to fight for Creation.
"They had no inkling of the fear that settled in their leader's proud breast, the trepidation behind her voice. For the woman who would become Empress knew that fear was a part of all brave endeavours; she had faced down the terrors of the Fair Ones in battle, and she knew that valour was not the lack of fear, but the understanding and defeat of it. And so she led them through the shattered world and to the gates of the Imperial Manse, never showing the tiniest bit of fright.
"You know the rest of the story," she said, and smiled, watching them smile back, glorying in her ability to enchant them with a gesture. "The world knows it: the way the Empress stepped forward and, pushing back dread, gave the words that opened the Imperial Manse. She and her companions disappeared within, and only she emerged. Let us not mourn her brave followers; for they gave their lives for a great cause, the defeat of the Fair Ones, and their souls returned to the endless cycle, born again into lives that did them justice."
Time to conclude; and these, these were the words that her audience would remember.
"So the Empress saved the world and ruled an empire for over seven hundred years. In the Realm they tell us of divine right and unique destiny." Shataina shrugged. "Perhaps she had the favour of the gods. Who can say?" I can, she told them without a word; and she didn't. "But whenever this story is told, we remember her intrepid spirit. We remember those desperate times, and the woman who took the chance to change them."
It had been a brief story -- so brief, so succinct and minimal, as to seem almost pointless, a failure of the storyteller's art; and yet as Shataina stood in the middle of the circle, she saw the effect it had had on her listeners, who blinked and shook their heads, as if arising from a dream. It seemed that she stood in the centre of a vast nexus of power, Essence not merely resting in her words but in every gesture and movement, so that with a lift of her arm she could have raised them to their feet, and with a shout she could have brought them to a fury. But she didn't; she bowed, then remained still, standing, and smiling, smiling as they began to clap. Though her audience had grown, she knew it was a comparatively small one -- and yet it was as if the awe and emotion behind their applause equalled the adoration of a crowd a thousand strong.
This is how I can do it, she understood, raising her head and turning to acknowledge them all. This is how to accomplish my mission. Not with immediate frenzied battles, not with vast riots to bring the Realm's legions down upon us, but with conviction and persuasion -- by making them believe that all it takes is courage and that the time, their time, is now.
And then at last, when a revolution finally comes, when I bring them together in the name of the Sun, we will have already won.
By this does one know the greatness of the Realm: the entire world pays tribute! Only a few benighted parts of the Scavenger Lands resist the sway of the Realm, and both we and they know that their resistance is futile, for truly, the Empress shall put them in her place as she wills. Everywhere else understands that there is nothing for them but to bow to the greatness of the Realm, which is the greatness of the Dragons, the Immaculate Philosophy, and the most holy Scarlet Empress, their champion.
To begin with the South: almost the entirety of the cardinal direction of flame grants the Realm its due. Only Gem, southernmost city, and the unenlightened barbarian tribes even dare to consider not doing so ....
-- from History of the Realm, Part II
Chapter 1: Tributaries of the Realm
Shataina travelled with the caravan for only a few weeks after joining. The caravan-master treated her well, and she could see that all of them loved her stories. Everyone in the wagons would come and watch as she told tale after tale, every night, the fire burning crimson-low. They didn't seem to notice the morals she was inserting, but she knew, from her audience's thoughtful faces and the conversations she overheard afterward, that the ideas hidden in the narratives went straight to their hearts.
Yet even with all their appreciation, she could see that they were wary of her; unnerved by her rich woman's accent, perhaps, and also by a pale-skinned foreigner, a stranger among their little group. Always polite, they treated her as a superior and not a friend. So Shataina remained an outsider; determined that she would learn how to be friendly with these, the common people, who she needed, she became a student of them, spending many of her idle hours lurking on the edges of groups of people, answering their sidelong gazes only with small smiles.
Their departure from Chiaroscuro, and passage along the roads, was swift. The burgundy road continued a little way out from the city; then, slowly, the immaculate surface became dirty, finally submerging below the sandy Southern earth. It was interesting to watch; the great enchantments that had kept the road clean throughout the First Age had begun to fail as the Age had fallen, but the process was piecemeal -- even when the wagons had been passing over dirt for hours, the caravan would sometimes encounter brief stretches of ruby glass that surfaced suddenly and glittered, perfectly clean. Even these vanished within a few days, though, and left only the dusty, dry road of packed dirt.
Although they were at the northern edge of the South, by the coast, the land was dry and warm. Around the road lay farms, sometimes green fields, with cypresses and olive trees scattered across the landscape. Villages spread out from the cities, paying tithes to petty kings and rulers who themselves, Shataina knew, would pay tribute to the Realm.
It was at one of the larger villages that Shataina left the wagons behind, gathering up her sword and cloak and departing without saying goodbye. Her accent was already fading, her demeanour becoming more suited to her surroundings as she learned the manners expected of a traveller. People reacted to her better and better all the time, and she thought that it was because she was learning how to act more naturally among them. Most importantly, her mastery of rhetoric became greater day by day as she picked up more of the Southern dialects and learned to better control her magic. It seemed easier and easier to weave the tiniest sparks of Essence through her words, giving them a force and resonance unsurpassed even by the greatest of mortal speakers -- not that she generally needed to; a smile was often enough to get what she wanted.
