Much to her surprise, Anala found herself liking Lares Stout-Heart, formerly known as Frowny-Face. She smiled at her private joke. Once one got past the dour-ness that was so obviously an act, one found an intelligent, quick-witted, and honest man – though she doubted he’d ever admit the last.
In their conversation she’d learned a great deal of Lares’ childhood (but not much of his current life, which was fair), the life of a farm-boy from Terranamos.
This had come as a bit of a shock. Most farm boys who made it up the ranks turned out like…well, like Caelum, who was not exactly a stellar example of subtlety and courtly manners. Neither had Lares been at their first meeting, but as they talked Anala had figured out what was an act, and what was real. For the most part, at any rate.
Why he’d chosen to show her, she had no clue.
She didn’t dwell on it. He had his reasons, which she might never know, and besides, another question was pecking at her brain.
“Terranamos?” she asked. She only knew of five towns on Mt. Voco. “That’d be a town?”
Lares froze for a second, then said, smooth as silk, “A small one. Not even worth the moniker, really. It keeps the farmers from having to travel too far for basic needs.”
Anala knew he was lying – though how she knew she didn’t know – but accepted it. Obviously he’d remembered just who she was and where she came from and did not want to reveal any more details of Voco than he already had. After all, Anala was to them an agent of the Empress.
Fair was fair. She’d given him nothing in details of Athering. For all that they were making friendly conversation, they were still enemies.
It didn’t really matter. No one knew she was not really an agent of the Empress but rather of the sovereign ruler of Athering. Zanny was anything but that. The bellica wouldn’t share any information gathered with the treecat or her aunt. She’d wait for the real Queen.
Whether that came to pass or not, the future was full of possibilities. No one could know what it held.
Presently they came upon the outskirts of the capital city, and Anala saw a subtle change come over Lares. Gone was the cheerful and friendly companion of the last few kilometers, replaced instead by the same dour-faced man she’d seen in the harbour.
“We’ll arrive at the palace in a few moments’ time,” he said, all conviviality gone from his voice. A’ least it’d be neutral an’ no’ condescending.
She glanced around the city casually, careful not to betray her curiosity. It had changed greatly since she’d seen it last. Granted, she’d last glimpsed Clifton in the dead of night, in retreat with the remains of the Athering Regiments, so she’d not gotten an optimal impression. Still, she could see the slums were larger, and the surroundings looked bleaker. Everything was bleak on this Goddess-forsaken island, to be sure, but the people used to make an attempt at colour and life.
Not now. People resembled like walking skeletons, no identifiable emotion in their eyes, skinny in starvation. There were no more colourful flags adorning doorways and streets, no merrily burning torches, no good smells, no children laughing and playing.
She’d guessed right in Auport. Voco’d fallen on hard times.
It wasn’t her concern. She pushed her musings firmly from her mind and let a mask settle onto her features. It was her bellica’s mask: cool, calm, collected, even though she might just have dismembered a Nucalif townsman as he feebly raised his pitchfork in defense of the keep.
Well, that memory wouldn’t help. She blanked her mind, pushing the grizzled old face and screams of pain from her thoughts. Cool. Calm. Collected.
Out of the corner of her eye she sensed Lares watching her. She returned his gaze and their eyes met, for a moment. It was enough. Recognition and understanding clicked.
Everyone wore masks. It was necessity. It was a matter of life or death. That was how things were.
She turned her face forward again, and they rode on towards the palace black and looming above them.
Briefly she wondered what Lares hid beneath his layers of masks. Then her thoughts were taken up by the meeting ahead, and she steeled her will as her horse trotted on the cobblestones of Clifton, clop clop clop towards destiny.
Lord Exisil Vis’ hospitality surprised Anala. Upon her arrival at the palace he’d not been receiving visitors, and had a servant bid her freshen up and rest in her rooms. She had half-expected a pile of straw in the stables, or, more likely, a servant’s closet, but instead had been conducted to a richly appointed, if unused, wing of the palace.
Her rooms were fit for any visitor of importance, and it was clear they had been prepared just for her. Everything was clean and sparkling, but the linens and upholstery had that musty smell that came only with years of disuse.
