Words spoken in deep passion,
the touch of wanton abandon,
to write such private words,
set to enduring record,
to some it might seem absurd,
yet I will have us remembered.
– writings of Prince Arhem, circa 320 E.R.
Ink on the Page
Rhaeus 42nd, 648 E.R
I write to you now only by the mercy of good Mercu. Ever the romantic he has relented to see that my letters are delivered, though the King has forbid me further contact with you, or the Cloister. A curse upon him, his airs of propriety, and a curse on the Clarions whose worthless influence now divides us. If only that bitter old prude had not found us on the ramparts that night.
How I miss your kiss, your smile, on those sweet lips, the glimmer in your eye, and the warmth of you close to me. I miss our time beneath the moonlight, and it kills me a little more every night, and every day that we are apart. I want to beg you again to simply run away. To go together somewhere and live out our lives in peace, ply our gifted trades to make ends meet, perhaps travel the world with a merchant caravan.
Surely we would be a desirable pair, a capable healer and a mage, two things ever in demand in such endeavors. Mercu has told me many tales of his days with his father’s troop, of seeing the kingdoms of the world. To be with you, see the world with my own eyes, not just in books. Am I a fool? What difference would it really make if we simply left?
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 12th, 648 E.R.
I had been unconsolable until your letter arrived this eve. I pity Lena for having to put up with me, and for having her lover displaced from her bed by my return. How I miss you my love. I have cried so much that it seems the tears will not even come any more, but it gives me hope to see your words put to paper. It eases my weary heart to no end to know that you are still out there, thinking of me with the same longing. Though it hurts all the more at once.
I cannot deny your wild dreams tempt me. I have moments of regret for not accepting your offer to just run away that night. Yet I have fear, not just for those we would leave behind. That month I spent with you at the castle was the farthest I have ever been from the cloister. Could I truly cast it all aside, just to be with you again? I don’t know.
I am a coward, I know this. I stand before the cloisters main doors, and stare toward Mt. Navi, and a fear grips me, a dark shadow cast over me. I want to turn, and run the other way, and yet at once I know it is not away from something, but towards you I would run. Perhaps it is nothing, just the fevered imaginings of a girl too scared to defy the world. Perhaps these shadows have substance, and we need you there more than ever. The Fates do not smile upon us, this is certain, and curse them. I know you’ve no love of such thoughts, and yet I will hide no part of myself from you.
All at once I reconsider, and reconsider. You have shown me so many wonders in these months of friendship, and love…but to share discovering the world together. To not simply be your devoted pupil and lover, but your equal partner in such a grand adventure. It is a beautiful and terrifying dream to imagine.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 16th, 648 E.R.
Laurel paced around a large bush taller than him, and strewn with little yellow flowers. “Helmsbroom,” he said and brushed the flowers with his fingertips. “Possibly not the ugliest plant the world has ever known, but certainly the toughest. It can grow almost anywhere. It can choke out almost anything, even forests struggle to overtake it.” He gestured down the southern stretch of Broken Hill, and into the valley below, filled with more of the shrub, and little else. He shook his head. “Grows, and spreads like wildfire. I’ve seen Thebes and Nohlend burn hundreds of acres at a time of the cursed stuff to try and control it. Still, it has its uses, like breaking up hard clay.” He kicked the lumpy dirt under his heel which only sporadically showed signs of crabgrass, or other weeds.
He glanced up at Katrisha, who was looking to the north. “Life isn’t fair,” Laurel said. “The sooner you learn that, the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can work to fight it. You can’t though, fight it all at once. Every battle must be won, not just this one, or the next. Not just the ones in front of you, but every cursed one. Pine all you want. You go right on, and you love with your whole heart, if it’s what you feel have to do, but listen, and listen to me good. You are her defender, you are the defender of this nation. You want to love her? You want to protect her? Then you fight the war, not the battle.”
Katrisha gave him a cold stare.
“Yes, and you hate me too, if that helps.” He sighed, and shook his head. “Today you have an enemy,” Laurel intoned, changing tact. “Fates knows I’ve never wanted to see what you could do, if you really set your mind to it. Now, I’ve set myself down a course where I must find out exactly that. This field, this massive waste of space, I want it cleared. I want it reduced to ash and mulch, so that maybe we can grow something worthwhile. I don’t even care how you do it. Be inventive, but be fast, be efficient, and preferably burn off this rage you are harboring.”
He walked away from the bush, and stood with his arms crossed. “Go on. We are not leaving until the entire six acres is clear to the ground. Fates, rip up the ground too if it makes you feel any better. I want to see what you can really do. No limits, nothing held back.”