Shataina spent some of her carefully-hoarded silver on supplies and a few maps, requesting directions to the next village, and leaving immediately after the purchases. The roads, she found soon enough, were surprisingly hospitable; even on nights when she didn't reach an inn, the climate was almost a pleasure to sleep out in, and often she encountered other travellers to camp with. She could always trade a story for food or a night's lodging; she never paid for rooms. And as she went, she began to sound out the Southern population for dissent, unhappiness, anything she could turn to her own purpose.
Her first inkling of an edge to exploit came as she passed a stretch of fertile fields whose crops were being harvested -- wheat, she thought, and frowned. Wasn't it too early for the wheat harvest? She'd always seen the peasants on her grandmother's estates harvest it far later. It can't all be climate changes, she considered -- or perhaps it can.
Motivated entirely by idle curiosity, she stopped to drink from her flask of water beside a sweating peasant and said, making her tone friendly and conversational, "Hey, can I ask you a question?"
The man squinted up at her, then stood slowly, looking her up and down. I should have asked a woman, Shataina realized too late. She'd gotten better at pretending to be in the same class as the peasantry, but the price was that a number of the men (and rather fewer of the women) felt free to leer at her a lot more than she liked. At least when she seemed to be high-class, they were too afraid of her to plainly stare at her chest. Too dangerous to appear that way, she reminded herself yet again, and found herself in the rare position of missing the Realm. Even the patricians have learned that a measure of subtlety makes them so much more attractive ....
"I couldn't help noticing you're harvesting early," she told the man.
His broad, dark-skinned face darkened further. "Yeah," he snarled. "We're losing a quarter of our yield." He spat off to the side. "Word is the Realm needs more money to buy pretty jade jewellery for their concubines."
"What, they can't delay their taxes?" Shataina glanced at the field, surprised. "You'd think they'd notice that they're losing money!"
"Never paid taxes, eh, sweetheart?" the man observed. "All they need is half our yield."
"But now they're only getting ... three-eighths."
He gave her a pitying stare, as if he couldn't believe how naïve she was. "No, they're getting half. Else the legions come down here and teach us a lesson."
And you'll get a quarter ... and won't have enough to feed yourself over the winter, she finally understood. Even half is probably too much to ask of you, and now they're forcing you to harvest early .... How can they justify doing this? It's stupid and it goes against the Immaculate Faith!
Thanking the man and disengaging herself quickly -- and thanking her stars, too, for a face entirely like her exotic-looking mother's and not her Realm father's -- Shataina kept walking, watching the people around her, and remembering the state of the Realm.
In the absence of the Empress, the Realm had begun to fragment, falling prey to infighting and corruption; this she knew. What she hadn't thought of was the way that this would affect the people over which the Great Houses had domain. There was less and less to keep the Houses in check, and they needed more and more funds to finance their own bids for the throne. All that money had to come from somewhere ... and the Great Houses were impatient.
Slaves on the Blessed Isle were better off than the lower classes here, if only because they had enough to eat, she realized. In the Realm proper, the Dynasty wouldn't overtax its people -- at least not this much, not to the point of starvation. It was a violation of their Immaculate duties to the people, and terrible resource management to boot. But subject states -- un-Immaculate, conquered states -- were a different matter. The Houses were bleeding their peripheral territories as dry as they could and, for the most part, ignoring their responsibilities towards the people.
It only confirmed her purpose in her own mind. Revolution against the Realm was more than simply necessary, it was righteous. In her travels, she began to build a network, incredibly slowly, of people she could rely on who shared her purpose. More and more, she learned the tricks of being accepted by the people she walked among, and she learned also how to spot the men and women most likely to aid her cause. Watching her audiences, she noted the listeners whose eyes lit as she spoke, the ones who watched her not only for her foreign beauty and skill with words but because their hearts agreed with what she was really saying. Sometimes they would need persuasion; fear lay among these subjected peoples like a snake in the grass. But every brave woman wasted as a farmer, every man whose wife or children had starved from the Realm's callous tariffs, could be a convert. Shataina spoke to them alone, late at night after she'd finished her performances, in dim corners and anonymous streets, explaining to them what their inner selves already knew.
She went by her own name, her given name; perhaps incautious, but as the months passed and the Realm failed to find her, she relaxed. It seemed probable that the story of her Exaltation and escape had been hushed up. It would be a terrible embarrassment to her House, after all; and her name was not an uncommon one. Shataina found herself wondering, at times, what excuses Mnemon Lin had given, what had become of the betrothal deal with Tarin's family, whether Sara had after all been posted to the South. Most of all, she wondered what had become of Arlan.
But when those thoughts came to her, she distracted herself with a flagon of wine charmed out of an innkeeper, a story to be told to passerby, or with plans: the next step of creating her network, the next man she would bring in to her cause, the next step to be taken for her mission.
Most Southern cities, Shataina considered as she walked down a darkened street one night, seemed to be quite well-lit. People were often expected to be abroad quite late, when it was cooler; this suited her own purposes admirably, the night's dimness shadowing her too-pale face and allowing her to go, often, unnoticed, even in the long, suspicious-looking hooded cloaks that she affected. This particular city's streets were narrow, and lit irregularly, but still easy to navigate; if all else failed, she could always ask one of the many passerby for directions ... now, she thought, how do I get back to my inn again?
A muffled cry interrupted her thoughts as she stopped at an intersection, trying to remember which way to go. Shataina paused, listening.
She couldn't hear anything much; a voice reached her, threatening in tone, but the words were indistinguishable. Someone was probably being mugged. She knew she ought to pass on, not make a spectacle of herself, but she couldn't force herself to take a step past the alleyway. There was someone being hurt, perhaps even killed, as she stood there -- and hadn't she been told by the Sun Himself to destroy the unrighteous?
