Snowflakes and Embers Chapter 1

His sandals made scuffing sounds on  the stone floor,    it was a sound that echoed up to the arched windows that were open to catch the  early evening breezes. He liked the sound of his feet moving down the passage  to the garden. It echoed and he could almost feel the vibrations of the soft  sound like the echoes of a bell, only  low and scratchy. The two servants, eunuchs as all the servants that attended  him were, followed on bare feet and made no sounds. There hadn’t been a single  moment of his life when he’d been without at the least one of the bald headed,  quiet servants following him around  and for the most part he dismissed their presence.

At the entrance  to the garden he paused  as he did before entering any room  with people in it. The servants scuttled forward and fussed at the ritual robe  he wore, straightening the way it hung from his shoulders, flicking dust and  lint that was barely visible away .   Even going so far as to arrange any  braid that may have fallen out of line while he walked. Some days he  wanted to smack them to make them stop fussing, it was  a reflex and one he suppressed. He’d hit a servant once as a young boy for  fussing at him. His father had beaten him with his own hand in punishment. Not  because he’d smacked a servant but because he’d failed to behave as was proper  for a child of the Guiding Star of Bastion. A prince had to be perfection  at all moments, or at least make the effort of perfection and it  was the bald  servant’s job  to see he came as close as he could. It was his obligation to allow them to  fuss. It didn’t mean he wasn’t grateful each time they stopped and backed away.  One  hurried  forward to open the door for him.

The palace was spotted with gardens,  some so tiny that one person filled them, some so  sprawling he’d lost himself in them as a child. This one was modestly sized. A  fountain spat water into the air and the  mosaic tiled walkways curved around green leafy plants that grew well in their  arid dry soil. Most weren’t flowering sorts, but the  shades of green  were nearly  as stunning and it gave the garden a cool peaceful feel. The sun was low enough  now that the garden was shaded but the stones still radiated heat and it gave  some defense against the coming chill of full dark.

Set in the center  of the garden was a low table with cushions tossed on either side. Down the  center was a length of ivory gauze fabric, a double hands width high but a  clear break between one side and the other. The table was set for two, each  side perfectly mirroring the other so nothing would need to be passed over the  small fabric barrier.

Across the table,  seated like some beautiful flower with all the leafy green plants behind her,  was his sister. Her hair was as elaborately braided as his own, only it was  twisted and pulled back and pinned under a sheer length of pale pink covered  with heavy gold embroidery. She nearly jumped to her feet, a smile bright and  wide danced on her face at seeing him, it made the heavy black lines painted  around her eyes crinkle and her equally black eyes glow.

“Deseemdamiah.” She greeted almost breathlessly and ignored the female  servant that straightened the lengths of lightweight fabric draped around her  body. “Brother.”

“Marlynnia, sister. How was your day?” He smiled lightly back before  lowering himself down onto the cushion on his side of the table. She followed  suit and took her own seat and both ignored the swirl of servants that fussed  about them.

“Far better now  that you’ve arrived. I was growing concerned, the hour grows late.”

“I was kept late  at my studies.” Deseem answered and was grateful the  long sleeves of his robe  hid the welts from  the cane his teachers and the older priests used to encourage  him to learn better. The inside of his lower arms were painful but they’d be  better by the morning. “You know I wouldn’t miss taking my dinner with you,  it’s the only enjoyment I have.”

“You flatter me  too much. Father came and saw me today.”

That made him  raise his eyebrows ; she  seemed intact and whole. Their father only came to visit them when one of them  required punishment. “Oh?”

“He’s finding me  a husband. I won’t be long here, brother.” Her voice was steady but her tone  wasn’t pleased.

“Oh.” The word  was nearly a grunt and would have earned him a welt from his tutors. There was  little they hated more than poor skills at communication. This time a welt  would have been a welcomed pain, it couldn’t have hurt more  than the shock of his sister leaving. That was a pain he wasn’t prepared for.

“We both knew I  would be a wife soon.”

He nodded and  studied his hands folded in his lap. “I know.”

“Please, brother,  don’t look so sad.”

“Should I look  joyful? The only person I have to speak with is leaving me. I’ll be cloistered  alone here.”

“It won’t be so  bad. I’m sure my husband will be kind enough to allow me to    visit you.”

That was a long  shot and Deseem knew it even if she didn’t. If his  sister was very lucky, her husband would be a kind man but it would be years  more before he took a second wife or allowed her the freedom to come visit.  She’d have sisters now and servants that could speak to her more freely and  he’d still be alone.

That wasn’t  truths he wanted to share. “Perhaps.” He smiled as  much as he could force. “I’m happy for you.”

“It’s what I’ve  been training for.”

He heard the  uncertainty in her voice and knew her fears. All women were frightened of  becoming brides. “You’ll make a fine wife.”