Katrisha stepped down the hill towards the vast swath of flowering shrubs. She looked at Laurel incredulously, and then back at her task. Fire was the obvious answer. She could just set it ablaze, and let it burn. She didn’t usually favor fire, but decided to start there. She closed her eyes, and pictured the shape of the spell. Lines traced out away from her, circling the large bush standing by itself. Paths cut across the arc of the circle she was forming, lines of force following natural faults, gathering filaments. It was not careful, it was not the control Katrisha usually liked to exert, and yet it was all made of perfect interlocked curves, an utterly round perimeter, and then she let it tear. She went straight to the aether, and let it rush through searing lines of fire into the ground, and set the bush ablaze in a pyre that reached twenty feet into the air, and left only dust, and ash in its wake.
“One,” Laurel chided. “Several hundred more to go.”
Katrisha clenched her fist, and with a scream of anger swung her arm in a wide arc sending out a wave that refracted strangely as it passed, and swept fifty feet out over the densely packed bushes, which fell over almost anticlimactically. She was left huffing, as Laurel strode up, and checked the level ledge of stalks cut cleanly three feet off the ground. He checked the tops, and found them brittle, and touched with frost. He gave his apprentice a long uncertain look. “Interesting technique, but I want them leveled to the ground,” he managed in what almost passed for indifferent. His expression belied something else.
Katrisha considered her options, and the partly cut patch of brush. It was a large area, larger than it was easy to weave a single spell over, certainly one that needed to draw power from the aether to ignite. Fire was never her strength, its nature to squirly and chaotic. Ice had worked well, a sheet of frozen air slicing the stalks where they stood, but doing so low enough to the uneven ground for Laurels seemingly particular tastes would not work.
She paced back and forth along the line, stepped back, and it came to her in a flash. The shape of it, the pattern. On scale it would need to follow natural force lines, and it would need to happen fast. She gathered the will behind it first, and then unleashed it freezing a patch of brush and grass in a cone a good hundred feet long, and wide, driving the heat straight into the nether, freezing the air solid around stalks.
She grabbed the backlash of energy trying to return, let the natural gradients create sheer, and shattered stalks, and even dirt with a wave of erratic force.
“Better,” Laurel said with thin reserve.
Katrisha glanced at him, perked a brow, smiled defiantly, and let the rest of the energy through, and cary more from the aether with it, driving a burst of fire that turned the core to swirling ash, and left the edges in spreading flames.
Laurel snuffed the perimeter with some difficulty, rolled his shoulders, and crossed his arms again. “You’ll be doing the damage yourself, not just letting it burn,” he chided a bit thinly. “Continue.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 20th, 648 E.R.
I write to you now from my tower prison. A guard – yes a guard – has been set at my chamber door. Laurel found me in the main castle library perusing books and records of trade caravans. He took little time to make assumptions that, I must admit were correct. I had almost convinced myself to make a break for it, to run to you, and beg you to leave with me. He has never forgiven himself for Kiannae’s disappearance, or for me almost dying that night. Now he and the King make me their prisoner, for my “protection.”
Even my own brother is forbidden to visit me, as part of these petty games. A show of false separation from the sisterhood. False…as if bowing to their whims and prejudices is any less than what they want. All in service of what? Just appeasement, and placation to buy me a place I do not want. All to prevent a temporary appointment of this man Oradin, of whom I am told nothing.
I am allowed beyond these walls only to practice spells of such terrible power as to leave me in awe, and unnerved at the prospect of what such methods are clearly meant for. Or how easily I devise them on my own. To kill or destroy on such a scale, it makes me ill to even consider the idea. Yet I am made more uneasy at the exhilaration of power. I see the same conflict in Laurel’s eyes, of pride, and worry….and sadness. Oh I want to hate him for his part in separating us, yet I know, though I can not bear to speak to him of it, I know this was not his will. He tells me to hate him if I must, and so I find in all contrariness I can’t.
At least being up here has kept that cursed boy away from me, that bastard Arlen’s son. I don’t know what I did to attract his attention, but he is relentless in his efforts to win some kind of favor with me. Perhaps it is simply to prod at his father’s Clarion principles. That would be charming in it’s own way, if I was interested, but he seems to fail to grasp that I am not.
Oh Celia, what am I to do, I feel as though I can not go on this way. If ever your heart doubts my love, look to the ring I gave you, and remember what it means.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 30th, 648 E.R.
It has been a strange, and unsettling week. To watch another close to me, be as heartbroken as I have been, has been at once sad and grounding. Lena broke up with Andrew. She found out he had been sleeping with two other girls. The rumors say she slapped him so hard he turned to an older Sister for help healing it, and was refused. He has managed well enough on his own, but there was a mark for several days.
Just this afternoon wounded arrived from the north. Survivors of a royal convoy ambushed by bandits. It has been years since the last attack, and Rennae suspects these are common brigands, if only because there are survivors. I have doubts though. According to survivors they were saved only by the chance intervention of a Knight of the Empire. It troubles me deeply, but I am loathed to waste more words on matters you surely will hear of from better sources before my letter reaches you.