She didn’t mind. A little dust never killed anyone, and these apartments were by far the richest she’d ever occupied. As she stood in open-mouthed wonder, the servant spoke in soft tones.
“If the Lady should wish to bathe, the washing room is there.” Her gesture took in a door to the right. “His Excellency will see you at supper, an hour following sundown.” Then she was gone, disappearing into the hall before Anala could thank her.
The bellica kicked off her boots and sank her toes into the plush carpet. Goddess above, that felt good. She couldn’t wait to see what the bath was like. But first….
She tossed her bag on the bed and unpacked her clothing. She hung everything, save a simple black peplos, in the giant wardrobe. The peplos she put on a hanger to hang in the bathroom while she bathed – the steam would smooth out the wrinkles in the fabric.
On seeing the bath, she allowed herself a small gasp. It was wide and deep, easily big enough for three adults. Gold taps lined one side, and there was a strange dial in one corner. It was certainly luxurious. But which tap’d be fer water? she wondered. Logic dictated she start at an end and work her way down, so she grabbed the one on the far left and turned. Nothing. She moved to the next one, and nothing came of that, too. Steadily she worked her way down until she reached the middle left. A stream of hot water gushed out, steam rising from it. Curiously she tried the middle right tap. Cold water gurgled forth.
Leaving the hot water on and letting the cold run just enough so her bath wouldn’t cook her like a jackahare, she investigated the rest of the room.
There were three sinks, with only one tap each, and a large vanity. The mirror was stained with age, but she could see her self in it with no unsightly imperfections, so it served its purpose well enough.
By the sinks were bars of freshly milled soap, a toothbrush, cleaning powder, and a strange grey stone pock-marked with holes and craters. The vanity held an assortment of perfumes and make-up.
She’d have no great use for the last, but the soap would be nice, and her teeth needed a cleaning. She picked up the grey stone, surprised to find it so light. It felt rough against her skin, and small pieces flaked off. She couldn’t imagine what it was for. Decoration?
Resolving to ask Lord Exsil Vis about it when she thanked him for the room, she grabbed her toothbrush, sprinkled some powder on it, and wet it. She had just begun to brush when she spat it out, taste of rotten eggs on her tongue.
Was the cleaning powder bad? She gave it a cursory sniff but, no, it smelled like cleaning powder. A greater sniff told her that the whole room smelled like rotten eggs. It was the water.
Sulfur. Drawback of volcanic living.
There was nothing to be done, and she’d only be here a few days, so she finished brushing her teeth, spitting viciously at the end. Stripping, she grabbed some soap, turned off the taps, and stepped into the half-full bath, where she luxuriated for a long time – doing her best to ignore the stench of the water.
A servant came to collect her shortly before supper to show her to the dining room. This was fortunate, for the palace was a very large place and she knew she’d get lost if left to her own devices. She made an effort to memorise the route they took – she wanted to know where in Tyvian to go if escape became necessary.
What was prompting Lord Exsil Vis’ hospitality towards her? Whatever it was, she was grateful. She was bathed and clean and even smelled better – the perfume had come in handy, after all. Sulfur-baths were not the best way to wash away the stink of the road.
She looked and felt quite presentable, which would be an advantage for her meeting. Unfortunately she did not have her sword with her – she’d buckled it on, only to be informed by the servant that there were to be no weapons at the supper table. It was a custom implemented by the Lady Exsil Vis, it seemed, and none dare disobey it, not even Lord Exsil Vis himself.
Exasperated, Anala had conceded. She still had her boot knife, after all. It was curious – she’d never heard of a Lady Exsil Vis. What woman would want to marry the man of that infamous name? Perhaps she hadn’t wanted to. That fit better with Lord Exsil Vis’ character.
Or mayhap the Lady’d be his mother. That was possible, too.
Whoever she was, she sounded formidable. Anala hoped she’d get a chance to meet the woman.
Soon they came upon two massive doors, carved out of a dark red wood. They were exquisite and put Anala in mind of the doors to the hall in Atherton. She could not decipher what the carvings depicted, either, but they were obviously ancient. Much older than the ones in Atherton, she guessed. They were heavy, too, for the servant strained to open them, but for all that they opened quietly and smoothly. Not for the first time, she wondered at the engineering genius of Athering’s founders.
