I had the wooden chest moved into the west wing quarters and stood before it.
Malme’s personal insignia were engraved upon it.
The chest had darkened since first I encountered it. I remember with clarity.
Malme was excited, rubbing his hands together.
“Are you ready, Cia?” he said and nodded to the two servants who went to the chest of golden wood that bore his own insignia on the lid. They opened it, both reached inside and withdrew something that caused me to narrow my eyes and very nearly break the rhythm of my breathing.
A dress uniform in black velvet and silk, with gold trim and on each one of the buttons, the swords and lion motto inlaid in gold.
I look to Malme and I don’t understand why he would make this gift to me.
I wore the Black Wing uniform at state occasions.
As though he heard my thoughts, Malme says, “Cia, the time for soldiery is over. We – you and me both – we have to start dancing to a different tune. The court demands a more – a different look. You are the Lord Tremain. I have had the clerics dig and then I’ve had the tailors tailor. This is what you should be wearing by rights for the Lord’s council.”
I look back at the uniform – a costume, more like, not a uniform, not something you would wear in battle nor even in camp if you would not have your men think you nothing but a popinjay.
It makes me feel uncomfortable yet I understand Malme’s reasonings. I wish not to disappoint him and I have learned that one has to do what the situation demands.
Therefore, I thank him for having taken the trouble of researching the correct mode of attire and until his death, would wear the uniform when he required my presence at court.
Today, there are no servants here, and there is no smiling Malme. The box is dark and the day is fading fast and there is still no sign of her having returned.
I will myself to open the chest.
It has been nearly three hundred years since last it was opened.
The wood has dried, shrunk and the lid is stuck. It takes a considerable effort and some pattern work to raise the lid without snapping the brittle iron hinges.
A fine white layer of dust covers the uniform and without touching it, I know that it must be restored before I can remove it from its coffin.
I let myself sink deeply into the patterns of the material and find it rather soothing to restore the fibres and strands to a new vibrancy. It is easy and does not take much time.
I float the cloak which lies on top gently upright, let the dust dissolve from it and smooth the crinkles. It is black silk, nearly Serein in it’s fine and accurate weave, black on the outside and counterlayed with a dark gold within.
When last I saw it, when last I wore it, I had no access to the memories of my father wearing a very similar cloak.
Malme’s tailors did not approximate the correct shade of gold. Without thinking, I adjust it so that it becomes as I remember it to be; I shift the colour across towards more of a deep red gold and when the right one appears, a hot sensation floods through my chest. I find it interesting how this feedback device helps me understand which colour is the exact match to a one I saw over 650 years ago for the last time.
I float the cloak to the bed and go through a very similar process with the uniform, adjusting little details here and there. Memory is a fine thing. It transverses the ages so simply, so profoundly. It pleases me that I remember how it should have been.
I dress slowly and carefully.
The fabrics are unfamiliar, have become unfamiliar again and new, yet this time, they do not feel as alien or threatening as when I used to force myself to bend my desires to those of Malme’s.
The Tadara belt needs to undergo a transformation and finally, I lay the cloak around my shoulders and fasten the lion head clasp.
Turning the wall beside the fireplace to become a perfect mirror, I wait until the swirling stops and the reflection stands still and in brilliant clarity.
I stand and gaze at myself for a long time.
I remember how she fainted once when she looked at herself in the mirror.
They are powerful things. They show things that nothing else can reveal to you.
Many things are the truth.
Many things are the truth about me.
This day, I must acknowledge that I am, indeed, my father’s son.
His ashes might be spread far and wide, without residue, without a stone or statue to mark where once he lay, but I stand here today and I am who I remember he used to be.
I slowly turn my head and there are some differences but also, too many similarities.
I am older than I remember him to be.
Yet, here I stand, and I am alive.
He is alive through me.
I take a deep breath and cast around for her, and still, she is not here.
The demons damn that woman!
I should not have given her permission to go to that house this night.
We arrived together and it simply will not do to for her to arrive late for evenmeal with Lord Yekunis.
I cast around again and to my amazement, find Niccosia.
He is here and she is not.
What is she doing?
It occurs to me to look for Catena, and he, too, is absent.
I find my gloves and when I put them on, my attention is captured momentarily by the wedding band I am wearing these days instead of Sepheal’s ruby. I cannot complain about that. I destroyed it myself and I have no regrets on that score; still it is the truth that I never quite adjusted to seeing one, and not the other. I wore the other for a very long time indeed.
