The courtyard between the castle’s inner wall and its keep bustled with activity as servants set up alchemical lamps, cloth decorations, platforms for entertainment, long lines of trestle tables and benches, and all the other accoutrements of a celebration intended to be spectacle as much as respite from the worries of the world. We passed fire-eaters, jugglers and mummers, actors, musicians and all manner of other players hired to provide distraction and entertainment throughout the night. Servants of both the amn Vaini and the amn Esti erected avilions of fine cloths bearing the families’ coats of arms, flanked and surrounded by clay statues, probably the rushed product of Ovaelo’s apprentices, of various mythological figures.
We passed unmolested between these various obstacles, at one point dodging a pair of young folk delicately maneuvering a cask of wine between the gauntlet of competing workers, at another ducking under a long carpet tightly rolled and carried like a piece of fresh-cut timber by some of the stronger lads.
Eldis greeted us at the doors into the lord’s great hall, flanked by several of the household servants. Without missing a step, Vesonna continued into her home, her waiting handmaids falling into line behind her as she disappeared through one of the side doors. Indorma followed behind.
The aging steward held a hand up to me, however, causing me to pause on the steps into the hall. By the nervous faces of the two servants who remained behind him, I could tell they’d been assigned to attend to me in some task and wished they hadn’t. I recognized the stout girl who’d brought me my breakfast that morning. Beside her, a taller, thinner, older woman whose calm demeanor bespoke an attitude to the world immune to surprise and impractical superstitions. I hoped that her younger companion would take some strength from her—and perhaps not continue to make the sign of the Tree at me when she thought I wasn’t looking.
“My lord has arranged a new set of clothes for you for this evening. And a bath for your comfort, my lord,” Eldis said, tone bereft of any opinion whatsoever. “These good women will escort you and see that you are provided for. I trust your day in Barro’s books proved useful?”
“Very good, my lord.” He waived his hands to signal the two women to lead on. I followed.
They took me to a room on the same floor as my bedchamber. The windows had been opened to let in the still-warm air of the summer night, and the faint sounds of the workers continuing to build the labyrinth of amusements below mingled with the first tentative practices of the musicians. A large tub, bigger than a butt of wine set on its side and split open, occupied the center of the room. A wooden tray at the height of a desktop straddled the entire piece; on this had been set a small mirror on a stand, several soaps and a collection of shaving implements. Nearby, a short rack held several towels awaiting the finished bather.
In the far right-hand corner of the room stood a mannequin, on which had been arrayed a set of fine clothes, black satin with copper colored cloth in the dags, those befitting a nobleman of my title, if not my wealth. Frankly, they looked stiff and too expensive—the kind of thing that causes you to fret with every movement that you might tear or scuff or scrape its meticulous craftsmanship. I prefer something sturdier, harder-wearing, and less likely to draw attention.
A mask, tied to the otherwise blank face of the mannequin, stared at me with beige eyes. No one had mentioned that the party would be a masquerade. At first I damned my luck, for the masks would make it difficult for me to identify those who the party would give me opportunity to question. On the other hand, since the celebrants at the cult’s gathering the night previous had also been masked, perhaps something—the shape of a chin or the way one’s hair fell about the mask—would inspire some intuition of identity.
My mask had been shaped to cover the full face, like the masks worn by the Avarian Aenyr after the [Name of] Treaty. Most of the masks, I knew, would be half-masks in the typical style of such parties in the Sisters, so mine would undoubtedly stand out. That it was blackened iron gilt in bronze accents of faux-arcane symbols further enhanced the otherness the article would provide. The upturned bronze wings, like those of the messenger spirits of the Firstborn, completed the strangeness, dwarfing the other attributes of the mask with their conspicuousness. I wondered at the amount of time required to make such a mask; had it been made to Aryden’s orders in a short time, or had it somehow been procured from the Sisters?
The shorter of the servant-women turned to me from a table on the side of the room, speaking while she poured wine into a goblet sitting next to a hunk of bread and some dried meats, “It will take us some time to fetch the water, my lord. There will be much food at the celebration this evening, but my lord thought you might be famished and sent you this food and drink to tide you until then.”
