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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
“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!”
“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.