Drawing her sword, she moved down the little side-street as softly as she could, straining to see ahead through the gloom. There were three figures at the corner, but she couldn't make out very many details; she saw one man holding someone up against the building and another man standing beside him, occasionally glancing back over his shoulder. They hadn't seen her yet, but soon would.
With a little internal sigh over what she knew was a foolish action, Shataina strode forward confidently. The two men looked around at her. One of them drew a knife, and the other kept hold of the third, who she saw now was a young girl looking frightened out of her wits.
"Let her go," Shataina said levelly, "and none of you will be hurt." She didn't expect the threat to work; she was a lone woman out after dark with a flimsy-looking light sword -- not very threatening. But it would be dishonourable not to give them a chance.
The one with the girl smirked and turned back to her, and the other moved forward with his knife. "You made a mistake coming down here, miss," he said.
A man came at her back, but her magic warned her, and by the time he reached her, her sword had already sliced into his side. They always try to attack from behind, she had time to think amusedly as he fell, gasping in pain. The one in front of her lunged, then, and she effortlessly blocked him, crippling his arm. She lowered her sword and stared at the third man, who clearly thought about interfering, but instead dropped his captive and bolted.
It had been too easy, really. She was terribly out of shape, had failed to practice for over a month, and yet she still hadn't even had to use any Essence to enhance her blade.
"Are you all right?" she asked the girl, who was cowering against the wall. A nod answered her, and she turned to the two remaining men. Neither was dead, but the first was bleeding copiously. As she bandaged it for him, he flinched back from her touch in fear.
"You should thank me for your life," she told him, and stood.
Shataina looked back at the girl, who hadn't moved, and saw that she was terribly thin and dirty, dressed only in rags. Cocoa-coloured skin and straggling black hair -- a native Southerner; a pair of huge dark eyes regarded her warily. "Do you have a place to go?" she asked.
The girl shook her head.
"Come on, then," said Shataina.
She had passed a small café a few blocks back, and she navigated the lamplit streets carefully to find it again, the girl silently following. It was open late, a single barman serving drinks by the light of two torches. There were few customers: a man and woman on a furtive assignation in one dim corner, a few youths drinking and laughing together in another. Shataina took the third, asking the barman for some bread and soup.
"We don't serve this late, mistress," he said gruffly.
"Please?" asked Shataina humbly, batting her eyelashes.
"Oh, all right," he mumbled, "I might be able to find some left over," and disappeared into the back.
The youths had spotted her, and were staring, leaning over and whispering to each other. Hastily, Shataina pulled up her cloak, remembering too late her exotic appearance, and catching that word, bessarita, again as she did. She'd asked the innkeeper at a tavern she'd stayed at what it meant, and he'd claimed not to know, but so nervously that she knew it must be an insult that he hadn't wanted to translate. "Foreigner", perhaps? "Northern bitch"? It could be anything.
The girl was still standing, ill-at-ease, eyes flickering around nervously. "Sit down," Shataina said gently. "What's your name?"
"Tara," the girl said softly, and obeyed, shifting around in the wooden chair as if unwilling to touch it.
Shataina was at a loss. Why did I take this girl with me? she asked herself. I already saved her .... I ought to have simply moved on. Well, I suppose I can get her some food, at least. She said she hasn't a place to go .... "So, Tara ... your parents. Could you stay with them?"
The girl's enormous eyes glanced up, meeting hers, then away as quickly. "I don't know where they are," she murmured.
"I could help you find them."
"No, miss. You don't understand. They left ... a long time ago." Shataina's incomprehension was clear; Tara explained, "They sent me to get bread, one day, and when I got back they were gone. And never came back."
Could they actually have abandoned her? Shataina wondered, staring at Tara's bowed head. I suppose there isn't much else that could have happened, safe in their own home .... Talk about ignoring responsibilities. "Have you been alone ever since then?" she asked, as kindly as she could.
Tara seemed uneasy, unwilling to talk. Reluctantly, she said, "I lived with my ... friend for a little while, recently, but he said there wasn't enough food for the both of us."
Shataina didn't want to press her. A pimp or a boyfriend, she speculated, using her as long as it was convenient. Her eyes passed over Tara's scarce frame; the girl probably couldn't even get work as a prostitute, now, although she was pretty enough for those men to have tried to take her for free. The amount of food she was living on had to be absurdly small; she'd be competing with the street gangs, and she didn't look to be very strong or tough. It was, really, a miracle she'd survived so long.
The barman set down a bowl of soup and a chunk of stale bread before her, and Shataina pushed it across to Tara. "Here," she said, and watched as the girl ate it quickly and ravenously, down to the faintly-moldy crust.
I can't leave her here, she thought, then scolded herself. What would she do with a street girl? Crazy -- her idea was crazy; a companion would not only be an extra mouth to feed, but a terrible risk to her secrecy.
But there was no way she could leave Tara to starve.
Leaving a few silver pieces on the table, she took Tara back to her inn, persuading the innkeeper to let the girl have a bath and sleep in Shataina's own room. The next day she went and got her some new clothing. She kept her around into the evening, trying to draw her out; the girl looked uncomfortable in her new, unshredded garments, quietly bewildered by her sudden windfall of luck. Tara listened to the night's storytelling session with interest, and Shataina saw her face animate for the first time; she really was quite a pretty girl, when she smiled, although after the tales were over she went back to looking scared and small.