The doors opened to reveal a huge room with a high, high ceiling, shrouded in the blackness of the stone with which the castle was built. Long peaked windows adorned the three walls, with panes of glass in multicoloured hues. It looked almost like stained glass of the sort Southland used to be famous for, but there was a wilder, more organic look to the splashes and swirls of colour. Not that Anala had seen enough stained glass to know the difference, but these panes just seemed less touched by human hands.
A long table sat the middle of the room, made of that same dark red wood as the doors. Gold candelabra sat on each end, surrounded by dishes of what constituted a feast for Mt. Voco. Anala did not think much of it. At each end of the table was a high-backed chair, covered in black and dark red velvet, rich though somewhat threadbare. A third chair sat the middle of the table.
Two chairs were unoccupied. The third chair contained him.
Seeing her, he rose and bowed deeply before her. Though she tried, she could detect no mockery in his stance. She nodded in return, letting her eyes drink in as many details as possible.
He was as tall as she remembered, a full foot and more above her. His hair showed tinges of gray through the brown; that was different. He had definitely aged, a thought that gave Anala a feeling of satisfaction. He’d not lost his trim figure, however, and his posture was as straight as ever. A quick once-over showed no obvious weapons and Anala was glad to see the Lady’s rule was true. The servant had not deceived her.
He smiled, then, his teeth white against his dark skin, and she saw glee dance in his gray eyes. Glee at what? Goddess, how those eyes reminded her of…of Zardria.
A chill took her as she saw exactly how similar they looked. No wonder I’d be hatin’ each wit’ equal passion. But, no, they were not totally alike – there, Zardria had not his cheekbones, which were high, like Anala’s, and Zardria’s skin was much lighter than his. Zardria was darker than most people in Athering but nowhere near the hue of Lord Exsil Vis. He looked like an Islander, for Juno’s sake, and what little was known of them wasn’t exactly flattering. Except that demitasse came from their lands – their one redeeming feature.
He spoke then, and Anala dropped her musings and observations, turning her mind and energy to being civil with this man she so loathed.
“Bellica Anala!” he said, almost junially. “Welcome to my humble abode. I had wondered whom the Empreena would send as a messenger. I thought she may send Yarrow, for all she’s the best bellica….”
The jab did not go unnoticed by Anala, but she refused to rise to the bait. “Aye, it’d been a consideration, Yer Lordship. But in tha’ end I’da been picked, fer me regiment’d have naught ta do a present.” She smiled pleasantly at him. “Asides, I’d no get seasick so easily.” She said it in jest, but it was true – while she’d slept all the way between Athering and Voco, Yarrow had puked.
Lord Exsil Vis laughed, a sound of genuine amusement, and gestured to the middle chair with one arm. “Please, Bellica Anala, be seated, and we shall start with our repast. But first,” he added as she considered the best route to the other side of the table, “I believe you have something for me?”
She’d known she’d have to get close to him, of course, but had foolishly hoped it wouldn’t come to that – maybe she could give the message tube to a servant. She nodded slowly, looking around for said servant; finding none, she grabbed the message tube from where it hung on her belt. Unhooking it, she took a few steps towards him and bowed, holding the tube out and letting its length stretch the rest of the distance.
His fingers closed over it and he took it from her hands; she straightened and smoothed her peplos. There was no way around it, now – she’d have to go by his seat to get to hers, lest she seem rude. Damn.
“Ah, yes,” he said, lightly caressing the tube. “I thank you, Anala. This is a very important message and you have carried it well.”
Anala, surprised at the compliment, blinked and inclined her head. “I’d just be doing me duty, Yer Lordship,” she said modestly.
“And you do it admirably,” he said, brisk now. He set the message tube down by his chair and continued: “We’ll not discuss business at the table; I find it spoils the appetite. Please, sit.” He moved to escort her to her seat.
She nodded and let him do so, angling her body so her back was never turned to him.
He pulled her chair out from the table with a little bow and flourish; it slid noiselessly on the black stone floor. She nodded again, in gratitude, and took her seat, and Lord Exsil Vis pushed it back in for her, the epitome of good manners and decorum. What was his game?
As he seated himself, she took stock of the food in front of her: mostly fish and fowl, with a smattering of vegetables and greens.
