Authors: Rachel Neumeier
“You already have an idea,” observed Karah, studying Enelle. Faint lines of concern appeared on Karah’s forehead—not worry about the difficulties they faced, but concern because she saw Enelle was distressed. “What is it? Is it so terrible?”
“It can’t be
terrible,” declared Miande, always optimistic. But even she sounded like she didn’t have much confidence in this statement. They all understood now that sometimes things
be that terrible.
Enelle drew a breath without lifting her gaze, started to speak, and stopped.
“Enelle, no,” said Ananda, firmly.
“We could sell parts of father’s business?” suggested practical Jehenne, but doubtfully. “Or the house?”
Enelle glanced up. “The business would be worth ten times less broken up than it is intact. And if we sold the house to get a dowry for Ananda, we would have nowhere to live until the business begins to yield a profit, which will take years now, no matter what we do. None of our creditors will set favorable terms for us right now. Everyone expects trouble in the spring, you know. Because of the treaty.”
She meant, as even the little girls knew, the Treaty of Brenedde. Its term would run out in the spring, and everyone knew that when it did, Kalches would immediately repudiate the peace and resume its war with Lirionne. Nemienne hadn’t thought of how this would affect business in Lonne, but once Enelle pointed it out, she saw that her sister was right: Nobody could afford to be kind if the war was going to start again.
“They expect the business to fail quickly now that father is… is gone,” said Enelle. “Before spring, they think. I… I would not like
to live in the sort of house we would be able to afford if we sold this house.”
“But…” said Jehenne, her voice trailing off as she found nothing else to suggest.
Nemienne drew a triangle absently on the polished surface of the table with the tip of her finger and fitted a smaller triangle inside it, and then another inside that. Then she looked up and said, since Enelle clearly could not bring herself to say it even if Ananda would let her, “Some of us will have to be sold.”
The silence this time was fraught, but it did not last long. It was broken by Liaska, who leaped to her feet and cried, “No!”
“Or have you thought of another way?” Nemienne asked Enelle. She might be wrong. Nobody else seemed to think this was obvious except her. Perhaps Enelle was thinking of something else. But, surely, if Enelle had thought of some other way, she wouldn’t be so hesitant to explain it.
Enelle looked up, and then down again. She was only sixteen, just a year older than Nemienne herself. It was a horrible decision for her to have to make. But it was not, of course, her decision to make. Not really. It was only her responsibility to tell them all that it was going to have to be made. Nemienne could see she had talked about this idea only with Ananda, and it was obvious Ananda had forbidden her to suggest it. Poor Enelle.
“How many of us?” Nemienne asked.
“No,” said Ananda sharply.
Enelle didn’t look at Ananda. She didn’t look at any of them. She said to her tight-laced fingers, “At least two. Maybe three. It depends on the price we’d get, you see.”
“Who would we—who would—who would be sold?” asked Karah.
“No one will be sold!” Ananda exclaimed. “We’ll think of another way.”
“I don’t think there’s another way,” said Enelle, still looking at her hands, which had now closed into fists on the table. “And there’s not much time to think of one.”
“There is another way!” Ananda said fiercely. “There must be!”
“Me,” said Nemienne, since that was obvious. “But who else?” She looked around the table. Not the little girls. Not Enelle, who was needed to run the stone yard and keep track of household expenses.
“No!” said Ananda. “No one will be sold.”
“I am the most beautiful,” Karah said simply, putting into plain words a truth they all knew. “A keiso House might be willing to give a large gift for me. That—that is an honorable life.”
It wasn’t that simple, of course. First Ananda and Miande and Jehenne had to argue bitterly that there had to be some other way. Enelle obviously couldn’t bear to argue back, but her figures spoke for her. She had a whole long scroll of figures. She’d plainly tried very hard to find another way. It was equally plain that there wasn’t another way to be found.
Jehenne looked at Enelle’s figures and then ran out of the room in tears, because she knew Enelle was right but couldn’t bring herself to argue for selling anybody. Liaska, who idolized the glamorous keiso and collected painted miniatures of all the most famous ones, was nevertheless outraged into a tantrum at the idea of losing Karah—and a little bit because she at least half wanted to be a keiso herself and knew none of her older sisters would consider selling
. In the end, Miande took the little girls away and the older ones looked at Enelle’s papers.
