Authors: Rachel Neumeier
“Oh,” said Enelle. She had never looked younger, Nemienne thought. None of the sisters could help but look young and naïve and, no doubt, vulnerable. They had certainly learned a good deal about vulnerability since their father’s death. And about the willingness of people to exploit vulnerability when they found it.
Then Enelle, recovering, said in her best impersonal business manner, hiding any trace of their desperation, “We are sorry you have no room. Perhaps you might suggest a House that is less crowded. We understand that the House of Butterflies is also a fine establishment.” She, too, put her cup down on a glass-topped table with a decisive little
Karah and Nemienne exchanged glances. Karah looked genuinely modest and sweet. Nemienne tried to copy her manner, though she doubted she succeeded.
The Mother of Cloisonné slid a sideways glance at Karah. “Well, now, it is true that for an unusual beauty such as this, an exception might perhaps be made. If—that is, I presume you are suitable for a keiso House?” she added to Karah. “This is not an aika establishment, you know. Keiso are expected to be pure, ours more than any.”
Karah, speechless, blushed fiercely. Narienneh, studying her carefully, gave a satisfied little nod.
“Of course Karah is pure!” Enelle declared, outraged.
Narienneh gave a second little nod. “I am confident of it. And here in Cloisonné House she will remain so, which is, of course, what you wish. Indeed, as a father desires his daughter happy and well settled, so you desire for your sister. If not with a husband who will be kind to her and respect her, then with a keisonne who will do the same. Naturally you wish this.
“There are few Houses in all of Lonne in which a truly discerning family would wish to see its sister placed in the flower life. But in Cloisonné House, your sister will be surrounded by accomplished women of good character, women who would enhance her honor and beauty by their example and company. However, keiso must be polished, you understand? And there is so much to learn.” She glanced at Karah again, and then, clearly as an afterthought, Nemienne. “Even so, despite your sister’s age, Cloisonné House might offer a gift of… a thousand hard cash to have the pleasure of counting such a lovely young woman among its daughters.”
Enelle looked abstracted. Nemienne knew she was calculating sums in her head. Her sister would be afraid of losing this offer, Nemienne knew; they had put off this moment almost too long and now badly needed the offered money. But neither could they afford to take an offer that was too low. She said cautiously after a moment, “My family will be devastated by the loss of a lovely and accomplished sister. Though Cloisonné House is a beautiful setting for any—any flower, and we are overwhelmed by your generosity, still, I fear that even such a generous gift could not compensate us for this loss.” She couldn’t come right out and name a price that would, of course: One did not use the mercantile language of the stone yard to sell a member of one’s family. That just one sister would find a place here was obvious. No one was raving about
They settled at last on what seemed to Nemienne the extremely generous sum of eighteen hundred hard cash, to be paid directly from Cloisonné House to the family’s bank. The Mother of Cloisonné House made out a slip of credit and signed it with her name and her House name in a graceful flowing hand. Enelle read the House contract carefully and then signed it, her mouth set hard. She gave it to Karah with a nod. Karah’s writing was also graceful, but her hand trembled as she signed the contract. She was not weeping openly but a single tear blotched the paper beside her name.
“Come, now, daughter,” Narienneh said to her, not unkindly. “You are not boarding a ship for Samenne, you know. We are strict
here, yes, but this is for your own protection. In time, you will be allowed to visit your first family, and you may send and receive letters on the ninth and eighteenth days of every month.”
“Yes,” whispered Karah.
Narienneh eyed her, and added, “I believe you will come to cherish your place with us. Cloisonné House does not in any way resemble a dock… establishment. We have no ‘trash keiso’ here.” Her lip curled in elegant contempt.
“Yes,” Karah whispered. “No. Of course. Forgive me. Only I had… I had so wished Nemienne at least would stay with me.”
Everyone looked at Nemienne. Nemienne tried to look beautiful and suspected she only managed, at best, an unremarkable prettiness.
