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.”
“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.
“ 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.