The Curse of the Bear

“Please, Spot,” Sigge begged. She held the leather harness out to the ornery goat, who stomped and screamed and snorted in response. He lowered his shaggy head, his horns looking all the more cruel for his refusal. The harness belonged to the small goat cart Sigge’s adopted mother Hedvig had always kept for her trips into town, and she needed to go to town one last time.

“Keep your filthy hands off me! You probably killed her yourself!” Spot reared back, and Sigge dove to dodge the blow.

“Spot!” she cried. Tears tore her voice to shreds, but she refused to shed any of them. She rose to her feet, wiping mud and muck from her own golden fur. “You know I would never hurt her. Never.”

 “I know no such thing,” Spot replied.

 Sigge was beginning to wish Hedvig had taken Ryker’s offer to castrate the cantankerous imp when she had delivered his daughter’s third son. I would have killed you long before I ever laid a finger on her, Sigge thought.

Bargaining would have to work, because Sigge had found Hedvig dead that morning, and Sigge needed to get her to the grove. “This one last time. Not for me, Spot, but for her. She deserves to be burned properly, and she deserves to have her ashes spread in the grove. I need – Hedvig needs your help.”

Sigge herself had only been to the grove once, though she hadn’t passed the stone gate. It was called The Grove of Amund, and it was beautiful. It was a hillock, wreathed by hazel and birch, oak and spruce, pine and rowan, but crowned by a great yew tree. The great Amund planted his staff there beyond which he would let no frost ogre step, and never one did. After his death, his staff could not be moved and grew into that great yew. Those who worshiped Amund like Hedvig had their ashes spread upon the hill.

“After that, I’ll take off the harness,” Sigge promised, “and you’ll be free to go as you want. This one last thing, Spot, and you will never see or hear from me again.” She stopped herself from swearing to it. Spot would never take her word for anything.

“The instant we get there, you cut me loose from that harness, and I go on my merry way?”

Sigge nodded, feeling the relief sag her shoulders. “The very instant. You don’t even have to wait to see that I actually burn her on the pyre.”

“Oh, no, Abomination,” Spot said, hopping closer. He poked a sharp cloven hoof into her gut. He meant it to be vicious, but Sigge barely felt it through her thick fur. “I will be making sure you do not disgrace dear Hedvig’s memory. She was a good woman, and she deserved better than you.”

The sky had darkened by the time Sigge had gotten close to town where the grove grew, though few would venture out into the woods at night. Maybe they would see the pyre from the walls, but she doubted any would come to see what had set the fire, not until morning. There were too many stories of man-eating monsters and dread demons to stir even the stoutest heart. There were more than a few missing people to go along with those tales. Sigge, to her relief, could finish this in peace.

Or so she thought.

A stone glanced off her shoulder as she came to the ancient archway that marked the entrance to the grove.

“Ow!” Sigge shouted. “Who threw that? I’m only here to burn my dead.” It hadn’t hurt, but she often found if she played weak that people were not as frightened of her golden fur, great height, massive paws, and heavy claws. She looked nearly like a bear with a human face, and most were frightened when first they saw Sigge.

“Your kind are not welcome here,” a voice from the gloom shook through the trees. It was a moist voice, soft and old like midnight shadows or soil in springtime.

Sigge hadn’t heard voices like that before. She glanced at Spot, who chewed his cud unhelpfully. “My kind? You mean mortals?”

“No, like you!” another voice said. This was light and subtle, like a soft breeze or a death rattle. “Cursed!” It was coming from high above her.

“I know I’m cursed,” Sigge said quickly. “But, I – there’s no one else to burn her. She was very old and very kind, and she kept to the old ways more faithfully than anyone else. She deserves to be burnt here.”

“Be gone!” the first voice boomed, the earth beneath Sigge’s feet rumbling in time. “You shall not set foot in this sacred place!” This voice was against the collapsed wall, close to the ground.

“Defiler!” the second voice wailed. It had moved much closer, bending toward her. The air sizzled as it spoke. “You shall not sully this place any longer!”

Spot’s ears twitched frantically to catch the voices as they moved. “I told you you couldn’t come here,” he warned, stamping a foot.

“You never did!” Sigge cried in reply. “Please, great gods, I am your loyal servant! She was your loyal servant! I won’t defile anything!”

The world stopped shaking, the wind stopped blowing, and, silence reigned. For a moment, Sigge believed that she had imagined the whole thing. But, Spot stood beside her trembling, the only thing keeping him from bolting was the harness on his back.

Then, just as suddenly, by her ear, “You already have, by merely being–”

Sigge shrieked and flailed at the noise. She struck something, her palm making a slapping noise as it connected with flesh, followed by a soft thud of weight hitting grass.

“Hey! Now, that’s just rude!” the first voice shouted.

“You’re not supposed to hit!” the second voice chimed in.

Sigge pulled her hands to her chest, looking back and forth from the two beings now visible to her. One lay prostrate on the ground, the other came bounding from the shadow to stand over it. Both sounded so much more juvenile now. Not scary, not powerful, just young and headstrong. They looked it, too, if one could look past the shocking appearance of demons. The two were small, the size of children, with dark fur and glowing yellow eyes. They had claws on their hands and feet and long tails. One was holding its cheek where Sigge had struck it, the other stood facing Sigge with its hands on its hips sticking out its startlingly pink tongue.

“You’re just children,” Sigge exclaimed.

“We are not!”

“We’re the guardians of this place!”

“You can’t come here!”

Hedvig had told Sigge of these creatures. Like many demons and monsters, they moved into sacred places, but these didn’t desecrate them. They protected the abandoned ones from graverobbers or even other demons. They were tricksters, of some kind, and used all sorts of pranks to keep people away. It made Sigge sad to know they had come to the grove, for it meant that it had been abandoned by the town. They were abandoning the old ways.

“You’re just children,” Sigge whispered again, almost too surprised to believe it herself.

“We are not!” shouted the one who sat on the ground. It pouted, its lower lip trembling as tears glistened in its eyes. Sigge felt guilty; she could forget how strong she was.

Sigge scratched the fur at her collarbone, uncertain of how to proceed. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said. Her voice sounded as squeezed and desperate as she felt. She winced at the sound of it.

“You shouldn’t just go flinging your arms about,” the one on the ground said. “You’re really big.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Listen–”

Spot kicked the cart hard enough to make it bounce and stomped the ground. “Get it on with, Fuzzy. Let me go before these two dimwits kill you.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming, give me a moment.” Spot was impatient, and Sigge had to move quickly to avoid his horns and his teeth. When she was done, he walked calmly into the grove and promptly shat on the grass. The two demons didn’t seem to notice.

Sigge shook the feeling of disgust away. “I am sorry I hurt you,” she began again. “I didn’t mean to. I thought you were much bigger than you are, and I was frightened. Please, I didn’t mean any harm.”

“Mean to or not, you did.” The one she’d hit still pouted as it climbed to its feet, but the pink bloom on its cheek had already faded away.

Sigge tried to smile. “I am sorry,” she said. “My name is Sigge. What’s yours?”

The two looked surprised, and then suspicious. They glanced at each other, perhaps sharing a language of glances to which Sigge wasn’t privy. “You want to know our names?” the one who hadn’t been hit asked.

This time, Sigge smiled genuinely. “Of course! I want something to call you – not your true names, but something to call you,” Sigge said quickly, remembering how protective all manner of spirits were about their names. Hedvig had told her that one could control creatures with their true names. Spot, who had been named Koenig, insisted on being called Spot instead so that Hedvig and Sigge couldn’t control him. “Just something I can call you while we talk.”

The two exchanged glances again, as if they had never heard of such a thing. They whispered together again, waving arms and pointing fingers mostly at Sigge. Curiosity got the better of them, though, and the one who had been hit said tentatively, “I’m Boo.”

“You can call me Hush,” the other said quickly. “Those aren’t our real names, mind you. Just what you can call us.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Boo and Hush,” Sigge said, curtsying as best she could. She was a gangly, awkward thing. Big, with long arms and strong legs, and never acquainted with anything like courtly manners, but she tried.

Boo’s cheeks colored, and Hush’s eyes widened, and the corners of its mouth turned down. “And you, Sigge,” Boo said finally.

They stood in silence. Boo rubbed its fingers together, trying to find a comfortable way to hold its hands. Hush scuffed the ground in uncomfortable circles. Sigge smoothed the fur at belly and then her arms, trying to think of something to say. It was clear that Boo and Hush wouldn’t break the silence. They watched at her, perhaps curious, perhaps appalled.

“This all started out badly,” Sigge said finally. “I didn’t mean to… show up unannounced. I hadn’t realized this sacred place had been reclaimed. The woman whose body lies there in that cart is Hedvig. She kept faithfully to Amund. She needs this grove so that she may have a proper funeral. That’s all I ask. It’s not for me; it’s for her.”

Boo rubbed its hands over its ears sheepishly, looking away, and Hush opened its mouth and closed it several times before finding its voice. “It’s not… We would be happy to allow her funerary rites…  She’s allowed to come into the grove. The problem is you.”

“You see,” Boo added quickly, “you’re cursed. I mean, I’m sure it’s not your fault, the curse and all. And it’s nothing personal, it’s just that… well, look at yourself! You’re an abomination.”

“Told you,” Spot said from where he lay in the lush grass. He chewed it occasionally, entirely too pleased with himself.

“If there were anyone else – children, grandchildren, a kindly neighbor–-anyone else who could bring her in here, we’d-–it’d be fine. We wouldn’t interfere-”

“We’d hide away so no one could see us and be frightened away!”

“But, we just can’t let you in.”

“You could… I mean, if you burnt her body elsewhere, maybe you could sort of… toss her ashes over the wall?”

Sigge bowed her head. Failed. At the last, she had failed Hedvig. She couldn’t seek out any of the other villagers. They’d chase her away before she could even ask. If they found out Hedvig was dead, they’d think she killed her. Cursed. Forever. Failed. Failed. Failed.

No.

“There has to be a way,” Sigge said, whether out of determination or desperation she couldn’t be sure. “There has to be a way to lift the curse. There has to be a way to let me in.”

Hush and Boo exchanged glances again. Hush nodded, but Boo shook its head frantically.

“Well, there may be…” Hush began.

“No!” Boo said quickly. “Not that! That’s impossible!”

“Do you know Dagne’s Spring?”

Sigge shook her head slowly.

Hush grinned, sharp teeth glistening in the fading light. It sat itself cross-legged, floating a hand’s breadth off the ground, hands at its knees, chest puffed out.

“When the great and noble Von was cursed by the wicked Ulfric so that he brought winter wherever he stepped, Kelda drew her own daughter, Dagne, from the earth and married her to Von. Where she emerged is called Dagne’s Spring. And Dagne, she’s also known as Curse-Breaker. Dagne broke the curse of the Eternal Winter in this land. She brought back spring and warmth and happiness as a marriage gift to Von.”

Sigge’s breath caught in her throat. Blood pooled to her ears as her heart seemed to stop. For a moment, Sigge thought she was dying. No, no, no. Don’t let it be true. Let this be a lie. I can’t take the hope of it.

“Dagne’s Spring,” Hush went on, “is not far from here. Bubbles up from the ground in a cave. It’s got all sorts of magical powers. It can cure people – and lift curses, I’m sure. You could bathe in it.”

“Is that all?” Sigge asked. It’s too good to be true, she told herself. Oh, please let it be true.

Boo pushed Hush aside, giving its sibling a harsh glare. “There’s a problem. It’s been polluted, so it doesn’t have any power left to it. It’s impossible. You might as well give up now.”

“It’s not impossible. Just very, very unlikely. The desecration can be undone.”

“How?” Sigge asked. The chance to lift the curse. The chance to be normal. The chance to walk among people without hisses and boos and rock thrown. She had never known such a thing.

“There’s a monster,” Boo began, its tone quiet and formidable.

“The villagers have been dumping their trash in the cave for years,” Hush interrupted. “That’s what started the whole thing. It polluted the spring, and to monsters, well, there’s no place better than a desecrated spring. So, before any kind of our kind could go in and protect it–”

“A monster moved in. Big, huge, hairy, long teeth and sharp claws–”

“It hasn’t got teeth or claws. It’s got mandibles and pincers.”

“And relentless. Ruthless. Incorrigible.”

“That is not the word you’re looking for.”

“What do you know?”

The two dissolved into bickering, but Sigge didn’t hear them. Just as quickly as she had been given hope, it had been ripped away, and she felt all the more hollow for it. Failed, cursed and failed. Worst of all, she had failed Hedvig, but even as she thought of it, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for herself. A giant monster, a polluted spring, and no chance to lift the curse.

“Sigge, you can do it!” one of the demon children called as she began to walk away. Sigge turned back. Hush had pinned Boo and was reaching out to Sigge. “You can do it. You can overcome the monster and clean up that cave, and if you do, you won’t be cursed anymore. In fact–”

“Don’t do it, Hush, that’s not fair!”

Hush pointed a long, clawed finger at Sigge. “You must do it. It is your quest to defeat that monster and reclaim the spring for yourself and your ancestors and your children to come.” Hush looked pleased with itself, smiling smugly at Sigge, though she did not understand the significance.

“Oooh,” Boo moaned. “Now you’ve gone and done it. It wasn’t my fault, Sigge, remember that. It wasn’t my fault.”

Spot laughed, hopping toward Sigge. “Serves you right, Abomination. And I hope it kills you, too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course, you don’t, you fool!”

“You have to do it now,” Hush said, a smirk playing on its lips. “You can’t not go and defeat the monster. It’s your quest. You have to. That’s the rule.”