My mother has seen how I hold your ring to my heart, and after many long talks has offered me a ring that I might entrust to you in turn. It belonged to my grandmother I am told, and though my mother has – in her words – ‘never felt the need for such singular attachment,’ she will support me in this, if it is my will. All at once she councils me…that even such promises, need not always abide the same rules.
I write these words with a trembling hand, for what I have come to consider. What my mother, and my faith council me in equal parts. Monogamy is not a tenant of Lycian belief, it is a personal agreement, an understanding between those lovers who wish that unique bond. To break that agreement is a betrayal of the highest order, and Andrew is not to be easily forgiven for what he did.
Yet I must think to myself, that if I can not be there for you, that if a chance presents itself, take it. Do not be alone for my sake my dearest love. No, for my very sake do not be alone. I for my part can not imagine being with another, but I would not be hurt, would never judge you for the simple choice to be happy in this muddled life of ours. Take every happiness this petty world permits, wear this ring as a promise of my love, not a mark of my ownership. Let it offer you the comfort your ring gives me, but not to forsake what other comfort you might find.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Harfast 12th, 648 E.R.
Katrisha sighed in the cool night air, glad to be allowed to walk freely again. She had managed to convince Laurel that she no longer harbored thoughts of fleeing into the night. How she convinced him of such lies she was unsure, but perhaps it was in truth that she grew ever less certain she could follow through.
Katrisha glanced down the rampart at the sound of approaching footsteps. “What brings you up here Eran?” she asked curiously. “Surely they aren’t assigning rangers to wall patrols in the dead of night, suddenly?”
“They are, if one offends a Knight,” Eran laughed.
“Arlen?” Katrisha asked irritably, and without a breath of hesitation.
“Could it be another?” Eran said with a grin. “I managed to insult, and offend him to the point of nearly losing his temper, and striking me, without breaking a single rule of official decorum. Though maybe the bits pertaining to his old friends sanity did brush some lines of good taste, in general.”
“That must have been a sight,” Katrisha laughed, “and make no apologies to me, for any affront to Idolus.”
“I have it on good authority that it was entertaining,” Eran nodded. “The only vengeance he could take on me was this assignment. So, here I am.”
“You came from the cloister didn’t you?” Katrisha asked after a moment. “If you don’t mind me prying of course.”
“From anyone else…” Eran began thoughtfully. “Not that I really know you well, but I know you have lived there, and I have heard a couple things that make me think you could use someone to talk to about that life.”
“What have you heard?” Katrisha asked hesitantly, unsure of what rumors might be circulating, or what consequences they might have. She wondered, just for a moment if word of her, and Celia had really gotten out. If she might suddenly find herself undesirable, and free to leave.
“I know that I have been helping with mail delivery lately,” Eran said with a smile. “I have not been told who from, or to precisely, but it hasn’t been hard to guess.”
“I don’t…” Katrisha started to lie hesitantly, and thought better of it. “I didn’t know you were involved.”
“I have family there,” Eran rubbed the back of his head almost nervously, “and an old debt to repay to Mercu. He may be a good man, but he knows how to get his money’s worth.”
“I see…” Katrisha said uncomfortably.
Eran looked at her kindly, shook his head, and sighed. “I have other reasons for helping, as it were. You see, I’ve decided I approve of you, for what if any say I have in the matter.”
“What?” Katrisha asked suddenly confused.
“Have you ever met Celia’s father?” Eran asked perking a brow.
“…no…” Katrisha answered, having not really thought of it.
“You are quite wrong,” Eran said with a half hearted laugh, “even if you don’t know it. Nor does she for that matter, last I checked, and to my perpetual frustration.”
Katrisha glared at Eran. “You aren’t saying…”
“I am,” Eran said a bit tersely. “Renoa and I were lovers, if that is quite the word. It was…casual. She a Red Sister, and I a young man of the cloister with wild ideas in my head. The whole chain of events was tragic really. You see, Red Sisters are, rather by definition, not monogamous. Which at first suited me fine. Then I fell in love, and she didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. She loved me, in her own way, in the way of her Order, but it wasn’t enough. What possessed her to have my child I will never know, because she did not ask my thoughts on the matter, and I passed up I think the one opportunity I may have ever had to ask hers. When she told me, after I had already moved on, I was to say the least confused, and a little angry.”
“That is a horrible sounding mess,” Katrisha said at a loss for better words.
“I did nothing to make things better,” Eran agreed. “I had already often dreamed of joining the King’s army. Something that is distinctly against the oaths of the order, but something in me always gravitated to the tales of brave Knights, and the old mage kings. So I left the cloister, and sought my fortune here. Several years later I reconsidered on one point. I decided I wished to know the daughter that was conceived without my knowledge, or consent. By then, Renoa refused.”
