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Authors: Rachel Neumeier

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BOOK: House of Shadows
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As a foreigner, Taudde was expected to dress plainly. Yet he, as many foreigners who came to Lonne, was a man of wealth and
breeding. Thus, many of the best and most expensive purveyors of cloth goods in Lonne were accustomed to providing the very finest clothing possible within the prescribed limitations. The tailor to whom Benne escorted Taudde brought out a rich brown outfit, accented with pale yellow, with a pair of calf-high boots with turned-down tops threaded with pale yellow ribbons. Taudde thought the ribbons excessive, but Benne so clearly approved of them that he allowed the tailor to add the boots to his purchase.

Then there was another complete outfit in charcoal gray with red accents, including soft suede boots that were clearly not intended for the winter streets. Taudde inclined his head. “I see I shall indeed need an equipage,” he said to Benne, a touch drily. “Find one for me, nothing too extravagant. A single horse should certainly be sufficient.”

The servant nodded quickly. Neither he nor Taudde had referred in any way to the incidents of the previous evening, but Taudde thought that the big man seemed, if anything, a little more wary and cautious this morning. Now he hesitantly sketched a saddle in the air with his hands, tilting his head inquiringly.

“Yes, both a small carriage and riding tack.”

Benne nodded a second time as the tailor apologetically presented his bill. Taudde strolled out of doors to wait discreetly while his servant argued the bill up to an amount Taudde could properly pay.

Down the street toward the tailor’s establishment came a black-and-red company: ordinary soldiers accompanied by half a handful of officers from the King’s Own guard. Taudde turned with casual curiosity to watch the company pass, but found his eye unexpectedly caught by one man who rode in the midst of the guardsmen. A tall man, with strong, stark features and a face as cold and austere as the mountain heights.

Though he had not seen him for fifteen years, Taudde recognized the man at once, half from memory and half from the sheer sense of ungiving power that spread out from him like a river pouring down from a high cliff. This was Geriodde Nerenne ken
Seriantes, the Dragon of Lirionne himself, riding through the streets he ruled like any common court noble. Though, indeed, there was nothing common about the Dragon.

Taudde recognized the harsh, stark features of the king: the falcon-sharp bones, the ungiving mouth. But what he recognized first was the Dragon’s sheer intensity of power. He had not been prepared to meet that power, not here or now, and took an involuntary step backward.

As though drawn by that movement, the king turned his head. The fierce gaze of his ice-pale eyes crossed Taudde’s face. There could not possibly have been recognition in that glance, for a boy of ten can hardly be recognized in the man of twenty-five. Yet Taudde’s breath caught with a conviction that the King of Lirionne
had
recognized him, that those soldiers would turn aside from their ordinary business to pursue and apprehend him. The Dragon’s men would bring Taudde before the granite throne… He would be condemned and cast into the silent cells within the Laodde, or from the heights into the sea, which was how the Seriantes Dragon disposed of his enemies… Then the cold gaze passed on, and the King of Lirionne looked away indifferently.

The company clattered forward, iron-shod hooves ringing on the cobbled street, passersby hurriedly making way for it. Taudde put a hand out blindly, bracing himself against the door of the nearest shop and stood still, not because he intelligently resisted the temptation to give way to terrifying fancies, but simply because he found himself momentarily frozen by indecisive panic. It took every rational faculty he possessed to stop himself reaching for his flute. If the Dragon had indeed disregarded him, then flinching in terror and bringing a bardic sorcerer’s flute out in plain sight would probably be a good way to get his attention. But Taudde found it impossible to stand quietly in the street and let the Dragon’s company ride by so close, either.

Instead, and with a sharp effort, Taudde turned on his heel and plunged, without looking, into the shop.

“May I assist the noble lord in locating any poor oddment that
may be offered in this humble establishment?” inquired a rather nasal voice.

Taudde, most of his attention still fixed on the sound of the passing horses, tried not to flinch noticeably at this unexpected address.

The horses’ hooves clattered loudly in the street… They did not halt, but went on past. Taudde blinked and took a quick breath. He found his hand had indeed gone to touch the reassuring smoothness of his flute. He took his hand away, trying to cultivate a bland expression while his heart settled gradually back to a slower rhythm.

The shop, once Taudde glanced around it, proved to hold an interesting display of oddments: porcelain lamps, brass sconces, small glass bottles, mysterious confections of copper wire and glass bobbles, delicate bowls, and small musical instruments. The proprietor was an elderly man, but one who appeared prosperous. Despite the formal humility with which he had addressed Taudde, the man’s attitude was far from humble. Taudde suspected he was of noble blood himself, perhaps the son of some lord’s keiso mistress—no. His
wife
, he corrected himself. A keiso was not a mistress, but a
flower wife
. The mother of
left-hand
sons, who were, according to Lonne custom, recognized by their noble fathers.

“Ah—” Taudde managed. “Ah, I don’t—I wasn’t looking for any specific item.” But his attention was caught by a diminutive finger harp strung with white fibers so fine they were all but invisible. Distracted from his urgent worries, Taudde bent to examine it. The harp was an exquisite instrument, made of some unfamiliar fine-grained red wood with pearl facing and pearl knobs. The strings did not seem to be silver wire. He touched one with a fingertip and frowned in surprise. It made an odd sound, not pure, but with a faint burring undertone, almost a buzz. Trying another string, he found a note not quite in tune with the first and affected by the same buzzing quality. Attempting to tune the second string to complement the first produced a flatter quality to its note and only accentuated the buzz.

