Ynaselle sat in front of her mirror and stared into her reflection. She hadn’t inherited her mother’s silver eyes, but her father’s umber ones. Her skin was a cool porcelain rather than the warm peach or tawny tones elves preferred. Her hair, though perfectly straight as was in vogue, was black. A classic beauty would have had honey or even platinum blonde hair. She did at least have the high cheekbones and pointed chin, and she had nothing to complain about her nose, which was long and had a high bridge. She had come to terms with her looks after spending an entire summer soaking her hair in lemon juice and vinegar trying to turn it blonde. All she had managed was to dry it out so severely her mother had almost cut it all off.
She did not see her appearance, though. She saw a black silk veil.
She had been wearing the veil for a year now since her mother’s death, though not because she was required. After six months, when her brother had shed his black tie and gloves, Ynaselle had met her father for breakfast with hair uncovered and wearing a pale pink dress. The tears she had seen in his eyes had left her feeling so ashamed that she had immediately changed back into her black mourning gown.
She still missed her mother, and she always would. But as Ynaselle touched the black broach at her throat with fingers gloved in black lace, she knew it was time to move on.
“It’s been long enough,” she said, as if to convince her reflection. “Father must get passed this, too.”
Ynaselle went to her dresser and drew out a simple black box from the top drawer. It was the mourning box, and in it she placed her black lace gloves and her black velvet choker, her black silk veil and her black jet earrings. She folded each carefully so that she could wear them again, when the time came.
Ynaselle emerged from her room wearing a white dress with black trim and no jewelry at all. She hadn’t been able to convince herself to dress more cheerfully than half-mourning. She found her eldest brother Jaonos lounging in the ash wood chair across from her door. He was smoking the noxious blend from Leolen’s that she hated.
“My, Yna, I’ve forgotten just how pale you are,” Jaonos said, blowing out the purple smoke.
Ynaselle opened the window beside him to let the smoke out, then tapped the lamp on the table under it to turn it off.
“It’s spring out there,” Ynaselle replied. “This whole house is so dreary.”
“Our mother did pass away.”
Ynaselle frowned at her brother, who smiled back at her to show he was teasing.
“To the city, then?”
“Do you really think it’ll do Father good?”
Jaonos tapped out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and tossed the butt out the window. “Oh, I think so. Myrdin is all for it, and Father trusts his opinion.”
Dr. Myrdin Prognes was Jaonos’ dear friend, but also their father’s physician. Dr. Prognes had watched over the elder Blackwell ever since their mother had passed away. Flinar Blackwell had taken his wife’s death very badly, of course, but in the winter, his health had deteriorated. It had been the idea of another brother, Vithian, to take their father to the city in the hopes that the change of scenery might lift his spirits and improve his health.
There was a final brother, the youngest, Othorion, who would not be joining them for some weeks. Othorion was a lieutenant in the Emperor’s navy, and would not have shoreleave until Rammas Feast.
As Ynaselle came to the top of the white wood staircase, she paused. The hall that opened below her was draped in the reds and blues of the Court of the Stag, to which the Blackwell family belonged, but the floor was onyx, a call back to the very black well that their family had taken its name from. She could trace the constellations reflected on it from the ceiling: Tvi and Twi, Haethus, Vissien, and all the others. Four years previous, she had stood at the top of this staircase, overlooking a hall filled with elves in their gayest attire. Her mother had thrown the ball for her, and it had been the beginning. Ynaselle’s mother had died before she could guide her daughter through the end.
“Yna,” Jaonos called from halfway down the stairs. “The coach is waiting.”
Jaonos offered Ynaselle his arm when she reached him and together they descended the grand staircase. “He may not even be there,” Jaonos whispered. “Heliohart is such a large city. Even if the Bryravns are there, we won’t see much of them.”
“It’s fine, Jaonos. I’m fine.”
Heliohart was the center of the Court of the Stag and, naturally, its seat. Three years before, Vithian had made his home in Heliohart when he began his postulancy. Had his father been Prince Heliohart – the family shared the city’s name – he would have gone to Faydark to serve the Emperor. As his father was Lord Blackwell, he entered the clergy. The Emperor had enough servants from the second child of each Court; the church always needed more priests.
Vithian did not think he would make a good priest. His elders agreed. He had a temper and an unruly tongue. He also had a great love of deer, something that had been confused as a love of gambling by Elder Aymer, his master. The Blackwells had always raised deer, so Vithian had grown up in the saddle. He would have spent the rest of his life there. Had he been Lord Blackwell’s third or fourth or fifth child, he would have signed into the cavalry. But, tradition dictated that he take the priesthood.
Vithian had been given leave to meet his family once the explanation of his mother’s death and father’s faltering health had been explained, so he sat in the house the Blackwell family kept in Heliohart and waited for his father, brother, and sister to arrive.
For the third time, Vithian stood and walked to the great window at the front sitting room. He pulled back the sheer curtains to peer out into the street. Elves walked along the pavement in the most recent fashions, many in the reds, blues, and browns of the Court of the Stag. The men wore long robes and coats with long tails. Many women wore long dresses that dragged the ground behind them. Their shoulders were peaked high, and the backs plunged down past their shoulder blades. Not a one of them his family, though. He shut the curtains back.