A sinking feeling settled on Sigge, even as Hush celebrated. She wondered if she had been saddled with another curse.

~~~

Sigge rubbed a new bruise on her side. She had expected the shouting, the cursing, the spitting; the villagers had done that and worse before. She would have expected rocks thrown at her, too. What she hadn’t expected was a pig-nosed boy with a pitchfork trying to skewer her through the ribs. That was new. They were getting younger and more vicious.

Still, she had hoped that morning for help with the monster not out of loyalty to her, but for the villagers’ own sakes. This was their spring, and this monster was polluting it. They hadn’t been willing to help; they hadn’t even been willing to listen. Instead, they shouted and jeered and spat, and one man with a boil on his neck had shouted, “Go yourself. At least we’ll be rid of one monster!” That was when the boy had tried to stab her. That was when Sigge had run.

Now, the cave opened in the earth before her, a hole with little warning other than the few boulders that formed its upper lip. It was a giant maw large enough to swallow a grown man, and it yawned into the depths as if it was waiting for its next victim to stumble by. Vines hung from the rocks above, dripping like spittle into the ominous gloaming below. Sigge had never been so frightened of one of Kelda’s springs.

While Hedvig had been partial to Amund, Sigge was fond of the mysterious Kelda. There weren’t many stories of her, but Sigge knew of her springs. Kelda was a frost ogre and looked at the worlds of gods and mortals with disgust and loathing. She froze all the water she found, drawing it into the earth so it would not be polluted by mortal touch, and she walked the world, killing any who would try to steal it back.

One day, she came across a hobbled boy and his old goat. Fearing that she would eat the goat, the boy stood up against Kelda. “This goat has given my family milk and kids every year since I was born. She has served us well, and I won’t have harm come to such a noble creature,” the boy declared.

Kelda was so moved that she drew the waters back up from the earth. She healed the boys hobble from her spring and told him to tell the rest of the mortal world that her springs would heal the sick and wounded, as disease and deformation were punishments from the gods that she would gladly foil. The boy grew into the hero Von.

Sigge peered over the lip of the cave. She could just see the brittle morning light glinting off the water’s surface. But for the wind blowing ripples, she saw no movement. She hefted a tree branch large enough to be a club and steeled herself to leap into the spring. Her chest constricted, her mouth went, and her stomach roiled. Sigge took a deep breath and glanced up into the clouds.  “Gods, I know you don’t favor abominations, but please watch over me as I try to kill a monster with a stick.”

Into the darkness she plunged.

She splashed into icy water that reached mid-thigh. Slick mud lined the bottom, oozing between her toes but offering no footholds. From what little she could see of the rest of the cave, it just got deeper from there.

Reflected light danced off the walls and ceiling of the cave but did little to illuminate it. A prickling in her fur told Sigge that there was something watching in the gloom, even if she couldn’t hear any breathing or feel any movement in the water. Sigge swallowed back a sudden wave of nausea.

Carefully, she felt the floor of the cave. It sloped down toward the darkness. Lose my footing, and I’ll be done. Sigge was certain, even as strong as she was, that it was stronger. If it dragged her down, there would be no hope at all. Great gods, what have I gotten myself into? She could feel her blood seeping from her limbs as any hope of survival withered. Why did I do this? Why did I agree to this?

Sigge tightened her grip on the makeshift club as she remembered. For Hedvig, the only person who has ever been kind to me.

Still, Sigge had no intention of calling out to the monster who watched her, which left her no course of action but to shiver in the icy water and hope the monster died of boredom. Once more, Sigge begged for the mercy of the gods in her doomed misadventure.

“Sister,” came the answer, but the smoothness of the voice, the rasping of a blade being drawn from its scabbard, was certainly not that of one of her gods, “why have you come to my den?”

The voice echoed all around her, petrifying her in her spot.

“Sister, have you come to drown your prey in my spring? Will you–” a scoff “–lure men from their wives to devour them here? Or will you snatch for children that play nearby?”

Sigge shook her head, trying to clear the voice out, but it stayed, rushing down her spine and freezing her blood. She prayed again, begging any god, her own or one entirely unknown to her, to save her.

“Answer me, sister.” Sigge heard movement in the water, the gentle lapping of a snake gliding over a river. “I did not invite you here, but if you will agree to bring your victims to me first, perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

Sigge couldn’t find her voice. Her throat and mouth were dry, and she could hear herself shaking violently.

“Answer me, sister.” It was a whisper now, and it spoke in the language of the dead.

I’m not your sister.

“I’m not your sister,” Sigge heard herself say.

“What is that? Not my sister? Accursed and vile, but not my sister?” The laugh that followed was a winter gale.

Sigge gritted her teeth. This damned thing thought she was damned as well. A sudden rush of heat burst from the center of her chest and boiled up into her head. Sigge decided that if she was going to die, she was at least going to make sure this thing knew she was no monster.

“I am no sister of yours, monster,” Sigge growled. The ferocity surprised even her, and hearing it echo back to her made her feel braver.

The creature emerged into the light and the feeling immediately disappeared. It was monstrous. The creature towered over her, swaying gently like a snake preparing to strike, but it was armored in scales like a beetle. Its mouth was great pincers, and Sigge couldn’t see eyes, but they bore into her all the same. It looked like flowing ice, reflecting light and gloom from its body.

“If not a sister, then a victim.” It lunged, its huge body moving with a speed Sigge could barely see.

Sigge leapt away, went underwater, and scrambled to her feet. She sputtered water as she tasted air. The club was right beside her. She reached for it. Something struck her across the back, and she was underwater again. She struggled but couldn’t find the surface. She lashed out. Her throat and chest burned for air.

Her hand scraped something. The cave wall. Sigge used it to stand. She retched and gasped for air. Water blinded her. Sigge dug at her eyes with the heel of her hand. She opened them to see the monster curling back up to strike again.

The club! The crystalline monster coiled as tightly as possible. Sigge ducked under the water, and the creature struck the wall of the cave an instant later. Sigge pushed off the wall, away. Her chest scraped the floor below and when she surfaced, she was belly deep in water. She was away from the light. The club! The club!

“Damned, stupid beast!” the monster shouted as it started to draw back again. It had been stunned. It was disoriented.

Where is the damned club?

“Abomination! I will send you back to the hell from which you sprang!” There, near its head.

If Sigge could reach it, she might have a chance. Sigge dove. Hurry, hurry, before it can strike.

Just as Sigge’s hand grasped the log, a coil wrapped around her chest and squeezed. “A mortal?” the monster cried with delight. “A cursed mortal! How wonderful to taste.”

Sigge squirmed, one arm was free. With all her might, she slammed the log down across the monster’s back. Sigge watched in horror as the log crumbled against the unblemished scales. The monster laughed.

“Struggle, please, struggle,” the monster said. “The sorrow when you die will be even more delicious. Nothing is more disappointing than resignation.”

The realization dawned on Sigge as the splinters washed from her hand. She had come here to die, and there would be no one to burn Hedvig. Nor herself.

“Poor little Abomination. I will remember you fondly.” The monster squeezed. Sigge cried out in pain. Her ribs strained; she could feel her organs pressing into each other.

“I can’t–” Sigge gasped for breath, but the creature squeezed tighter. Desperate, she tried to push the coil away. No way out. No way out. She dragged her claws over the scales.

“Linger, Abomination. Fight, you may yet–” The creature howled as Sigge’s claws caught a joint in the armor and pulled it away. It dropped her, writhing, spilling silver blood into the water. Sigge bumped the bottom, and before she could rise, another coil crashed into her.

She slammed her fist against the coil. It rose and came down again, impossibly fast in the water. Sigge felt her rib crack and screamed. Water gushed into her mouth and down her throat. Drowning, drowning, Sigge kicked wildly, hoping for purchase.

The coil pressed against her belly, pinning her to the floor of the cave, pressing her into the sucking mud. It pressed the air out of her, and in one burning, rushing gasp, water rushed in. All was in blackness. Desperate, Sigge dragged her claws across the scales. She felt her claw stick in another joint and pressed. Her claws plunged into emptiness below. Silver darkness clouded her eyes. She didn’t stop until the weight was lifted.

Sigge’s head broke the surface. She opened her mouth, but a wave slammed into her, throwing her back. She hit something hard, but this time when she gasped, she got air. She vomited water.

She was slammed back against the cave wall. She screamed, agonizing white-hot pain searing throughout her entire body.

“I have never met such a determined beast,” the monster hissed. Sigge felt its icy breath against her face, freezing water in her fur. “But I will never be defeated by a mortal, and though you are a hideous abomination, you are mortal.”

Sigge blinked, but she couldn’t open one eye as blood poured into it. She saw red. She hadn’t realized she was bleeding.

The monster’s face was inches from hers. Its pincers twitched, touching her face, yanking out golden strands of fur. Its breath was ragged, though not as ragged as hers. She may have been bleeding, but oily silver puddles pooled on the waters’ surface. The monster was bleeding more.

The monster pressed her harder and Sigge gasped in pain.

It could probably afford to lose more blood.

“You are an abomination, hated by gods and mortals and demons, and you have dared to come to my den to fight me? You should have died in your mother’s womb! But I will give you one final chance.” The created breathed ice in her face. Sigge opened her eyes. She could see the black slits gleaming beneath the pincers. They rippled like water, hypnotically.

“You need not go back to the mortals,” it whispered. “You may stay. Hunt the mortals. Bring them to me. And you may live.”

She was strong, her claws were sharp, she was determined, but the scales covering the monster’s body were unbreakable. However. She had gotten beneath them. And beneath the scales, there was nothing but shadow and ice and nothingness.

Sigge took a deep, ragged breath, ignoring the pain from her crushed ribs, then slashed the monster’s eyes.

The creature reared back, dropping Sigge into the water again. She only had to get under the scales. So she dug her feet into the mud, bared her claws, and caught at the monster’s scales as it dove, its long body gliding past.

Her claws caught, nearly ripping out at the root. She heard the creature scream, but she pressed her heels into the mud and hauled back. The creature writhed and shrieked, but Sigge held on. With all her strength, she pulled, her muscles straining, her joints creaked, but she held.

“I am no monster!” she cried and hauled back once more. There was a tearing sound, and the scale came lose in Sigge’s hands. Oily, silver blood poured over her hands, soaking into her fur, flooding the cavern around her.

The monster shrieked, its scream echoing through the cavern, piercing through the cloud of Sigge’s own confusion. The water around her boiled with the monster’s thrashing, pounding against her, driving her down. She half-crawled, half-swam until she was in the light again. The water stilled. Sigge wiped blood and water from the fur around her eyes.

The monster’s breath came ragged as its thrashing slowed. It twitched and stopped, merely floating on the water’s surface. The wounds Sigge had managed to inflict were widening as the scales crumbled away, “I never,” the monster gasped, “thought I would die at the hands of an,” it trembled, “abomination.”

Sigge watched it dissolve into the hollow of its body. “I’m not an abomination.”

The monster sighed one last time. Its body shattered like a mirror and melted away in the water of the spring. Sigge felt cold to her very core. She had had enough of the spring’s water for a lifetime, no matter how sacred.

~~~

Sigge had hoped that defeating the monster would burn the fur away. It had been an arduous fight. She could taste blood with each breath, and every movement sent pain radiating from her ribs. She was victorious all the same.

But, defeating the monster did nothing.

Sigge had hoped that dragging the trash from the cave would shed the fur from her skin. Hour after hour, she dove into the darkness to find another piece of broken pottery or another discarded farm tool. Hour after hour, the sky grew dark while the water grew clearer. She worked until couldn’t feel her limbs.

But, cleaning the spring did nothing.

Sigge had hoped bathing in the spring would wash the fur away. She shivered to her bones, sitting in the shallows, swimming in the depths, pouring handful after handful of water over her head. She bathed herself until her skin wrinkled and her fur matted with ice.

But, bathing in the spring did nothing.

As she emerged from the cave, she found the sky had turned dark, and she had missed an entire day. Exhaustion filled her limbs as darkness filled her eyes, and Sigge couldn’t bring herself to move. She lay down and prayed that she would wake the following morning naked of fur.

But, morning brought nothing.

The dawn burned the sky crimson, waking Sigge from a dreamless sleep, bathing her in a cold, watery light that would never penetrate the thick fur still covering her body. With it, she gave up hope.

Sigge stretched aching muscles and rubbed aching limbs and found that her fur was still wet. She got to her feet, stomach rumbling, joints shaking, and skin pimpling, to make her way back so she could finally put all this business and Hedvig to rest.

“When this is done, I’m just going home. Spot can go wherever he damn well pleases, but if he comes back with me, I’ll roast him for dinner.”

Thinking of delicious, juicy roast goat made her mouth water and her stomach cramp, and she decided, out of desperation, to ask the townspeople for some kindness and some breakfast. Sigge took a deep breath. This will all be done soon. Then she could hide away from the world forever.

By the time Sigge had made it back to the village the sun had nearly dried out her fur. She looked every bit like she had battled a monster, and she felt an inkling of pride at it.

That feeling ended abruptly as a stone sailed past her head, rustling the fur at her temple. That was nearly a damn fine shot, Sigge thought. Damn cheeky, too, for what I’ve just done for these people.

She glared at the children who huddled behind a fallen stone wall, where a black-haired boy huddled behind the rest. He was the thrower. She spat, and they scattered. Their cries that they too would be cursed gave her a perverse sort of satisfaction.

As she moved toward the village green, Sigge could feel their eyes on her, burning through her golden fur. She could feel the tension of anxiety as mothers hid their children behind their skirts. Men ceased their idle chatter and clenched their jaws and their fists, as children pointed and gaped. Signs of warding were made. Her very presence – her very existence – was a threat to them; she could bring down the wrath of the gods. Sigge didn’t have to look into the eyes to see the same horror she had always seen.