I go to the window. The sun is already half way below the horizon. Damn it. Where is she? For a single heartbeat I consider what would happen if she did not return at all but I dismiss the thought and all that trail in it’s wake and keep myself focussed.
I call for Niccosia instead and make my way to the anteroom she decorated, automatically setting a few lights here and there.
It is functional enough, apart from those windows and the fact that she removed all the furniture. Would she have the claimants standing for hours, days?
I shrug and find that I am wanting to pace. I curtail this and stand by the fire place instead, set a fire, watch the flames in order to stop searching for her yet again, or to watch the inevitable progress of what remains of the sun above the horizon.
Niccosia arrives, fully dressed and perfectly turned out.
He salutes with perfection, too.
I search him briefly whilst he pales and note that I will have to be more surreptitious, more careful if I don’t want him to know about future intrusions.
He has quite a fancy for that little whore I extracted from Thelein’s bed. I smile as I consider that that little whore might well end up becoming the High Queen in three day’s time and the mother of the next line of kings. But still, she is presentable enough. They’ll make a handsome couple which will be depicted on many tapestries and cheered wildly in the streets of Pertineri.
To distract myself further from the passing of time, I ask him if everything was prepared and in order.
He acknowledges rapidly and wonders if I mean his future wife and if he should mention anything about that. I am considering whether to amuse myself by making him give me a report when she lands, hand in hand with Catena, about three steps away from me.
They are both wet.
I’ve been waiting for you! It is high time, beyond high time, what did I tell you! Damn, I could not curtail the outburst and it rocks her on her feet. Automatically, she flashes back at me, It isn’t dark yet and don’t yell at me like that!
It takes me a moment to contain myself but perhaps not well enough for Catena catches my eye and literally runs from the room; Niccosia starts to sidle which infuriates me.
“Go or stand still, damn you man!” I snap at him and he salutes rapidly before freezing to attention.
I turn back to her. She is drying herself and the white steam is swirling around her.
“What do you intend to wear for this nights festivities? And how long before you can be ready?” I ask of her, bridling my exasperation and impatience as best I can. She flashes me another one of her looks and her dress changes from that dark green to a gold that is a perfect match to the inside of my cloak, straightens, rises and begins to shimmer Serein.
“There,” she says in her arrogant way which I truly despise, “how’s that? And now, the hair.”
It begins to move and by itself, forms into a complex shape piled on top of her head, settles and stays. She moves a hand across the top of her head and tiny sparkling stars fall onto her hair, minute lights that make an astonishing change to her.
She raises her chin, snaps her fingers and the necklace I made for her appears from nowhere, floats into her waiting hand. She holds it up, looks across to me a challenge and the bright fire ruby changes hue, turns to gold in an instant. She places it around her long neck and it fastens by itself.
She looks down, swirls the hem of her gown and her shoes shift to that same colour of gold.
She takes a deep breath, turns to me, a sharp challenge in her stance and bearing.
“All done. Satisfied, my lord?”
I stare at her and behind a tight shielding, it is true that I have never seen a one like her.
I have seen a hundred more beautiful, more perfect, yet never have I seen anything like this. It may be the fairy dust in her hair, or it may be that the gold colour of the dress just by accident is the perfect match for her skin, her hair and her eyes; either way, she is priceless.
Niccosia behind me is in agreement with my assessment and sets forth the fervent wish that she could be his queen and then drifts off to consider her neck, her shoulders and her breasts before I tune him out with a vengeance.
I focus myself tightly and hold out my arm to her without commenting. She takes it with some reluctance and I lead her from the room, along the walkway where a cold night wind is blowing which flares my cloak and causes her to create a shielding.
We walk down the steps to the main courtyard, freezing servants in their tracks and turning soldiers to statues. Niccosia is behind us and as we cross the courtyard, Catena comes running and falls in beside Niccosia. I make sure I do not touch his thoughts even accidentally.
The door to the main entrance is wide open, torch light bursting forth. We walk in swiftly and I lead the way to the banquet room which is empty except for three men, seated on the top right corner of a square arrangement of tables and benches.
They stand when we enter and they stare at her, too.
Niccosia doesn’t understand that he must take the throne seat in the center across the top and I have to give him a mental shove. He is the regent and the leader of the council. I am not even on the council and they could request me to leave, if any of them had the guts to do it.
