Snowflakes and Embers Chapter 2

Marla turned the  fabric over in her hands and smiled brightly. “It’s unfair brother.” She handed  the cloth to one of her servants, the woman handed it to one of Deseem’s  servants and that man handed it back to her brother. “Six months of practice  and your needlework is nearly as good as mine.”

The compliment  offered him no sense of accomplishment. “It means nothing to me.”

“Really, Deseem,  will being a bride be such a horrible fate? You’ll be second wife and as Bentan  you’ll be spared the marriage bed since no Bentan in the history of the world  has produced a child.” Her voice faded away and she picked at the meat of a  cracked nut.

He wasn’t as  convinced of that as his sister was. He knew there were things men could do  together,  just not what they were. Once he’d nearly  caught two priests in the temple but a passerby had prevented him from spying  on their actions but their words made it clear something was possible. From the  texts he’d read of the old laws on Bentan, the function of a Bentan was to  provide comfort while the first wife was with child or tending a young child.

It wasn’t even  the idea of intimate relations with a man that upset him. He’d known almost  from before his body had begun to mature into that of a man’s that his only  outlet for some of the urges he’d been trying to control would be with other  men.  His tutors had hinted, but not even begun to  explain, only left small clues that things were to be expected; that there were  comforts to be found in the company of men.     Relations with another priest or  with a husband would be much the same as he thought it.

 

No, it was the  rest that came with being Bentan that disturbed him. He would no longer be a  son of the Guiding Star but a daughter. No one would refer to him as he but  she. He would be expected to dress, act and behave as a woman and wife would.  Never again would he be acknowledged as a male and even his own brothers would  call him sister. He would never be a priest, never again be a boy  and he was mourning that potential loss as surely as if he’d  already been promised.

“Please, don’t  look so sad. You make my heart ache for you brother, knowing I  will be  leaving you when you’re still so upset.”

“Leaving me?” He  glanced up over the table but she could only mean one thing.

“Father sent me  word,  this time next month I shall be a married woman.”

“Marla…”

“I’ve heard  little of him, not even his name, just that he is a stern but fair man and  Father has selected him.” She forced a smile but tears welled up in her eyes.  “So, please, brother, let’s not be sad with what time we have. Tell me a story,  tell me of some long ago hero and his great love?”

“Very well.”  Women weren’t allowed to read and even a daughter of the royal line hadn’t been  taught. If he became a bride, he’d no longer be able to pour over  old books and learn new stories of old romances with which to make his sister  smile. Romance and love was one ancient law and tradition that hadn’t survived  to their age.

 

“How long can she  scream?” Deseem asked and pulled his knees closer to his chest. There seemed to  be no place in the cloistered wing of the palace free from the horrid sound of  his  sister’s tortured  screams so he’d retreated to the main garden but that was no better. He sat  there being silently watched by his servants and none were willing to offer  comfort or even a few words in answer to his question.

Marla’s husband  had learned she had magic. A woman was not allowed such power and a wife was  doubly forbidden under the laws and traditions of their people. If her husband  had not protested, she may have slipped by unnoticed but he had and threatened  the marriage because of how she was born.

If the marriage  was broken, she’d be a disgrace and worse. Neither of them were sure of what  the worse was but Deseem had found enough hints in his books to know it was not  good. Marla had wept for the entire day when word was sent to them and he’d had  to sit on his side of the garden unable to even wipe a single one of her tears  away.

Until one of his  tutors,  an older  priest  had arrived with several guards and  a dozen more priests Deseem didn’t know and informed her that there was hope.  There was a way to remove her magic and whether she wished it or not, their  father had so ordered it be done. The guards hadn’t been necessary, she’d  followed them willingly away to a prepared room somewhere in their wing.

The screaming had  started within the hour and had continued for the better part of the day. It  was a maddening sound and that first day he’d wanted to break from his series  of rooms, into hers and find her and make them stop. It wouldn’t be allowed, he  knew he couldn’t leave his section of the palace and that there were armed,  strong eunuchs at the doors to keep him in place but with each scream he felt  his betrayal of his sister deepen.

