“I don’t think I’m so naïve,” she said to herself. Vithian and Jaonos always called her naïve; it had always galled her.
The last time Vithian had returned to Pheasant’s Cross from sequester, Ynaselle had found him and Jaonos sitting up late one night by the fire. Vithian had moved a chair close to Jaonos’s so that their heads were close together. Each held a drink in their hands, and they whispered conspiratorially to each other.
Ynaselle interrupted them, asking what they could find so secretive. And Vithian had told her. One priest – Vithian would not name who – was a counselor. He would listen to the confessions and guilty concerns of all those that would come to him, and then he would gossip with other priests and postulants about what he had been told.
This counselor had an elf – a fourth or fifth child of some merchant – who had come to him with a problem. This elf had been smuggling Saprexun silk into the Court of the Oak and Birch.
“One night he meets his mistress, as they have always done, but she’s distraught,” Vithian said, a grin spreading across his face. “You see, her family sells silk in the Court – legally – and they’ve been having some issues. People didn’t want their silk when they could get Saprexun silk under the table, and she feared her family might be ruined.
“Well, our smuggler also has a bad habit of drinking out of his senses, so he tells her not to be concerned. He was the smuggle selling the Saprexun silk, and when they married, he would be rich. So, what do you suppose she did?”
Vithian paused, as if waiting for an answer. Ynaselle glanced to Jaonos, who sat back in his chair, his drink up to his lips. He watched her glassily and smiled.
“She blackmailed him!” Vithian exclaimed. “You see, she was already married – our smuggler knew this – and she had no intention of seeking an annulment. Why not take the money now?
“Now, that wasn’t the end of his issues. He had hired a caravaner to transport the silk from Saprexus, and this caravaner had had some terrible luck. News had spread about silk and other, shall we say, secret goods, making their way to the Faydark Empire, and brigands were scattered along the highway. The caravaner needed to hire more security, which meant he needed more gold from our smuggler.”
Vithian stood and poured himself another drink. “Jaonos?” Jaonos waved away to offer of another drink. He was already well sauced as it was, Ynaselle saw. Vithian held a glass toward Ynaselle, who shook her head.
“And that wasn’t the end of our smuggler’s troubles. He had a friend amongst the inspectors in the Court, who would just stamp whatever the silk was hidden in through. This friend was being transferred though, and our smuggler would need even more gold so he could bribe another official.
“He went to his lenders for assistance in all of these new costs, and, they were not patient nor particularly generous. Needless to say, our smuggler was in some terrible trouble. So, he sought out help from our counselor friend. What do you suppose the counselor told him to do?” Vithian had asked.
“Turn himself in, I hope,” Ynaselle said. Vithian and Jaonos both laughed at her appalled expression.
“Oh, poor sweet Yna,” Jaonos said. He shifted slightly, moving in his chair like he were floating in it rather than sitting.
Vithian continued. “Our smuggler had never actually seen his lender – I suppose I should have said so sooner – but it made it difficult for our smuggler, because if he didn’t know who his lender was, well, he had nothing over them. So, the counselor told the smuggler to bring his lender, to the sequester. The two would do the whole both drinking from the same cup so no one was poisoned thing and discuss their problems through the veil that the counselor normally sat behind.
“Obviously, the elf couldn’t get any quarter from his lender, and both left angry and bitter. But the elf woke the next day to find that his mouth was purple. What surprised him, though, was that, when he entered the exchange, he found the mother of his mistress. Her mouth was also purple.”
“She was the lender,” Ynaselle said.
Vithian spread his hands before him. “They had both drunk from the same cup.”
“The counselor had put ink into the wine?”
“Well, how else was the lender to be revealed?
“The mother understood that, too, when she saw that him, and told him that she would not be requiring him to make his payments until his smuggling business was back in order.”
“That’s horrid!” Ynaselle declared. “Smuggling, adultery, blackmail, bribery, usury! And they just continued on as they had?”
“Oh, Yna, don’t be so naïve. There isn’t an elf in the Empire who doesn’t break the law when it suits them.”
Ynaselle had turned to Jaonos, who was already half asleep. He motioned with his drink in agreement, sloshing part of the liquor out over his robes. Ynaselle left Jaonos and Vithian laughing, determined to believe that her mother and father would never engage in such activities.
She took a deep breath and shook her head. Perhaps things were not as simple as she had believed, but it unsettled her. Let it be, she said to herself, and continued on to the Brephochae.
The Brephochae towered over the street in glistening glory. Its spiderweb of glass seemed to ensnare a large garden of trees and flowers that grew nowhere else in The Empire. Many were gifts, Ynaselle recalled, from merchants and visiting nobles from elsewhere in the world. The conservatory itself was a miracle of botany. It housed plants that grew in the air and drifted from tree to tree throughout the day, huge carnivorous plants that had to be fed meat regularly, and even a breed of orchids so rare that some believed that the last living ones grew at the Brephochae.