It was, she considered, an unavoidable choice; it seemed somehow that it had already been made for her. That night, she convinced the innkeeper to let Tara stay with her again, for her last night in the city.
"Tara," she said as they prepared to sleep, "I'm not very good at this language." Shataina had taken a class in Flametongue, the major Southern dialect, years before, when she had planned someday to explore the Threshold. She could get along from her barely-remembered studies, and she was learning, but her lack of complete knowledge was handicapping her. She still had to tell her stories mainly in Riverspeak, which limited her audiences; most people knew only their native language.
"I was thinking that you could come with me and help me learn it better, and in exchange I could teach you to read and write. Then someday you could get a job as a secretary or something. I move around a lot, and I'm sure you could find an opportunity somewhere."
Tara stared at her, then nodded. "Thank you, miss," she whispered.
"You can call me Shataina. After all, we'll be travelling together."
Another nod. Tara had the look of someone waiting for the other shoe to drop. Clever girl, Shataina thought, but said nothing more, rolling over to go to sleep.
Closing her eyes against the darkness, she wondered, Have I made the wrong decision? Shataina shifted nervously and sighed without a sound. My conscience is the only guide I have, she reminded herself -- and it told her she'd done the right thing.
Beware the Deceivers, for they are perhaps the most dangerous of the Solar Anathema. The Wretched may be quick and silent, the Forsaken may be fearsome, the Unclean may be learned in terrible dark arts, but these are nothing to the awful subtlety of the Deceivers. Some say that even the Blasphemous are less dangerous; for although the Blasphemous want nothing more than to spread the false and corrupt faith of their gods, they are most often direct, betraying themselves with bluntness so they may be killed outright. But the Deceivers will manipulate their targets with horrific demonic cleverness. Their clever words are traps for the unwary, and they will bind you into oaths of slavery and corruption if they can. Appearing refined, like a hidden blade, they are quick to take advantage of weakness; indecision will lose a battle against them far more quickly than lack of skill at arms. Your faith is your strength and your shield; give them no chance to speak, but a quick death.
-- from the Immaculate Texts, commentary: Dangers of the Anathema
Gemsport was an archetypal city of the South: a king ruled it from a palace of granite and marble, it had its own petty nobility with what they doubtless considered to be the finest of houses, and its social hierarchy went down the scale to the lowest of beggars and thieves. Any citizens rich enough to afford it painted their roofs a gleaming white to ward off the punishing sun, and the streets were wide, dusty and hot in the summer season.
Shataina, Tara beside her, had come into the city a week earlier. She had high hopes for this place: the peasantry was even more dissatisfied with the rulership than most Southern cities -- no small feat -- and even some of the higher classes seemed disaffected. She'd decided to take the step of actually trying to establish some kind of self-sustaining group in Gemsport on this, her third time passing through -- a group that could keep her mission going, sustain her words, even when she was gone.
"We're staying here a long time," Tara murmured, stripping down to her shift in their inn room as Shataina tied up her hair for sleep
"Yes," Shataina said. "I have a lot of friends around here." For the hundredth time, she debated, internally, whether or not to tell Tara the truth -- at least that she was fomenting rebellion; there was no need for the girl to know that she was a Solar. They'd been travelling together for over two months, and Tara was picking up the things that Shataina taught her quickly; she'd probably figured out that Shataina was a little bit more than a travelling storyteller. And she didn't seem particularly plagued with the kind of "morality" -- or fear -- which would cause her to betray Shataina. But still -- Shataina, still unsure of the girl who was curling up in bed behind her, held the information back once again.
"Good night," she said softly, taking the other half of the narrow bed.
The soft closing of the door awakened her, halfway through the night. Tara answering a call of nature, Shataina thought sleepily, and turned over, only to encounter Tara, warm and slow-breathing, at her side. She froze.
The softest of footfalls -- and another. Someone was coming towards the bed. Shataina, her breath painfully held, let her hand creep towards the sword she kept by the side of the bed. Murmuring softly, as if in sleep, she turned over onto her back in order to reach it, and noted how the footfalls paused for a long moment before continuing.
Slitting her eyes, she watched carefully as a man came forward, into a shaft of moonlight cast through the uncovered window. She could see nothing of his face, masked in black as it was, and his shadowed body was cloaked in black as well. A sharpened sliver of reflected whiteness at the intruder's side betrayed a longsword.
Shataina tensed, waiting. The man came forward another few steps, then raised the sword silently, ready to bring it down.
In one fluid movement, she leapt from the bed as he began to lower the blade. Bringing around her own sword, Shataina landed on her bare feet with a thud, directly before the assassin. Too surprised to parry, he didn't even have a chance to cry out before she had sliced off his head.
The man's knees folded, and he fell, slow as a dream, to the floor, his sword falling harmlessly to one side. There was a lot of blood, jetting out to spray Shataina's face and soak her shift before slackening and pouring into a spreading puddle around her feet. Sickened, she leaned back as Tara started up with a cry and opened her mouth to scream. "Please," Shataina hissed. "Shh! Shh, Tara!"
Tara obeyed, shuddering, and Shataina, trembling with adrenaline, closed her eyes and fought back the urge to vomit at the overwhelming, coppery smell of blood.
"What happened?" Tara asked.