Karah didn’t examine Enelle’s figures. She only believed them. She absolutely rejected any plan that involved selling the house. Nemienne saw that Karah’s stubbornness surprised Ananda, though surely it should have been obvious that Karah would never agree to see the little girls forced to live in a violent, filthy part of the city.
Not that Karah argued. She simply continued to insist that she would do very well as a keiso, that it wasn’t as if she was suggesting she might become an actress or an aika or anything disreputable. Then she announced that she would sell herself without Ananda’s approval if she had to, and from this position she would
not be budged. Ananda declared wildly that she herself could as well be sold as anybody, but of course that wasn’t true. Nobody else had a merchant’s son ready for a quick wedding and for the struggle that would follow to get the stone yard back into profitability.
Nemienne didn’t argue either. She just waited for all the arguments to come to their inevitable conclusion. Two days later, she and Karah and Enelle took their father’s small open carriage and drove to Cloisonné House, which all their cautious inquiries indicated was the very best keiso House in the candlelight district. Karah drove the carriage, with Enelle and Nemienne crowded close to either side of her on the high bench. None of them had wanted Tebbe, their father’s driver, to accompany them on this particular errand.
Karah had cried. Then she had fixed her face and her hair very carefully. She was not crying now. Enelle was: Nemienne could see the sheen across her gray eyes. Enelle was gazing out at the city streets, one hand gripping the seat against the jouncing from uneven cobblestones, but Nemienne doubted her sister saw the city through which they drove or noticed the roughness of the cobbled streets.
Nemienne had not cried, though she felt a low, tight sensation in her stomach. She knew very well that Karah would make a wonderful keiso, but when Nemienne tried to picture
learning to be charming and glamorous so that she might win honor and acclaim and eventually become a rich nobleman’s flower wife… nothing about that future
Lonne spread itself out around them, loud and busy. To Nemienne, she and her sisters seemed like ghosts, not nearly as solid and real as the cobbled streets through which they traveled, nor the mountains that loomed over the city. Nemienne stared up at the mountains, watching the low clouds that coiled and uncoiled in sinuous dragon shapes around their jagged peaks. The Laodd loomed among the cliffs, its sheer white walls and thousand glass windows glittering in the light, seeming from this distance no more a thing of men than were the mountains.
Yet keiso mingled freely with the powerful lords of the Laodd.
Many girls dreamed of becoming a famous keiso and being chosen as a flower wife by an important courtier. But Nemienne had never collected painted miniatures nor dreamed of glamour and fame. Now that the prospect lay before her, she found it… disturbing. She trusted Enelle’s figures, and she also knew she was right to have argued that she herself should be one of those sold. But she wanted desperately to have the actual moment still ahead of her, waiting in some other day, not arriving in this one.
They came to the candlelight district and then to Cloisonné House far too quickly. The House proved to be an angular brick building, four stories tall, with wide balconies overlooking the street. Pink flowers and silver-variegated ivy poured down from the balconies despite the chill. The ivy did not exactly soften the look of the brick, but it made Cloisonné House look old and respectable and deserving of its good reputation.
At the same time, Nemienne thought that the shadow of the house and the edges of the bricks seemed to possess a strange, faint echo that she did not recognize. Then she blinked and looked again, and the house seemed perfectly normal. Servants quickly arrived to take the carriage away and welcome the sisters into the House, so there wasn’t time to wonder about what she might have seen. But, as they passed under the lintel, a faint reverberation seemed to echo through the brick and the wood of the door. Nemienne tried to pause in the doorway, but Enelle was in front of her and Karah behind, and she went in after all without saying anything. Once within the house, the strange echo vanished, and as a tall woman approached them, she forgot about it.
The woman wore a gray overrobe, with a white and blue under-robe showing at throat and hemline. She took their names and their request to see the Mother of Cloisonné House. From her assured manner, Nemienne had thought this woman might herself be the Mother, but she only acknowledged their request, her eyes lingering thoughtfully on Karah. She left them in the hands of a servant girl and went away, carrying news of their arrival into the interior of the House.