“I apologise for the lack of vegetables,” came his cultured voice from the head of the table. “I’m sure you’re used to an abundance of edible plant life, living in Athering as you do, but we lack any palatable to us.”
Anala frowned as she spooned a helping of root-like vegetables onto her plate. “I was under tha impression volcanic soil’d be fertile.”
Lord Exsil Vis smiled, and it put into Anala’s mind the image of a cat who had just found dinner. “Oh, it is. But as I said – palatable. Most of the plant life here is dangerous to the human body, and our farmers have not had new seeds of plants from other places in quite some time now. Oh, we trade with the southern lands,” he added, answering her unspoken question, “but many of the seeds we get from them don’t survive well in our considerably colder climate. It’s been a tough road, trying to get other plants to grow here, and we were doing admirably for a while – one farm even had tropical fruit growing on it. But one can not live on fruit alone, and without any seeds from Athering…well. We must make do with what we can get from the south.”
“I take it the lands ta the south’d be volcanic as well?” The more she did it, the easier it became to play the court game. But only a bit. This was what Eorl Gray had been doing all these years? Suddenly Anala’s own job seemed easier.
“Yes, the southern islands are all active volcanoes, and there are a few on the mainland as well. It’s been dubbed the Cluster of Fire by at least one historian. Despite the dangers of living with active volcanoes, they have a rather high quality of life down there, and I have tried to implement some systems here, for the good of Voco. But I’ve encountered some problems.”
Anala paused in her chewing. Despite the scarcity of food, it was cooked quite well. Not so good as Tenea’s cooking, but then, nothing was. “Because o’ tha climate difference, ye mean.”
“That, and the resistance of my people.” His smile turned rueful. “They refuse to adopt the ways of, ah, savages.”
Anala choked back a comment on his people’s blindness to the ways of their lord, when her eyes caught a barely suppressed movement in the corner of the room. Lares was standing at attention there. Had he been there this whole time? He was Lord Exsil Vis’ man. It made sense.
The silence stretched and Anala searched for something neutral to say. “Tis unfortunate tha yer people can be so shortsighted,” she said. Not a complete failure of skirting the rude and inappropriate.
“Quite,” was all he said, his lips twitching in mirth. Anala tried not to shudder. The last time those lips had twitched with suppressed glee, Isidora’s screams had rent the air.
Her mind cast about for another question to ask, for despite her discomfort, she was quite curious of the lands to the south. “Ye speak as if ye’ve visited the southern lands quite a bit, Yer Lordship,” she said, letting her statement of the obvious stand as a question.
Lord Exsil Vis cleared his throat and took a drink of his wine. “Ah. Yes. I visited there with my mother quite a bit in my youth, for she had a passion for the islands.” And some Islanders, she heard him think, though whether she read it from his body language or with some strange sixth sense, she couldn’t tell. That explained his dark skin. What a scandal that would have been! Lady Exsil Vis, having an affair with an Islander! No wonder the Vocans were so resistant to adopting the ways of the south. “I spent many winters there, and soon learned the ways of the people. They are different from us, yes, but I would not call them savage. More…in touch with the natural world, I would say. And they brew the most delicious drinks,” he added as an afterthought, a nostalgic smile touching his features.
Glad the conversation was swinging around to something she could comment on, Anala jumped in. “Demitasse, ye mean?”
His smile widened and he let out a small chuckle. “Demitasse is but the least of it, my dear, and the only one we know of here in the north, for it is the only drink safely shippable. They have an abundance of tropical fruit there, and they can brew the most delicious fruit drinks out of mangoes, bananas, tangerines – like nothing you’ve ever tasted. They also make some fairly strong alcoholic drinks out of fruit, and there is one that grows there that ferments right on the vine. It is said the animals eat the fruit and get drunk off it, and indeed, I’ve seen it happen. And then there are the drinks of their religious ceremonies, which their priests brew, and may only be tasted by the initiated.” He stopped then, and went back to his food, leaving Anala hanging.
“Initiated? Have ye tasted those drinks, then?” she couldn’t help but ask. She mentally kicked herself for sounding too eager. Damn me curiosity.