The second day  her screams were hoarse and broken but they cut him  deeper. He felt pushed to the boundaries of his own sanity and for the first  time in his life, he felt trapped in his secure  cloister. Since he was a small child, he’d spent part of every day talking with  his only sister, sharing a meal with her  and  sharing their days. She was his only real companion and friend and he loved her  dearly but there he sat, curled up like an infant, hiding in the gardens  praying for her screams to stop but not  doing a  thing to help her.

As the third day disappeared,  her voice did as well but Deseem knew from what little he’d been able to find  on the subject that the process took three days. Three days of scrubbing the  mind clean of any access to the magic in the world around them. Three days of  burning out the inborn talent and just because she’d fallen silent didn’t mean  her suffering was over. He didn’t sleep that night, instead he sat awake and  watched the way the chilled night air made the leaves in his  small private garden tremble.

He went to their  garden every night for dinner and for a week found her side of the table empty  with no place set. When he questioned his servants, they  refused to answer him. When he asked his tutors, his  arms were  welted from  their canes from wrist to elbows. It wasn’t until the day of her wedding when  he happened into the garden near noon that he finally saw her again.

Nothing outward  had changed, except that her face didn’t light up with a smile when her eyes  drifted over to him. For a moment he feared she didn’t know him but he saw  tears well up in her dark eyes and he knew. Whatever had been done to her, she  was still there, inside her own head, or as much of her as they’d left. She was  dressed in the bridal  finery;  all six layers of it and the final touches were being made to her hair. One  servant girl’s job was to dab away the drool that occasionally leaked from one  corner of her slack mouth.

Deseem made it  back to his rooms before becoming ill. He didn’t leave his bedroom for the rest  of the day. If it had been in him, he would have curled up on his bed and wept  but it seemed pointless. There was no one to notice or care, he doubted even  God would hear.

 

Deseem found he  didn’t like traveling. As much as his mind had wandered out from within the  walls of his rooms of the palace, he was secure there. The world seemed too  large, too vast and unsafe and open and he found himself almost cowering in the  coach he’d been bundled into. The servants that  rode  with him sat on the opposite bench and ignored him as they always  did.      He pulled the blinds on the small  windows to dim the sunlight and pretend he was safely back in his rooms and not  wandering across the world.

The isolation of  the last year and few months since his sister had wed had made him quiet, which  he was told was a good thing in both a priest and a wife but it had also made  him unusually shy around strangers. Never once in his life had he been beyond  his rooms and seen so many people, so many faces and so much of the land. It  was overwhelming and he found himself withdrawing further into his own thoughts   than was normal.

The only  advantage to the forced travel was that his father was taking them closer to  the border and that meant a chance to see his brothers. The eldest,  Frendirialah, was a virtual stranger to Deseem. He saw his brother maybe once  every few years but had only  heard his voice twice during his  lifetime. It was Irend that he missed and hoped to see, Irend that would share  with him word of their sister.

The trip had been  long and boring. They stayed in tents when between noble’ s homes or when his  father wished to travel faster. When visiting other people’s holdings,  Deseem was secured in a small series of rooms, carefully guarded and required  to eat alone. Or he assumed he was alone, there was always one or two walls  that were ornate carved wood that he couldn’t swear didn’t have people behind  watching him. Once, when he was introduced to the Count in question, he was  also introduced to his wives. All three of them and the third was Bentan. All  three were dressed alike, fabric drawn across the lower portions of their face  as any modest wife would wear but there was no doubt that the third wife was a  young man and not a young woman. His eyes had been empty but for the pity they  silently offered.

Deseem had  dropped his eyes with the modesty of a wife and woman. He’d never dropped his  eyes before as son and priest. He wasn’t even a wife yet but facing what he  would one day become was like cold water shocked down his spine. All the long  months of training for his new future snapped in and he stood there, eyes down,  praying he’d not become ill.