“Thank you,” I told her. “You may call me, ‘Iaren.’”
“No, my lord,” she said, face pointed downward as she scurried past to join her elder companion in bringing the water to fill the bath.
They made several trips with buckets of steaming water before they filled the tub to an appropriate height, and another trip to fetch some perfume and flower petals to drop into the water. I thought of Barro’s tea and smiled to myself.
The task complete, they took their leave, closing the door behind them. Only then did I realize how much I ached—between sitting pouring over books today and the bruises of the night past, I’d acquired a number of sore patches and plaintive joints. The bath then seemed an excellent respite.
I removed my belt and leaned it and my sword against the corner of the room toward which the door opened. In that corner I sat briefly to unlace and pull off my boots before unceremoniously strewing the rest of my clothes across the floor’s warm stones. The maids had managed a perfect temperature for the water, hot enough to cause the briefest sensation of burning before becoming extremely comfortable, and I eased myself slowly into the vessel, leaning my head back and listening to the sounds coming through the window for a moment.
Just as I truly fell into relaxation, the door began to swing open, quietly. I sat up, splashing water across the mirror, and turned to see Vesonna, clothed in only a robe, hair wet from her own bathing, mechanical bird perched atop her left shoulder. She pressed the door closed behind her as quietly as she’d opened it and stepped lightly around the side of the bathtub until I had no need to crane my neck to see her.
Without a word, she let fall the robe. I’m sure it crumpled around her feet, but it might as well have disappeared into thin air. Her skin was pale and soft, untanned by a life in the fields, unscarred by a life of toil and hardships. She had an alluring combination of toned muscle and feminine curves, though I knew too little of her to guess at her athletic endeavors.
She stared at me, lips slightly parted, while her bird cocked its head and looked at me with crystalline eyes, holding the posture of a Gracaellas Street pimp about to ask if I liked what his girls had to offer me.
My own mouth dropped open a bit, and I swallowed hard, a lump in my throat and my stomach developing that tingle of nervousness that accompanies an event both enticing in its promise and fraught with the possibility of disaster.
It took me a moment to speak, and I did so with a voice less sure than I’d hoped for. “Vesonna,” I began. “I—”
Her face became a frown. She knew what was coming next.
“You don’t find me attractive?” I couldn’t tell whether the pout in her voice meant playfulness or deep offense.
“It’s not that,” I managed. “Not at all.”
She stepped forward, eyes widening as she peered into the bathwater. “I see that it’s not,” she smiled mischievously.
I tried to move the tray table to cover the parts of me that had her attention. “I would like to,” I admitted, voice still trembling slightly. How is it that I could steel myself against the horrors of the Close or a child of Daea and yet I found myself entirely unraveled by something so…natural?
She leaned down next to the bath and put a hand on my face. “Then why not?” she asked, quiet and breathy, the entrancing melody of her voice accompanied by the faint whirring of the Artificial bird.
As self-assuredly as I could manage, I took her hand in mine, removing it from my face and placing it against the side of the bathtub. “You know why,” I said.
“Your father,” I complained, nervousness dissipating ever-so-slightly. “My relationship with him is strained enough as it is, and I’m sure you understand how—” I wanted to say jealous but decided against it, “protective he is of you. I simply can’t afford the consequences.”
She stepped back, rising to her full height, pulling her hands to her chest. “Am I some ledger-book to you, some accounting that needs balancing that you should weigh passion against consequence? I thought you were a man of the Sisters, that you understand the value of passion against aught else!”
Perfect, I thought to myself. “Under different circumstances, I would not hesitate, believe me. But I need this job and I’m not sure I’d survive your father’s wrath—more than he’s already directed it to me.”
“Your love is money?” she asked, incredulous.
“Do I look to you like a man for whom coin is a motivating desire?” I pointed to the dusty and worn clothes in their path across the floor. “But I need enough coin to survive. Passion isn’t a luxury I can afford at present. Maybe it is accounting, in the end. And I know passion well enough, thank you. I feel it even now. But I’m also no fool to let himself be undone by his passion.”