“How exactly does that work?” Katrisha asked. “Knowledge, consent. Isn’t it just what happens when men and women…” she hesitated to finish her questions.
“The sisters of the order…most gifted women so far as I know, cleanse themselves twice or so a month,” Eran said with a shrug. “The technique is primarily meant to avoid womanly inconvenience, but it also has the side effect of preventing pregnancy quite well. She simply chose to let it happen. I’m surprised they didn’t teach you of it during your stay, but you did arrive a bit later in life. An oversight I guess.”
“I was taught” Katrisha laughed. “By your daughter it seems, of all things.” Katrisha shook her head, her cheeks warm with embarrassment hidden by the pale light. “I was not informed it had any other…effects.”
“I suppose it wasn’t really relevant, to two young women.” Eran said pointedly, and then laughed uncomfortably himself, and glanced off into the night.
“No…” Katrisha said laughing, and dropping her gaze. “No I suppose it wasn’t.” Katrisha glanced to Eran, frowned, and considered both the merits and troubles of mentioning her worries over Celia’s last letter. There were so many ways in which he seemed both the best, and worst person to ask. The confidence he had offered her already, and his expressed approval, such as it was worth, won her over.
“I love Celia,” Katrisha finally blurted out.
“I’ve been around long enough,” Eran said with a bit of an edge, and a shrewd look crossing his face, “to hear the but behind that.”
“She has recently encouraged me to seek – shall I say the comforts of others, in words nearly so obtuse – while were are trapped in this indefinite separation,” Katrisha said at once nervously, and angrily.
“I see,” Eran said obviously uncomfortable, but not mortified. “Such is the way of some Sisters,” he said distantly. “As I have said. There was a time, that it didn’t bother me, and a time that it did. I was a fool perhaps, but my heart could not handle the jealousy.”
“Are you saying that I should?” Katrisha demanded nearly indignant.
“What do I know of the hearts of women?” Eran shrugged dismissively. “Even my upbringing would lead me to expect a woman to be the jealous one, and men the ones of wandering lusts. Prejudice has a strange tendancy to detach from more careful observations. Yet here I stand, a man who could not handle a woman with a roving way. She was never less than honest about who she was. You know your heart better than I, and hers, for that matter I would guess.”
“You truly do not know your own daughter?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.
“I have met her,” Eran said. “Only briefly, a few times, including her. I could not bring myself to tell her, and I do not have any reason to suspect her mother has.”
“Should I?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.
“I would not ask it…nor will I tell you to keep it a secret,” Eran looked away into the night. “It has gone so long unsaid…perhaps it is best it remain that way. I must go lest there be questions. I hope I have helped…in some small way.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Harfast 31st, 648 E.R.
Katrisha considered one of several bookcases in Mercu’s chamber at length. She knew he had the book she was looking for somewhere. She finally caught sight of it near the top of the most unreasonable shelf, and wondered how long he had misplaced it there. Truly the top shelf was even out of Mercu’s easy reach, and he on occasion needed step up onto a lower shelf precariously to acquire a tome. Never bothered to do the more sensible thing like bring a chair, or keep one next to the problem shelf.
She sighed, kicked off her shoes, and climbed the first, then second shelf. The thing tilted, and slammed back against the wall as two well practiced spells formed at the corners, and forced the bookcase into place without a care. Katrisha had been climbing, and saving Mercu from the cursed shelf for half her life. Automatic could not even describe the action, it might has well have been a property of the shelf itself for the effort it took.
This thought crossed Katrisha’s mind, and she considered that there were more practical means than enchantment to affix the shelves in place. Not that anyone one had ever undertaken such reasonable precaution. She bound her spells lazily into the wood, held her intent on it. Enchantment had been a passing fascination, and she had done only a little more than her instruction strictly required. She knew her principles well, almost had her equations memorized. Time was exponential to power, and consistency of application. A few seconds could last a few hours in constant use, a few minutes many orders longer. She set a catch into the spell if it moved away from the wall, that if not triggered by her own weight would have released the effect to a neutral standby, increasing the longevity of the enchantment several fold depending on use.
After a minute of focus she released the effect. It would be good for several years at least she calculated, varying with how often it needed to do its job. She considered entropic effects, but even dead wood was fairly resistant. The natural pattern of the spell seemed likely to channel the loss back into the stone wall, which would perhaps lose upwards of a few millimeters to dust over the plausible duration of her work. Less than driving metal into the stone would do. It was good enough for a whim she decided and moved on.
Katrisha considered a book bound in rich red leather with no mark on its right in front of her. She wagered a guess what it might be, ran her finger along it’s spine thoughtfully, tapped it three times, and made note to check on it in future. She snatched the book she was looking for from the left, hopped down, and put on her shoes.
