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Authors: Rachel Neumeier

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BOOK: House of Shadows
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hough lively enough in its present incarnation as a keiso House, Cloisonné House was in truth made of silence and time. Leilis sometimes had trouble believing that the dozens of women and girls who dwelled within the house did not know that the echoing clamor of their lives and voices only masked the underlying silence. At its heart, Cloisonné House was a house of stillness, and there were places in it where even the most adventurous of the girls did not go—where no one went, where nothing was stored that anyone might want to find back.

One such place was the highest of the attics tucked up along the northwest edge of the roof. That attic had a narrow window that, set under the eaves, never admitted bright sun. Yet the diffuse light that came through the old glass always seemed to fill the attic—even in the evening, after the sun had set and there should have been no light. There was another quiet place in the deepest cellars, this one with a more perilous feel to it. Bottles of wine and casks of ale, barrels of pickles and jars of summer preserves stored in the far reaches of the cellars might last for months or years, as the cook’s girls avoided going down farther than they must.

And the last bedchamber down the keiso gallery on the fourth floor, a small room that had a slanting ceiling and an old, enormous fireplace with three cracked hearthstones—that chamber was another such quiet place, as though it were surrounded by the musty solitude of a cloister rather than the bustle of a busy keiso
House. Fires set in its fireplace burned longer but with less heat than they should, and with a faintly greenish tint, or so it seemed to Leilis.

As none of the keiso desired this chamber, Leilis had been permitted to claim it for her own. She would lie at night on her narrow bed by the wall where the ceiling came down low, listening to the deep quiet beating softly through the darkness. Leilis liked the quiet, or had learned to because she liked the solitude it brought her.

Now she cleared the ash out of the fireplace and laid down new kindling and small logs. Then she carried the bucket of ashes out into the hallway and paused, listening. Whispers slipped through the quiet around her. She was not quite curious. But the whispers followed her down the stairs, tugging at the edges of her attention as she went out the barred service door that led to the alley behind the House.

Leilis tossed the ashes onto the midden heap, raising a puff of fine pale ash that tasted faintly bitter on the back of the tongue. The ash tasted of silence, she thought. Of silence and patience and the slow passing of time. It seemed strange that the memory of fire could taste of things so unlike the lively fire itself.

She turned back to the House, walking along the alley to enter this time through the small kitchen door.

Whispers instantly surrounded her. The keiso were all still abed, but two of the deisa, Lily and Sweetrose, were sitting at the cutting table, sneaking sugared nuts from a batch the cook had made. The girls had their heads tilted together. Their smiles were knowing, their voices smooth.

There was a new girl, Leilis gathered, attending at last. She must be a beauty, to judge by the spite she’d engendered so quickly in the deisa: Mother had paid a thousand hard for her, one of them murmured, and she already old, seventeen at least, and completely untrained. By the time she was bringing in a profit she’d be in debt to the House for twice what Mother had given for her. She wouldn’t earn out until she was forty years old, if ever. Lily and Sweetrose shared the satisfied tone that came from the assurance that
were going to earn out their debts while they were still young and beautiful.

Leilis stepped past the deisa and began to clear up walnut shells. Sweetrose made room with an air that suggested she shifted out of Leilis’s way only by chance; Lily gave Leilis a glance that combined wariness, resentment, and disdain and did not move at all. Only the cook gave her a welcoming nod. Leilis returned the nod and took the nut shells out to the midden heap.

Then it was back in and around to the banquet chambers where clients were entertained, to polish the low tables and the silverwork on the carved doors and, especially, the floors. Endless polishing: The women and girls of the House went softly shod, but clients wore boots on even the finest floors.

The whispers made their way to Leilis once more while she was in the last chamber. They had strengthened as the keiso at last began to come out of their rooms and join in the life of the house. The rumors were carried through the air along with the sharp scent of the wood polish, running along the keiso galleries and through the servants’ narrow passages. The new girl had hair spun out of the dusky fall of twilight. Her skin was flawless, the soft color of the best Enescene porcelain. The curve of her throat… those fine delicate bones… Even her tears scattered like pearls, and her face did not blotch when she wept.