The spiderweb clung to the sides of the white-walled, high-spired living area. Lady Erro would be near the top of one of the spires, where ambassadors from other Courts and even other kingdoms would stay when they visited. The spires were now draped with the banners of the Heliohart and Passerine Courts in celebration of the recent marriage annoucement. Ynaselle couldn’t help but wonder if the Little Prince Lianthorn had been staying at the Brephochae as well. The banners would be salt in his wounds.
Ynaselle entered the Brephochae through its vaulted doors. The interior was as filled with living things as the spiderweb greenhouse. A small river coursed through the floorway where small gold and red fish merrily swam. The carpet was a living moss so thick Ynaselle was always tempted to take her shoes off when she crossed it. Espalier fruit trees lined the walls so that any elf could simply pluck a pear or plum should they wish. Elves sat across the great entry hall in seats made of braided vines or saplings or tree trunks and particularly large, sturdy mushrooms. They sipped teas and spritzers, speaking in low voices. It wasn’t just elves, Ynaselle realized. A small group of humans stood around one large mushroom, somewhat befuddled. They didn’t seem to know what to do with it, while another demonstrated how to balance atop it without tumbling off. He failed, sliding off as soon as he lifted one leg to cross over the other.
A clerk with a high forehead, narrow nose, and yellowish cheeks wove through the crowd, occasionally motioning a servant to take bags to rooms or deliver refreshments. Periodically, he would remove a key from his great ring to give to a servant, then fastidiously place it back on his belt while the servant led the visitor to their rooms.
Ynaselle lifted the skirt of her robes and began to make her way to him. She needn’t have bothered. Almost as soon as she began her way across the room, the clerk turned toward her and was by her elbow in moments.
“Yuven Blackwell, what an honor to have a visit from you today,” the clerk said in a nasal voice. “May I get any refreshments for you?” He seemed to be looking at her through closed eyes, and she wondered how he could navigate the great room without his eyes opened.
“No, please,” Ynaselle said. “I’ve come to visit my friends, the Tarnyns. May I be led to their room?”
The clerk bowed deeply, then waved his hand in no particular direction. A servant wearing the short green and brown robe of the Brephochae uniform appeared, bent at his waste in a permanent bow.
“It would be my pleasure, Yuven Blackwell.” He handed a key to the servant and bowed again. “Should you need anything else, do not hesitate to ask.”
The servant walked through the hall so quickly and smoothly that it seemed like he floated. He dodged around parties without interrupting them as if he were just another part of the room which the guests ignored entirely. He waited for her at the raiser.
The raiser was a crystal compartment, filigreed in gold-leafed steel and carpeted in the same lush moss. Water poured over it from above in a gentle water fall, feeding the small riverlets at its based. The servant opened the door for Ynaselle and the veil of water parted to allow her in.
As soon as the servant stepped in, the raiser rose in an arch over the great hall so that Ynaselle could see the hall in a bird’s eye view.
“Servant,” she said, “is the hall designed after some actual landscape?”
“Yes, Yuven Blackwell,” the servant said. She was surprised by his sonorous voice. It was deeper than she had expected, and she wondered what his singing voice must be like. “It is designed as an exact replica of the river country to the east of the Mural Mountains. The humans there call the land the Dorin Garden, after a local deity. Legend says that those blessed by Dorin will be protected and fed by the rivers, as the rivers will bring them whatever they need.
“The gnomes are the natives of the area, though, but their name for it is yet unknown. If you would like, we can explore the other major halls, all of which are replicas of natural landscapes.”
Ynaselle smiled. “Another time, please.”
The raiser soared up the vaulted ceiling. Floors flashed by, each designed, she imagined, after different locales. The raiser came to a stop at one that looked like a riverbed. Crystal covered a floor made almost entirely of smooth white stones. Water poured over the edge under the crystal, where it would form the waterfall and rivers in the main hall.
The servant stepped out, delicately offering Ynaselle his hand to help her step down. He said no more as he walked her down a hallway of doors to the door that must be the Tarnyns. The servant led her into the antechamber, a small foyer.
It was not carpeted in moss or stones, but in black and orange tiles. The walls were charred wood and lined with beautiful but impersonal paintings. Dark wood tables held blue and white vases of flowers at intervals, while a small sitting space of charred wood and blue cushions huddled in one corner.
The servant entered the main living suite to discreetly announce her presence. She only knew the servant had left when she heard the front door shut again.
Ynaselle sighed. If the servant had reported to Nithnael, Ynaselle expected that she would be made to wait. Rather than taking a seat, Ynaselle began circling the foyer, examining the vases and paintings.