More than all that, though, she could feel the ache in her muscles from the fight, the pain in her broken ribs, the chill from her damp fur, the bruise from the jab of a pitchfork in her side, and Sigge felt anger.

They didn’t fear her, she knew; they feared her curse. Well, if they can’t forgive me for the curse, they will fear me for it.

She stepped onto the cool grass of the village green, where the villagers punished their criminals, held their festivals, and fed their livestock. She turned to face the gathered crowd – some had rocks, some had clubs, some had pitchforks and hoes, all were ready to chase her out of town. Or kill her. Their gods, she thought, are bloodthirsty gods.

She cast a glance over the crowd, an imperious crook to her neck she hadn’t realized she had adopted. No real weapons among them. These villagers have no teeth. Sigge found herself musing. She opened and closed her fists, feeling the claws that she had been born with, comfortable and comforting against her palm. She had teeth as well.

She cleared her throat, surprised at herself for not feeling the panic she had felt so many times. Perhaps she was just too tired.

“Yesterday,” she began, taken aback by the booming sound of her voice. The villagers were startled; she could see blood draining from their faces. She could smell the sweat in their pores. “I came to you asking for help. The spring, Dagne’s Spring, had been defiled. A demon monster had taken residence, and the village had done nothing about it.

“Yesterday, I came to you asking for help killing the demon monster and saving the spring. Yesterday, you spat at me and ran me out of town.”

They watched her with wide eyes and gaping mouths. You’ll catch flies, she thought, but she saw they were listening intently – were they afraid? It confused her but delighted her as well.

“I killed the monster. I nearly died for my trouble, but the monster is dead now and the spring is restored.

“I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want you to accept me as your neighbor, I don’t want you to reward me, and I certainly don’t want you thinking of me as your hero. I didn’t do it for you. I did it so that I could give Hedvig a proper funeral. I only ask for two thing – that you give me something to eat. I have no strength left to finish the funeral rites. And then I ask that you leave me alone.”

It was a reasonable request. It wasn’t asking much. They could oblige her and wash their hands of her forever. It was what they had always wanted of her, after all, to be free of her. She had not expected that they didn’t want her to be the one to want it.

“Hedvig’s dead!”

“Murdered!”

“Monster!”

“Fiend!”

“No!” Sigge shouted, a growl shredding her voice. Fear clenched her heart, but anger burned it away just as quickly. “I would never hurt Hedvig!”

“How could you? She was kind to you!” wailed a woman with freckles across her chest and knotted gray hair. Sigge recognized her mangled hand. Hedvig had saved it from being cut off when her cow crushed it. Sigge had had to set the hand under Hedvig’s guidance since Hedvig’s own hands were riddled with arthritis. Ana – that was her name – had blamed Sigge when the hand never healed completely, even as Hedvig said it never would.

“And since she was the only person who had ever been kind to me, why would I ever hurt her, Ana?” she snapped, letting the emphasis hang in the air like a threat. Ana’s face turned as gray as her hair.

A sharp pain shot through her body, blossoming from her back, and Sigge lashed out. She caught the prong of a pitchfork. There at the handle was the boy who had jabbed her before with his pig-nose and his beady eyes. Sigge watched the glee drain away from his face as she held the pitchfork. He desperately pulled away, but she was stronger. Swine,” she growled.

She yanked the pitchfork out of his hands and sent him sprawling at her feet. Sigge spun the pitchfork, striking him across the fat of his backside with an audible thwack as he tried to stand. The boy sobbed in pain, but Sigge sneered at him. She hadn’t struck him with her full strength; the tears were more from fear than from pain, and Sigge was disgusted by it.

“Now listen!” Sigge roared, her voice spreading out over the crowd like thunder over the mountains. “I have done nothing to you, you ungrateful fools! I have never raised my voice, I have never raised my hand, and I have certainly never raised any curse against you! The only person who has ever suffered from this curse has been me, since the day I was born, because you – you monsters have treated me like some sort of – of abomination.

“This is the way I was born! The only curse I have ever suffered under is you! I have helped deliver your babies, and cure your sick, and heal your hurt, and all I have gotten in return are curses and bruises, and I am saying enough!

“I am a healer! I am a goodwitch! I am Hedvig’s heir! I slayed the demon monster of Dagne’s Spring with my bare hands, and I alone restored it to its former glory! I am Sigge the Golden! I am Sigge the Bear! And, if I must, I will make sure you understand exactly what that means.”

Sigge thrust the pitchfork to its handle into the ground. The crowd split before her as she stalked out, every man, woman, and child eager to get out of her way. Sigge snatched a meat pie set aside on a barrel and glared about her to see if anyone would challenge her. No one did.