"An assassin," whispered Shataina, opening her eyes at last. She looked down at the body and steeled herself, trying not to be overly fastidious as she went through the pockets. Nothing. Who would do this? she asked herself. Standing, she wiped off her face and hands on the inn's cheap blanket and began to gather their belongings quickly. Tara, she noted, was remaining impressively silent and calm. "Do you think you could go get the innkeeper?" she asked.
Tara nodded, bit her lip, and slipped out of the room, her shift ghost-grey in the dimness. Shataina finished packing furiously, then composed herself, preparing to call on all the infuriated haughtiness she could. Just pretend you're disciplining an errant slave, she told herself, and almost giggled.
The innkeeper was incredibly flustered when he arrived. Spotting the body, he gasped and stumbled back up against the door. Before he could speak, Shataina snarled, "This man tried to rob us in our beds! The so-called lock on your door did nothing!"
"My lady --"
"Shut up!" Shataina realized the edge of hysteria on her own voice wasn't completely faked, and strove to keep herself in check. "Get us a new room! No -- forget it. We'll not stay here another instant!"
Sweeping out in her best Mnemon Lin style, she gestured Tara along with her, leaving the gibbering innkeeper in the dust before he could remember that she'd been living there for free, paying only with stories.
"Where to now?" whispered Tara once they had gotten a block from the inn.
"Now we pass through every inn in town," said Shataina grimly. "Some of them twice. And negotiate for rooms in at least three." She glanced at Tara; the girl was a pale mocha, like coffee with entirely too much milk. "Are you all right?" she asked in sudden concern.
Tara squared her shoulders. "I'm fine," she said confidently.
I hope she holds up, Shataina thought.
She did better than hold up; she was magnificent, doing exactly as Shataina suggested without complaint, and coming up with more ideas to confuse any seekers. I did her an injustice, thinking she'd be disabled by this, Shataina considered later when they'd finally gone through all the rigmarole and at last gone to their new room. Tara had gone back to sleep without a second thought, but Shataina remained awake, pacing softly around the room in increasingly complex patterns.
An assassin. Who would kill her? At least -- who would kill her this way? If the Realm had finally tracked her down, they would never have sent a mortal assassin -- instead, she'd have found the Wyld Hunt on her doorstep. It had to be someone else, but she couldn't imagine who.
Leaving town would seem to be the best idea, but Shataina was utterly unwilling to give up so easily. I'm not backing off on the slightest part of my mission simply because of one assassin, she thought fiercely, trying hard not to remember the choking stench of the nameless man's death. Whoever it is, I'm going to be more than they can handle.
The marketplace of Gemsport was fairly large; the city ruled a fairly good portion of well-farmed land, including some places in which had been found deposits of rubies. The economy wasn't bad -- not wonderful, for the area paid heavy tribute to the Realm, but not terrible either. Shataina, cloaked as she always was, and Tara threaded their way through it with ease, practiced from dozens of similar markets across the South.
"So who are we looking for?" inquired Tara casually as they paused in the welcome shade of one of the olive trees dotting the streets. "Another 'old friend'?"
Shataina almost smiled. I really should tell her, she mused. "Yes," she replied noncommittally, and cast about for something to distract her companion with. "What did you say was the word for these trees again? I always forget that one."
"This?" Tara asked, tapping the olive. "Ceitna."
"Ceitna," Shataina repeated. "Good to know." Turning from the tree, she gestured to Tara to precede her -- and was hit with the certainty of danger.
With the premonition came the realization: she spotted, instantly, a strange shadow -- a woman, backlit by sunlight, on the white roof of the building across the street. "Move!" she cried to Tara, slamming into the surprised girl with her shoulder as the arrow left the woman's silhouetted bow. By the time the arrow hit the olive's trunk, where Shataina had been standing a bare instant before, the attacker had already stood and was making off across the rooftops at top speed. Shataina put her hand to her sword.
A few nearby citizens had taken cover, and a ragged urchin watched with alert interest, but otherwise the would-be assassin seemed to have drawn little attention. Shataina looked around, winked at the child, and grabbed Tara's arm. "Let's move," she hissed. "And buy some new cloaks. In different colours. Drab ones that are hard to pick out in a crowd."
"Does this happen to you often?" Tara asked in an undertone, and Shataina admired her composure once again.
"Not really. I guess I have an enemy I don't know about." She scanned the crowd, pulling Tara around behind a convenient white cotton awning. "Maybe I shouldn't take you along with me when I go out anymore."
"Or you could teach me to fight," Tara pointed out, and Shataina blinked in surprise. "Then I'd be able to protect myself a lot better."
Shataina hesitated. "You want to learn?" she asked.
"Yes!" Already Tara seemed to have completely recovered from the shock of the arrow. Her dark eyes sparkled. Maybe I should have been teaching her all this time, Shataina thought, and nodded.
"All right," she said. She'd been intending to visit a cobbler this afternoon -- one who had a decent business, an honest and clean history, and a surprising fervour for the idea of overthrowing his government. Shataina suspected some sort of personal problem in his past, and had been considering recruiting him to her cause, but the adrenaline rush from the arrow left her keyed up, with a distaste for the idea of sitting around talking all day. "Let's go see if we can go convince the town blacksmith to lend us some practice swords."
Tara grinned. "I wish I could master the trick of never paying for anything."
"Watch and learn," Shataina grinned back.
In the end, the two of them ended up going to the city guardsmen and asking for use of their practice equipment and grounds. After Shataina soundly thrashed the guard captain, who had doubted her ability to use a blade, he permitted her to use their training circle on the condition that Shataina teach him and a few underlings at the same time. Tara and Shataina of them returned to the inn quite tired, but pleased, and Shataina filled the evening entertaining the crowd with stories of sword-feats.