“Thank you.” She  smiled and fell silent as servants arrived with trays carrying their dinner.  Neither one of them were comfortable speaking too freely in front of too many  servants. The ones that attended them were as cloistered as they were,  but the ones from the kitchen were another breed entirely. “I’m sure father  will pick a good man.”

Deseem  frowned at the china of his soup bowl. “This is not my food.”

His sister  stopped speaking. Her servants glanced to him. His servants glanced to each  other but no one answered.

“This is not my  food.” The pattern on the china never changed. His sister’s was  stylized with yellow and pink lines in swirling round ovals. She was to be a  bride and wife and the colors and pattern of all she touched and used reflected  that fact since the day she was born. He was to be a priest and his items of  personal use had also been marked, with  blue  and green patterns of straight lines and triangles, sharp points and angles.  The pattern on the bowl in front of him had the straight lines, triangles,  and sharp angles of the priesthood but it also  had  the entwined  curving patterns of a bride, similar to his sisters but not as obvious.

“Your Majesty…”  The servant started.

“This is not my  food.” He leaned back. “Take it away and bring it proper this time and see to  it fresh is also brought for my sister. I will not have her eating stale food  because of your failure.”

“Your Majesty…”

“Brother.” A deep  voice echoed from behind Deseem and he could tell by  how wide his sister’s dark eyes grew that the owner of the voice was in the  room with them.

She instantly  bowed, deeply and the servants as well. Deseem was a  fraction slower, he was startled by his older brother’s arrival and had to  actually turn to confirm it was him before he bowed as well.

“I had hoped to  arrive before dinner but it wasn’t to be.”

At his words, the  servants eased and his siblings rose from their deep, respectful bows. Deseem had always admired his elder brothers ; tall,  strong, dressed in the form fitting clothes of the leaders and warriors they  were. Even here, in the heart of the palace his brother was armed, a sword with  an ornate gold hilt hung from his finely crafted belt. His hair was braided  into  a thousand   braids;  dozens of silver hoops pierced his ears, each one earned in battle. Irendorialah was second son and as such was everything a  Bastion male should be and everything Deseem admired.

“Brother.”

“Deseem, a word with you alone.”

It wasn’t a  request and Deseem rose as carefully to his feet as  he could. His brother’s presence was strong enough that his servants didn’t  instantly rush forward to fuss over his clothing. That made him nervous. His  brother’s visits were few and far between but never once had he requested to  speak to either of his younger siblings alone.

“As  you wish.” He  nodded his head and when his brother turned to go to a side room, he followed  without question.

The side room was  a large rectangle with an open floor and chairs along the wall. When their  mother lived, it would have been a place where women gathered to sew and talk,  shut behind closed doors with only cloistered servants to attend them. It  should have been a room filled with life but had been sitting empty for all of Deseem’s memory.

“Leave us.” Irend ordered but Deseem’s  servants  paused.

“Your Majesty…”

“I know the laws.  Leave us. He’s my brother and will not be touched.”

That  made Deseem frown. Yes, he was to remain untouched by  women, as was the law but never had the ban been enforced to men. He waited  until they were alone.

“Irend, what’s going on?”

“Sit down, little  brother.”

“I’m fine.”

Irend shook  his head and the tiny braids shook freely around him. “Sit down, little  brother.”  He moved and pulled one of the  chairs from the wall and placed it near his brother before moving to fetch one  for himself. This one he placed several feet away before he sat in it. Breaking  such news was never easy and it was made more difficult with his  brother’s golden amber eyes on him.  The young man couldn’t have gotten their black brown  eyes;  instead he’d gotten a variation of their mother’s light brown amber. It made Irend wonder if that was maybe why their father was so hard  on his youngest child and so willing to place him in such a position.

“Please, Irend, tell me what is going on? I’m surprised, but  pleased, to see you. Last we had heard you were on the border near Dunsach. How goes the war?”

He sighed and  eased back in his chair a little, having to adjust his sword to do it. “The war  is long and bloody and never ending and we are not going to win.” They were  words he’d only confess to his brother and only when he knew no one could  overhear. “I had a message from Uncle to deliver to our Lord Father and it was  at his request that I speak to you.”

“Uncle’s?”

“Father’s.”   The boy he’d known when he’d ridden to war a year ago was not the boy  sitting across from him. Deseem had always been a  bright and thoughtful child but now his intellect was almost a fire behind his  amber eyes. A carefully banked one but a fire nonetheless. It wasn’t the first  time he tried to picture his brother’s mind turned toward war and the  subtleties of commanding an army. If he hadn’t been the third born son he could  have made an amazing warrior and if their father had left things as they were,  his brother would surely have become the most powerful priest of their age.

“Things are difficult  right now and complicated. You’re young yet, I don’t expect you to understand  the importance of this.”