When Sigge took her first bite on the way back up the mountain to the sacred grove, she could have sworn she had never tasted anything so sweet.

~~~

Sigge felt better than she had in the whole of her life. She felt free, unburdened, and, perhaps even in control. And she certainly was not going to allow those two little demons Boo and Hush to change that for her. They had been building a pyre, Sigge saw, or at least Boo had, for it was still piling twigs atop the oversized mound as she approached.

“You’re back!” Boo exclaimed as she strode up. “Did you do it? Did you defeat that monster?”

“No good,” Hush replied. “Look, still covered in fur.”

“Once an abomination, always an abomination,” Spot declared. Sigge wondered how long Boo and Hush were going to put up with him. Boo, irritably, snapped a pebble at his flank, hitting with an audible clap. Spot screamed and hopped away.

Not long, apparently.

“I did kill that monster. I cleaned that spring. I took more than one bath in that spring, too,” Sigge replied. “I nearly drowned in it.”

“Too bad,” Hush said, lounging in the abandoned goat cart. “It was a long shot. I mean, if anything could break a curse like that, it would be a dunking in that spring, but looks like you’re stuck with it.”

Boo looked like it was about to cry. “But… that monster’s gone. We won’t have to–”

Hush threw a pine cone at Boo, but Boo leapt onto a tree branch and hissed at Hush like a cat. Hush hissed back. “That’s none of her business.”

“It is so!”

“No, it is not!”

“What’s not my business?”

“We were supposed to chase that monster out of the spring,” Boo blurted out, only to be beaned by another pine cone.

We have the grove to guard. We were allowing Sigge to deal with the spring so that she could break her curse.” Hush turned back to Sigge, flashing a row of pointed teeth at her, but the way it bit its lip told Sigge it was nervous. “You know, gods are all about heroic deeds and that, so, I figured, that’s the most heroic deed we have at hand, why not try that?

“Too bad, gods are fickle and all. Looks like you’ll–”

“I don’t care,” Sigge said, crossing her arms across her chest. “I am going to finish giving Hedvig her rites, and then I am going to go home, and you, little one, are not going to stop me.”

Sigge stepped into the sacred grove and was pleased, relieved really, to find that lightning didn’t strike, fire didn’t leap from the ground, pits didn’t open. Nothing happened. She smiled to herself. I knew it.

“You can’t do that!” Hush started to object, but Sigge turned around in a flash, towering over the tiny demon.

“And who’s going to stop me?” she asked. “You? I killed your monster, and either you let me burn Hedvig’s body or your taking a dunking in that spring and see how well it treats a demon like you.

“I don’t care what anyone thinks, god, demon, or otherwise. I am blessed to be the way I am, and nothing and no one is going to stop me now.”

Hush stuck out its bottom lip, glaring up at Sigge. They were just children, she thought to herself. And just like children, they needed to be taught how to behave.

“Now, go gather some of those dried leaves so that I can light the pyre and be done with it.”

Hush hesitated, a defiant glare in its eyes, but Sigge returned it with a force that even the obstinate little demon couldn’t stand against it. Hush bowed its head and scuffed its feet as it took its time gathering leaves. Sigge smiled again.

I’m sorry it took so long, Sigge thought as it hefted Hedvig’s body onto the pyre Boo had built. Everything is taken care of now.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – Othorion gets a Letter

Othorion waited patiently behind two other lieutenants, who chatted anxiously between them. The shorter, a red-haired, narrow-shouldered elf, had taken off her gloves and was biting her nails. Her companion, a pale elf with a slight limp and a ragged scar from the side of his mouth down his chin, leaned over her.

“Only three captaincies available this time,” he whispered to his nervous friend. “And look how many lieutenants are already in this room? How absurd is all this?”

The shorter lieutenant pulled her hands away from her mouth long enough to whisper, “Very,” before she went back to biting her nails. She made a face, saw she was bleeding from one of her fingers, and clenched her hand into a fist, fingertip pressed against her palm. “But our captains wouldn’t have put us up if they didn’t think we could do it.” Her words were more confident than her tone.

“I think mine just wants to get rid of me.”

They stood in line in the Martial Commons, a brutal, squat, square building of gray stone that seemed to have emerged like a wart among the far finer, more elegant face of eastern Heliohart. There was a Martial Commons in most of the Empire of Faydark’s cities to coordinate the Emperor’s Children, that is, the army and the navy. Othorion had seen a number of the Martial Commonses in different cities, and Heliohart’s might be the ugliest. It had been built nearly two hundred years ago when Faydark pushed for a consolidation of power. Rumors held that each of the Martial Commons were connected by some magically-powered device that allow immediate transportation from one building to another, and that were all of these devices initiated at once, the entirety of the Empire could be transported, though exactly where the theories didn’t agree.

Heliohart was a landlocked principality, so the army generally used the Martial Commons as a sort of gathering place, but today the navy had taken over it over, as lieutenants waited to learn the exact date and times of their written and oral exams for captaincy. Even with just the elves in Heliohart’s Commons, the likelihood of getting a captaincy was one in twenty. Throughout the Emperor’s Navy, the likelihood was easily one in one hundred.

Othorion smirked to himself briefly. It wasn’t that Othorion was so smugly certain of his inevitable success in gaining one of the three captaincies available when dozens or even hundreds of other lieutenants were vying for the same position. He would never be so foolish as to think that.

No, Othorion was only certain that he would do the best he could and that everything else was out of his hands.

He blinked.

Of all his siblings, he was probably the one who worried the least. Upon their mother’s death, Ynaselle had taken it on herself to be their father’s housekeeper and even the family’s liaison and ambassador. She had always worried about her siblings, but not she was downright anxious. Vithian was constantly concerned about what others thought of him, always ambitious, always afraid of failure or even the perception of failure. Jaonos, well, he pretended he had no concerns, but Othorion saw how shadows passed over his face when he thought no one was watching. Perhaps Jaonos had shared his concerns with Vithian, with whom he had always been close, but Othorion doubted it. Vithian would have said something by now. Vithian could never keep a secret.

Othorion didn’t worry even though he had every reason to do so. A life at sea was dangerous. If disease took hold in one crewmember, the entire ship could fall. Malnutrition was a constant threat. Fire and drowning were, of course, too. And even though months could go without any confrontation, confrontations could easily end in blood and death.

Othorion never worried about that. Certainly, after brushes with death, Othorion was nearly prostrate, overcome with nausea and the echoes of the fear as it drained out of him. When he rose every morning, knowing that it could easily end in disease, hunger, or death, though, he didn’t worry.

Three other lieutenants passed him, walking out of the Commons. One recognized him and touched center of her forehead and nodded. A human habit. Othorion touched his lips as the trio passed. He was plain elf but for having one blue eye and one yellow eye. They had met when Othorion had originally joined, and this elf had been the recruiter who guided him.

“I’ll have to leave tomorrow if I’m to make it to the written exams in time,” another of the trio was complaining as they left. “Why would they hold an exam in Furosia?”

“What happens if I just don’t go to the exams?” Another asked.

“You’ll be arrested for dereliction of duty,” the heterochromatic elf said. Othorion wasn’t certain whether he was joking or not.

The line moved forward, and Othorion was fourth in line.

He supposed the reason he didn’t worry as much as his siblings was because he was more thoroughly himself then they were. How odd, he considered. For the first few years of his life, he had been raised as a daughter. He had changed everything about himself after only a year at The Tressera School with Ynaselle. It had taken him years to be willing to wear something other than black or gray again, despite his father and brothers regularly choosing jewel-toned hues. Although, he mused, he still tended to prefer to wear his black and white navy uniform than more fashionable civilian clothing. He had kept his hair short, even has the fashion moved toward long hair for all elves. He changed his name.

Once he was thoroughly himself, thoroughly Othorion, he never doubted himself again.

Jaonos wasn’t himself, as the blood heir of the Blackwells. He wasn’t dutiful, ambitious, or even particularly clever. He worried, Othorion was certain, because he would never be the Lord Blackwell he knew he needed to be, because he would be happiest if he were allowed to live his life without any responsibility.

Years before, Othorion had seen a seaside village in which a particular class of dwarves lived with seemingly no occupation. They would fish until they had some fish, climb a coconut palm until they had a coconut, and spent the rest of the day sleeping in their canoes, or upon the beach or on the docks. If a boat needed fixing, they would fix it. If they had no fish, they’d roast a pig. But they seemed utterly determined to do as little work as possible, and perfectly happy to satisfy only their most basic needs. It was almost a religious sect Fasriel had told him; they believed that life was meant to be enjoyed and that any work beyond the bare necessity was an affront to one god or another, Othorion couldn’t remember which. Jaonos, he thought, would have been happy among them.

Vithian, on the other hand, made a terrible priest. He was too ambitious, too involved in the material world. He had no room in his mind for the spiritual when he could instead learn about what was happening in this city or that Court or this other part of the world. He was more interested in sports or politics than in anything religious. He might, Othorion realized, even be an atheist. That wouldn’t preclude him from being a priest, but it certainly didn’t help.

And then Ynaselle. Ynaselle was too clever. She wanted too much to do something useful, to be something useful. Yet, she had consigned herself to a life where she would be little more than a lord’s spouse, her responsibilities and occupation totally dependent on that lord. Or, gods forbid, she would be a Lady of the Chamber, her occupation almost exclusively limited to producing the next generation of Blackwells. Their mother had been a perfect Lady Blackwell, and Ynaselle had aspired to be the same, though she would never be happy as such.

Othorion pitied his siblings. He could live as himself, while his siblings found themselves pinned into lives they would never enjoy. He didn’t miss the irony of that. He wondered if there were anything he could do to help them.

“Excuse me,” an elf behind him said, touching his shoulder. “Are you in the line?”

Othorion pulled himself from his revelry to see that the line had moved on without him. It was his turn. “My apologies,” he said, hurrying forward.

Othorion had already been told, of course, but the Emperor’s Children tended to make changes without notifying those affected, so he checked to be certain.

There had been a change, he saw.

He was surprised to see a line struck through Rothniel and the word Heliohart written in tight, blocky handwriting. The times had been changed as well. The written exam was three days sooner on the first day of the exams, the 7th of Rammas, and four days after Ynaselle’s dinner. His verbal exam was listed as the last day of the exams. Othorion frowned, then straightened. There was no time written for his verbal exam. His stomach turned as he stepped back. Something very serious had changed.

Othorion turned on his heel and hurried out the door. A sudden and powerful urge to get to the safety of home washed over him. Perhaps not even returning to the house his father kept in Heliohart was safe enough. Perhaps returning to Blackwell and Pheasant’s Cross was the only place he would be truly safe. He hurried down the stairs.

“Lieutenant!”

Othorion paused at the bottom of the steps. He was suddenly reminded of a story from another Court, he didn’t remember which, of some Lord’s child accused of mutiny hiding out in their family home. She had argued that each the ancestral home of princes and lords were technically nations in and of themselves and not even the Emperor could trespass there. Othorion brushed the thought away. There were so many lieutenants, it didn’t have to be him.

Othorion felt an icy touch at his spine as he turned back toward the Commons.

The heterochromatic elf stood at the top of the stairs, watching him. His blue and yellow eyes were now heavily lidded, nearly black in the shadow of his brow. His face carefully neutral. He wore a smile like a mask, and Othorion noticed that he did not wear the pearl and iridium tiara of navy lieutenants, but the plain bronze band inlaid with five ruby chips worn by military police.

“Almost missed you,” he said. He walked leisurely down the steps, once more touching the center of his forehead.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Othorion said, not feeling that way at all. He touched his lips once more in greeting.

“I knew I had recognized you, though I wasn’t certain you were Lieutenant Blackwell. You’ve grown since I saw you when you first signed on to the navy.”

He stood nearly a head taller than Othorion, though Othorion was rather short. When he reached the same step as Othorion, he pulled a letter from within the hem of his coat. It was sealed with yellow wax and the seal of Faydark.

“I’m glad to see you’re sitting for your captaincy exams. I’m always happy to see the elves I recruited excel. Best of luck.” He bobbed his head as Othorion took the letter and then continued down the stairs.

Once he had passed, Othorion opened the letter. He felt his heart sink as he read it.

He was to be taken into custody after his written exam. There would be a trial to determine the truth of Reconna’s charges. Othorion swallowed. Perhaps his siblings didn’t need his help as much as he needed theirs.

Othorion crushed the letter in his hands. He decided he wouldn’t tell them. They had their own concerns.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – Calling Upon Friends

The scent of lilac drifted into the foyer from the front door. Ynaselle paused as she pulled on her white lace gloves. She closed her eyes and inhaled.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Ulesse asked beside her. She was holding up Ynaselle’s veil.

Ynaselle smiled at the maid and nodded. “It is. A lovely spring day.” She tilted her head slightly as she examined the veil, then lifted her chin and started out the door. “No veil today, I think.”

The sunlight glowed warmly on her face and dappled the sidewalk beneath her feet as she walked. Ynaselle always looked forward to spring days like this in Heliohart. Heliohart might turn icy in winter, but in spring, there was no better place to be.

“Yuven Blackwell!” a voice called.

Ynaselle paused to see Master Trisrel seated on an open porch. Her garden was so thick with blooming shrubbery and flowers that the porch seemed to float on a bed of flowers. That was no surprise. Master Trisrel was the fourth child of a wealthy perfume merchant and had inherited the house. Her wife was a florist and had planted the garden that was the envy of the entire street.

She was an older elf. Her gray hair had gone steel gray and her eyes had grown darker with age, but she maintained her proud and regal air.

Ynaselle smiled and kissed her fingertips at Master Trisrel. “Good morning,” she said. “Do I find you well this morning?”

“Indeed, you do, Yuven Blackwell,” Master Trisrel said. “I had heard your father took ill. How does he fare?”

“Much better, thank you. He’ll be back at court soon,” Ynaselle replied.

“Excellent, excellent.” Master Trisrel rested her chin on her knuckles and examined Ynaselle. “I had worried about your family after your mother’s death. I’m glad to see you looking so well.”

Ynaselle bowed her head slightly. “Thank you.”

“Come sit with me, child.”

Ynaselle glanced at the timepiece on the inside of wrist and smirked. She could be a bit naughty and sit with her old friend for a time. She climbed the stairs and took a seat next to Master Trisrel. She poured Ynaselle a cup of dandelion tea sweetened with strawberries and placed a tart made of exceptionally delicate pastry popular among urbane elves.

“I’ve got something I’d like to show you, Yna.”

“Oh?” Ynaselle sipped her tea politely.