She set back down toward the main keep, thinking over her options. She aimed to be a nuisance, not an actual problem. To rub being kept prisoner, in her captors faces. To irritate them, but not give them just cause to punish her. She figured that if the book was what she thought, reading it publically would cross several of those lines. Tempting, but no. She would suffice to read somewhere slightly in the way, sulkily, until they ordered her to be somewhere else, and then she would, technically.
It wasn’t that any part of it was an act. The sulking, the brooding, the pain and anger were constant, and in her estimation very justified. She was suffering, on their account, and so putting her misery where it could be seen seemed the proper way to go about it, rather than hide somewhere. She alternated between the two erratically, caught between whether it hurt her more to be seen, or for her misery to not be constantly known.
Katrisha sat down on the second to lowest step of the royal stair, opened her book, and flipped through the first few pages absently. She found with some frustration she needed to lift the book a bit to read it comfortably, rather than just rest it on her lap. She sat there a good ten minutes, drew an annoyed look from a passing guard, and then stopped, and looked up at the sound of a familiar voice.
“…he picked up his shield, still gripped with fear, but refused it…”
“Oh, Katrisha!” Marline said excitedly, her hand on Mercu’s shoulder, interrupting his story.
“Ah, yes, there is our little ray of sunshine,” Mercu acknowledged. He had been a mixture of understanding, and insufferable in Katrisha’s estimation. His manner always comforting, compassionate, his words often much less so. Little jabs like that were frequent. He had explained at one point, when she confronted him about it, and he held her chin between two fingers, and fixed her square in the eye, ‘She’s not dead.’ She hadn’t even been able to protest the words for how obtusely obvious they were. ‘You remember that,’ he had continued. ‘So as long as you keep acting like she is, I’m going to keep teasing you. Probably regardless, but take your chances.’
“Seems more a ray of moonshine,” Maraline considered. “My dear, your hair, it is spectacular!”
Katrisha closed her book, and shifted somewhat languishingly from her moping to some semblance of joy to see Maraline. It at once hurt and consoled her to see the undisguised concern written on Maraline’s face. She stood, reached out her hand, palm up, and Marline accepted curiously to let her kiss the back of hers.
“So formal,” Maraline said, “truly I must wonder if I am even before the great and mighty Katrisha.” She leaned forward, and embraced her firmly. “Do forgive the interruption, Mercu, you will finish the tale later, I implore. After all it has been so long since I’ve seen my dearest friend.”
“Of course,” Mercu said with a bow, and headed on down the corridor.
“What brings you to Broken Hill?” Katrisha asked, and returned the embrace for a moment before stepping back.
“I’ve heard so much of your troubles, and could not remain away any longer,” Maraline said with a nod of sympathy. “Though I fear that some most recent difficulty that has befallen you, was deemed too confidential to clarify. Mercu has assured me it is only for you to speak of, and since you will not write me back.”
“Thank you for your letters,” Katrisha said a bit meekly. “I am sorry I did not respond of their receipt, or what they have meant to me. At first I did not know what to say, and then…as you know I was ill. When finally something so wonderful came into my life, all at once I did not feel I could write of it. Now something terrible in equal measure, and all the less I did not feel right to pen an account of it that might be intercepted, or for that matter to speak of it publically. Please, walk with me, and I will be less afraid to tell you.”
Marline took Katrisha’s hand with both curiosity and concern, and they climbed the stairs.
“Fear,” Maraline mused. “Why are the stories always about the boy’s conquering their fears? The moment I saw Mercu I knew I would quite childishly beg him to tell me a story, and he did not disappoint, but…”
Kat stopped, smirked, and gave Marline a pointed glance. “Personally, I always attributed the prevalence of the theme to boys having so many more fears to conquer.”
“Oh, is that why you’ve fought a dragon naked then, a complete lack of sensible fear?”
“No, that was you.”
“Excuse me?” Maraline protested incredulously, her hand coming suddenly to her heart.
“I told you about that passage, in that old book, where a proud male mage spoke of it as more sensible to go into battle naked than in a robe. Shared the joke about how it would be shameless to do such a thing. You said it would be fearless, for shame, is just another form of fear.”
“So you are fearless then, and inasmuch, shameless?” Maraline teased.
“Probably,” Katrisha shrugged, and spun to give a childish cheeky glance to her old friend, and then reconsidered that she had been foolish. Maraline really was her friend. She had always offered her such confidence, and Katrisha had never felt she had the same to give in kind. That wasn’t true, and never had been true, she began to realize, though it was only half formed.
“Yet you fear to tell me what new ill, or for that matter good fortune has befallen you,” Marline cut back.