Deseem  folded his hands in his lap and pushed the sick fear down. He was a child of  the Guiding Star of Bastion and feared nothing, or at least that’s what he’d  been told. Irend had been the one to tell him while  he was still small that it didn’t mean not feeling fear but not expressing it.

“You know our  Lord and Father has invoked many old laws, old ways, saying it is because we  have lost our truth that we have grown weak.”

“Yes, I study the  old laws daily.”

He nodded and  wasn’t surprised. “Many of these he revived long before either of us were born  but he continues to do so and has done so again recently. A  law that concerns you and fell into effect again this afternoon.”

“What law  brother?”

“Father needs to  secure allies, his place is not as stable as it should  be  with the war and bloodshed. Many  of his allies have far more sons than  daughters;  Henridyliah has nine children, all around your age.  His two oldest sons are his heirs, his daughter will become my wife next year,  and  his third son will enter the priesthood as you’ve been trained to  be but the other sons are too valuable to offer to God. A son takes a bride and  brings a stranger into his  house;  it’s a sign of trust. When securing a less than stable relationship you give  over your daughter to another man’s house, but too many of our most trusted  families have too few daughters and men like Father and Uncle had only one wife  and refuse to wed again yet.”

The sharp stab of  pain at the thought of his sister wedding and leaving him was nothing compared  to the strike of panic when understanding dawned. “Bentan  Bride.”

“Father has  decreed the old law valid. All third or later sons are now eligible for both  the priesthood and to become a Bentan bride. This  will be the last you and I can ever be alone together until you are wed or have  taken your vows. As Bentan, you may not be touched by  any man   except a   eunuch, just as your sister may not;  but as priest you may not be touched by any woman either. You must now learn  both roles and be ready to fill either place.”

“No, no I won’t!”

“Brother…”

“No!” He stood up  and felt his fear and anger boiling. The chair skidded across the floor behind  him. “I won’t! I am no woman nor will I be treated as such!”

“Brother…Deseem…” He frowned but held his own chair. “It pains me as  well, but it is the law and tradition of  the land.”

“I won’t do it!”

“Enough!” Irend roared and rose to his feet. His brother had grown  but he was still a boy and not very tall. “You are a prince of the royal line,  a child of the Guiding Star of Bastion! Act like it! It is not our right or  position to question the place that God has decreed for us, it is  merely our place to serve!”

The anger stopped  Deseem’s protest even though he knew his brother  would never raise a hand to him. That was doubly true now that he was  untouchable, the only one to be allowed to beat him was their father but that  didn’t mean Irend couldn’t smack him with a cane or  break a vase over his head. Or worse, his brother could call fire and burn him.

“You will become  a priest or you will become a bride. Hold to your dignity no matter which  direction God wills. You are young, too young for either choice still. Father  still decrees th at if you are to  be  married, it will be  delayed until your seventeenth year so you’ve nearly three years before you  must face either fate. Many things can occur in three years, brother. Until  then learn your new lessons and hold firm to your purity and do not dishonor  our house.”

He wanted to hit  something or scream ; instead  he nodded meekly. “Yes, brother.”

“Good. Would you  care to explain to our sister or shall I? I would like the chance to see her  before having to leave.”

“I’m not feeling well, I’d like to retire if I may?”

Irend  nodded and saw the anger and fear in the amber eyes. “Of  course. May the peace of God fill you brother.”

“And  also you.” Deseem answered automatically but barely heard the words.  He moved quickly to leave, opening the door for himself since all of the  servants had been dismissed. Out in the garden he caught his sister’s worried  glance but was in no mood to try to explain to her or listen to her false  comfort that marriage wasn’t a horrible option.

He didn’t pause  but kept moving, his servants following now and scrambling to catch up. This  time ignoring them was an effort but he hurried away to his own set of rooms  and didn’t stop until the door slammed closed behind him.

“Bring my dinner  to me here,  draw  a bath, and take my hair down, I am not going  out again this evening.” He ordered and sat down on the dressing bench. The  pair rushed to obey, one bald man moved to the bath and he soon heard the hiss  of water running while the other began the task of freeing his hair from it’s  hundreds of braids. He hated the braids, the time it took to create them and  remove them.   He had been looking forward to  having his head shaved when he took his vows. Either way in a few years time  he’d never have to worry about them again. A priest was shaved bald when they  took their final vows, severing ties to their family in the process and a bride  wore her hair in two braids only. It wasn’t until he was soaking up to his chin  in hot, scented water and nibbling at his dinner that the urge to lop his hair  off finally passed but the cold fear  of his  new future didn’t melt with the water’s warmth.

One thought on “Snowflakes and Embers Chapter 1

  1. Tiffany

    Hi! I just wanted to let you know that I adore this story!! It’s my all time favorite!! I read it a couple year ago and now I am looking forward to read it again!!

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