The new girl might well be tearful, thought Leilis. Though probably she feared the wrong things and for the wrong reasons. New girls always feared Mother, feared the senior keiso. But any new girl should instead fear the whispers that spread among the deisa. Those were the girls who would like to see a rival fail and sink into obscurity or mere servitude within the House.

Curiosity drove Leilis down from the keiso-trodden regions of the House to the laundry to see if the laundry maids needed extra hands, which of course they always did.

“Have you seen the new girl?” one of the laundry maids asked her. The maid was a tiny bit of a thing, too plain to dream of ever taking a flower name of her own. Her thin little voice was wistful.
“More beautiful than the stars over the mountains, they say. Mother paid two thousand hard cash for her and would have paid twice as much. You should go see if she’s truly so beautiful and come tell us, will you, Leilis?”

The maid, tucked away in the laundry, could not herself run up to see the new deisa. Few of the residents of Cloisonné House moved as freely as Leilis between the public and private regions of the house, between the servants’ areas and the keiso galleries and halls. Not that anyone but a laundry maid was likely to envy Leilis her unusual freedom. It was assuredly a poor enough trade for keiso glamour.

Leilis made a noncommittal sound and took a set of the very best silk sheets up to Mother’s apartment.

Narienneh was speaking with the embroiderer, who was showing her an overrobe embroidered with a frothy lacework of white and pale pink. “She’d look like an apple blossom in this,” Mother said, waving a dismissive hand at the froth. “Like an entire orchard. Something innocent is what we shall want, a clean design, something almost plain.”

The embroiderer nodded, sketching quick patterns in charcoal for Narienneh to examine. Leilis slid past into Mother’s bedchamber and made the bed, then came back out to the front room. She snipped the faded flowers off Mother’s white roses and tidied away the clutter of discarded paper the embroiderer had produced. The embroiderer gathered up a rustling stack of sketches and went away.

Mother sighed and sat down at the table in front of the window. But she did not gaze out the window at the river. She lowered her head against her hand, pinching the bridge of her nose and looking, now that she was alone, uncharacteristically frail. Mother’s hair, braided up into a crown on the top of her head, was flawlessly white, but her age was not what lent her this unexpected air of fragility. It occurred to Leilis to wonder for the first time how much Narienneh might really have paid for the new girl. Could it have been so much?

Leilis slipped quietly away. Going again by the laundry, she gathered up another armload of sheets. Thus armored, she went up at last to the deisa gallery, where the new girl would have a narrow bed at the end of the row where all the deisa slept.

The girl was there, sitting perfectly still in one of the straight-backed chairs by the window, her hands gripped together in her lap. The clutter of deisa belongings was scattered about: plain practice harps with extra strings coiled on shelves nearby, a kinsana, sets of pipes. Scrolls for the poems the deisa were learning were pinned open on a low table by the window, the narrow pallets taking up the rest of that wall. There were half a dozen small chests, one at the foot of each pallet, for each deisa’s personal possessions; the room’s single large closet would hold all their daily robes and slippers, which they did not own themselves. Leilis wondered what, if anything, this new girl owned of her own. And whether she had the sense to guess she should guard her things, if she had any, from the other deisa.

None of the other deisa were present. Lily’s doing? Or merely that none of them were free at this hour? It was true the deisa had their lessons and their other duties, but it was strange that none of them had slipped away for a look at this newest addition to their number.

If the girl had wept earlier—either tears like pearls or the more ordinary sort—she was not weeping now. Her eyes came up, tearless, at Leilis’s entry, and she sprang nervously to her feet. Her gaze, after a barely noticeable hesitation, steadied on Leilis’s face.

Leilis, transfixed by a wide blue gaze as fathomless as the sea, stood motionless and looked back at the new girl across her pile of sheets.