His smile faded a bit, gaining a bitter twist to it. “Only once. And it was enough for me to decide to stick to the religion of my home island.” His voice had a note of finality in it, and Anala realised that was all she was going to get out of him regarding the Islands. It had been quite a bit of information, and some of her curiosity was sated, even if she did hunger for more.
I’d just have ta make some plans ta visit tha south meself, then, she resolved, though she knew it was unlikely to happen. She was almost thirty years old and she’d not been anywhere except Nucalif and Mt. Voco. All those trips had been work-related. She would visit the South only if Zardria declared war on them – while that might secure demitasse for Athering’s exclusive use, it was something Anala didn’t want to see happen.
Another silence stretched, the silence of two people eating. Anala put all her concentration into her food, for despite the good taste her stomach roiled with tension. As much as the treatment was good, why were they honouring her so? Technically she was an enemy to them. Not that she was complaining about her fine rooms and dinner, but they did make her nervous. There had to be a catch somewhere.
More than once she found her gaze straying to the third chair at the table, which remained empty. She was sure it was someone’s regular seat, for the chair was far from dusty and looked well-used. Where was its occupant? And who? The mysterious Lady Exsil Vis?
She finished her mouthful of food and took a small swig of wine. When she’d swallowed she cleared her throat hesitantly; Lord Exsil Vis looked up expectantly.
“Begging pardon, Yer Lordship, but that third chair – are we waiting for someone?”
A light came into Lord Exsil Vis’ eyes that frightened her, and Anala regretted asking. “Ah, yes,” he replied, silky smoothness defining his voice. “My lady wife has been…delayed in arriving tonight. She bade me send her apologies, but I’m afraid my manners forgot me.” Anala did her best to return his smile, but she felt that a rictus of fear had taken her face instead, thought she could not have said what made her so scared. “Lares!” he shouted suddenly, and Anala jumped in her chair.
Silent as a cat, Lares appeared at his lord’s side and bowed deeply. “Yes, My Lord?” he said, and Anala saw the dour-faced dandy she now knew so well.
“Find the Lady Hope and tell her supper gets colder the more time she spends primping,” Lord Exsil Vis said, anger riding his voice.
Lares bowed deeply again. “Yes, my lord,” he said, and retreated, as silently as he appeared.
“Woman’s addicted to her vanity,” Lord Exsil Vis muttered, picking at his food in a pique. Anala swallowed, trying to keep calm. In an abrupt change of mood he continued, “I shouldn’t complain, though. She’s a good woman, and a good mother.”
Anala nearly choked. “Ye have children?” she said, trying to keep incredulity out of her voice.
Lord Exsil Vis smiled indulgently. “Oh, yes, at least two – daughters both, though the eldest I’ve not seen in some time.”
“Oh?” she said, feigning interest. What Goddess would let a man like this father children? “Why not?”
“I told you Hope was a good mother – as good a parent as I am a bad one, I daresay. When my daughter was still a babe Hope engineered it for her sister and the child to escape to Athering, where I could not reach them. She had no such chance with Miranda, however, and so I have had opportunity to dote on her as much as I would have the first. I would appreciate, however, a chance to apologise to my other daughter for not being a better father to her…and it looked like God has granted me that chance.” He was staring at her intently.
Anala’s blood froze in her veins.
She swallowed nervously, her throat as dry as the Southern Desert. Hesitantly she met his gaze. “What do ye mean?” she asked, regretting it instantly, for she feared the answer intensely.
“Have you not wondered, Anala, who your real parents are?” he asked, overly casual.
She cleared her throat and broke the eye contact. How could he know of her adoption? She’d known for only a day now! He would know if what he’s suggestin’d be true, Anala, a small voice inside her pointed out but she slapped it ruthlessly. Somehow she managed to speak in a steady voice. “I figured they would’ve come forward afore now, if they lived or cared.”
At this he laughed, a low rolling sound that made all the small hairs on Anala’s skin stand on end. She grabbed her wine glass, wishing it was full. “Oh, my dear, live we do, and care – well, your mother hasn’t shut up about you in twenty-eight years. But able to take you back? That was another matter, and God knows I tried. Besides, you seemed happy enough,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
Anala managed to put aside her instant denial of what he was claiming (how could he claim that – does he mock me?) to let the anger at his last statement flow.
