“You’re going to love High King’s court,” my mother said for the hundredth time as if she were trying to make it true. “Alcor is a beautiful city.” We stood in our suite of rooms in the royal palace of Suem, packing the last of three trunks. The look on her face said she wanted to empty the bags out onto the floor and wrap her arms around me. Instead, she handed me another neatly folded tunic and went back to my wardrobe. I had my doubts about this move, but anything was better being locked in the hulking palace with the rest of the noble families of Suem.
“I just need to get away for a while,” I smiled, trying to reassure her. I knew that she did not want me to leave, but we had agreed to the arrangement simply because it piqued my interest. I stuffed the tunic into the trunk and realized I was actually being really unfair to our pretty prison. The rest of my family flourished in the huge palace. My mother spent her mornings teaching cooking to high ranking ladies who had never gone into their own kitchens let alone lived without servants. Domaque taught the same ladies how it care for their hair with common pomades instead of the dwindling supplies of exotic oils. Kien worked with a team of men from the other lower houses to fix the things that fell apart in the overstuffed palace. My mother and I lived in the bare apartment traditionally assigned to House Drussab while Kien and Domaque made due in a room in the vacated servants quarters.
It seemed that I was the only one withering away from loss and sadness. Two years after the fall of the city, I still had not attended court, made new friends, or even gotten to know my extended family better. In fact, it was rare for me to even leave our suite. Daily living was becoming entirely too much to bear. I even turned down the chance to go back into the city and clean out our old house.
By all accounts it was a quick clean up. The stuff that remained after the water receded had rotted from mold and mildew. Only a few things could be salvaged, the rest was left at the curb for the mottled low-caste junkers to collect. The house itself needed nothing more than an airing out. It was made of steel hard, spore resistant Chiran wood. Kien shuttered the windows and my family returned to the palace with just two boxes.
My stuff fit into a small lacquered box. I opened it to reveal a crumpled equestrian ribbon, my St. Chiran medal, and a length of pale wood covered in strange markings that Nooran gave me the year before he died. I gave the ribbon and the wood to Lodon and hung the medal over my bed.
I made no effort to find my old friends. I half-heartedly answered the questions of the people who reached out to me and I even had a conversation with my betrothed, Rul. Rul, who lost half his family in the flood, was even more devastated than I was and by the end of the visit, we broke up. Domaque made sure everyone had new clothes and shoes. The day she handed me my new tunic, there was a sparkle in her eyes.
“We can go back to Countess Bai’s parlor and pic out more fabric,” she offered, hoping that would revive me, “she had rolls and rolls stacked to the ceiling. I turned her down and kept staring out the window at the tiny courtyard that served this wing of the palace. I was too far-gone to really care about anything except the Nooran’s death and the end of life as we knew it.
A month after the house was cleaned out, a letter was forwarded from the High King’s newly installed garrison. It was a generic form letter giving the King’s condolences on Nooran’s death and informing us that his case was closed. They concluded that it was death by shadow stalker. There was no acknowledgement of his missing money and jewelry. This broke my mother’s heart into a thousand pieces. Like me, she had never quite recovered from his death. The confirmation that his body was lost in the city’s flood was a second blow. It weighed heavily on my mother that Nooran only had a memorial service. Somehow she blamed herself. I blamed myself, too, but there was nothing we could do. Domaque attempted to get the case re-opened, but we were informed that most of the evidence collected had washed away.
In the exaggerated proportions of the palace, the emptiness worked two ways. It could give you space to reinvent yourself as my family had or it gave your inner darkness room to stretch its legs. My darkness was cut to death and flexing every chance it had. It robbed me of my will to make the best of the day and it drove me nuts with vivid dreams in the deep of the night.
My nightmares were as fresh and terrifying as they had been my first night in the palace. I still woke up sweating and disoriented. Only the screaming had stopped. Often I drifted back to sleep simply to find that I was in the midst of yet another nightmare already in progress. This one usually had to do with Nooran’s death day. It made me nauseous to think about it when I was awake, but I was helpless to fight it off in my sleep.
I was not completely useless. I read, I wove, and sometimes I picked Lodon up from the school set up in the great library . I went visiting with my mother on major holidays and kept up a decent conversation with my fellow parishioners after temple. Otherwise I slept or walked in the tiny courtyard with my first cousin, Enobi.