They blocked up the door with a chair, positioning it so that any opening would cause a clatter, and moved around the few pieces of furniture to make it maximally awkward for anyone to navigate in the dark. Shataina carefully scattered some marbles she'd charmed out of a glassblower around the room and on the windowsill. "There," she said with satisfaction as she placed the final few marbles by the bed and laid her sword down within easy reach. "No one is getting in here without making some noise."
She woke into darkness, again; the moon had waned since the first assassin struck, and the room was almost completely black. Shataina looked towards the door and saw that the chair was undisturbed, the marbles on the floor unmoved -- and yet a hooded figure stood by the wall.
She went for her sword and came to her feet as quickly as she could, but as she stood, the figure's hand flashed forward and Shataina saw the brightness of steel. Leaping towards him, trying to avoid the marbles, she failed to avoid the slender throwing-knife; one leg was turned, and it accurately sliced open the back of her knee.
It hurt more than she'd thought it would. With a gasp, Shataina fell awkwardly to one knee, unable to force her injured leg to support her. Infuriated at her own weakness, she lunged forward and brought her sword sweeping upwards, forcing Essence into the blade. Too late, she realized that she'd burned through too much of her reserves -- she felt the heat on her own forehead and saw her weapon beginning to glow faintly with sunlight as her magic came to her call. I'll start glowing, she thought frantically. Oh no -- I've got to kill this man as quickly as possible, before he shouts "Anathema" and everyone comes and sees me shining.
Her Essence-enhanced sword came around in an impossibly accurate, killing blow, and Shataina knew he'd never avoid it --
-- but he did. Dodging back, somehow, the man evaded her magical attack, then slipped aside from another, too quick for her to hit. After a moment of shock, Shataina tried to stand, looking up at him desperately and waiting for the inevitable cry. As she struggled, cursing her wounded leg, she recognized suddenly that he had lowered his arms and was watching her carefully, silently.
"So," he said. His voice was very soft, somewhere between tenor and bass -- pleasant, even friendly. He reached up one hand and pulled back his black hood.
Black hair, slightly wavy, framed a handsome, finely-cut face -- features so delicate and beautifully shaped that even the most jaded, debauched women of the Realm would have sighed in admiration. His eyes were quite large, and dark.
"You are Anathema," he whispered, and as Shataina watched, a white-gold symbol blazed to life on his forehead.
Shataina let out her breath and leaned back against the side of the bed. Tara was beginning to rouse -- it had, Shataina realized, been less than a minute since she'd jumped out of the bed. "Tara," she said quietly, and the girl opened her eyes. "Tara, you mustn't scream."
Tara's eyes widened, and she put her hand to her mouth as she saw Shataina's glowing forehead. Thank Heaven I didn't burn through too much Essence, Shataina thought. I'd probably be lighting up half the district if I did. Now all I have to do is convince Tara not to shout. "Tara," she murmured, making her voice as reassuring as possible, "it's all right. There's nothing to be afraid of. I promise, Tara."
The other girl sat up slowly, and looked at the assassin, who hadn't moved. "Anathema," she said slowly.
"Yes," Shataina said. "I'm sorry." Her words seemed nonsensical. "We're not demons," she hurried on. "You have to believe me." She tried to pull up her injured leg; it felt quite sluggish, and she couldn't help letting out a cry of pain as the knife-wound moved against the floor.
"It's poisoned," the man -- the other Solar Exalt -- said, matter-of-factly. "The wound."
Shataina's breath hissed between her teeth. She looked back up at his face. "You poisoned me?" she asked.
"I had to be sure," he said, sounding not-quite-apologetic. "I thought you were another Solar Anathema, but I didn't know. If you were a mortal, you'd be dead already." He reached out a hand; a long, thin glass bottle lay in his palm. "The antidote," he said.
Shataina bit her lip. If she used any more magic, she'd shine quite brightly -- far more than simply a glowing forehead, she'd light up the whole room. But she had to know if he was speaking the truth; another dose of poison would certainly kill her, and she wasn't sure she could trust the man simply because he appeared to be another Solar. "The antidote," she repeated, activating her magic; Tara let out a little squeak as her glow brightened, chasing the shadows from the corners. "You swear it's the antidote?"
The man smiled slightly, and nodded. "Yes," he replied, and it was true.
Accepting the bottle, she grimaced at its strong, lemony taste. There was a pause.
"So," said Shataina finally. "Who are you, and why were you trying to kill me?"
The man bowed. "My name is Jaren," he said smoothly. "I'm the head of an organization hereabouts to which people come with their ... problems, shall we say? Someone didn't appreciate your anti-Realm propaganda. They hired me to shut you up."
Jaren sat down at the foot of the bed. Tara looked at him uncertainly, then back down at Shataina, her expression plainly frightened and confused. Shataina debated trying to reassure the girl some more, but elected to act as normal as possible instead. Hopefully, she'll notice that I'm still the same person she's been travelling with for two months, she thought.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that," Jaren said, again sounding almost apologetic. "It would be bad business. But I'll certainly go to my employer, return their money, and tell them that you've slipped through my grasp."
Shataina stared at him. "But they'll still try to kill me!"
Jaren shrugged. "You can obviously take care of yourself. You would have killed me if I hadn't used magic to cripple you and dodge you, and I'm pretty hard to kill. Anyway, who are you? You just came out of nowhere, and all of a sudden my Guild is buzzing about you."