“A pretty thing, but for display perhaps more than use,” the proprietor murmured, correctly reading his expression. “It is from the great island of Erhlianne. The wood is poppy teak, which grows only in the far mountains of Erhlianne. Very rare and expensive. The strings are made from the feathers of a beautiful white bird called the miarre, which flies out at sea for all but three weeks a year, and comes inland for those three weeks to nest upon the branches of trees that stretch out over the sea from the cliffs of Erhlianne. Strings made from these feathers never break, for they have the endurance of the bird to which they once belonged.”

“Ah,” said Taudde.

“Or so it is said,” murmured the proprietor smoothly. “Now, a connoisseur such as my lord… hmm. If my lord would care to step over here…” He guided Taudde toward the rear of the shop. Along the far wall were blanks of wood and sea ivory and bone and horn, racked in order of size; pegs and buttons of exotic wood or polished stone; spools of copper wire, or silver, or gold; tubes of brass and copper; delicate reeds oiled and curing in the gentle warmth of a lamp. A small table, lit by the lamp, was cluttered with clamps and carving tools, polishing cloths, and fine brushes.

“I believe my lord might prefer an instrument such as this,” suggested the proprietor, reaching into the midst of the clutter and finding, apparently without needing to search, a set of pipes as broad as the palms of both hands. “Now these are meant for the hand of a skilled instrumentalist. They are made, as you see, of bone and copper. The inlay is abalone shell. The reeds are simple sea reeds, but treated with a special technique of my own to prevent warping or splitting and to purify their tone. Perhaps my lord would be pleased to try these pipes?”

The confidence in the proprietor’s manner was sufficient that Taudde was not surprised to find the notes of the pipe unusually clear and delicate. The hum of the reeds lent a deep resonance to each note without harming its clarity. Taudde wondered how the effect had been achieved. He squinted into the pipes to see the thin reeds within each, noting their faint purplish sheen. Perhaps they
had, in fact, been treated in some manner he did not know. “You made these?”

The proprietor gave a modest little bow. “My poor efforts are assuredly not sufficient to match those of the craftsmen with whom my lord is no doubt accustomed to do business.”

Taudde played a quick set of trills, running through the surprisingly broad range of the pipes. They were not tuned to the familiar descene scale but to the far less common ioscene scale, every other note set half a step off.

“The pipes are not out of tune,” said the proprietor, seeing Taudde’s eyebrows rise.

Taudde returned a noncommittal nod. He lifted the pipes again and produced another brief ripple of notes, listening curiously to the odd catch and drag produced by the ioscene tuning. It seemed to him that the breathy resonance of these pipes was well suited to the sea. If he went down to the shore where the waves broke on the rocks, he wondered whether he might be able to capture the changeable sea winds in the reeds of this instrument. “Though I have traveled widely, I do not believe I have often seen better,” he said at last. “And I see you are accustomed to such work.” He gestured to the generous and varied supplies that occupied this part of the shop, the faint beginnings of a new inspiration murmuring at the back of his mind. He still would not claim to have a distinct
plan
, but he felt himself closer to one than he’d dared hope.

“I dabble from time to time,” conceded the proprietor. “When an interesting idea occurs to me.”

“I see. Well… I believe I will purchase these, if you are willing to part with them.” Taudde began to turn back toward the front of the shop and unexpectedly found Benne at his elbow. He blinked. Benne flinched back slightly and dropped his gaze immediately.

Taudde hesitated for a moment. Then he said at last, “I will purchase this item,” gave the pipes to Benne, and walked away, to wait politely out of earshot for Benne and the proprietor of the store to settle a price.

CHAPTER 4
 

T
he Mother of Cloisonné House, disposing of the iron custom of the flower world with a fine arrogance, made Karah into a keiso three days after the girl had been bought into the House. Leilis had hoped for exactly this, but the speed with which Narienneh made her decision impressed her anyway.

“You haven’t the training, of course,” Narienneh told the girl. “You will have to work very hard at your lessons.” Karah could play the knee harp and sing some of the short gaodd poems that every keiso was supposed to know, but there was no pretending her accomplishments were up to Cloisonné’s usual standards.

Karah bowed her head, looking young and shy. She made Leilis feel old.

Thirty-one keiso were present, sitting or kneeling gracefully on cushions all around the edges of the dance studio, which was the only room in the House large enough for the ceremony of adoption. The mirrors and the bar, along with all other utilitarian features of the room, had been hidden from sight behind tall color-washed screens.

Fourteen independent keiso had come to attend this adoption. They wore robes in restrained colors and few—but expensive—jewels. Meadowbell, her nature as sunny as her wheat-gold overrobe, was clearly amused and pleased by Mother’s departure from tradition. On the other hand, though Celandine’s mouth was set in a good-humored expression, her eyes were cold as the winter sea
embroidered on her overrobe:
She
did not care to have a mere child handed special favors that had never come her own way. Nemienne knew Celandine bitterly resented Karah, with a steady, cold resentment that would wear down the years, but at least Celandine was not a resident of Cloisonné House, so Karah would not be thrown into her close company.

Silvermist, oldest of the independent keiso, would have far more influence than Celandine over the reaction of the flower world to Karah’s too-swift advancement. Silvermist, her silver-shot hair braided with blue ribbons and fine silver chains, had been independent for better than thirty years. Her noble keisonne had long ago given her a house of her own and she had invested his gifts wisely; her wealth showed in her assurance as much as in the restrained elegance of her robes. Her daughters, Bellflower and Chelone, had settled near her. Each of them also had accepted a keisonne and acquired property of her own. Bellflower owned a restaurant near one of the bridges and Chelone a shop that made and embroidered keiso robes. Neither of them would feel in the least threatened by a child such as Karah, and fortunately neither liked Celandine. But what Silvermist herself thought was not obvious from her manner.

BOOK: House of Shadows
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