“So you would make a fool of me, then?” she barked, bending over to gather her robe again. The sight was painful to behold, a heart-wrenching maelstrom of my compassion for her position and my own aching at the knowledge of what I’d turned down.
I opened my mouth to speak but thought the better of it as she tied the robe closed around her, bird flapping its wings tentatively as she stormed from the room, huffing and mumbling angrily to herself. Apparently, she had her father’s temper.
I sank back into the water, leaning my head back and closing my eyes, running the conversation through my head, wondering how I could have done things differently so as not to lose the woman’s friendship, which I was certain I had.
My thoughts whirled through my head one after the other, often contradictory, mostly unresolved, until I heard the door open once again. I assumed that Vesonna had returned to make a fresh argument, and I said her name without opening my eyes.
When no response came, I turned just in time to see a hooded figure moving quickly toward me. I grabbed for the razor on the bath tray, but my assailant tossed the whole thing aside before I could lay fingers on the blade. I blocked a punch with my left elbow, but he used my distraction to push me down into the water.
I hadn’t had time to catch a breath before I collapsed into the tub; my eyesight quickly began focusing into a limited circle around which lie only darkness. Between that and the refraction of light off of the water’s surface, I could neither make out my attacker nor any weapon close to hand. As my head and lungs began to burn, I knew that I had no focus to work even a sorcery upon the man; I struggled through the fog in my mind to thinks of any way I might escape. Meanwhile, the killer’s hands tightened around my neck, pushing me against the bottom of the vessel as my legs kicked, splashing water.
I moved my right hand upward from his wrist, jamming my fingers under his palm and tucking my thumb into the webbing between his own thumb and fingers. This gave me the leverage to pull that hand back far enough from my neck that I could lean and clamp my teeth around his thumb. I bit down as hard as I could, an inky cloud of blood spreading forth from the wound. Now he thrashed, attempting to throttle me into releasing his hand, but mine were now free to shield my face from his desperate blows.
He fell back from me only when his thumb tore apart between my teeth; I must have bitten down right at the joint not to have been stopped by bone. He recoiled, clutching at his mangled hand, as I pushed myself back into the air, spitting the ragged flesh from my mouth and gasping. I could hear him screaming now, but only as a distant sound despite his proximity.
The would-be assassin ran, but adrenaline had kicked in now, and as soon as I had the least sufficient amount of air in my chest to give chase, I did, panting my way down the hallway in pursuit of the trail of blood, trying not to slip on wet feet against stone. But my head continued to pound and my lungs burned with the exertion and I knew I could not follow for long.
My attacker must have bound his bloody hand with whatever he had available, for his trail stopped somewhere within the stairwell. Not knowing where to exit, I continued downward into the main hall. Without that crimson path to guide me, I knew I could not reach him in my current state. As rationality set in, I understood also that I’d be to tired to survive a confrontation even if I had caught the man.
As I collected myself from the fury of the chase, I noticed that I was not alone. Eldis, Edanu, Aryden and a collection of servants had gathered there, no doubt discussing the last-minute changes to the plans for the celebration. The maidservants gave me a look up and down and then turned to one another, whispering and giggling. I looked down at myself and remember that I was naked—and covered in blood. I grinned sheepishly, tasting copper.
“Did a man in a hood run through here?” I asked in a stream of words without spaces between them.
“What the hell are you doing?” Aryden asked in return.
“I was attacked,” I told him, catching my breath in short pants between words.
Glances were exchanged between the three men before Edanu approached. Instinctively, I raised my hands in a defensive posture, but he only unlatched his cloak and draped it over my shoulders so that I had something with which I could cover myself.
“Send Gamven to have the premises searched. Find this person,” Aryden told Eldis, who immediately set about the task.
The lord turned back to me. “Are you okay, my lord? Is any of that blood yours?”
“No. I’ll be fine. But I think I’m going to need another bath.”