With a conspiratorial grin, Master Trisrel pulled a small cone-shaped pot from a pocket and placed it in Ynaselle’s hand. Ynaselle opened it and found a musky, pale yellow paste and smirked. “My father received some of this at Court. It’s dybla. Lianthorn was passing it out.”

“Yes, well, I’m not part of the Court. I wasn’t important enough to get any. I’ve had to call in and give out quite a few favors to get what little I’ve gotten.”

Ynaselle frowned and shut the amber jar. “Why is it so important to you, Veyrin?”

Master Trisrel laughed loudly. “It’s illegal to sell dybla, but it’s invaluable in perfume manufacture. There’s not a better binder in the world. Without it, perfume hardly keeps its scent, but with it, a perfume can last for decades, and the scent stays on your skin for hours. We perfumers have been trying to find an alternative ever since it was banned.” She shrugged, waving her hand in a forlorn way, then clenched her fist and grinned. “With what little I’ve managed to get, I can corner the market.”

Ynaselle opened the jar and looked at the substance again, frowning at it in confusion. “Why is it illegal?”

“The Phrangene Drought. The plant dybla is made from requires a great deal of water to grow, and during the drought, Faydark made it illegal to buy or sell so Myracine wouldn’t use its limited reserves for dybla rather than its own citizens. It’s not in any official history book, but Myracine allowed hundreds to die before dybla was made illegal. I suppose that Faydark just hasn’t bothered to change the law.”

“Veyrin, will you get in trouble for having this?”

“Potentially. But it’s worth the risk, Yna, trust me.”

“Why not just grow dybla yourself?”

Veyrin laughed, very nearly derisively. There was some bitterness there. “I would love to. We all would. And if there’s a botanist or perfumer out there who has managed to do it, that would be a world-changer. No, it only grows in Myracine. Dybla grown outside that region, its resin crumbles. It won’t hold a scent, and it rots. That’s if they can get the shrub to grow at all.

“There’s something in Myracine that allows it to grow there. No alchemist or chemist has figured out what. It’s something in the soil, I think.” She chuckled again and shook her head. “Perhaps there’s some old magic at work there, something so old we’ve all forgotten.”

“It would have to be very old for elves to forget.”

Veryin patted Ynaselle’s hand, then squeezed. “Perhaps so, child.” Then her smiled broadened and she sat back in her chair. “I shall give you some of the perfume I develop. It will be my gift to you.”

“I couldn’t accept something so valuable!”

“Nonsense. You’re a lord’s child, you receive valuable things every day, I’m certain. No, take it as a token of our friendship. Or, better yet, think of it as my way of trying to tempt you into being my apprentice again.”

Ynaselle sighed. It was a tempting offer. She liked Veryin, she liked her bold and frank attitude, her determination and strong will. In many ways, she aspired to be more like Veyrin. Still, she wasn’t certain perfumery was where her heart lay. “I shouldn’t want to do something where I must break the law,” Ynaselle said.

“Then you shouldn’t want to do anything at all. Oh, don’t pretend to be scandalized. You are a very naïve child if you think the world isn’t run by shadowy deals and illegal acts. If your father hasn’t taught you that, he’s done you a great disservice. No, you’ll always be high enough in society that you shall always have to navigate bribes and espionage and all that. The best way to treat the law is something you break so long as keeping it doesn’t hurt you. And if you’re wealthy enough, getting caught shouldn’t cause too much fuss. The sooner you learn that, the better.”

“That is an awfully cynical way of viewing the world.”

“Perhaps. I should prefer it not to be so, I think. But, you must always ask yourself, ‘Who does this hurt? Who does this benefit?’ Laws aren’t written to make the world better, but to keep it pacified and under control, and so long as we have them, that is how it shall be.”

Ynaselle held up the jar of dybla. “This was outlawed to help the people of Myracine.”

Veyrin took the jar and placed it into her pocket. When she smiled, she showed teeth. “That was a side benefit. Since it only grows in Myracine, Myracine was becoming too powerful to stay in line, and Faydark knew it was becoming a threat. Faydark made the law to cut Myracine off at the knee. Economically, Myracine was nearly ruined, and it hasn’t recovered since.

“Consider, child,” Veyrin continued, even as Ynaselle stared forlornly into her tea, “why does the second child of every prince go to Faydark? The Prince of the Emperor? Oh, it’s our tradition, just as it is our tradition that the first child is the Prince of the Blood and the third is the Prince of the Spirit, but why did it become tradition? Because the emperor wanted wards to ensure that no principality would ever turn against it. So long as the emperor had the princes’ children, it had hostages.

“Heliohart is one of the only courts that doesn’t use this practice in its own court. In nearly every other Court in the Empire, the second children of lords are taken by the prince, so that the prince can know their lords won’t step out of line. In nearly any other court, Vithian would be taken into the prince’s household as a hostage, and you would have to be a priest. That’s not because Heliohart is somehow kinder; Prince Heliohart has his own methods of making sure his lords don’t rise up.”

Veyrin sipped her tea and squeezed Ynaselle’s hand. “Listen to me, I sound like a revolutionary. I shan’t be surprise should you have me arrested. Oh, no, dear, I’m teasing, I know you wouldn’t.”

Veyrin kissed Ynaselle’s cheek and smiled. “Come back this evening, won’t you? Larunia should love to see you again. We’ve missed you since you’ve kept yourself in Blackwell.”

Ynaselle kissed Veyrin back and stood. “I have missed you both as well. I shall come back this evening, I promise. But, I must go. I have a few errands to run today.”

Master Veyrin Trisrel waved at Ynaselle as Ynaselle made her way further down the sidewalk. Ynaselle climbed the crystal stairs that encircled a large, white-barked sycamore tree. Her thoughts crowded in her head, fighting for her attention. They tumbled about so she couldn’t focus on any one of them.

Was she naive?

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – The Morning After

The morning light glittered off the crystal carafe as Vithian poured Othorion the sweet mint tea. Ulesse had set a lovely table for the family’s breakfast in the garden. Bowls overflowed with apricots and cherries. Raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries were layered with thick cream next to diamond-cut mangos. The scent of roasted hare and cold ham mingled with the hyacinth, peony, and primrose scattered around them. There was a salad of dandelion greens, spring onions, and kale and roasted asparagus, artichokes, fiddlehads, and fennel. The air was cool in their mother’s garden, which bloomed gloriously.

It was a spread that neither Vithian nor Othorion were used to anymore. Postulants often didn’t eat breakfast, and sailors had hardtack or gruel and, if they’re fortunate, salted beef, and a lemon or lime just to fend off scurvy. Returning home was a treat for the two.

“I think Ulesse missed us,” Othorion said, helping himself to another serving of berries and cream.

“This is the work of Firma, I’m certain,” Vithian replied. “I think he’s happy to have so many to cook for again.”

Othorion chuckled. “If he needs more to do, he’s welcome on the Aurora.”

“I don’t know if we even have a cook at the sequester.”

Vithian sat back in his chair, sipping his tea as he looked over the garden. It had been their mother’s favorite place in Heliohart, and Vithian couldn’t blame her. It was so cleverly planted that it bloomed throughout the year, filled with soft touches and sweet scents and bright colors. There were many places to hide, to be alone, and each of the siblings had their favorite spot. Vithian’s was under a shade maple, its red-leafed boughs nearly touching the mossy ground beneath it. Vithian could cuddle beneath it amongst the ferns for hours, just to be alone. Vithian smirked to himself – he didn’t hide away often. He preferred to be around people.

“How did you enjoy last night?” Vithian asked Othorion.

“Oh, very well. It was a lovely ball, wasn’t it?”

“Hmm,” Vithian said, watching his brother. “It was an interesting one, anyway. You had a favorite, I think.”

A blush colored Othorion’s cheeks briefly, and he shook his head. “No, I assure you. I very much enjoyed all my dance partners last night.”

“Partners? Othorion, did you dance with anyone other than Yuven Vetsian?”

“Of course, I did!”

The brothers kept each other’s gaze for a few heartbeats before Othorion broke into a grin and shook his head. “I suppose I favored Merioleth, didn’t I?”

“Jaonos and I were wondering if the date had been set for your wedding.”

Othorion threw his napkin at Vithian, and the two laughed.

“You two are awfully loud first thing in the morning,” Jaonos said as he and Ynaselle joined their brothers. Jaonos wore an irritable expression and slumped down in the chair to Vithian’s left. Vithian could guess he was hungover, which Vithian found impressive since alcohol was only served after a nearly half hour toast given by members of both the Heliohart and Passerine families to the newly affianced.

Ynaselle, on the other hand, was pale. Her eyes were red and puffy, and Vithian could see faint lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She offered him a weak smile, though, as she took a seat across from Jaonos.

“We were just celebrating Othorion’s new engagement,” Vithian said as he poured tea for Jaonos and Ynaselle.

“Hmm, well, she is a pretty girl,” Jaonos said into his cup.

“I like her,” Ynaselle said. “I’m determined to make her a friend of mine. I’m going to have her and all the Tarnyns over to dinner.”

“Oh, lovely,” Jaonos said, and Vithian wasn’t certain whether that was sarcasm or not.

“I shouldn’t mind knowing them all better,” Othorion said.

“Well, most of them,” Vithian added for him and the two exchanged glances. Vithian knew that Othorion wasn’t going to say that.

Ynaselle sighed, her hands hovering over the bowl of berries and cream. “I don’t understand Nithnael. I don’t remember her being so… so cold when we were children.”

“You don’t?” Othorion asked.

“Was she like that in Treserra?”

Othorion took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. His gaze moved upward toward the canopy of leaves above them as he thought. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders. “She thought very highly of herself, still does, from what I can tell. She was always pretty and intelligent, but she struck me as being… resentful.”

“Resentful?”

“At her own position in life. Yna, she was so cruel to you. Don’t you remember? Remember when we were learning ink painting? She kept trying to correct everything you did until you gave it up altogether. She never gave you a compliment – she just kept trying to insult you. Oh, she was polite about it, but she resented you were a Lord’s child and she wasn’t.”

Ynaselle frowned to herself. She tucked a lock of dark hair behind her pointed ear, still staring down at her own plate. “I suppose so,” she finally admitted.

“A social climber,” Jaonos said and shrugged. “In the position to do it, I suppose.”

“But, Alennia is such a lovely girl,” Ynaselle said. “She’s terribly shy. She shouldn’t have any friends at all if her family didn’t drag her out into society.”

“Invite them all over,” Vithian said. “It should still be a pleasant evening, anyway.”

Jaonos chuckled to himself, then placed his glass back on the table, put his head in his hands, and laughed out loud. Vithian, Othorion, and Ynaselle all glanced at each other, trying to think of the joke.

“What’s so funny, Jaonos?” Vithian asked.

“I was just thinking,” Jaonos said, waving his hand in front of his face, “how funny it would be should Othorion actually marry Yuven Vetisan.”

“Jaonos!” Ynaselle gasped.

“Oh, I don’t mean that!” Jaonos replied. “It’d be quite the scandal, though. Who are the Vetsians, after all? Poor farmers, Lady Erro tells me. When Master Tarnyn married, there was uproar that he should marry someone so far below him. And should our dear little Othorion, so dutiful and conscientious, marry her sister! A Blackwell! Marry a poor farmer!” Jaonos laughed again. “The thought of Othorion as part of such a scandal, any scandal!”

Othorion’s face had grown a deep red as Jaonos spoke. Ynaselle squeezed his hand, but Othorion pulled his hand away.

“I don’t think father would approve of the connection,” Vithian admitted.

“Father? Lady Erro would have a fit!” Jaonos replied. “She’s been wanting to marry us all off since we were children, and if Othorion, of all of us, were to sabotage her plans by marrying a poor farmer! Thory, you must! For me, you must marry that girl!”

Ynaselle reached over the table to slap Jaonos’s hand. “That’s enough, Jaonos.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t approve of the connection, either,” Othorion said, the floridity draining from his face as he regained his composure, but he didn’t meet anyone’s gaze. “I’m still just a lieutenant, and I haven’t even known her for a day.”

“Well, for myself, I think she’s charming,” Vithian said. He leaned his chin against his hand and watched Ynaselle. “You’re peaky this morning, Yna. And you left very early last evening. Are you well?”

“I’m well,” Ynaselle said, but Vithian noticed that how very interested she was in arranging her greens on her plate. “Father was tired last night and wanted to come home after greeting Prince Heliohart.”

“Hmm,” Jaonos said. They all knew that Ynaselle had wanted to avoid the younger Lieranym Bryravyn, but even Jaonos wouldn’t tease her about it. “He did seem tired last night. Actually,” Jaonos sat up and glanced up to their father’s bedroom window, “it’s not like him to still be in bed this late. Do you suppose he’s all right?”

Vithian stood immediately. “I’ll check on him.”

The door slid shut behind Vithian with a whisper, shutting out the birdsong that had made the garden feel so lively and cheerful. Inside, the air was oppressive. Vithian touched the lamp at the base of the stairs to brighten the passageway, but it only sent eerie shadows scattering across the flower like rats fleeing from rising water. The house was silent, unmoving, as if it had been filled with a deadening miasma. Vithian was suddenly reminded of an old elven superstition: an elf who dies without wind or light on their face would be trapped in the body forever so that all that remained was an angry spirit once the body rotted away.

Vithian shook his head, trying to shake the sudden fear that gripped him. Still, as he placed his hand on the bannister, he hesitated.

Their mother’s death had been sudden and unexpected. Perhaps it would have been better for their father had it not been so, but the shock had rocked the family to its core. The previous winter had been an anxious one, as their father fell ill. More than once, they feared they would lose him as well.

“Damn you, Vithian,” he said to himself. He forced his leaden legs and heavy feet to climb the stairs.

The upper floor was even more silent than the floor below, if that were possible. He could hear the maid Ulesse moving in her room on the third floor, but he heard nothing from the family’s bedrooms.

The floor creaked as Vithian stepped toward Flinar’s bedroom door. As a child, Vithian had thought his parents had made the floor creak so that they would know if any of their children attempted to sneak out of their rooms. Vithian pressed his ear to the door, but he heard nothing.

“He wouldn’t let me bring him breakfast.”

Vithian jumped and whirled about to see Ulesse leaning over the railing from the stairs leading up to the third floor. He took a deep breath. “Thank you, Ulesse.”

“He wouldn’t even let me open the door. Is everything all right?”

“I’m certain everything’s fine. Go about your work.”

Ulesse didn’t move from where she stood, though, so Vithian turned away from her and knocked on the door. He waited, but there was no answer.

“He’s not answering,” Ulesse whispered from the stairs.

Vithian knocked again. “Father, we’re all down for breakfast, won’t you join us?”

Once more there was silence from the room.

“Shall I get the key?” Ulesse asked.

“Enough, Ulesse.” He was growing more nervous. In all his life, he never remembered his father sleeping in.

He cleared his throat and knocked again. “Father, I’m coming in.” He tried the handle to find it was unlocked. Vithian hesitated, his heart leaping up to his throat.

Swallowing, he pushed the door open. He was surprised to see the room was bright and clean, as if completely untouched. Vithian stepped into the room, frowning to himself.

If the study was the darkest room of the house, the main bedroom was the brightest. It was almost completely white, save for the many flowering plants their mother had grown in the large windows. The large bed was built with a light icewood and veiled in white lace. It was made, as if it had never been slept in.

Confused, Vithian stepped further into the room. “Father?” he called. Vithian knew that Flinar Blackwell would never make his own bed. Had he even been in his bed at all? “Where in the world did you go?”