Karah, nervous, glanced around with wide eyes that did not light on anything for more than an instant. Enelle was white faced, with a determined set to her mouth. She had her whole attention fixed on their purpose, with none left for anything beyond that necessity. Nemienne thought neither of her sisters even noticed the gracious warmth of the House’s entry hall and parlor.
For, once inside, Cloisonné House indeed presented a gracious appearance. The walls of the entryway were paneled with wooden screens. Against the screens were little tables with mother-of-pearl inlay around their edges. Each table held some small object: the stylized pewter sculpture of a doe, a little finger harp with pearl knobs and silver strings, a decorative piece of cloisonné jewelry in muted colors. Each of these displays was framed by a washed-ink sketch of mountains or sea or sky. Looking at the grace of the hall, Nemienne felt a new and unexpected kind of sadness rise into her throat. She didn’t truly expect—or even want—to remain in this House, but for the first time she felt that this might be something to regret.
They waited for the Mother of Cloisonné House in a small parlor that seemed made of sea and sky. Tapestries embroidered to suggest clouds and cliffs hung on the walls, and the chairs were upholstered in soft blue-gray fabric. Beyond the chairs, a cheerful fire burned in a slate hearth. A plump woman in robes of gray and blue brought hot spiced cider, assured them that the Mother of the House would attend them shortly, and went out again.
The Mother of Cloisonné House did not come in any haste, though servants brought iced cakes and dishes of sugared nuts and nikisi seeds. Karah had always loved sugared nuts. She only looked at these, clearly struggling against tears. Enelle turned away hastily, also blinking, and pretended to be absorbed in examining the fitted slate tiles of the hearth. Nemienne sat down in one of the chairs and looked into the fire. She felt numb, encased in a cold shell that stopped speech and thought and emotion.
The Mother of the House proved to be a stately woman with the dignity of a court lady, though her only crown was her own white
hair braided into a coronet around her head. She was as richly dressed as a queen, though, with a sweeping blue-on-blue pattern washing down her overrobe like the waves of the sea from one shoulder to the opposite hem. Two little girls attended her, each carrying a covered tray. They settled gracefully by the door to wait for any commands she might give.
The woman’s face was fine boned, with elegant cheekbones and shrewd dark eyes accentuated by violet powder. Her manner was reserved but not, Nemienne thought—hoped?—unkind. Her gaze moved quickly from one of them to the next as they rose to their feet. That gaze settled, unsurprisingly, on Karah. And widened slightly. That was surely promising.
The three sisters had risen to their feet. Enelle cleared her throat, and the woman at once turned her attention to her. She said, with a kind of brisk sympathy, “Welcome to Cloisonné House. I am Narienneh, Mother of Cloisonné House. May I hope for the opportunity to serve the daughters of Geranes Lihadde?”
Enelle blinked and lifted her chin. Karah and Nemienne exchanged glances, likewise understanding why the Mother of the House had kept them waiting in her parlor. She had had time to find out everything. Karah blushed and lowered her eyes, waiting for Enelle to speak. Color rose up Enelle’s cheeks also, but she kept her gaze on the Mother’s face. “Then you know why we have come—” she began.
“Yes,” said Narienneh. “Please, sit. Accept the hospitality of Cloisonné House.” She waited as one of the brown-clad girls quickly uncovered a tray and came forward to pour steaming tea. The girl served the Mother of the House first, then Enelle, then Karah, and finally Nemienne. Nemienne wondered what governed the child’s decision to put the sisters in that order.
“Cloisonné is an exclusive House,” said Narienneh. She spoke with dignified courtesy. “That is why you chose to come here, I presume. Any knowledgeable person advising you would certainly suggest Cloisonné.” She sipped her tea, regarding them over the gilded edge of her cup. Then she set the cup down with a tiny
porcelain against glass. “You do understand, many keiso from this House become famous and wealthy. We flatter ourselves that their keisonne esteem their flower wives even more highly than they do their proper wives.” She waited for their respectful nods; then, satisfied, went on, “We do not take on many girls.” Her tone, though cordial, almost suggested that a girl ought to pay a dowry to the House for a place, rather than a gift being made to her family for the transfer of the girl’s name to the House.