He made a dismissive gesture. "I call my little organization the Thieves' Guild."
"You're a criminal," Shataina said flatly.
Jaren raised his eyebrows. "I thought it was obvious."
Destroy the unrighteous ... Shataina recalled. "What about your vision?"
She paused, nonplussed. "Haven't you been given word from the Unconquered Sun?"
"Never heard of him." Seeing her expression, he asked, "Why, is it important?"
"When I Exalted," Shataina said, "the Unconquered Sun sent me a vision. He said that He had Chosen me as a Solar Exalt and that I was to carry out His mission." Jaren was looking slightly wary. "I swear," she said, wondering how best to make herself not sound like a crazed fanatic. Testing her leg, she found that it had improved remarkably; the wound didn't hurt nearly as much. Effective poison, she thought, and pulled herself up onto the edge of the bed.
"And what did this vision tell you?" asked Jaren.
"To destroy the unrighteous. To bring down the Realm," said Shataina simply. No vision, she considered. He must have a very interesting worldview, if he was never given a vision, and it was never explained to him that he's an Exalt and not a demon. "He told me that we, the Solars, are His servants. We're Exalted, just as the Dragon-Blooded are the Exalted servants of the Elemental Dragons, but higher in the Celestial Hierarchy than they are."
"The Celestial Hierarchy, huh?" Jaren said. "So why aren't we ruling the world and not the Dragon-Blooded?"
Shataina sighed. "I don't know," she admitted. "I've had dreams and visions that show that we used to rule the world, but it's hard to put it all together."
"I've had dreams too," he said thoughtfully. "I didn't get a vision, but dream after dream."
"Yes ...." Jaren shrugged. "None of them hang together, though. I have one that comes back a lot, where I'm riding and riding and riding, and I ride for weeks, incredibly fast and incredibly far, and finally I have to stop because I'm exhausted ... and then all of a sudden hundreds of Dragon-Blooded attack me all at once, and I die." He shook his head. "That's the worst one. That's probably why it sticks in my mind when I wake up."
"You dream of the attacks of the Dragon-Blooded -- you should join me," Shataina said. "Maybe I was fated to meet you. If you join me, we can bring down the Realm together. Your dreams tell you what you already know. They're the enemy." She kept her voice quiet and reasonable, although she felt a mounting excitement.
Jaren smiled. "And how are you bringing down the Realm?" he asked.
"Slowly," she replied, and smiled back, ruefully. "I come from the Realm myself, and I've heard all the stories of what happens to Solar Exalted who attack it directly. It never ends well -- at least, not for the Solars. So I travel as a storyteller and try to bring together people around the South. I'm hoping to build a kind of network, starting here in the South, and after a long time I can bring them together to throw off the Realm's yoke."
Jaren nodded. "I take it you think you're being subtle," he remarked.
Shataina flushed, then forced herself to smile again. "I'm not very good at it," she conceded. "I wasn't really made for a guerrilla lifestyle." She met his eyes. "But if I had you with me, I'll bet you could help me out on that horizon." If only I hadn't burned through so much Essence while we were fighting, she thought. He could never resist me if I could use my most persuasive magic ... but I'd erupt in light.
Still, he seemed arrested by her gaze, and he hesitated. "Join me," she urged. "Come on. When we succeed, we'll rule the world -- the Solar Exalted. And imagine how much better a job we could make of it than the Dragon-Blooded."
"Hmm," he said reluctantly. "You make a good point. Still, I have to say that I'm pretty satisfied with my life right now. I do what I'm good at, and my magic makes me better. I'm a rich man, Shataina. I don't know if I really need to rule the world."
But you kill and rob people for a living, she wanted to say. Somehow, she didn't think it would make the point she wanted to make. The Unconquered Sun Chose this man, she reminded herself. There must be a reason. "The god who has bestowed your magic upon you wants us to bring down the Realm," she pleaded. "Don't you think you owe Him? Even a little?"
"I'll make you a deal," Jaren said decisively. "How about this, Shataina? I'll fund you. I'll give you money every month. I'll bet your revolution would be much more effective with some actual cash. And that way you could actually pay your way around, rather than just convincing every passing merchant and innkeeper to give you what you want."
"It works," she pointed out.
"It certainly does," he said, admiration creeping into his tone. "I have to say, when I was investigating you, I couldn't believe the things you get away with. But it draws attention, too."
"Oh, yes," he said positively. "You're so pretty that everyone notices you anyway, and that makes it worse. Do you have any idea how many times people used the word 'bessarita' when I was asking about you?"
"'Bessarita'," Shataina pounced. "I keep hearing that word. What does it mean?"
"You don't know? It's hard to explain." Jaren considered for a moment. "Roughly, it means something along the lines of ... 'like the Fair Ones'."
"I see that you comprehend the problem," he said. "You're so beautiful, Shataina. I wonder if you understand how beautiful you are."
"People can't think that I'm one of the Fair Folk," Shataina protested, but she hesitated, remembering the peasants on her father's estate. Still, she thought, I never talked to them, and I talk to these people ... surely I don't come across as an inhuman monster? "The Fair Folk control minds -- they eat souls!"
"You're very persuasive," he said gravely. "Someone as charming as you are -- really, what's the difference between being cute and persuasive, and mind control? Granted, most people don't think you're anything like one of the Fair, but eventually someone important is going to hear about the pretty girl who goes around getting everything she wants for free. What if it's the Realm?"
