Aprelle 12, 1543
The day the Dawngate opened
He examined himself in the hall mirror. Boots polished and firmly laced – it wouldn’t due to have them come undone in the middle of the evening. Pants creased perfectly straight. Shirt clean, no wrinkles. Collar straight. Vest buttons polished. Jacket free of lint or straw. Cravat puffed just so. Hair immaculate, of course. Here there would be no frizzing of the sort one suffered in the cloying humidity of the lowlands. Spectacles poised at the perfect height along the nose to glare disdainfully over the rims, because sometimes, one simply had to.
He patted the left interior pocket of his coat; notebook ready, in the unlikely event something of interest occurred. And the right pocket – a small, densely-printed treatise on the uncouth philosophies of Arkemon the Great. It was a historical curiosity that had resurfaced in recent years; it was said that Queen Karolina’s warlord was an admirer. He held a second, weightier tome in his hand, a history of Taraysk during the Awakening, in the original Karthic. He tugged the cuff of his glove to assure himself it was snug.
He’d rather have skipped the evening entirely. But there were some obligations one could not avoid. Tomorrow, it would no longer matter. Tonight, he must continue to play his role. One could not permit one’s own actions mar the reputation of one’s family.
He straightened his already perfectly symmetrical collar, allowed a single brisk nod in approval, and resigned himself to another long, dull evening. His boots clacked softly on the polished marble as he marched through the murmurs and rustling of the great hall, heading towards the sound of lutes and woodwinds.
He paused at the door and waited for his turn to be announced. “Your blade, My Lord?” one of the guards requested, holding out a velvet-gloved hand.
He gave her a look of mild perplexity. “Do I strike you as a ruffian, my dear?”
“The Queen requests that all her guests attend unarmed,” she said, with faint impatience. She’d probably been dealing with truculent would-be warriors all night, the poor thing.
“My apologies,” he bowed. “I was unclear. What I am saying, good lady, is that I haven’t a sword. Or, indeed, any manner of weapon.” He gestured briefly with the history of Taraysk. “I bring only knowledge with me. I daresay I shall be the only one to leave with it.”
The guard raised one bushy eyebrow, and stepped back. “Very well, My Lord.”
He inclined his head politely – it wouldn’t do to appear ungenerous – and stepped into the room.
From one side of the stairs, a white-clad functionary bellowed, “Lord Zalgus Silander Tallund, get of Duchess Alienne of Chassart.”
He snorted to himself. “Get.” As if he were a breeding stallion. Which was not precisely untrue.
He scanned the room as he descended the stairs. The Queen had not yet presented herself – if she had, the knot of fawning servitors would have been easily discernible. The crowd was spread out, some lingering over the sideboards, others marching and spinning in the regimented lockstep of the current court dance. There were few chairs.
He skirted the dance floor, threaded between and through discussion groups, turning his shoulders this way and that to slide between the humid press of elegantly clad bodies. He snatched an empty chair in passing, gilt-gold metal and red velvet cushions, and held it behind him as he cut a path to the wall. He placed it beneath a gloomy and misshapen portrait of some former queen – from the look of it, painted during one of the periods southern artists weren’t welcome in Chassart – and set himself upon it.
Without giving the room a second look, he set his ankle on the opposite knee, opened his book on his lap, and walked among the towers of the east when they were still gleaming white and intact, casting long shadows across the surrounding countryside.
As the bitter winter of 485 Aion Majesste bore in on Taraysk, word of the Awakening passed among the commoners, the free craftsmen and merchants, via a pilgrim from the holy woods. The book asserted it was Kazlav himself; Zalgus’ own research proved that the infamous “prophet” had been in Balakhan that winter. As expected; some other would-be prophet, filling the familiar role. If Kazlav had been in as many places as it was claimed, he would have had to be a set of identical septuplets, all equally skilled at oratory, all equally enflamed with ardor for the Spirits.
By the time the snows began to fall, the half of the city on the southern bank of the Skaya was nearly empty. Families and neighborhoods had packed essentials and moved out in search of a more personal relationship with the Spirits. As the months passed and the great river froze solid, the dying began in earnest out under the snow-laden spruce.
Zalgus scanned past several pages of the author’s morbidly smug harangues with a raised eyebrow and a sigh of impatience; her bias was evident in every word choice. Not that his own opinion would have differed greatly, in the same circumstances. But there was no attempt to present the ideals and well-intentioned (if breathtakingly naïve) goals of the Awakened, just unfettered contempt and dismissal. The author was clearly not the sort who’d have ever joined the Awakening movement herself.