Ulesse gasped from the doorway, and Vithian jumped. “What?” Vithian snapped.

Ulesse pointed, and Vithian turned. The bed wasn’t made. It was completely unmade. The bedclothes had been pulled off entirely. Vithian stepped in further. He could see his father’s foot just visible from behind the bed.

Vithian felt the world spin, but ran to his father’s side, who was laying on the floor beside his bed, still tangled in his bedclothes. His father’s face was gray and pale. Vithian knelt beside Flinar and touched his hand, then drew back shaking his head. His flesh was cool and clammy.

“Is he dead?” Ulesse asked from the doorway. She was already crying.

As a postulant, Vithian knew that he would be called to preside over the dead. He would see no end of corpses. He would be asked to say final rites, to hold hands, to ease the process of death. And he would say funerary prayers. He wouldn’t let his father go without the rites he was due. Vithian leaned closer, placing Flinar’s hands on his chest. He leaned in to kiss his father’s forehead, but leapt back, nearly falling over himself.

He felt his father’s breath. Flinar was still alive.

“Ulesse!” he snapped. “Fetch Dr. Prognes!” Vithian pulled the blankets from Flinar’s legs and lifted them, hoping to improve the blood flow. Still, the clamminess of his skin unnerved Vithian.

Ulesse was still sobbing.

“Ulesse, now!” Vithian shouted. “Get Dr. Prognes, or he may yet die!”

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – The Ball, Part 2

Lady Erro chose a table near the wall where she could interrogate Master Tarnyn. Ynaselle and Alennia took two chairs next to them. Once seated, Alennia pulled her elbows closely into her sides and pressed her hands into her lap as if she were trying to shrink herself as small as possible. She kept her head bowed slightly, staring intently at her own gloved hands.

Ynaselle studied the girl. How could she be so different from her sister Nithnael? Alennia was as pretty as Nithnael. Tall, slim, and willowy, the sisters struck the perfect elvish figure. Alennia’s russet complexion and smooth skin glowed beneath a halo of raven-black hair. The strong cheekbones, broad bridge of her nose, and small mouth were the epitome of elvish beauty. Her long lashes veiled sparkling dark eyes making her look shy and innocent. She and Nithnael shared their beauty, but Alennia didn’t have Nithnael’s pride. Seeing Alennia made Ynaselle realize her childhood friend had always been vain. The sisters were exact opposites.

Alennia’s gaze drifted up from her lap to watch the dancers on the floor. For just a moment, Alennia’s eyebrows lifted and the corners of her mouth turned down in a brief moment of regret. The poor girl wanted to be dancing, obviously, but she was too shy.

Yes, Ynaselle wanted to protect this girl.

“Have you been to Heliohart before?” Ynaselle asked, turning her gaze to the dancers as well.

There was a pause from Alennia, but Ynaselle didn’t push. She kept her gaze on the dancers while Alennia gathered her courage.

“No,” Alennia said. “I haven’t.” A pause. “Mistress Tarnyn and Nithnael have, though.”

“You have come at an excellent time, then. Spring is wonderful in Heliohart.”

“I have heard.”

“The new season at the Theater of Severa will start soon. I read that they were going to show The Daughters of Trichechia Manatus this season. Do you like the theater?”

“I have enjoyed it when I’ve gone.” Alennia’s voice was quiet so that Ynaselle could barely hear her.

“I shall have to take you, then,” Ynaselle said. She smiled at Alennia’s surprised expression. “If you like. My brothers will not go with me often. My father isn’t in the health for it. So, you would be doing me a favor to go with me.”

Alennia smiled back at Ynaselle. “I would like that.”

“I hope, then, you would allow me to show you Heliohart, whatever your sister and brother haven’t shown you, that is. It is always a delight to show people a city.”

“If you like.”

“Where are you staying while your brother finds a house?”

“At the Brephochae,” Alennia said. The Brephochae was a popular hostel, featuring a beautiful garden, restaurant, and even a greenhouse with a lofty ceiling that allowed comfortable stargazing all year round. Lady Erro herself didn’t keep a house in Heliohart – she always kept a suite at the Brephochae.

“Of course. You shan’t be satisfied with anywhere else if you stay too long at the Brephochae,” Ynaselle teased.

“Oh, no!” Alennia turned to Ynaselle, earnest and apparently shocked at the suggestion. “I am certain I shall be happy whatever my brother chooses. He will do his best to find the perfect place for us.” Alennia nearly clapped her hands over her mouth, as if she wished to take the outburst back.

Ynaselle smiled and touched Alennia’s hand. “I am sure. Where are you coming from, moving to Heliohart?”

“Thrin. It is in the Court of the Mirror.”

“Ah,” Ynaselle replied. She had never heard of Thrin, but she knew the country around Flecterre, the capital of the Court of the Mirror. It was a beautiful land laced through with rivers. “Do the giant lilies still grow there?” She remembered visiting once as a child and touring in a long, shallow-bottomed boat. She had, with her mother’s blessing, climbed onto the water lilies and danced, to the party’s delight. Her father had been shocked that her mother had allowed her to do so.

“They weren’t blooming when we left,” Alennia replied. “But there is a lake near the house we kept there so filled with lilies that during the summer-” she touched Ynaselle’s arm “-when they bloomed, they blanketed the entire surface. We could picnic on them.”

“That sounds delightful.”

The music came to an end, and the dancers began to disperse. Jaonos plopped himself into a chair beside Ynaselle, a glass of wine in his hand. He smiled briefly at Ynaselle before finishing his drink. Nithnael stood beside Master Tarnyn, an imposing figure with her imperious airs. Ynaselle could guess how well they got along.

“Elanalue,” Lady Erro cried as Mistress Tarnyn returned with Vithian, “tell me where you have been looking. What houses are you considering? You should have consulted with me, first, of course. I can tell you the best places. I know all the little secrets in Heliohart.”

“I haven’t been much involved as you think,” Mistress Tarnyn replied. “Nithnael shall keep the house with Alennia while Tarnyn and I go to Faydark. I believe the favorite house has been on Durinian Street, but I prefer one on Fensense Square.”

“Fensense is an excellent place to be, don’t you think, Jaonos?” Vithian asked.

Jaonos shrugged and handed Vithian his empty glass, which Vithian placed aside on another table nearby. “Certainly. Classy old neighborhood.”

“They’ve got the large gardens that used to be so popular,” Lady Erro said. “Nothing like the newer neighborhoods.”

“Oh, I agree,” Mistress Tarnyn said. She glanced to her husband, who smiled indulgently, if briefly, at her. “But I think Durinian Street will win the day. Am I right, Nithnael?”

Nithnael’s face remained placid and impassible. She smiled shallowly and nodded. “Durinian Street is a prestigious neighborhood.”

“Certainly more fashionable, at the moment,” Jaonos said with a scoff.

“It may not have the large gardens,” Nithnael replied, her untouchable air slipping slightly with an icy reply, “but it hasn’t got the drafty attics or leaking windows, either.”

“And it’s got the right neighbors,” Jaonos replied.

“Lady Kit lets a house there,” Ynaselle said before Jaonos could say anything else. “And I understand Prince Lyra is considering letting a house there as well. And it’s not far from where we keep ours.”

“I’ve heard the little prince is planning on taking the southernmost house on the square as well,” Lady Erro said.

“That, I suppose, is the end of it, then,” Mistress Tarnyn said.

In the silence that followed, Ynaselle gave Jaonos a stinging glare. Jaonos was unaffected. “Oh, my, look at this,” Jaonos said to Vithian who still stood behind him.

“Hmm?” Vithian asked and looked as Jaonos pointed. “Oh.”

Jaonos pointed to an elf with platinum hair who was the only one not wearing the reds, blues, and browns of the Court of the Stag. “Little Prince Lianthorn has made an appearance.”

“What is he up to, I wonder,” Vithian said, leaning forward.

“He’s a visiting noble,” Ynaselle said, folding her hands in her lap. “Of course he would be invited.”

“Well no,” Vithian said. “Jaonos, did we tell Yna? Yna, he’s here to try to marry into Heliohart, I think.”

Ynaselle spread her hands, not committing to her own opinion.

“And, he was passing out dybla at Court. How would he get his hands on such a thing?”

“Prince Lianthorn’s new husband is Myracine,” Ynaselle said simply.

“What?” Both Jaonos and Vithian leaned to Ynaselle now. “How did you know?”

Ynaselle laughed and shook her head. “It was in the newspapers a few months ago. Don’t either of you read the newspaper? Little Prince Lianthorn probably has dybla because the entire Lianthorn Court was gifted with stones of it. Myracine can’t sell it, after all.

“Besides, if some of the rumors are to be believed, the Prince of the Blood of Lianthorn will also take a Myracine spouse, since any child of Prince Lianthorn’s most recent union will just be more little princes.”

Vithian’s mouth hung open briefly, as if he couldn’t form words to respond. Instead, with what Ynaselle assumed as embarrassment, Vithian stepped back.

“There’s your mystery solved,” Jaonos said. He sat up to look over the crowd for something more interesting. He waved over a young couple Ynaselle didn’t recognize, a honey-haired young woman and a dark-eyed young man. He stood and stepped away from the rest of his group so as to avoid having to introduce them. Ynaselle sighed.

Vithian took Jaonos’s seat and smirked. “The Asteracas,” he whispered to Ynaselle. “They were at the Valstan Club. I’m not certain who they are, really.” He frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then stood to them.

As she spoke, a quartet of horns began trumpeting out the announcement of the next dance. Vithian stepped away with the Asteraca sister while Jaonos fetched Nithnael. Alennia was watching longingly as the dancers took their places.

“Would you like to dance?” Ynaselle asked.

The girl paled slightly and shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

“I’m certain you could,” Ynaselle said. “I’m certain you can.”

“Not in front of all these people!”

“Alennia, no one will be watching you especially! Well, except your partner. And when someone other than your partner watches you, they will see a pretty and elegant elf dancing gracefully, I’m sure. And you shouldn’t have to dance with a stranger. Any of my brothers would happily dance with you.”

“Your brothers are a pleasure to watch,” Alennia said with a small smile.

“As is your sister,” Ynaselle said. “She dances well.”

“She does everything well.”

The couples were forming into an old-fashioned reel, four couples formed squares, and her brothers and their partners were part of one square together, with young Master Pendanse and his partner. It was the Thoraci Reel, so there were twelve squares, and only twelve, so three couples were forced to take their seats when they couldn’t find their places in time. It was difficult to get enough elves together to perform the Thoraci, so it would be a delight to watch.

Ynaselle turned to Alennia to invite her to join herself in returning to her father’s balcony but stopped before she spoke. Alennia was looking at something over Ynaselle’s shoulder with a shy and unsure smile. Ynaselle turned.

Her heart jumped to her throat. Standing in front of her was the genial and handsome Lieranym Bryravn. He was crowned with golden hair that he kept out of his face with a golden comb shaped like a leafy branch that would have made Jaonos envious. His blue eyes were just as bright as they ever were and they sparkled with pleasure that, despite herself, she hoped was for her. He wore his half-smile that made him look like he was keeping a secret that he was eager to tell. And he spoke with his amiable almost playful tones when he said, “Ynaselle, I’m glad to see you’ve come back to Heliohart.”

Ynaselle opened her mouth to try to say something but found no words.

She had thought she would hate him after she had rejected his proposal. After as much as she knew about him, about his character, she thought the sight of him would repulse her. Instead, she found her heart pounding. She couldn’t breathe. She had wanted to see him again. She had wanted to speak with him again, to touch him. She felt a euphoria wash over her as she met his gaze. And it panicked her.

“Master Bryravn!” she managed. “What a delight to see you again!” Her voice was strained, far higher and tighter than she had wanted it to be. She swallowed, trying to recover herself.

Nym – she had always called him Nym – kissed his fingers and reached toward her. She found that her hands were shaking as she brought her fingers to her lips. She didn’t want to be so undone by his presence. She didn’t want him to see her so undone. Her eyes stung and she prayed she would not cry as she pressed her fingers against his.

“Lieranym!” Lady Erro called from where she sat, saving Ynaselle by waving him over.

Nym turned to Lady Erro and smiled again. “Lady Erro, I’m glad to see you’re well.”

“Of course, come here, dear, and tell me of your father and mother. Are they in Heliohart? Is your mother well enough to travel again?”

“My mother is never well without her little crystal jars and potions, you know,” Nym said as he walked to Lady Erro’s side. She made him bow down so she could kiss his cheek.

Once Nym had walked away, Ynaselle let out the breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. She felt warm, too warm. She needed to get air.

Ynaselle started to stand, but a wave of dizziness washed over her, and she had to grab the back of her chair to keep from falling.

“Yuven Ynaselle, are you alright?” Alennia asked.

Ynaselle tittered, but it was too forced. “Just a little warm, that’s all. Alennia, why don’t you come with me to my father’s balcony? We can watch the dance from there much better.”

She didn’t wait for Alennia’s response – she couldn’t. She couldn’t be near Nym without regret. Seeing him again, she realized she still loved him.

Ynaselle didn’t even know if Nym loved her still. He was far calmer, his voice, his posture, was normal. His hands didn’t shake. His smile was easy. Was he affected at all?

Tears stung her eyes once more. She wasn’t certain if it would be worse if Nym no longer loved her, but the thought of it made her heart ache.

Ynaselle found one of the side stairways, which were covered unlike the grand staircase at the head of the hall. She hurried up the stairs, where they turned, and she could hide from prying eyes. She was certain Nym had been watching her, and it made her feel naked and vulnerable. When she stopped, she was panting. She had run up the first flight, she realized, and she was very nearly sobbing.

Ynaselle pressed her forehead against the cool stone of the wall and forcibly slowed her breathing. She refused to cry. She had already wept as many tears as she was going to do over Nym.

The Blackwells had known the Bryravns for generations. Each family were in high standing in the Court of the Stag, after all. But, the Blackwells stayed in the north of the Court at Blackwell and the Bryravns were in the west at Bryravn. Her mother had invited the Bryravns, two sons and three daughters when she had thrown Ynaselle the party to introduce her to society.

The nobility, the aristocracy, and wealthy families threw parties for their children when they were old enough. It was an introduction to society, a way to formally declare their children to be old enough to participate as adults. And, of course, as marriageable. Parents might negotiate a marriage during one of these parties. Matchmakers were often invited, either to act on behalf of the child being presented or sent from other families.

Her mother hadn’t invited any matchmakers. She had invited the Bryravns.

Nym had caught her eye from the beginning. He had always been handsome, but it was his easy temperament that had first attracted her. He didn’t have the stiff, arrogant air of many elves, especially the elvish nobility and aristocracy. Instead, he joked, laughed, and spoke with everyone as if they were already his friend. It was charming in the most unaffected way possible. Everyone was taken in by him, and Ynaselle was no exception.

“Yuven Ynaselle?”

Ynaselle turned to see Alennia standing a few steps below her, her dark eyes wide with concern. She was reaching a tentative hand toward Ynaselle, eager to help but hesitant to disturb.

Weakly, Ynaselle managed a smile. She took Alennia’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m well, I’m well,” Ynaselle said, though she could hear the strain sound in her own voice. Ynaselle took a deep breath, trying to push the memories from her mind. She would need to be able to be around Nym without losing her composure. She had decided to refuse him, and she would not regret it.

Alennia did not seem convinced, concern still writ on her face, but she did not push. She squeezed Ynaselle’s hand back and gave Ynaselle a small smile.

“Come, Alennia,” Ynaselle said. “My father waits in the balcony. I should like to introduce you to him.”