She came to the small table by the door to the living area and saw it held several letters. Ynaselle glanced around to make certain she was alone before she pulled the small pile over so that each address was visible. She recognized many of the names. A tailor, a florist, a lord, which surprised her.
“Do you find my correspondence interesting?”
Ynaselle jumped and spun about, a blush rising in her cheeks. She had not heard Master Tarnyn’s approach. “I’m so sorry!” Ynaselle blurted out. “I hadn’t meant to intrude.”
Master Tarnyn’s face was utterly impassive. With one hand and an economy of movement, he shuffled the pile of letters back into a pristine stack and picked them up. “If you hadn’t meant to intrude, you shouldn’t have gotten caught.”
Ynaselle opened her mouth to apologize once more but stopped. What an odd thing to say. Shouldn’t have gotten caught rather than shouldn’t have snooped. Her brow furrowed briefly in her confusion.
Tarnyn flashed her a secretive smile when he saw she noticed and motioned her to the sitting room. “Unfortunately, you have missed my sisters and Yuven Vetsian. They went out this morning with my wife, so you find me alone today.”
Ynaselle entered the sitting room and took a seat in a small chair. Master Tarnyn did not sit immediately, but instead simply watched her from where he stood. Ynaselle couldn’t read his thoughts on his impassive face. She admired how well he controlled his expressions.
“I had come to invite you and your family to our home for dinner,” Ynaselle said. “I am sorry I have missed them, but I hope that I can leave that invitation with you.”
“Of course,” Master Tarnyn said. He waited a moment as he continued to examine her, meeting her gaze without embarrassment. Usually, to be so closely examined, Ynaselle might feel nervous or upset, but not with Master Tarnyn. She didn’t sense any ill will from him, even if she couldn’t guess his thoughts.
“May I get you anything?” he asked abruptly. “Tea? Spritzer?”
“No, thank you.”
Master Tarnyn plucked a small sprig of rosemary and placed it into a chilled glass. He drizzled a thick, purple syrup over the ice, then poured the sparkling water over it all. Again, Ynaselle was impressed by the economy and efficiency of movement.
When he sat down with glass in hand, Master Tarnyn looked back at Ynaselle. He wasn’t smiling, but there was a slight upturn at the corner of his lips that made Ynaselle a bit more comfortable.
“Did you find my correspondence interesting, Yuven Blackwell?”
“Again, allow me to apologize.”
Master Tarnyn waved his hand. “I’m not upset. I’m curious what you make of what you saw?”
Ynaselle blinked, sitting up just a little straighter. “Well,” she hazarded after a moment, “I can’t make heads or tails of what it is you actually do.”
“Oh?” Master Tarnyn said. He sipped his drink.
“I know something of the Court of the Mirror. The Tarnyns are a well-respected family, but, if you will forgive any impertinence, hardly in the strata that many of your friends seem to be from.”
Master Tarnyn lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. He waited for her to continue.
“The Tarnyns are doctors, lawyers, and perhaps a few have been clerks and secretaries for aristocratic families, but none that would connect them to Lady Erro or Lord Petdove or Lord Zinthyra. And I can’t guess your profession from your correspondence. A tailor, which is hardly unexpected for anyone, a draper. I’m not certain what profession would include letters from a carpenter, a florist, and a silversmith together, though.”
“I am letting a house.”
“But without letters from an estate agent? Or a cabinetmaker?”
“Hmm, perhaps,” Master Tarnyn consented. “What do you make of it, then?”
“That if I want to know what it is you do, I shall have to get to know you better.” Ynaselle smoothed her robe over her knees. “And not get caught again. I hope, then, that you and your family will join us for dinner.”
Master Tarnyn offered her a quick smile and nodded. “Of course.” He sipped his drink and sat further back in his chair. Ynaselle decided she rather liked Master Tarnyn and, if Mistress Tarnyn was anything like her sister Merioleth, would very much like her, too. It was a pity that she rather liked the entire family, except her old friend Nithnael.
“I understand your father is indisposed at the moment. Is he well?”
Ynaselle folded her hands in her lap and nodded. The room suddenly felt a bit colder. “Yes, he is recovering. He shall be well enough for dinner. He is pleased to make a better acquaintance of you and your family.”
“I understand that Alennia made an excellent impression on him.”
Ynaselle could guess that he understood that from Lady Erro, but she smiled and nodded. “On myself as well.”
Master Tarnyn nodded his approval. When he said no more, Ynaselle stood and bobbed a quick bow. “I am disappointed to have missed your sisters, but I shall be happy to see you all at dinner.”
“I look forward to it,” Master Tarnyn replied with his secretive smile.
Ynaselle left curious about her new friends.
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