The front sitting room was richly decorated, ivory from the Tuvinok elephant primarily, but black and gold velvet upholstered the furniture. Black and gold vases from Phrass and porcelain figurines from Lorrin lined the white marble mantelpiece over the white marble fireplace. Black and gold curtains draped heavily from the windows, tied back by thick ropes of gold. Deeply piled black and gold rugs lay on the white marble floor. And on the clean white walls hung paintings of pastoral tranquility, all framed in thick, golden frames. While this was a luxury that Vithian had been raised in, it was certainly not one he experienced as a postulant.
He ran a finger over the glass dome above a white rose preserved in crystal and gold, then realized he had been standing with hands clasped behind his back, rocking heel to toe.
Vithian cleared his throat, straightened the plain gray soutane of his orders, and walked deliberately to a chaise situated by the fireplace. Once he was seated though, he folded his hands in his laps, then rested one arm at the rest beside him and the other over the back of the chaise, then placed both hands beside him, all the while unable to get comfortable. He realized he had no book or anything to occupy his attention while he waited, so he pulled out the chain at his waist, and became naming the constellations represented there: Serpens, Tosotes, Haethus. He placed the chains back into his soutane before he had even counted five of the thirteen.
“Three o’clock,” he mumbled and glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece – made of gold and obsidian, of course. Another twelve minutes, that is when the other Blackwells would arrive.
He glanced at the side table made of ebony wood, trimmed with gold and topped with more white marble – this had been a table that he recalled his mother purchasing from the importer Thron, who said the dwarves had mined the marble and trimmed the wood in gold by his direction. That had obviously been true – Vithian doubted Thron had probably never even seen a dwarf – but it was a fine table. Sitting atop it, on a gold tray, were crystal decanters. Vithian removed each stopper and sniffed the liquor within. Liquor made from almonds, roses, oranges, and then, Vithian’s favorite – a clear, flavorless human liquor that his father had developed a taste for some years before: vodka.
Vithian hadn’t had a drink since entering the order. He pursed his lips, considering. Alcohol wasn’t expressly forbidden, but Elder Aymer would clench her teeth tight enough to crack her molars at the thought of drinking it. She believed postulants should be spared frivolities like alcohol or cigarettes or even music. He shrugged. He wasn’t at the sequester after all.
So, Vithian took a small crystal glass from the cabinet beneath. Just a sip, he decided, pouring for himself. It was sharp, and when Vithian drank it, it was hot at the back of his throat. He coughed, surprised by the burning almost back to his pointed ears, and scrambled for water.
“Well, it’s been a while,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye. Human liquors were always harsher than elvish ones.
Vithian nearly dropped the glass when he heard the front door slide open. Servants greeted Flinar, Jaonos, and Ynaselle first. Fumbling, Vithian shoved the glass back into the cabinet and stood. He had barely straightened as Ynaselle threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. She kissed him and declared, “Oh, Vithian, I’ve missed you!”
In the next moment, the siblings were all talking at once.
Jaonos kissed Vithian next. “You look like a ghost in those robes. How very drab!”
“Quiet, Jaonos, don’t tease him. You look more distinguished than you ever have. You dressed like a fop before.”
“I dressed like Jaonos,” Vithian replied.
“He dresses like a fop.”
Jaonos smirked. “I am a fop, cus.”
They laughed together, holding each other closely, talking of how much each had changed and how much each had stayed the same.
“Vithian,” Flinar said softly.
The siblings stopped talking and turned to their father, who was patiently waiting at the door to the sitting room. He leaned wearily on a cane carved to look like a leaping deer. Vithian pulled away from his siblings and kissed his father.
“You look well, son,” Flinar said, holding him firmly by the shoulders. “I’m glad to see that you’re taking your studies seriously.” Flinar smiled at both his sons and his daughter. “And I’m glad to have you three together again. It is a shame Othorion can’t be here now.”
“I’ve had a message,” Vithian said, “from Othorion, on the farspeak. He’s to take his captaincy exam just after Rammas Feast, so he’ll be given leave sooner to study. He’ll be here in three days.”
“Wonderful,” Jaonos said, as he flopped onto the chaise Vithian had been sitting on moments before.
“Oh,” Vithian said, noticing Dr. Prognes for the first time. He had waited just outside the door while the family reunited. “It’s good to see you, doctor.” Vithian crossed and kissed Dr. Prognes on the cheek, since he had been a friend of the family for so long. “Will you stay with us?”
“No, I think not,” Dr. Prognes said, kissing Vithian on his cheek in turn.
“What, Myrdin, you’re welcome to,” Jaonos said.
“I’ll stay at the club. I have my own business to attend to, but I’ll be checking in frequently to ensure Lord Blackwell’s good health.”
Flinar smiled wanly and nodded his approval.
“When you’re settled, then, come back and have dinner with us,” Ynaselle said.
Dr. Prognes bowed his head with a quiet smile and excused himself. The servant girl closed the door behind him.
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