I greet Lord Yekunis who I met briefly earlier this day. He is a big square man who has gone soft and fat with advancing age. Yet he is alive when most others are not; he is therefore a cunning man who knows how to take care of himself and must not be underestimated. With him are his two eldest sons, one capable and one stupid, a pairing which I have seen more times than one would wish to. All three are nervous of me and once again, I need to push Niccosia into a brief greeting. He will have to overcome his tendency to be overwhelmed before the rest of the lords arrive.
The three men take turns kissing Isca’s hand and she is charm herself, not a trace of her usual shyness and fear of public occasions. We take our seats and it ends up with Niccosia in the centre, Catena to his right and Isca and I closing the gap between us and the Yekunis party. I will have to talk to Yekunis which leaves her with Catena yet again.
Stop smiling at him, I send to her, tersely. You are my wife and we are in public.
She sends me a dismissal and turns away from me, says something to Niccosia and leans half across Catena deliberately to reach for a piece of fruit from a table arrangement.
I force myself to ignore her and concentrate on Yekunis instead. The man is very cautious but it is clear that he will make no bid for the kingdoms himself but wait to see which will be the winning side before he makes his allegiance. In the past, I used to despise his kind. Tonight, I can see his point of view clearly. It is true, simply true, that holding on to oaths and the like will get Conna of Solland and all his descendants killed and this one here, sweating man with his offspring who share his coarse red features and curly black hair, he will do what must be done to survive.
I nearly smile. I am no better than he is, in truth.
I, too, do what must be done to survive.
I ask Yekunis about the state of affairs in his part of the world, the forests to the north-west and thus not having been directly involved in Trant’s doings; yet even so, he had experienced severe problems with desertion and infighting and the resulting breakdown of order. He informs me that he brought Trant's so called advisor who had taken over the directives of Walden in chains, to be handed over to the regent’s authority.
The servants arrive with the food, and another group of noblemen, headed by a dark youth of no more than ten and five, dressed in the dark grey of Sikoria, the Sea Kingdom. We rise at their approach and they take places on the other side of Niccosia.
What I liked about meetings at Manoranta has always been that there simply are no others here but the highest of ranks, which makes their ranks immaterial and thus, no master of ceremonies is required. Even in Malme’s days, he was there for Pertineri, as the Lord of Pertineri, who also happened to be the High King and leader of the council but that was office and did not make him better than any of us. Later, his sons and their descendants changed that somewhat, used to being the ultimate authority by then as they were, or at least they thought they were.
This night, things were back as Malme had intended them.
Niccosia strikes up a conversation with the youth who, like himself, is the only survivor of his line, a nephew to the original Lord of Sikoria. His family died and so did the servants without revealing that he was studying at a scribe’s house on the other side of the kingdoms when Trant’s men tried to end that line for good. He is accompanied by two senior clerics and a brother of his mothers who had not been deemed worthy of extermination.
I fall to musing how it is not such a simple thing to attempt this extinction of a blood line.
I was living proof of this, and next to me, golden and drawing the eyes of all, sat the woman who contained my son.
I can’t help but shake my head and hold out my goblet for more wine. The servant is trembling so badly that he spills some on my hand in pouring. He stops and stands stock still. I turn towards him and Isca says into my head, pointedly, It will dry, Lucian.
Momentarily distracted, I turn to her and the servant takes his chance to scuttle to escape.
I look at her and she smiles at me.
You look wonderful tonight, my lord. These colours are magnificent.
I reach across to her and take her hand, seemingly small and innocent, fragile.
I put it to my lips and kiss it lightly which serves as a response.
Much later, when she is half drunk and laughing too loud and we are on our way back to our quarters, I hit her hard enough to knock her out and carry her down into the cellars below the keep. I remember the position of the circle well enough; a free standing round tower of thick brick with a low and narrow entrance protected by a stout iron gate. It is somewhat unpleasantly uncared for, dirty and dark but it will suffice for now. I chain her gently to the wall, making doubly sure that the cuffs are tight enough for her narrow wrists. When I am satisfied, I leave the walled in cell so I may translocate and I acquire bedding for her, pillows and such.
She is still unconscious when I return.
I take my time to make her as comfortable as the circumstances will allow, then I lock and bar the door carefully and return to my quarters.