Two realizations collided. A rush of a battle mage at the height of her power, working on pure instinct, and far less skill than should have been required for the task. A moment standing on a cliff, considering all the ways things could go wrong – and the thought was little more than an itch – all the ways it already had. It all crumbled, and came back to Maraline, and the words that had tipped the balance to try something utterly mad. She was fearless in that moment, and there before Maraline, she was anything but shameless as present emotions overtook the shadows of things that never were.
It rushed in, all the years they had spent together, every moment added up into far more time that it should have existed. It dwindled the already overwhelming memory of that night, and pushed it aside into the shadows where it belonged. She could not even place all the memories that struck her. She struggled with an understanding that the two experiences were the same. Struggling through every moment of her life to navigate senses more easily ignored. Feeling not just the moment, but the one ahead. Had all her memories happened. Would Maraline remember every one of them as well. Would any found missing be as likely to have never happened, as any failing of Maraline’s memory.
Katrisha only slightly teetered under the weight of it all, and Marline moved to catch her, which actually put Katrisha off balance, and made her more uncomfortable. The part that seemed more important wanted to recede, and the realization of things that should have been painfully obvious from the start gladly took their place. The idea of her memory being wrong somehow was slippery. Dragons, battles, the things of legend felt small in the shadow of life itself. That was as much as she could fully retain.
Katrisha turned her head from her friend as she grew embarrassed by what it might look like, her nearly fainting for seemingly no reason, or the wrong reason. Or was it? So many silly things she had thought were nothing, added up to something. Something that had been the real cause. The most mundane of human attachments having caught a ride on a battle for her life. All fighting with something nipping at the edge of awareness. Things that hadn’t happened. Pasts that hadn’t been. In both cases. She could almost identify the new memories, like the feeling that something had happened before in reverse, the feeling that something you knew had happened hadn’t.
It had never been the fall. Those wounds however grave, were nothing. If she had fought a lifetime on that mountain, she felt like she had known Maraline far longer, even as the memories fell away, this impression stuck. She pushed it all back into the shadows where it belonged, and embraced a far more comfortable human embarrassment. Nearly convinced even herself that had been it.
“I suppose I must explain that?” Katrisha asked uneasily.
“Only if you do not want me to drag you to Laurel this instant, and even then I will make no promises,” Marline said sternly. “You, were never the fainting sort.”
“I worry to think what you will think of me if I tell you. For I will have some trouble liking you nearly so much if you think ill of me for it. Further, I must demand of you absolute confidence on the mater. For it has already cost me enough.”
Marline looked shrewd a moment. “You have my word,” she nodded.
Katrisha checked each way, and used the excuse to lean closer – well before she realized it was an excuse. “I’ve come to realize, having fallen in love, what some things that I did, or did not feel, might have meant.” She paused leadingly with a smile.
“You are in love, dear Katrisha!?” Marline said excitedly, grabbing her hand. All she had been told in Mercu’s letter had been that Katrisha had faced more troubles than illness, or her missing twin, and could above all else use a friend.
Katrisha went crimson. “Yes, and it has cost me a great deal this love, for she, is kept far away from me, for the sake of the image of the court.” Shameless and fearless, were both cute words, Katrisha realized, but they were rubbish. One needed simply accept the fear, and ignore shame, and live their life any way.
Maraline’s expression shifted in a most inscrutable way, as though sliding sideways through implications, and arriving at one that made her release Katrisha’s hand, though not quite pull away. “I’ve not…been without understanding that such things are,” she said measuredly.
“And so am I now less in your eyes?” Katrisha asked with some tension that could have been sadness or annoyance, she wasn’t quite sure without Maraline’s answer.
“I think not. Just a matter of point that I’ve not fancied the notion myself, and would not give any allusions to the contrary, if…let me not be too impertinent in my presumptions.”
“Wait, what?” Katrisha asked a bit bewildered.
“Dear creature, that was if I did not miss my guess, a wilt of want. You are a fainting sort after all, just not over rugged sorts.” Maraline rested her fingers over her heart, and smiled.
Katrisha gave her a funny look. She did not like the interpretation. She had been overwhelmed by things she was ill disposed to explain, and even if what was implied played a part, it was… She shook off her uncertainty, and played along, because if nothing else, the tact of it did appeal to her on some levels. “Well, now you are just flirting with me.”
“I am, matter of fact,” Maraline agreed, and seemed pleased with the reaction it got. “I find it is the natural condition of such conversation when both sides are close, and at least one fancies the other. I, never was drawn to the notion, but it was good sport to be playful with those who did, whom I shared such confidence as to know.”
“I think for once it is my turn to call you terrible.”
“I had the best teacher,” Marline said, took Katrisha’s hands again, and then hugged her tightly.
“Funny how they keep calling me that,” Katrisha laughed.