Enobi was going through it, too. She was pregnant with her third child and her husband languished in an Alcor jail, accused of treason. She sought refuge in the city only to get caught up in the siege and surrender of Suem. To top this off, her money was low and the legitimacy of her children was being contested by her husband’s family. Enobi had enough problems being too fair skinned for her mother’s taste. Couple that with the fact her older siblings were darker and far more successful than Enobi could ever hope to be and you had a recipe for resentment and depression.
I remembered being irritated and exhausted when my mother opened the door to my room saying my cousin wanted to talk. It turned out to be a life changing moment. We bonded instantly in our misery and now I was going to join her at the High King’s court in the west. The plan was not perfect, but if got me out of Suem I was not going to complain. I needed to be away from anything that reminded me of my old life, including my immediate family.
“Cousin, we are going to have so much fun!” Enobi said as she bounced into the room. “I’ll be so glad to have someone my age to talk to!”
“That’s so nice,” my mother beamed at her despite the fact Enobi was in skimpy dress that fluttered above her knees with the slightest move.
“Is that the style at court?” I asked looking down at my trunk. It was full of formal dresses, embroidered tunics , and beaded capris. Not quite the glamour show Enobi was entertaining us with, but way better than the dirty shift I usually lived in.
“Cousin they will love your clothes in Alcor!” Enobi said, brushing off my concerns. “You will seem so exotic to them!”
“And the marriage market?” My mother said, handing me another folded piece of clothing. My mother’s only condition was that I did not become a burden to gossipy Aunt Dalene. She assured me I’d never live it down and I assured her she had no reason to worry.
“There is always some young knight dripping in glory and hoping to set up house with a noble maiden. ” Enobi laughed, “and if worse comes to worst, you can always pick fruit with the Nixians.”
“Enobi!’ my mother looked horrified. Maman had definite ideas about how young ladies should act. Short dresses and manual labor did not fit her ideal.
“I’m playin’!” Enobi joked, “My parents will sponsor you at court until you can find a royal patron of your own. You’ll be married off in no time since you used to be betrothed.”
“What do you feel about that?” my mother asked. I was actually very eager but I was irked by the way Enobi said “used to be betrothed.” Like I was washed up or something.
“I think that’s the perfect plan for me,” I said and looked down at the bulging trunk “I probably need to pack a few dresses for temple.”
“Ok, we can stop by Countess Bai’s on the way back from Domaque’s ,” my mom said.
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Enobi said. “They are probably tired of Syneer’s spoiled self anyway.”. My mother gave me a serious look and left the room.
We walked in a tight formation through the palace in the deep purple of twilight. The whole way Enobi dazzled us with all of her plans for me. We were going to balls, boat races, and even on a short trip to the desert republic of Nixia.
“I heard it’s not safe to cross the border right now,” Maman said. It was more of a warning than a general statement. Enobi caught on and let the topic drop. She switched to talking about the family in Alcor and soon I bought into her hype. By the time arrived at Domaque’s chambers , there was no doubt in my mind Alcor was the beginning of everything.
My sister insisted we stay for dinner.
“It’ll be the last time we’re all together!” she said and gave us puppy dog eyes. She was right. Kien was scheduled to go up river in the morning and my trip to Alcor was in two days. Maman and Domaque left to fetch dinner from the kitchens while I sat in the room and listened to Lodon talk about her day. I wandered to the bathroom and to my surprise Kien cornered me.
“What do you know about Enobi?’ He asked, his brown eyes intense with concern.
“What are you talking about?” I asked as I studied his kind face. All of his fear and caring was right on the surface. It was easy to see why My sister loved him.
“Has she told you anything new about herself since she got here or is it the same old stuff?”
“This is her something new,” I sighed. I knew I should have a better answer since I was venturing cross country with her, but it seemed that Enobi;s life was at a stand-still, too.
“I know you haven’t been right since Suem’s fall,” Kien said. I cringed at his simple yet precise assessment. “But why don’t you hold off a bit? I could get you a marriage up in Taul with my mother’s family. If I got your out of the castle, would you go?“
“Listen, Maman is already freaked out,” I wanted to tell him so bad that he should have come up with this plan a year and half ago. “If you bring up something else she will never let me leave.”
“She hasn’t shared any new information since we got locked in,” he said looking over his shoulder. “It’s all about what you’re going to be doing.”
“She’s just excited,” I said, worried that he would ruin my trip. I tried to give the serene smile my mother always put on.
The question hit me like a kick in the chest. I opened my mouth and closed it again. In truth I could give a fuck less either way. I wanted to go so I could shake the feeling that my life was completely over. I held out hope that the Alcor sunshine and fine living could help me, but I was in no way excited.