Most of all, he  hated when they camped in the tents at night. He had to sit in the coach,  alone, with his servants guarding the doors, while his tent was raised. It took  over an hour, on a good day, because it wasn’t just the tent but all the rugs  and furnishings, all the belongings a prince was supposed to have at his  disposal. The coach was stuffy when they simply sat in the sun and weren’t  moving and he tried to ignore the growing heat. So far north the climate was a  little cooler, the flat planes and craggy rock faces around the palace had  given away to scrub trees and small streams, wild grasses and soil more red  than yellow.

The door to the  coach finally opened and the cooler air that rushed in made Deseem sigh as it  soothed over his skin. He happily scrambled from the coach, glancing around  what appeared to be nothing but empty wilderness. “Where are we?”

“Several miles  south of Extram, Your Majesty.”

He nodded, they  were closer to the border than they’d been yet but he saw no signs of the war.  The road they had been traveling on was wide and he’d learned that many of the  smaller country roads had been expanded for the war effort. Down the way that  he imagined lead to the border, a plume of dust rose and obscured whatever was  approaching.

“And that?”

“ Prince  Irendorialah approaches.”

For    the first time since making the trip,  a spark of excitement darted along Deseem’s nerves. “I’ll wait here until he  arrives. I wish to see he is well.”

The servant bowed  and stepped aside, not too far but back the proper respectful distance. It left  Deseem standing alone in the meager shade of the coach watching the dust  approach their camp. He hadn’t seen his brother since the day he was told of  being Bentan though he had been informed of his brother’s marriage.

Even with the  span of so much time, Deseem would have known his brother anywhere. War and  combat had hardened the man, shaved off any last bits of boyhood from his  frame. He rode his horse with a straight back, tall and proud. His black hair  braided and twisted together back from his face. There wasn’t an inch of his  brother that didn’t scream warrior and prince and Deseem admired him and longed  to be him.

Eyes as black as  night slipped over the camp and settled for a moment on Deseem hovering by his  coach, taking in the changes that time had brought to his brother. Eyes so cold  that they made him shiver in the afternoon’s warmth until a soft smile touched  Irend’s mouth and softened the hardness of his eyes. Deseem smiled back,  hopeful, shyly, desperate for contact and word and hating himself for how happy  the very sight of his sibling made him.

Until Deseem saw  two ropes extending back behind his brother’s horse and the people attached to  each line. The smile fell away from his face and he wasn’t sure to be  fascinated or frightened, he’d never seen a Watcher of Corena before but they  could be nothing but that.

His brother had  secured them both with a rope and a rod, wrists tied away toward the ends of  the sticks that were tied to their shoulders. It made walking an awkward task  for the pair of captives and the tugs from the tether ropes didn’t improve  their balance. From the rips and dirt on their black uniforms they had fallen,  repeatedly and most likely been dragged a bit before finding their feet.

The woman  fascinated him. He knew, logically, that women were allowed to behave as men in  Corena but he had never seen a woman in pants before. The black fabric was  thick  with black  thread embroidery and hung loose over boots. She wore boots like a warrior and  he guessed if she was a Watcher, she was  a warrior but the idea seemed strange and wrong. Her top was black, loose and  full with drooping sleeves that billowed and floated with her movements. It  tucked into the waist of her pants, pulled partially out from having been captured   and  bound  but at one point had been quite tidy and it sat under a tightly  laced bodice that accented the curve of her waist and partially flattened her  breasts.

Her hair was  short, barely curling around her shoulders and light brown. Her skin was pale,  sun burned across her nose and cheeks but pale and with lines  cut in around her eyes and mouth. He didn’t consider himself a very good judge  of foreign beauty but he couldn’t call her beautiful. If she’d been a man,  she’d have been handsome but handsome didn’t seem proper to call a woman.

As they were  pulled closer, he couldn’t make out the color of  her eyes. He was caught by the paleness of her skin and the utter lack of color  in her clothing. The only spot of brightness was a belt around her waist. It  was two fingers wide and elaborately beaded with tiny beads that formed blocky  patterns of colors and shapes.