“The Lord Blackwell?” Alennia asked. The concern was gone, now replaced with anxiety.

“Of course! You know Lady Erro. My father is no different.”

“My brother knows Lady Erro,” Alennia said, but she followed Ynaselle as led her up the stairs. “I don’t know anyone.”

“You know me.” Ynaselle smiled. “And my father is hardly anyone to be feared.”

Flinar was still sitting by the railing, watching the dance below. The suite was already decorated in the blacks and silvers favored in the Blackwell livery, but Flinar had turned the lumen darker after Lady Erro had taken his children down into the main ballroom. Now, Flinar sat in darkness, the light from the ballroom casting deep, almost ghastly, shadows over his face. For a brief moment, Ynaselle felt she was looking at a skull rather than her father’s face.

Ynaselle touched the lumen, sliding it just bright enough to dispel the deathly mask from her father’s face. “Father, forgive me for disturbing you.”

Flinar was drawn from his revelry and blinked at the change of light. “Ynaselle,” he said and smiled. “Who is this with you?”

“This is my friend.” Ynaselle drew Alennia from behind herself. “Yuven Alennia Tarnyn. She is a friend of Lady Erro’s.”

Flinar kissed his fingers at her and Alennia, uncertain what to do, bowed her head and nearly touched the floor with her knees in a bow. “Master Tarnyn’s sister, I should think. You went to school with her.”

“Well,” Ynaselle said, sitting beside her father. “I went to school with her elder sister, but I am friends with both.” Alennia was left standing, a frightened look on her face, and Ynaselle and Flinar both motioned to another chair.

“Please, Yuven Tarnyn, sit,” Flinar said. “Lady Erro has told me about you, a bit. Oh, don’t be surprised, Lady Erro has opinions and stories about everyone she’s ever met. I believe she knows everyone in the empire, let alone the court.

“She thinks very highly of you. Quiet, polite, dutiful. She tells me you’re quite talented, a musician. The harp, I believe.”

Alennia kept her gaze averted. Her hands were clenched at her knees, her arms stock straight. Ynaselle was nearly surprised Alennia wasn’t vibrating she was so high-strung.

“I do like to play,” Alennia said in a voice so small it was difficult to hear over the music, “but I shouldn’t call myself a musician.”

“And modest,” Flinar said. He smiled at Ynaselle. “I do like her.”

Ynaselle smiled and nodded. “As do I.”

“Do you think she should like to see Pheasant’s Cross?”

Alennia’s head snapped up, and Ynaselle saw the surprise and concern on her face. Ynaselle imagined Alennia had spent little time away from her brother and sister and to ask her to travel so far from home without them must sound as terrifying as walking barefoot into a volcano. Ynaselle smiled reassuringly at her.

“Master Tarnyn is finding a house for her and the other Yuven Tarnyn in Heliohart. I doubt they should want to quit it so soon.”

“Perhaps so,” Flinar said. “Well, there is time. Everyone grows tired of Heliohart after a while.”

“Besides, I plan on inviting all the Tarnyns to dinner soon.” She smiled at Alennia, who looked very relieved to learn she would not have to be away from the safety of her family.

“Excellent,” Flinar said and laid a hand over Ynaselle’s.

Ynaselle smiled at Alennia, who smiled back, but all three paused as they heard rumbling on the stairs. They each turned as Vithian burst through the archway. He caught himself, mouth open, about to speak, and immediately shut his mouth again when he saw Flinar, Ynaselle, and Alennia sitting calmly in the Blackwell balcony.

“Ah,” he said as nonchalantly as he could manage. He straightened his soutane and smoothed his robes. “Ynaselle, there you are.”

“Here I am,” she said. “Did I miss anything?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Vithian said. “I’d just come to see where you and – er – Yuven Alennia had run off to.” He blinked and offered Alennia a sheepish smile. “Lady Erro sent me to find you.”

“We had best go down to the ballroom,” Flinar said. “The Prince and his entourage will be making their appearance soon, and we should be there to greet them.”

Ynaselle and Alennia stood, and Vithian offered Alennia his arm to walk her back to where Lady Erro and everyone else now sat. Flinar seemed to struggle as he stood, leaning against the arm of his chair for a moment.

“Father?” Ynaselle touched his arm. Was he breathing heavily?

“Come along.” Flinar straightened and motioned toward the arch. Ynaselle took his arm and together they descended the stairs.

Ynaselle watched her father as they walked to rejoin the group. She wasn’t certain, but she thought she noticed a gray tinge around Flinar’s eyes and mouth. He didn’t lean on her, but he seemed to be walking more slowly than normal. Ynaselle tried to hide her concern when Flinar met her gaze. She knew better than to voice her concerns to him, but she wondered how well her father had recovered from the past winter’s illness and malaise.

“Lord Blackwell, I’m glad you have deigned to join us,” Lady Erro said as they approached. She shooed Master Tarnyn out of his seat so that Flinar could sit beside her. Master Tarnyn kissed his fingers, bobbed a bow, and politely stepped away to stand beside his wife.

“I’m too old for these sorts of things, you know,” Flinar replied.

Ynaselle was relieved to find that Nym had left, so she took her place beside Othorion, who was still happily chatting away with Merioleth. Ynaselle smiled to herself as Othorion finished a story about losing their prized doe while trying to learn to ride without a saddle against their parents’ better advice and how he had spent nearly the entire night searching for her only to learn that she had returned to the stables after he had fallen. Merioleth laughed with him, a lovely, brassy laugh that felt so very genuine that Ynaselle couldn’t help but smile as well.

Othorion leaned toward her when he had finished and asked. “Yna, is everything all right?”

“Yes,” Ynaselle said, nodding. “Everything is well.”

Othorion nodded to himself and whispered, “I’m sorry we all abandoned you like that.”

“Don’t worry yourself,” Ynaselle replied. She noticed that Merioleth was very politely turning her attention entirely away from them.

A single bell intoned a single piercing note, spreading out over the ballroom to silence it. Each elf took their places along the walls, clearing the room from the main staircase where Prince Heliohart and his family stood with their guests of honor. Prince Heliohart stood as proud as always. At one time, he would have been thought handsome, though he had grown pale and gray, bent with age. He stood beside his mousy wife, each crowned with antlers and wearing long, flowing blue and red robes.

A few steps before them, the Prince of the Blood of Heliohart stood also crowned with antlers, though not so grand as his parents’. Beside him stood another elf, this one wearing the white robes and a brass band around his brow. He wore the colors of the Court of the Swallow, and he and the Blood-Prince Heliohart stood hands pressed together.

The Voice of the Court stood to the side, her melodious voice spreading over the ballroom as the chord ceased.

“Elves of the Court of the Stag,” she cried, “pay heed. Prince Heliohart, Lord of the Court of the Stag, the Braccura Constellation, Servant of the Emperor, and Protector of Faydark stands before you.”

“We pay heed,” came the response for all the elves throughout the ball. So many spoke that no words could be distinguished, but the hall echoed thunder.

“My friends and fellows,” Prince Heliohart voice boomed over the ballroom, picked up and amplified by the soundbeams throughout the room. “I am honored that you all have joined me to celebrate this momentous occasion.

“Today I stand before you to humbly announce my son’s engagement. The Prince of the Blood of the Court of the Stag is henceforth engaged to Prince Passerine of the Court of the Swallow. Please, join me in in welcoming him into our Court.”

The court murmured their welcome in another thundering response. Prince Heliohart went out, describing the pride and joy they all should feel over the impending union, the greatness of the Court of the Swallow, and so on. Movement caught Ynaselle’s attention. She turned to see the Little Prince Lianthorn, red-faced and furious, storming toward a side staircase, his pink, purple, and yellow robes swirling around him. His own entourage followed him hurriedly, retreating from the Court of the Stag. Ynaselle supposed that he would no longer be enjoying the hospitality of the court.

Ynaselle turned back as Prince Heliohart and his family descended the stairs. They each bowed as they made their way across from the stairs to the dais where they would sit and watch over the hall for the rest of the evening.

Once seated, each major family climbed the dais and welcomed the Little Prince Passerine into the Court. Lady Erro went up after fetching her eldest, as did Lord Blackwell, with Jaonos, who looked sick of the whole thing.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Merioleth said, hanging tightly to Othorion’s arm. “A marriage! When do you think the wedding will be?”

“The Feast of Haethus,” Ynaselle said. “‘A wise man marries in winter.’”

“It’s a pity it’s so long,” Merioleth said. “I don’t think I’ll be in Heliohart so long.”

“Neither shall I, if it’s any consolation,” Othorion said.

“Oh, but you’ll be captaining a ship!”

Othorion laughed but shook his head. “I certainly hope so.”

Ynaselle felt a twinge in her chest as she watched Lord Bryravn and Nym climb the dais as her own father and brother descended. She reminded herself that she would have to overcome this. If she stayed within the Court of the Stag, she would always be in the company of the Bryravns, and her heart couldn’t break every time she saw him.

When Flinar joined them again, he looked tired, the wrinkles in his face more deeply etched. He took Ynaselle’s arm and this time she was certain he did lean on her for support. “Come, Ynaselle, it’s late. Let us go home. I don’t wish to stay any longer.”

The thought of weddings must still sting her father when his own wife was dead, just as Ynaselle’s own missed marriage to Nym stung her. She nodded. “Neither do I.”

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – Invitation

While her brothers were at the Valstan Club, Ynaselle had the pleasure of entertaining Lady Erro. Lady Erro sat across from Lord Blackwell, her old-fashioned hooped skirt showering the black and gold wingback chair in peacock feathers. Peacock feathers covered her skirt and her trumpet-cut sleeves. Her bodice – another old-fashioned affectation – was adorned with opals in brocade, so too was her veil. Ynaselle couldn’t help but think the dress and veil alone weighed three stone, and that didn’t include her earrings and necklaces and rings. No one could doubt Lady Erro’s wealth, though her taste was another matter.

Lady Erro gossiped. She gossiped with Lord Blackwell about old Lord Ozymand who had recently returned from Faydark. He had spent months trying to broker a new trade deal with the Kingdom of Draque, a human kingdom built into incredibly rocky soil. Heliohart had wheat and rye it needed to be rid of, and Draque had need of it. The Emperor had, apparently, refused the offer, and now Lord Ozymand had to return to Draque to try again before the grains rotted.

She gossiped about the Court of Oak and Birch, the Court of Swallows, the Court of Bones, of the cotton merchants and the sugar merchants and the tea merchants, of the Princess Myrrh who had helped to pick out Prince Heliohart’s bride since she would be the one to bare the children, of Mistress Therel who had been caught with a Knight of the Court, and of the young Master Joran who had always been sickly and many feared would be giving up his birthright to his sister. Lady Erro even gossiped of Jaonos, Vithian, Othorion, and Ynaselle herself, pretending that she wasn’t there despite casting furtive and teasing glances at her whenever she did.

“Pity, of course,” Lady Erro said, placing her tea on the table beside her. She shifted so she could look more closely at Ynaselle, her dress whispering and jingling as she moved. “I had thought we would celebrate your marriage last year, before your mother passed of course. Not that I blame you for refusing Master Bryravn. Not one of us suspected him of being the waste that he is.”

Ynaselle felt a flush rising on her face while heated embarrassment washed over her. She felt her throat close and her mouth go dry.

Flinar quickly came to his daughter’s rescue. “It’s for the best. Ynaselle has been the greatest of comforts to me.”

“Still, it must be a burden on you, none of your children yet married. Oh, Vithian need not marry at all, as a priest. And Othorion is still a bit young, though if he gets his captaincy he’ll have no excuse. But Jaonos – well, it’s high time he married. Will he be a bachelor forever? And you, Ynaselle, you’ve been hiding yourself away in Pheasant’s Cross for far too long. If you will not find yourself a husband, join the ambassador’s guild. I’m sure you could find employment there – or any guild, surely.”

Ynaselle took a deep breath to slow her heart before she replied. “I have plenty to keep me employed at the moment, Lady Erro. Thank you, though, for your kind advice, as always.” That was, of course, a very polite way of telling Lady Erro to mind her own business for once in her life, but if Lady Erro understood that, she did not show it.

“Indeed, well-”

Lady Erro was interrupted as the front door was flung open and the foyer filled with laughing and voices. Ynaselle stood, but Lady Erro and Lord Blackwell, both used to being some of the most superior members of society in the room, did not.

“Oh,” Othorion said as he stepped into the sitting room, Vithian and Jaonos immediately behind him, “many apologies, Lady Erro.”

Lady Erro tilted her chin up and examined each of Lord Blackwell’s sons in turn. “May the stars shine upon you, Lieutenant.”

“And upon you, Lady Erro. You’re looking very well.” He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, whether salute or kiss his fingers, what the protocol was in this moment.

Lady Erro simply turned back to Lord Blackwell. “Well, now that all your children are here, I suppose I should tell you what my business was in coming here in the first place.”

“Please, go on,” Lord Blackwell said. He motioned for his children to sit as she spoke. Othorion and Vithian joined Ynaselle on the chaise while Jaonos poured himself a drink from the sidebar.

“As you know – and this is not to go beyond this room,” Lady Erro said sharply, casting frowns at each of them as she said this. Her frown lingered on Jaonos who was smirking to himself without realizing he was being watched. She waited for him to finish pouring his drink and look up to make sure he knew her displeasure before continuing. “Not a word breathed beyond this room.

“As you know, we will announce Prince Heliohart’s affianced at the full moon. As such, I shall be throwing a ball at at the palace. And, of course, Lord Blackwell, you and all your children are invited.”

She glanced at each in turn, and all of them felt the Lady measuring them against some rubric they weren’t entirely certain of. Jaonos was already resentful, believing that he didn’t reach her standards and deciding he didn’t care to please the silly old woman anyway. Vithian felt the heat of anger raising up behind his eyes as he remembered Lady Erro’s comments the few days before and then the icier shame at his own behavior. Othorion wondered how Lady Erro found him, confident in the back of his mind that he had already proved himself.

Ynaselle felt that she was but a shadow of a promise, that she had not sought a trade because women like Lady Erro would use her as a bargaining chip in a marriage. She wondered, a nausea washing over her, if her mother had intended it as well. She recalled that other ball four years previous. Had that been more than an introduction? Had that been Ynaselle’s mother throwing in her bargaining chip to the other families within the Court?

“I am certain I shan’t have to tell you the expected dress,” Lady Erro said, glancing at Jaonos under hooded lids.

Lady Erro stood, her dress and veil fluttering and clattering like an entire flock of chickens. She kissed Lord Blackwell on his cheek, who kissed her back. They had been friends for many years.

Ynaselle walked the Lady to the door, but Lady Erro paused on the steps. She turned back to Ynaselle, her sharp black eyes looking into Ynaselle’s. “Your mother had such plans for you,” Lady Erro said, and Ynaselle felt that dizzying wave of nausea return.

“She had plans for Othorion, but, well, those had to change.” Lady Erro shrugged, snapping her fan shut. “But she had plans for you. Ladies need not be silent ornaments on Lord’s arm. Remember that, child.”

“Yes, your grace,” Ynaselle said, bobby her head down slightly so that Lady Erro wouldn’t see the look of disgust on her face.

“Pity,” Lady Erro said. “You know, I have sons. Or daughters.” Lady Erro’s arched eyebrows reached for her hairline. “In case you’re interested.”

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – At the Valstan Club