No wonder Mother had purchased this girl. Leilis suddenly did not doubt that Mother had paid a great deal for her. Not for her beauty, though the girl was beautiful. For that priceless look in those eyes. That immeasurable trusting innocence was nothing you could get for any price in any House of the candlelight district. It was nothing you could expect to find, come to that, anywhere.
Leilis tried to imagine what kind of family this girl had grown up in to have a look like that.

Or else she was simple. That seemed likely, on a more collected assessment.

The girl said, in a faltering sort of voice, “Please, are you—are you—is there something I ought to be—what should I do?”

Leilis tilted her head to the side, oddly touched by this appeal. The artless manner seemed perfectly unstudied. Stepping across the room to the closet, Leilis put the linens she held away on a shelf. Then she turned and looked again at the girl, who was silent now, her amazing eyes wide with nerves.

“How much did she give for you?” Leilis asked abruptly.

The girl stared at her, deep-sea eyes wide and blank. Simple, after all, Leilis decided. It did seem a pity.

But the girl said then, “Eighteen hundred. She gifted us eighteen hundred hard cash.” Her voice, though low and sweet, was not as shy as Leilis would have expected.

“Us?” said Leilis, tilting an eyebrow at the girl.

The girl blushed. It made her look more untutored and innocent than ever. “Them. My sisters. It was—we thought it was a good price…”

“It was. Very good.” It was a
price, especially this season, with an uncertain spring approaching and the city tense. Not that anyone doubted who would win if the war between Lirionne and Kalches resumed. Fifteen years ago, the Dragon of Lirionne had forced Kalches to sign the Treaty of Brenedde, ceding to Lirionne all the lands west of Teleddes and east of Anharadde. If war came again, then Lirionne would win again. All those disputed lands would belong to Lirionne forever, and after Kalches had been forced to accept its final defeat, everything would be fine. But still, at the moment, everything was more expensive than usual and every House hard-pressed. And yet Mother had paid so much for one girl?

But when Leilis studied the House’s newest asset again, she could only shake her head. “You were worth every coin,” she
decided. “Mother is wavering a little now, I think, and small surprise there. But she is wrong to doubt her bargain. What is your name?”

“Karah,” whispered the girl. Her fine slender hands closed slowly into fists at her sides.

“Don’t worry over Mother,” Leilis advised her, moved despite herself by the girl’s uncertainty. “Don’t fear the keiso. But be careful of the deisa. Especially Lily.” She paused, studying the blank look in those exquisite eyes. “Have you met Lily? Or the other deisa? Do you

“Yes,” the girl said, dutiful as a child saying off a lesson she had learned by rote. “Or no. I have not met them. I will be careful of Lily. Thank you.”

Maybe she understood and maybe she didn’t, but Leilis could hardly stand behind her and coach her through the day. Besides, whatever happened in the deisa quarters was no concern of
Leilis gave a short little nod and turned to go.

“Wait!” said the girl, coming forward a half step. She was clenching her hands again, Leilis noted disapprovingly. “What is—Who are you?”

Leilis could feel her face set. “No one,” she said, and was gone on that word, leaving the beautiful girl behind with a hand half raised and a stricken look in her sapphire eyes.

The deisa were gone from the kitchens, leaving the cook and her girls in peace to prepare for the coming evening. Preparations were now well along. A dozen plucked, headless ducks lay on the cutting table. Three fat red fish, so fresh they looked all but ready to swim away, lay on trays of crushed ice behind the ducks. Loaves of fresh bread cooled on racks alongside the ovens, and a large pot of broth simmered gently on top of the nearest oven. The cook looked weary but satisfied.

The cook was using a soft brush to coat the petals of flowers with beaten egg whites, then dusting the flower petals with fine sugar and placing each one on a wire rack to dry. Trays of brightly
glazed pastries occupied the rest of the cook’s huge stone table. Her newest girl, a solemn little creature with coarse black hair cropped short around her thin face, had come back from the market and now moved silently around the kitchens, putting butter and cream in the cold box and a sack of river mussels in the big stone sink.

BOOK: House of Shadows
8.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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