“Terrible?” Marline asked, pushed back, and held her friend at arm’s length, as though prepared to rain great trouble on anyone else who dared to call her friend terrible.
“A good teacher,” Karisha correct. “I thought Celia magic, she taught me…a few other things.”
Marline covered her mouth, and giggled. “Oh did she now? Anything of use to ungifted hands?”
“Perhaps,” Katrisha mused. “I wonder though if it is anything your husband and you have not worked out yet. You’ve had a little longer.”
“I suppose only a thorough comparing of notes could resolve the issue.”
“How studious,” Katrisha said biting her lip to hold back her humor.
“We learned to value analytical knowledge from the same man after all. Good old Moriel. I do not suspect he would approve the subject, but let us at least keep the rigor up to his standards!”
“Oh, by all means, but please,” Katrisha chuckled. “Can we take this somewhere else, I think I’m about to wind up on my knees after all, from laughter.”
Maraline nodded, and looped her arm with Katrisha’s. “You know I always felt more like you were a little brother,” she considered conspiratorially. “Guess there’s no surprise then where your fancies might lie.”
“How dare you,” Katrisha snapped more amused than angry really, but it did sting a bit. “I am in no way a boy. I am feminine, girlish,” she reached over and batted one of Marline’s long meticulously shaped curls pointedly, “just not patient for such preening. Oh it’s pretty, and I appreciate it, surely, but at once more and less for how much fuss it all is. Further, I am not quite half so boorish as a boy.”
“Forgive me, you are right. I’d hardly call any of those girls anything but the most proper ladies, in styling, as it were,” she sighed. “Though I often had my doubts as to their character. Engaging handmaids, and servants in such affairs. Such an imbalance of power. It was really through my friends…experience with such girls I learned how much more commonly the boys sought their…attentions.”
Katrisha looked very cross. “They…misused them?”
“No, not by my understanding. Sorry it is my own prejudice that might have intruded on my tone. I have been told there are simple rules. Who crafted these rules none can say, but they are rules, and the group will enforce them in perhaps dire ways. First no names. Second no titles. Third always in kind.”
“Oh,” Katrisha said a bit perplexed. “What do they mean exactly, though I think I may partly understand.”
“You do not tell who your lovers are. Your title and station mean nothing, you are equals. I do not always trust that I believed that. In practice though, I am told at least meant that which is done for your tastes, must be paid in kind.”
“Tastes?” Katrisha pressed not sure of the meaning, and trying to make sense of it.
“I’ve been told it’s most often a matter of the lips, tongue, and…” she let that hang a moment, and watched Katrisha’s reaction.
Katrisha went pale. “I never!”
“Oh, yes, words I’ve heard attested before, and just as then I will take your account as fact, but someone did, and so the notion persists. Seriously, deprives the mater of the proper airs some tried to give it. Manners that would seem more proper than the affair of a man and woman, for certain, goodness such a messy affair. Oh worth it, of course, but I find I must bathe to feel sensible again.”
“I can only imagine, and it seems I would rather not.”
“So now I will press curiosity on my end. Have you no affection for men?”
“I cannot say that I have. Not many my age that have not offended my sensibilities thoroughly. Not many older for what that is worth. So perhaps the matter is an open question, in want of a palatable answer.”
“I ask because one young lady did confide in me that having partaken of both, she had concluded she greatly preferred the attentions of a more feminine sort.”
“I can’t say I’ve tried both, and I’ve no particular intention to. Quite content with my Celia.”
“Lycian,” Marline said sagely.
“Excuse me?” Katrisha asked feeling almost as though she should be annoyed, but confused why.
“It is a word for a woman who partakes primarily of the affections of other women,” Marline answered.
“It’s also a rather large nation out east, a people, do not tell me it is just because they have a Queen? It’s also the name of…an order…”
“Yes, well,” Marline chuckled watching Katrisha freeze up as a thought rattled through her head unsatisfactorily. “I think it’s a little more that they’ve had a few pairs of Queens, and I think perhaps you’ve remembered the reputation of that order.”
“They don’t all,” Katrisha protested.
“Oh, from my reading the original sense was far less polite than just something flowery like lover of women. Something that I estimate is quite capable of being far more tidy than the games of husband and wife. And all the same was a slur on the women of a whole people, and the men. A mocking of their looseness, and the men’s lack of mastery. That all was till some woman had enough, and turned that slur into a point of pride.”
“Sylvia Grey?” Katrisha asked.
“Yes, so you do know some of this?”
“No, I think I’ve only begun to put it together, honestly.”
“I’ve not read the full Red Book,” Marline said absently. “I’ve been trying to get a copy, but they are terribly hard to come by in South Rook. There also seems some confusion on the matter. I have come to conclude there to be several different tomes of the same description, and author.”