It might be worth searching more recent knowledge of Taraysk for evidence of a Mystery Cult holding stubborn in the ruins; the author’s likely descendants. Unthinking, pulled out his notebook to jot down the idea, but it was only from habit; he recalled his plans for later in the evening, and slid it back in his coat pocket with a small shake of his head.
“Your pardon, My Lord?” a mellifluous voice interrupted. He glanced up into a thick fall of golden curls, a beaming pearl smile, and covetous emerald eyes. Of course.
“Countess Jenaisse,” he said, smoothly rising and sliding the book on to the chair behind him. He put his arm across his stomach and bowed. The young lady smelled cloyingly of lavender, and it was painfully obvious that her corset had been laced to present her modest assets as favorably as possible. “I did not expect you would be here tonight,” he added. A polite fiction; of course she would be.
“I can tell,” she purred, snatching his hands before he could clasp them behind his back. He cursed inwardly. He was obliged by courtesy to hold her hands until she deigned to release them. For a man – even a higher-born one – to yank his hands free would be too great an affront for a noble Lady to bear. “You have been so deeply invested in your reading this evening,” she said, standing too close and peering up into his eyes; she barely came to his chin. “Did you know I had been standing here for quite some time, waiting for you to notice me?” Her lips puckered into a pout.
“My sincerest apologies, good Countess. I’m afraid I did not.” He put as much imitation regret as he could manage into his voice. “If I had, I certainly wouldn’t have left you so… unoccupied. A fine book does tend to absorb my entire attention. As you well know.”
“I do indeed,” she murmured, releasing one of his hands to pet the back of the other with fine, pale fingertips. Even through his gloves, the sensation made his hackles and afternoon tea rise with revulsion. He quickly clenched his freed hand safely behind his back. “Though I have noticed,” she continued, “that a poor book absorbs you just as thoroughly. I trust that, by way of apology, you will favor me with a turn about the dance floor tonight, Zalgus?”
His entire body broke out in nervous itches. He jammed his thumb into one of the crawling sensations at the small of his back. “Ah, My Lady, I am-”
“Jenaisse. You must call me Jenaisse, Zalgus.” She brushed the knuckles of his glove across her lips and fluttered her eyelashes over them in a way that she probably thought most subtle. “Or perhaps merely Jenna?”
“I… could never assume such a level of familiarity, Jenaisse,” he said, swallowing back bile and epithets. “It would be far too disrespectful to a woman of your…” he cast about for something complementary to say about her, but only came up with, “…station.”
She stopped petting him long enough to trill a songbird laugh behind the back of her hand. “You charmer!” she exclaimed, all dimples and glitter. “You simply must come out to the dance floor with me. Right this instant. I insist.”
“I – I have not danced in some time, My La- Jenaisse,” he stammered. A sense of futile inertia came over him as the small woman swirled off in a cloud of pale damask, pulling him in her wake with a firm, warm grip on his hand. “I’m out of practice, and – and I have not kept up with the fashion. I shouldn’t want to embarrass you.”
“Nonsense,” she said primly. “You shall simply follow my lead. I will be quite pleased to instruct you on where to place your feet. And where you may place your hands.”
His stomach churned as she bounced cheerfully, relentlessly through the crowd towards the open space at the center of the room. He tried to subtly scratch the worst of the itches on his scalp, disguising it as tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear.
“I present,” bellowed the functionary at the door, “Her Wisdom, Sereyn Kethelle. By grace of the Spirits, Queen of Chassart and Duchess of Serath; daughter in the Third Degree of Blessed Alestea; Arch-Magistrate of the Courts of Devotion; Prime Lumina of the Sisters of the Winterlands; Grand Knight of the Order of House Kethelle, Shield-Mother of Laurintoux Marches; Matron of the Rowan Throne; and widow of Lord Reinad of Falkrent, know he peace with the Spirits.”
“Oh, bother,” Jenaisse said under her breath, releasing his hand as the room turned to the door. The women curtseyed; the men fell to one knee; those whose knees were too old bowed. Zalgus only glimpsed a blur of radiant blue and silver at the head of the stairs before he knelt and inclined his head respectfully. He placed his hand over his heart.
“My my. You are all so gracious,” the Queen’s voice flowed over him like warm honey. “Please, everyone. Return to your amusements. I have no wish to interrupt.” He chanced to look up as he rose. The Queen stood poised behind the gilt balustrade, smiling, gesturing fluidly across the room with one arm. Tonight she wore a gown of sky blue silk, complementing the pale sea-ice of her eyes. The neckline was a deep U-shape, the torso fitted and laced with bowed silver ribbons that trailed from the small of her back. Her hair, platinum blond and shimmering like liquid moonlight, was tied up in a pile of braids, threaded and shot through with glittering sapphires. She stood a head taller than her attendants.