“Happy?” she rasped out, turning her bellica-glare on him. “Oh, sure – I s’pose a childhood where I had ta fight tooth and nail ta survive les’ me foster-siblings take it in their minds ta drown me, could be considered happy ta ye, Lord Exsil Vis – after all, only those tha’ live get succession here, ain’ that right? And I s’pose, too,” she said savagely, gesturing with her hand at the table, “ye would consider never havin’ enough ta eat, fer yer foster-parents thought ye no had earned tha right ta live, fun-filled, would ye no? And even maybe, maybe considerin’ the kinda man ye’d be,” she was standing now, screaming at him, her voice echoing in the room, “ye’d see me screams o pain from me foster-brother havin his way wit’ me as screams o joy, sure. I mean, what thirteen-year-old wouldnae want that? Certainly tis better than what ye could’ve given me. Tell me, ye who claim ta be me father, though I dinnae see how even ye could be so cruel as ta suggest it, tell me,” she slammed her hands down on the table, shattering the glass she held and driving the shards into her skin, “if ye’d kept me here, would ye have waited til I was older ta kill me best friend, or would ye have done her in in front o me seven-year-old eyes?”
She stood there, leaning on the table, blood dripping down her hand, breathing heavily, glaring at this man, this demon, claiming such horror. Against her will tears pooled in her eyes, but whether they were from fear or anger or pain she couldn’t tell.
He smiled. Smiled and chuckled at her, at the litany of pain she’d laid in front of him. Her mouth dropped open, aghast. The sheer and utter gall of this man!
“Oh, Anala, you are just like your mother, I tell you. She’ll be so happy!”
Anala screamed in frustration and pulled at her hair. “Well, if’n I am I’d be sure ye wouldnae know, for what ye’re saying’d be impossible! Some day I will find me real parents, and they willnae have you in the pairing!” She gestured wildly with her arms and heard a resounding smash and tinkle as her plate met the floor with the force of her anger.
Lord Exsil Vis stared calmly at her where she stood, chest heaving, hair a mess, blood dripping from her face now as well, and she felt like laughing maniacally.
A voice from behind her, cool and womanly, cut through the silence in the room and the madness in Anala’s head.
“I’m sorry, Darling, but he speaks truth. You are our daughter, our first born. And I’ve missed you very, very much.” The voice broke with the thickness of tears unshed, a sound Anala knew too well. The bellica turned slowly, willing herself to wake up from this nightmare, and came face to face with…a mirror. Why had someone wheeled a mirror in here? Why was it speaking to her? But no, she was wearing black, not the purple this image wore, and her hair was straighter than the curls this woman boasted. The woman was the same height, with the same colour hair and eyes and facial structure and the same golden tint to her skin. Anala could not deny that they were related.
But not me mother. She’d be too young.
For the woman – Lady Exsil Vis, this must be – did not look much older than Anala. She’d have to be well over forty years to have given birth to the bellica.
“Ye cannae be,” Anala said, a whisper she desperately wanted to be true.
The woman shook her head sadly. “I’m sorry, Sweetheart. I am.”
Anala shook her head viciously, and almost convinced herself it wasn’t true – she was dreaming, she had to be, there was no way this reality could exist, she’d wake up safe and warm in Aro’s arms – oh, Aro! how would he feel about this? He must never know, and would never know, except if she related this to him as her crazy dream to – because it was just a crazy dream and tomorrow she’d find it had never happened, that she was just Bellica Anala Tanner, child of loveless parents from Harbourtown, and life would go back to normal – but then the woman opened her mouth and began to sing, and Anala’s life crashed down around her ears.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
flame-sprites watching over me my Lord,
now I lay me down to sleep,
flame-sprites watching over me….
It was enough. Anala opened her mouth in a wordless cry that could have been “No!” or could have been “Momma!” as the memories flooded her mind. Being rocked to sleep, playing with her mother’s hair, her mother looking just like this woman, now. She hadn’t aged a day. It wasn’t possible.
It had happened. Was happening.
She took a step forward, then another, reaching out her arm as the woman reached out to her. Then the floor rushed up to meet her in a crushing wave of inky darkness, and she drifted away, ignoring the cries of her name.