“You are not precisely a beauty,” Narienneh said to her at last. “Keiso need not be extremely beautiful, but then have you a gift for music? For dance? Have you unusual skill for charm and conversation? No?” She paused, considering. “Your eyes are interesting, however. Very like smoked glass. They seem to me to have an uncommon quality. I do not think you will find a place at a keiso House, child, but I believe I have seen eyes such as yours once or twice.” She gave Enelle a thoughtful look, then turned her glance back to Nemienne. “If I may be so bold as to suggest… you might go to the Lane of Shadows and look there for a place.”
“At mages’ houses?” Enelle said, startled.
After the first surprise, however, Nemienne found the idea somehow not astonishing.
, she thought, and then with an odd questioning note to the thought,
She had passed by the Lane of Shadows from time to time on errands; it twisted along one side of the city, nearly lost in the shadow of looming Kerre Maraddras. She had imagined she could almost see magic rolling like mist down the steep barren slopes of the mountain and piling up behind the mages’ houses.
Nemienne asked, “Which mage would you suggest?”
At the same time, Enelle asked, “Mages look for—” Their words tangled together and they both fell silent.
“As you ask for my suggestion… you might go to the third house on the Lane of Shadows and inquire there for Mage Ankennes. He is a generous patron of ours, and I believe he is quite a powerful mage. I think he may be interested in finding a young person with eyes such as yours. Mages do not, I believe, find it a simple matter to locate suitable apprentices.”
“Apprentices?” Karah and Enelle said together.
“Your sister is a little old to begin such an apprenticeship, I believe, but then seventeen is quite old to begin as a deisa at a House. Mage Ankennes has mentioned, once or twice recently, his difficulty in finding a suitable young person. Perhaps he will make an exception as I have done. And,” she added delicately, “I believe you will find your young sister will be safe in his house. His inclinations do not lie in that direction.”
Enelle looked quickly at Nemienne and nodded, looking at least moderately reassured. Nemienne did not say anything. She was thinking of mages, and the Lane of Shadows, and magic rolling off the flanks of the mountains like mist.
“Well,” said Enelle, rather blankly after she and Nemienne had left Cloisonné House. She gathered the reins of the carriage into her hands, but her hands were shaking so that the horses tossed their heads and sidled away sideways.
Nemienne took the reins away from her sister and started the horses moving toward the nearest bridge that crossed the Niarre toward the Lane of Shadows. She herself now felt a tremendous sense of relief. She had liked Cloisonné House. Or not liked, but
. She’d wanted to stay with Karah rather than have either of them thrown out into the world completely alone. And yet… and yet… “Karah will do well there,” Nemienne ventured, giving Enelle a sideways glance to see whether her sister was of any mind to hear an optimistic prediction. “That Narienneh is clever, don’t you think? She’ll want Karah to be happy.”
Enelle gave a stricken little nod. “I hope so. I can’t believe…” She fell silent.
How big a hole Karah left in their lives, and how immediately. And poor Enelle would have to leave Nemienne also and drive home all by herself. They should have let Ananda come. But none of them had thought ahead to Enelle’s painful, solitary drive. “None of this is your fault,” Nemienne told Enelle, as they had all been at pains to tell her over the past days.
“No,” Enelle whispered. “Do you think… do you think she will be happy?”
“Yes,” said Nemienne. And when her sister gave her a shocked look, added, “Why not? Everyone will love her. She’ll be famous and wealthy. Girls all over Lonne will fix their hair the way she does and embroider their robes to echo hers. A hundred men will admire her and give her gifts. I’m sure dozens of them will want to be her keisonne.” She gave Enelle a sideways look. “I know you were never interested in glamour, but you must know how many girls would like to be keiso, except they haven’t the accomplishments or the beauty. Just think how Liaska admires keiso and always wants to follow the fashions they set.”
“But—” Enelle began, too upset to admit the obvious.
“Karah might have preferred to stay with us, and of course we’ll miss her terribly, but she’ll be a wonderful keiso. She’ll find a keisonne from among the men of the court—half the men who frequent Cloisonné House must surely be from the Laodd, don’t you think? Some of them must be perfectly nice. She’ll choose the nicest of them, of course, someone who loves her. Her sons will grow up with the children of princes.”
“I… you’re right. I suppose you’re right,” Enelle murmured doubtfully.
“Of course I am.”