“Are there?” Katrisha asked curiously. It seemed a new revelation on a topic she had not pressed her curiosity upon yet. Yet was all the more sure exactly where she would start.
“They try so hard to hide things from us Ladies. Yet in my experience it is the Ladies who know how things really are. Men, my dear man among them, are the ones possessed of a great many illusions in matters of courtship. That what they feel is so uniquely impassioned, chief among such folly.”
Katrisha blushed again.
“Were I so bold, I might assure him that a woman feels all the urges he does, but we measure them against a cost in fuss he needn’t be so troubled by. Pregnancy, and mess. No. How would he understand that even the one of these that is wanted, is still a detriment even to a well wed woman expected to produce heirs. He is a sweet man, but he’s no concept of such work. That we may long for the act, but it is with us that the consequences stay, both the moment, and the children in our bellies. No, it was this, that was argued to me, most vehemently, as to why it is so much more respectable to pass one’s time with another lady, than a young man. For nature has placed us on entirely equal terms in the matter.”
“I suppose it would be quite the effort to lower myself to a man,” Katrisha cut back on the point.
“Assuredly,” Marline rejoined. “Think how much farther it is for me.”
“Very far,” Katrisha flirted back, and caught herself.
Marline smirked pleasantly, and Katrisha found it all together unfair the effect she could have on her as she realized so many things, that previously had just been an inch out of sight.
“You are a lovely young woman,” Marline said and gently touched her friends cheek. “While I’ve no particular affinity to take leave of what might be behind that look in your eyes, does not mean I do not take some pride in having such effect on you. If this offers any recompense for our uneven positions.”
“I suppose some,” Katrisha offered. “Very clear eyed of you to notice the affront.”
“You’ve never been one to wear them gladly, least of all the ones you can’t call another party wrong on.”
“No, nor do I permit that I am.”
“I think not,” Marline offered agreeably.
“Then things are settled.”
“Oh, no, hardly, details, every one.”
“And you will pay in kind?”
“Those are the rules.”
They stepped into the tower stairs together, and Katrisha hesitated. She listened for footsteps above, or bellow, She had already been careless, but she was not sure she cared. She was not sure she didn’t either. “Then, let me start with the most frustrating of them. That she has bid me not keep myself in loneliness for her. That for her very sake, I should avail myself of the opportunity of affection where I might find it.”
“How markedly unjealous,” Marline said dubiously. “I do not think I could make my Lucas such an offer, though there should never be such need. I suppose if I were to imagine that…it could be years. I suppose I should imagine it happening any way, and offer my forgiveness in advance. All at once I do not like the idea in the least. To encourage it, and you would again characterize it so, as encouragement?”
“Frustratingly, yes. It appears more request than acceptance.”
“I’m at a cross of sensibilities then. It seems a most…fair, affordance, in an all together unfair situation, and amongst those already outside convention.”
“I do not believe any lack of convention gives me the least peace. Well, I needn’t worry. For a lack of opportunity it all amounts to no more than an intellectual quandary,” Katrisha countered.
“I doubt very much you’ve any lack of opportunity, only imagination.”
“Since when did you have the greater imagination?”
“Oh but I’ve so much more knowledge on the matter to work with,” Maraline intoned sagely, and started up the stairs.
“Oh do you?” Katrisha chided. “I’ve it on some authority that a gifted woman, who knows the practices I do, needn’t have worry about…shall we say such imbalance that favors the man in such affairs.”
“Nothing unintended? I’ve heard rumors it is so, and that you needn’t deal with certain recurring annoyances.”
“Yes, well, I did once, before someone thought to teach me otherwise.”
“Poor dear, once! However have you endured,” Maraline said with the most exaggerated mock pitty, and turned to make sure the act was appreciated. “I dare say it is the best thing about my condition, that I no longer have to suffer it.”
“You…are pregnant?” Katrisha asked, startled by the casually dropped insinuation.
“A month late for that unwelcome visitor, yes. A healer has confirmed. Otherwise I would pester you for aid in that recurring nuisance, but as it is, I am not in need of such services.”
“I hadn’t heard,” Katrisha said excitedly.
“I’ve told no one else yet, save my husband. I was advised with a first young pregnancy like this to speak sparingly of it, but the frankness of our conversation got the better of me. So now you know.”
“Congratulations,” Katrisha added with a nod.
“Don’t think that gets you out of this,” Marline grinned wickedly.
“Don’t think you haven’t added to the list of questions you will be answering in kind. Oh, but let me call attention to what you have not noticed,” Katrisha held up her left hand, and made apparent a ring there.
Maraline grasped the hand in disbelief, and looked to her friend to confirm her assertion.
“Accuse me of being unconventional,” she said teasingly.
“I would never accuse, of what I know to be fact,” she said laughing at the confirmation.