“Do remember to breathe,” Jenaisse muttered, netting his hand between her small fingers.
“Ah, of course.” He barely spared her a glance. “It would be proper,” he said, looking across the room, “to pay our respects.”
“Yes. Of course it would,” Jenaisse said to the floor, green eyes glittering.
A line formed from the base of the stairs. The queen descended one marble riser at a time, smiling, murmuring unheard greetings to all she passed, bending like a willow to place chaste kisses on the cheeks of favored confidantes.
He stumbled over the edge of the burgundy carpet at the base of the stairs. He felt his palms dampening as the Queen approached their place in line. Jenaisse clutched his elbow, pushing herself tight against his side. The perfume in her golden curls filled his head with the thick, sweet scent of lavender. He barely noticed. He fidgeted and adjusted his cravat as the Queen exchanged brief pleasantries with the Marquess to his right. Jenaisse stood silent, her fingers white on his sleeve.
Then the Queen was before him, statuesque ivory wrapped azure silk, smelling of faintly of vanilla and lily-of-the-valley. His eyes were only at level with her lips; he watched them quirk into a gentle smile. “Good evening, Lord Tallund,” Sereyn’s honeyed voice slid down his spine. “How splendid to see you again.”
“Your Wisdom,” he said, bowing deeply, becoming acutely conscious of where his eyes were focused, and careful to close them well before they passed over the Queen’s bosom. “I wanted to thank you for your hospitality these past few months.”
When he straightened and dared open them again, a faint blush of apple had touched her pale cheeks. “Why, what a curious greeting,” she said. He slid deep into the cool waters of her eyes, marveled at the fine patterns of cirrus white and spindrift grey whorled across them. He was quite certain the smile on his face made him look a fool, but he could find no way to dampen it. “Are you planning a journey?”
His heart hammered at the gates of his chest. He ignored it; it only planned to flop on the floor at her feet anyway.
His evening plans pressed against the backs of his teeth. Perhaps, if he confided them, she would be concerned, place a cool porcelain hand to his cheek and tell him pleasant untruths. Possibly even stretch out her strong arms and enfold him in warm sympathy.
Things never settled so clean and fine. Not outside the pages of the dreadful melodramas Raina hid in the bottom of her luggage. “Not precisely, Your Wisdom,” he said, and nothing more.
“My my,” the Queen smiled through her eyelashes, thoughtfully tapping her lips with one finger. “How mysterious the young lord is being tonight. Are you teasing me, sir?”
“I would never, My Lady,” he said from the clouds.
“I see you are here with Countess Marnais,” the Queen said, gliding off to his left with a gentle sway of her hips. “How is your mother, my dear? We heard word of her hunting injury.”
Jenaisse released his arm and curtseyed prettily. The Queen towered over her. “She is recovering, Your Wisdom. Thank you so much for inquiring.”
“Not at all. She has been a faithful friend of our court.” The Queen paused, and a faint smile touched her lips as Jenaisse pulled Zalgus’ elbow back against her side. “Do tell her to write me. You have grown into a fine young lady. I am certain she is considering prospects for you. I might have a few modest suggestions.”
Jenaisse’s eyes widened. “I… shall do so. Of course. Thank you, Your Wisdom.”
“One must be bold, my dear,” the Queen told her. She bent low to whisper a few words in the smaller woman’s ear.
Jenaisse colored deeply, gulped down a draught of air, and whispered, “Thank you, My Lady.” The Queen favored her with a mysterious smile, glanced at Zalgus with hooded eyes, and turned to the next person in line with a smile like the golden break of dawn on a winter morning.
“What did she say?” he asked as they left the line.
“Nothing,” Jenaisse said, her face crimson under her curls. “And… and you still owe me a dance, Zalgus.” She straightened her back, and, still blushing, glanced sidelong through her curls. “You would not leave a lady disappointed, would you?” She walked ahead, differently than she had before, sliding her warm fingers free of him and clasping her hands behind narrow hips. She glanced over her shoulder expectantly, just for a moment, and continued towards the dance floor.
“I… suppose I couldn’t,” he said, uncertainly. “But I am truly out of practice, Jenaisse. I…” he waved his hands as if he’d forgotten how they worked. “I don’t dance.”
“I told you, I shall lead. Come along.”