There was great rejoicing in the Blackwell family household when Othorion returned. Brother, father, and sister embraced the youngest, hugging and kissing him and welcoming him home. Ynaselle took Othorion’s coat, Vithian his gloves, and Flinar his hat before the maid little Ulesse could step in. Instead, Flinar demanded fine wine to be served in the sitting room while Ynaselle took Ulesse aside to arrange refreshments.

“Don’t make such a fuss,” Othorion, who was only a lieutenant and was not used to being treated to any luxury, insisted.

“We have to celebrate!” Ynaselle said, hugging her brother once more. “It’s been a year since we last saw you!”

“And not an inch taller,” Vithian said and they each laughed. Only Vithian could claim to be tall, and Othorion was the shortest among them.

Flinar placed a hand on his son’s shoulder and motioned him into the sitting room. “Come, sit with us.”

“Tell us of your adventures on the sea,” Ynaselle exclaimed.

“You would be very disappointed by most of them.” Othorion hooked Ynaselle’s arm around his own as he walked her into the sitting room. “The greatest enemy to any sailor is boredom, or so they say. Most of my days were spent just trying to keep everyone busy.”

“It can’t be so bad. You always seem so optimistic in your letters and calls.”

“Oh, yes.” Othorion chuckled. “Perhaps in a few days, I’ll miss the cramped quarters and stale food.”

Othorion and Ynaselle sat beside each other on the chaise. Flinar took a seat in an armchair while Vithian leaned over the back of it. Ulesse silently slipped into the room, offering a glass of wine to each, Flinar first. She lifted the plate to Vithian, who began to reach for a glass. Flinar turned in his chair, frowning at Vithian as he lifted the glass. Vithian hesitated, then took a deep breath and placed the glass back on the plate. Flinar had never approved of priests drinking, must less postulants.

“How long are you with us?” Flinar asked as Ulesse moved to offer wine to Othorion and Ynaselle.

“Just two weeks, I’m afraid.”

Ynaselle made a noise of displeasure and Vithian began to object, but Othorion raised his hand in a motion to silence them. “In two weeks, I must go to Rothniel to take my captaincy exams, and there is nothing I can do about that.” He glanced around, noting the vexation.

“However,” Othorion grinned, “if – and it is an if – if I pass my exams, I shall have a month free while they outfit my own ship.”

Ynaselle cried and threw her arms around her brother, “We’ll have you for a month.”

“There’s not guarantee of that.”

“You’ll pass your exams,” Vithian said, walking to his brother to clap him on the shoulder.

“I have every faith in you,” Flinar agreed.

“Well, you’re all very kind to say so,” Othorion said. “I shall be glad not to have it hanging over my head anymore.”

It would not be a shame for Othorion to remain a lieutenant. He had been a lieutenant for five years, and another year would hardly be a great hardship. However, Othorion was a determined and competent young man, and he feared he would disappoint to his captain, his fellow lieutenants, and his family if he failed to pass his exams. He chose not to mention the other concerns he would have to deal with during or, he hoped, shortly after his exams: Reconna’s accusations of dereliction of duty, assaulting a superior officer, disobeying a direct order, and cowardice. Othorion had received the list of the charges that were being filed before leaving Rothniel. He had not received Reconna’s report of what happened yet. He was fortunate that Reconna had been slow to file the charges, otherwise, he would have been arrested.

Othorion pushed this out of his mind and smiled at each of his family in turn. “I’m happy to be back home,” he said, then paused. “Where’s Jaonos, though?”

“He’s at the club,” Ynaselle said. “He hasn’t come back in a couple days.”

Othorion glanced at Flinar and Vithian who said nothing, but he could see their discomfort on their faces. When he glanced back to Ynaselle, he saw the look in her eyes that told him there was reason, but no one would talk about it in front of everyone else. Othorion placed his glass on the side table, stood, and straightened his vest. “I’ll go get him. Vithian, will you come with me?”

“Now?” Flinar asked as Vithian followed Othorion out of the room.

“Yes, now,” Othorion said from the foyer as he handed Vithian his coat. “I haven’t seen my family in a year, I don’t have much time to be with you all, and once I’m out at sea again, I don’t know when I will be able to see you all again. I want to see Jaonos as well.”

“We’ll bring Jaonos back,” Vithian said and kissed Ynaselle on the cheek.

Ynaselle watched Othorion and Vithian step out the door, but Flinar returned to his seat in the sitting room. Othorion knew why she was surprised. Othorion had a good idea why Jaonos wasn’t in the house, and he imagined his father would have wanted his own permission given before Jaonos was welcomed back. But, Othorion had seen the feuds between his father and eldest brother all his life. They were both so pig-headed, one wondered if there weren’t some dwarven blood there. Flinar would want an apology from Jaonos and Jaonos would not only refuse but demand one himself. Without their mother around, Othorion wondered if the rest of them could bring peace back to the family.

Othorion refused to entertain this again, though. “Vithian,” Othorion asked once they turned the corner. “What was it this time?”

“Oh, you know. Nothing new.”

“Nothing?”

Vithian shrugged, but he was toying with the chain of constellations at his waist. “Father took Jaonos and me to court. Father was not pleased with either of us afterward.”

Othorion glanced at Vithian. He had expected to see anger on his face, but what he saw was embarrassment. “How so?”

Vithian told Othorion about the day at court, and what their father had said to them afterward. “He was disappointed in the both of us.”

“Is that it?”

“I know, we’ve all heard this before,” Vithian said. “They must have argued after I left them in the cab. Jaonos didn’t even enter the house afterward.”

They didn’t bother finding a cab. The Valstan Club stood right off Pleese Square just a few blocks away. Othorion had been in it a number of times and would have joined had he not been gone for so long; Vithian had only entered it a few times. It had a discrete entrance, tucked in between a florist and a tobacconist, a simple door carved of oak and made to look like a miniature version of the door orcs put on their ceremonial building, the graklung. Members of the Valstan Club had a bizarre sense of humor.

Othorion and Vithian stepped into the elvish interpretation of orcish architecture. Neither had actually even been in an orc city, though Othorion had met a few as orcs were occasionally hired or pressed into service in the navy. The walls were rough-hewn wood painted nearly black with tar. Windows were heavily draped in coarse, thick-woven wool dyed in bright clashing colors. The lamps on the ceiling were crystals made to look like oil lamps, the “smoke” they let off was steam scented with, Othorion sniffed, musk, oranges, and patchouli.

As the brothers walked to the slab of granite used as a bar, Othorion glanced around the main room. Heavy leather chairs – finely made, Othorion noted – surrounded low tables where men and women sat together, smoking, reading, or speaking in low tones. They approached a young elf whose face was dusted with gray powder. It took Othorion a moment to realize the two slashes of white at the corners of her mouths were supposed to look like tusks.

“Gentlemen,” the elf said cooly, “I’m afraid that the club will be closed to non-members shortly. You’ll have to leave.”

“We’re here to find a member,” Othorion replied.

“Which member is that?”

“Jaonos Master Blackwell.”

Her eyelids fluttered almost imperceptibly, but she smiled coldly and nodded. “A sailor and a priest. Master Blackwell said you might come. I’ll get him.”

She left them waiting at the bar, and as she made her way up stairs, Othorion noticed that her dress was also a hackneyed facsimile of orcish fashion, leather and coarse wool with stones hanging from the hem.

“Do you suppose she goes out like that?” Vithian whispered.

Othorion smirked. “No, I doubt it.”

“Was her hair supposed to be a mohawk?”

The elf’s hair had been tied in three bushy tails over the crown of her head. Othorion glanced at his brother and shrugged.

“The host didn’t always dress like that.”

“No,” Othorion agreed. The last time Othorion had visited the club, the host who had greeted them had dressed as any other elf. Othorion touched the drapes beside him and smirked. It had a geometric pattern that he had never actually seen one any orc he’d ever met. “This is actually dwarven,” he said with a smirk. “The orc patterns looks more… I don’t know, organic.”

“Is it?”

The hostess walked down the stairs only far enough to motion Othorion and Vithian closer. “Turn left at the top of the stairs. It’ll be the second door on the left at the end of the hall,” the elf said. “Master Blackwell is waiting for you.”

Othorion and Vithian climbed the steps to find the second floor was decorated in more traditional elvish tastes. The windows at each end of the hall were large, and the refracted glass let in plenty of light. The wood of the head and foot boards were the same dark color of the first floor, but they were smooth and brightly oiled. The carpet was soft with the gentle scroll and paisley that had been popular fifty years before. Antlers topped each door, cradling different objects – masks, flowers, crystals. Over the door the hostess had directed the brothers to, a wooden bucket hung from the antlers, a rope tied around its handle draped over the antlers’ tines. The rope and bucket were painted black.

Othorion and Vithian exchanged a glance.

“An old black well bucket,” Othorion said.

“How droll,” Vithian replied.

Othorion opened the door. This room looked much more like an elf’s club. Soft music issued from a soundbeam, the crystal in the bookshelves and table resonating with it so that the mournful cry of the violins and the soft whisper of flutes was felt as well was heard. At the center of the room was a round glass table surrounded by chairs upholstered in bleached white lambskin.

Jaonos sat at the table with Dr. Prognes, as well as two elves Othorion didn’t recognize. The first was a slim woman, complexion as pale as milk and hair as rich as honey. She would have been considered a rare beauty if her nose had been longer and her lips a bit thinner, but she chose a silvery powder and light pink lipstick to hid it. The man with her had a similar complexion, but his brown hair and dark eyes gave Othorion the impression of a stoat.

“Othorion!” Jaonos cried and spread his arms, glass in one hand, cards in another. “Come give me a kiss, little brother!”

Othorion smiled wanly, but removed his hat. He placed it on the coat rack beside the door. “Hello, Jaonos. And hello Myrdin.”

“You’re looking very well, Lieutenant.”

“And you brought Vithian. We’re playing leper’s crown, come join us.”

“Master Blackwell, how awful, to corrupt a priest,” the lady tittered.

“He’s a postulant, not a priest, and my brother. Othorion, Vithian, this is Bellis, and Perenni, my friends.” Joanos sat up and tossed his hand of cards on a table. “Stop hovering at the door, come, sit.”

Othorion glanced at the two elves he didn’t know, but went to the table anyway. Vithian took the seat between him and Dr. Prognes.

“You’ve just come home, then? Haven’t been able to get out of those harlequins yet?”

“We just docked today, yes,” Othorion said. He was fiddling with his gloves which he always kept meticulously white. “But, I’ve been home, to see father and Ynaselle.”

Jaonos met Othorion’s gaze, but said nothing. The smile gone, Jaonos’s lips pressed tightly together.

“You’re a sailor, then?” Perenni said. Othorion couldn’t shake the stoat impression.

“A lieutenant, yes,” Othorion replied.

“A lieutenant and a postulant,” Perenni said, turning to Jaonos, “you must be proud of your brothers.”

“Soon to be a captain and a priest,” Jaonos replied. “Terribly proud. Did father send you to fetch me, then?”

Othorion pulled his gloves back on, as he had almost picked them entirely off. “No.”

Vithian leaned forward and address Perenni. “Sir…?

“Asteraca, and my sister.”

“Yuven Perenni Asterace, Yuven Bellis Asteraca,” Vithian said, and turned, “Dr. Prognes, do you mind giving us a moment?”

The Asteracas and Dr. Prognes glanced to Jaonos. Jaonos pouted, but waved his hand. Brother and sister stood, Bellis drawing a fan over her face. “A pleasure, Lieutenant, Postulant.”

“We’ll fetch some refreshments from downstairs,” Perenni said.

Dr. Prognes hesitated, leaning closer to Jaonos. “Jaonos…?”

“Just give us a moment, Myrdin.”

Dr. Prognes sighed, glanced to Othorion and Vithian, and stood. Without another word, he followed the Asteracas out.

“So father did send you,” Jaonos said once the door was closed.

“No, father didn’t send us nor did Ynaselle. They told me you were here, and Vithian and I came to bring you home. Instead of sulking here.”

“I’m not sulking.”

“You are sulking, and you do it so well.”

“Why come at all?”

“Because I haven’t seen my brother in so long. And I wanted to.”

Jaonos huffed and frowned at Othorion and Vithian in turn. Othorion stood and circled the table to Jaonos, where he kissed him and smiled. “I’ve missed you, Jaonos.”

Jaonos sighed even more deeply, but wrapped his arms around his brother’s waist and hugged him close. “My gentle little brother,” Jaonos said. “You always were the best of us, you know?”

“I just never bated father like you.”

“Oh, mother loved you best as well.”

“No, she loved Ynaselle best,” Vithian said and the three laughed. Othorion took the seat Bellis had been sitting in while Vithian fetched two glasses and a decanter from a side table.

“Yes, I suppose so,” Jaonos said. He lifted his glass so Vithian would fill his glass, which Vithian did first. Jaonos sipped his drink while Vithian handed Othorion a glass over him.

Othorion took his glass and looked delicately away as Vithian poured himself a glass. He didn’t want Vithian to think he disapproved. “You fought with father, then?”

“Hmm.” Jaonos glanced toward Vithian who shrugged.

“I told him how father chastised us”

“Father wouldn’t tell me what happened,” Othorion said. “Not that it would have been difficult to guess.”

Jaonos shrugged, sipping his drink again. “Well, yes, father and I fought, how is it different from any other day of our lives? He told both Vithian and me that we were such great disappointments. Not dear old Ynaselle, though, not you, of course.”

“Jaonos-”

“He sent Vithian away,” Jaonos interrupted.

Othorion frowned slightly. He turned to Vithian, brow furrowed.

Vithian shrugged, both hands spread on the table. “He did, for a couple nights, to sequester. To speak to my elder. He believed my elder would disapprove of my actions in court. And she did. Perhaps not as severely as father, but, well, Elder Aymer advised me to return to sequester every evening until she could be certain I wouldn’t disappoint again.”

“What did you do in court?”

“Nothing!” Jaonos insisted. “We were just there, what could we have done?”

Vithian cut a frown at Jaonos and pushed his glass away. While not forbidden, he knew drinking any alcohol would raise an eyebrow on Elder Aymer’s face. “Gossipping. Well, there was a visiting noble, a little prince of the Lianthorn Court. He had dyblah with him, which we all noted was odd, since Myrcine has it, but…” Vithian paused as a shadow passed over his eyes, “none of it is any of my concern. Unbefitting a priest. As you know.”

“Oh, who cares?” Jaonos stood up so quickly, he nearly knocked over his chair. “Gossipping? Everyone gossips. Priests gossip. So you gossipped, so you irritated Lady Erro, so you were inquisitive, so what?”

“I overstepped-”

“By the very slightest,” Jaonos insisted. “I’m so tired of father demanding perfection from us. Lady Erro is a gossip. She even told us who would be Blood Prince Heliohart’s affianced, something she is bound to keep secret.”

“Lady Erro is a Lady,” Othorion said softly.

“And I’m merely a postulant.”

Jaonos glared at both of them, then slapped the table. “Have a backbone, the both of you.” He stomped away to glare out the window.

Othorion and Vithian exchanged glances again. Then, Vithian leaned over the back of his chair and watched Jaonos. “What did father say to you after I went inside?”

Jaonos bowed his head slightly.

Othorion could see Jaonos’ shoulders stiffen and his fingers to tighten around his glass. Carefully, he placed the glass on the window sill in front of him. “He told me-” Jaonos took a deep breath “-he told me that I am selfish for relying on you two and Ynaselle as much as I do.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“If that is all,” Othorion said, “come back home with us. Father may not like our methods, but no Blackwell is going to let their brother fail.”

Jaonos hesitated so long Othorion feared he would refuse. Jaonos let out a breath he had been holding in and turned around. There was a guilty, haunted look in his eyes that made Othorion certain he had not been entirely truthful, but Jaonos smiled broadly and walked back to the table. “Of course. Let’s return home.”

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