Anything else he  might have noticed about her disappeared when his eyes fell on the man bound  beside her. He was tall, the top of the woman’s head barely came to the bottom  of his shoulders, and lanky. There didn’t seem much strength in his lean body  but he was holding pace and not stumbling over much. The clothing he wore was  black as well but of a different cut and style. There was no embroidery on his  clothing and the cut was tighter, leaner and had more of a military look and  feel. His pants fell straight and tucked into boots that rose to cover his  knees. His shirt was more form fitting and unadorned and he  wore  a tightly cut waistcoat over it. All it did was make the man look  leaner and taller and there was no bright splash of color from a beaded belt on  his waist.

Instead, resting  in the hollow of his throat  was a thick silver chain necklace  and a pendant in the shape of a mask. It was the traditional mark of a Watcher,  a symbol even Deseem had heard of. It was said the only way to remove it was to  lop the wearer’s head off and even then the metal often refused to be parted  from the flesh of the neck. That would have been enough to fascinate Deseem but  the man himself was more interesting than merely old legends.

He was pale as well but lightly tanned from  the sun instead of burnt. The skin that his torn and displaced clothing allowed  to be seen was frightfully pale where the sun didn’t touch it.

Even bound and captive, he moved with pride; stiff,  arrogant and unbroken by his capture.  His eyes, the color of the  darkest sapphires Deseem had ever seen, were cold and hateful and made his  brother’s seem welcoming by comparison. They flashed hate and rage and left  little doubt that if freed he was a man of horrible talents.

Eyes,   skin,  clothing,  and rank aside, Deseem found himself staring because of the man’s hair. It was  short, trimmed and tended but it was white. Not silver or gray but white like  powder. The very tips had a hint of brown as if dye had washed away but left  the ends stained but the rest was white like bleached cloth.

He’d never heard  of any such thing and wondered if it was  common for the people of Corena to have white hair.  He knew from reading that shades of red were common and seemed as fanciful as  white or the reports of the Fisher Folks’ yellow. Maybe it was common and he’d  just never heard, but then he saw the filigree bracelet they both wore and he  understood.

“Magic users.” He  heard himself whispering. Which was silly because all Watchers had magic, it  was  required to be a Watcher instead of  a Guard. It made the dreadful rage in the deep blue eyes more unnerving because  only a thin  be-spelled bracelet of metal was  keeping the man from unleashing God only knew what upon them all.

It left him  wondering what could have possessed his brother to bring such dangerous  prisoners to their camp and he found himself carefully following the group his  brother rode with and their captives. The group rode to within a dozen feet of  where their father and king’s tents were, a cluster of smaller tents around a  large personal one and an area in front with a cloth stretched between four poles  to provide shade. In that shade their father sat, reclined on a pile of  cushions with a small table near at hand, stacked  with cool drinks and favored foods. Advisors sat near by and the older men’s  conversation faded away at the approach of the riders.

Deseem watched as  his brother gathered the ropes of the tethers together and roughly pulled his  captives forward. Irend and his men bowed deeply, kicking the captives’ knees  to force them to drop as well.

“My King and  Lord, I have brought you captives as you wished. This pair of Watchers was  caught while meeting a spy east of Extram. Your brother sends them to you as a  gift to show his joy in your visit.”

The white haired  man struggled to his feet, shouting angry words but he didn’t stay there long.  One of Irend’s soldiers quickly clubbed the man on the back of his skull, red  bloomed among the white and the man went down hard. Deseem watched as the woman  leaned over and spoke to the younger man and nudged at him a little with her  face. Anything else he would or could have seen was blocked by one of his  father’s servants stepping between Deseem’s line of sight and the captives.

“Your tent awaits  you, my Prince.”

It was a clear  dismissal and he’d known as soon as someone noticed him watching he’d be hurried  away. He nodded and let his servants walk him to his own area, back where he  was safe from accidentally touching an un-castrated male, back where he would  be alone again. All he could do was hope his brother would make the time to see  him because he didn’t even have the right to request a visit.

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