“She’s selling it to me.” I finally said.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Kien nodded. “It sounds like a con.”
“I need to get out of here, Kien.” I said stepping around him, “I’ll be with my family so everything’ll be just fine.”
Kien followed me back into the living room and kept his cool. I watched as he made an effort to look away each time Enobi launched into her promotion of Alcor. I tried to pick up any hints of something wrong, but all I saw was a shattered girl trying not to bring down the mood with her true feelings. Maybe I was projecting, but I understood what she was doing. She found a topic that deflected attention off her own misery and distracted her from the same. I did it the few times I was forced to interact with my extended family. Everything that came out of my mouth was about Lodon.
Nonetheless, a seed of doubt was planted in my mind. I waited until my mother went to bed that night to talk to Enobi about my fears.
“So is there anything else I need to know?” I asked her as we sat in the parlor staring at the fire. I saw her stiffen up out of the corner of my eye, but I waited for her to speak.
“What do you mean?” she asked in a breathy tone.
“You told me all the good stuff about Alcor,” I said turning to her, “Now let me in on the bad shit.”
“Uh, well you’ll fail my mother’s color test. But you practically got a marriage waiting for you, so there’s hardly anything bad for you.”
“And you?” I did not want to press her, because I pretty much knew the whole story, but I had to be sure, “What else is waiting for you when we get back?”
“Single parenthood with no income from my husband’s family,” she said, looking stressed. “Parents who hate me. A jailed husband and all the other shit I told you.”
I stared at her without saying a word. I was trying to be patient, but I must have looked crazy, because she let it all out.
“As long as you’re there my parents won’t kick me out,” she said quickly, her eyes wide with fear.
“What!” I exclaimed. For a second Kien’s face danced before my eyes wearing a very distinct ‘I told you so’ expression.
“My parents snapped out when they found out Adious’ family cast doubt on the children. I had to sign a confession at the Temple to keep my Dad from murdering the children. My mom still didn’t believe me. She said the minute Syneer turned three months I had to move.”
“So you plotted on me?” I was confused more than anything, but anger stirred slightly in my stomach.
“No! No!” she said quickly and threw up her hands. “I was trying to move here! I was visiting to feel out the living situation. I wanted to be sure that there was room.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t you just ask?”
“I was scared,” she whispered, “I didn’t want Aunt Merai to say no.”
“So how were you planning to make it work?” I could see her point. My mother was very traditional. She felt that being around Enobi would ruin my chances at a decent marriage. The only reason that she was letting me go to Alcor was that my depression scared her more than a ruined reputation.
“One way ticket for me and the kids,” She shrugged her shoulders. “I thought once I got here, if I said I couldn’t get back Aunt Merai’d let me stay. I’d get a divorce based on Adious’ treason charge and get remarried.”
“You are straight crazy,” I laughed and patted her on the back.
“Girl, just desperate. When you said you were sick of Suem, I was kind of lost. If you weren’t here then there was no chance of me getting a new life. Then you said you wanted to come to Alcor and the entire situation changed.”
“I see,” I wanted to tell her that I was pretty sure the idea was hers, but everything was already in place for me to move and so it really didn’t matter anymore. Besides, I looked forward to the opportunity to start over.
“You mad?” She asked, looking really pitiful. Her eyes welled up with tears and her lower lip quivered.
“No,” I said and it was true. A bit confused perhaps, but not mad. I tried to put myself in her place and I realized I might have done the same thing. “Is there anything else?”
“Nah,” She said brightening up a great deal, “Just don’t tell my folks that Adious isn’t the Syneer’s dad.”
“Who is the child’s father?” I tried to keep the shock out of my face. It felt like she as duping me again. Like this small bit juicy drama was just enough to distract me from some real and serious problem.
“Ramiro, who?” I said trying not to let my disgust show in my face.
“Just Ramiro,” she shrugged and turned back to the fire.
“Is that what you registered with the Hall of Records?” I asked, still looking at her.
“No, that has Adious’ name on it.”
“What are you going to do if Adious’ family formally contests the birth?” I sat back and marveled at her. How could she be so devious with me, but so nonchalant about her in-laws?
“They won’t go through all that trouble,” she said dismissively. “Besides, they are so busy trying to save his neck from treason they’ll be happy to have me gone and they won’t care.”
I puffed up my cheeks about blew the air out slowly. There was no reason for me to puzzle over the cover story. My only purpose was to do all that I could to shake my lingering depression. The idea of being free from the sadness released some of the tension in my shoulders. I relaxed a little more and turned my attention back to the fire.