"He's right," Tara piped up. Shataina turned to her in startlement; Tara had been so quiet, and Shataina so intent on convincing Jaren, that she'd practically forgotten about the girl. "You're unreal. Someone's got to notice eventually."
Shataina shrugged. "You've convinced me," she said. "I'll use your money to fix the problem as far as I can. Still, Jaren, you'd be far more valuable to the revolution than any money could be."
He shook his head. "I don't think so, Shataina. Not yet. Maybe someday. And maybe someday my Guild can help out, too. -- I'm going to have to ask you not to interfere with the criminal activity in this area, if I'm going to fund you."
Shataina opened her mouth, then closed it. "What if I get mugged or something?" she asked weakly.
"I'll endeavour to make sure that doesn't happen," Jaren said firmly. "But you can act in self-defense, I suppose. You just won't have to."
She didn't like it. "You know," she said, "you could be doing great things. The rightful rulers of the world shouldn't use their power to such ends."
"Maybe not," Jaren said prosaically, "but I do. Take it or leave it, Shataina. I'll fund you, and as long as I fund you, you won't interfere with my Guild's activities. And, of course, we won't betray each other in other ways."
"I wouldn't do that," Shataina exclaimed.
He shrugged, then gestured to Tara. "And this girl," he added. "She won't betray me either."
Tara looked at Shataina, and Shataina looked back. "This must all seem very sudden," she said apologetically. The other girl smiled, tremulously, and Shataina breathed an internal sigh of relief.
"I won't betray you if you help Shataina, and don't hurt us," Tara said to Jaren.
He extended his hand, and Shataina glanced down at it.
"Take it," he said. "Her too."
Wondering, she accepted it, and Tara reached out as well. As soon as their three hands touched, white luminescence welled. From Jaren sprang runes and glyphs formed of golden light, pouring out from the clasp like beacons. Shataina snatched back her hand, and the golden letters spun around the three of them, then vanished.
"What was that?" she cried, blinking. The brightness had been almost blinding for a few seconds, and the mark on Jaren's brow had shone so that it left red after-images floating before her eyes -- he was glowing as much as she. "Tara, could you put something over the window?"
Tara hurried to obey, blocking Shataina's and Jaren's combined light as it shone out into the night. "A bargain," Jaren answered, seeming unperturbed. "I've bound the bargain we made, magically."
"Magically!" Shataina remembered a tract from one of her schoolbooks. His mark, she realized -- the mark on his brow was a circle within a ring, where hers was a solid circle. Different castes, she thought, remembering her studies of Immaculate lore. I remember -- they called my "caste" of Solar Anathema the Blasphemous .... And his caste was called the Deceivers.
She thought back to what her text had told her. They said the Deceivers would bind you into oaths of slavery and corruption .... Granted, that was the Immaculate take on Jaren's caste, but ....
"This bargain ...." she said cautiously.
"I simply bound the bargain we had already made," he said, reassuringly. "We're magically bound not to betray each other, and you're magically bound not to interfere with the Guild while I'm giving you money." Shataina sensed the truth behind his words, but didn't feel too comforted.
"And what happens if we break the bargain?" she asked sharply.
Jaren looked a little uncomfortable. "I'm not sure," he confessed. "Something bad."
"Well, don't break it and you won't find out," he said. "It should be easy enough."
Shataina simmered for a moment. Nothing you can do about it now, she told herself. You'll just have to be more careful in the future. It's not such a bad bargain, anyway .... "You'll have to mark out the boundaries of your Guild for me," she said coldly.
Jaren sighed. "Don't be angry," he said. "I had to be sure of you. And I'm just as incapable of betraying you, you know."
I supposed it is better to have him on my side, she thought. "Yes, I know." She glanced over to where Tara was; she hadn't sat back down yet. "Want to sit?" she asked.
Wordlessly, Tara settled onto the other side of the bed.
"Well," said Jaren. "We're both shining. If I leave in this state, people will notice, so I suppose I have to stay for a while until my glow subsides." He grinned roguishly. "Maybe we should get to know each other better."
"Oh, all right," Shataina said, forcing the crossness from her tone. I have a Solar ally, she thought. Well ... something like an ally, anyway. And now I have a chance to learn more about him -- and, perhaps, persuade him to the right side. All things considered, it's not so bad.
When Jaren departed, their mutual glow faded, they had had a very pleasant session of small talk, but, Shataina knew, neither had given anything away. They were still cautious with each other; they had fenced, trading facts with the parsimony of a greedy merchant, unwilling to fully trust even with the bargain's protection. She knew he'd been born, raised, and lived here for his entire life, though his pale skin indicated that his heritage wasn't local; he knew she was upper-class Realm, nothing more.
Shataina and Tara, once again, lay alone in the bed. Dawn was breaking; they'd left the blankets Tara had hooked up over the window, blocking the daylight so that they could finally rest.
"So," Shataina said, sleepily and carefully, after a long silence. She wasn't sure Tara was still awake, but she felt as if she ought to ask the question. "What do you think of me now that you know I'm a demon?"
Tara opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. "I think ..." she said slowly. "I think you're not a demon. I think you're right. I think the Realm needs to be taken down. And I think that you have been sent by the gods, and that you are the one to do it."
Shataina blinked, a little surprised by the conviction in the other girl's tone. "Thank you," she said.
Tara closed her eyes and smiled. "It's just the truth."
Now that you've read that, you can continue on to Book I.