The Niarre River, running out of the shadow of the great mountain to the sea, seemed to carry the sound of magic with it as it washed around the bridge pilings. Nemienne glanced down at the water, her attention momentarily caught. Then they were across the bridge, and she tucked their little carriage behind a much
bigger four-in-hand and turned down Herringbone Lane to the east, heading for the mountain’s shadow.
“I… I never noticed anything about your eyes,” Enelle confessed quietly. She was not quite looking at Nemienne, but rather off along the streets. It seemed to have caught up with her at last that she was on her way to losing a second sister, and in a way that carried less esteem and more—well, if not peril, then at least uncertainty.
Nemienne herself would have liked a chance to look at her eyes in a mirror. But there wasn’t even a clear puddle of water on the street. “Probably you have to meet lots of mages before you’d see—whatever Narienneh saw. Look, there’s the Lane of Shadows. Which house did she say?”
“The third.” Enelle leaned forward to look for it. They had left the traffic behind them as they passed under the shadow of Kerre Maraddras, entering a district of quiet dimness that seemed only minimally connected to the city proper. “Is that it?” She sounded a little uncertain.
Nemienne could understand Enelle’s doubt. The third house on the lane was a small, crooked structure, built of weathered gray stone. Set as it was into a fold of the mountain, the house looked less like a purpose-built structure than a natural outcropping. Light slanted obliquely across the glass windows—the house’s one extravagant touch—so that the windows seemed blind, nothing anyone could look into. Or out of.
“It’s a bit… it’s rather… have you ever seen a less likable house?” Enelle asked. She looked appalled. “This was a bad idea. You needn’t… we mustn’t…”
“Oh, no,” Nemienne said, her eyes on those blind windows. Light reflected from them, like light off water, so that anything might be hidden beyond sight in the depths. “No. We’re here, and I know we still need more money. Though you did wonderfully well with the Mother of Cloisonné, you know you did,” she added hastily. “But we’re here. We must certainly ask.” She drew the horses
to the side of the lane, set the brake, wrapped the reins around the driver’s bar, and jumped down to the cobbles, steadying herself with a hand on the near wheel’s high rim.
“But—” Enelle began, her voice a little too high.
“Anyway,” Nemienne said, as gently as she knew how because she knew her sister wouldn’t understand this, “I rather like the house.”
Enelle gave her an astonished stare. “You don’t really.”
“I think I do.” Nemienne came around to the other side of the carriage and held up a hand to help Enelle down. If she would come. Her sister was actually shivering, Nemienne saw. Was it the house? Or had leaving Karah behind taught her to fear partings? Nemienne continued to hold her hand up, waiting for her sister to reach down and complete that grip. At last Enelle reached down her hand to meet Nemienne’s.
The steps of the house were like the house itself: rough and oddly angled, with unexpected slants underfoot. The polished statue of a cat sat beside the door, gray soapstone with eyes of agate. Nemienne touched the cat’s head curiously. The stone was silken smooth under her fingertips.
“There’s no bellpull,” Enelle said, stating the obvious because she was nervous.
“I think the cat is the bell,” Nemienne said with an odd certainty, running her hand across the statue’s head a second time.
Before them, the door unlatched itself with a muffled
Enelle flinched slightly, but Nemienne put her hand out and touched the door. It swung back smoothly, showing them a dimly lit entry and a long hallway running back farther than seemed plausible. A gray cat sat bolt upright in the middle of the foyer. It was the image of the statue on the porch, except for one white foot and a narrow white streak that ran up its nose. The cat blinked eyes green as agates at them, then rose and walked away down the shadowed hallway, tail swaying upright, white foot flashing.
Enelle hesitated. “Do you think we should—”
“Of course,” said Nemienne. She caught her sister’s hand and
stepped into the gray stone house after the cat. Stepping through the door was like stepping into the mountain itself: There was a sense of looming weight overhead. Unable to decide whether she found the unexpected presence of the mage’s house oppressive or simply interesting, Nemienne almost hesitated herself. But if she retreated now, she suspected that she’d never get Enelle back inside this house. And if they paused for long here on the threshold, the cat would get too far ahead for them to see even its white foot.