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Authors: Rachel Neumeier

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BOOK: House of Shadows
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Leilis leaned a hip on the edge of the cook’s big table and used a fine pair of tongs to lift candied flower petals from the rack, laying a single one just so on each glazed pastry.

The cook nodded thanks to Leilis and said over her shoulder to her girl, “Start whipping the egg whites for the meringues.” To Leilis, she said, “Do you think a red currant sauce for the ducks, or wild cherry? Did you go up and have a look at her, then?”

“Cherry,” advised Leilis. “Her name is Karah. She’s a lovely child.”

“Ah,” observed the cook wisely, “that won’t last.”

“Lily, you mean.”

“Who else? And Tiarella, and that little fool Sweetrose.”

The cook’s girl brought the bowl of egg whites to the table and began to whisk them into a froth, listening covertly to the gossip of her superiors. Most of the residents of Cloisonné House passed through the kitchens several times a day, filching tidbits, so the cook was usually an excellent source of gossip. Leilis concentrated on laying candied flower petals delicately on top of the pastries and made no comment about jealous deisa or the risks this new girl might run among them. She said instead, “The true amount Mother gave for her was eighteen hundred. Hard.”

“Ah. Mother won’t care to have her interfered with, then,” the cook commented, her eyes on the sugar she was dusting over flower petals. “Not paying as much as that. Especially this season, with expenses so tight. You wouldn’t believe the price of butter and cream in the market these days.” What the cook didn’t add was that Lily was unlikely to be held back by concern over Mother’s temper.

And, of course, Leilis, of all women, hardly needed to be
reminded of the grim possibilities inherent in deisa jealousy. “I warned her to be careful,” Leilis said. Her tone had gone a little defensive, she found, and she shut her eyes for a second and hauled herself back toward the cool neutrality she’d thought she’d learned long since.

“Ah?” said the cook, meaning,
What good do you imagine that will do?

Leilis had to nod. They both knew it would do nothing. But why Leilis should care… She was deliberately uninvolved in deisa quarrels and petty jealousies. For years she had held aloof from such concerns. Why should this new girl matter to her?

But, later, when most of the keiso and the deisa had gone out to entertain at Cloisonné’s banquet, Leilis filled a covered tray with plates of duck breast in cherry sauce, pureed parsnips with butter and slivers of sea-urchin roe, and cream-filled pastries. Then she slipped through the near-empty living quarters of the House, up the back stairs, and along to the House’s small dance studio.

The studio was, unsurprisingly, occupied.

Rue might have gone to the party, but large parties often took a raucous turn utterly unsuited to Rue’s own gift. Rue was a connoisseur’s keiso. Mother never asked her to attend the loud half-drunken parties that were the greatest pleasure of most of the younger keiso.

Instead, Rue was standing before the wide studio mirror, back straight and face blank, in an esienne stance, one foot on the polished floor and the other arched with just the toes placed delicately before the other foot. Leilis’s entrance did not elicit even a flicker of attention from the keiso. The woman shifted slowly from the esienne stance through a floating cloud exchange and then to a kind of elongated cat stance, and from that back to esienne.

Rue repeated the steps again. Leilis sat down against the wall, set the tray on the floor beside her, wrapped her arms around her knees, and waited while Rue went through the sequence yet again. And then again, this time adding three gliding cat steps and a long dipping turn back into esienne. Leilis finally recognized part of
the middle sequence of the Departing Swallows dance from the Autumn Lament. Evidently Rue was considering an adaptation for the dance. It looked fine to Leilis, but Rue continued rehearsing and adjusting the steps, her face calm and intent, until she reached some level of perfection perceptible only to herself. Then she stood still a moment longer, in the esienne stance once more, the tips of her fingers brushing the rail.

And then, at last, the remote intensity in her face slowly gave way to an awareness of the studio, and Leilis, and the tray. A smile broke into her dark eyes and she crossed the floor quickly and dropped down with a dancer’s automatic grace to sit next to Leilis.

“Thank you.”

Leilis uncovered the food. “It would be better hot.”

Rue laughed. Though not beautiful, the woman had a beautiful voice and a warm, quiet laugh. “When do I ever have my supper hot?”

This was true. Rue spent most of her afternoons and many of her evenings either with the dance master or alone in the House studio, and even the more penetrating bells of the timekeeper seldom broke through her focus. She exclaimed in pleasure now, seeing the duck. “A cherry sauce? Wonderful!”

Leilis leaned back against the wall and watched the keiso eat.

Rue’s father, a Samenian, had given her his narrow face and long bones; Rue was thus tall for a dancer, but she was not willowy. Her wrists and ankles were strong and her limbs muscular, so that she lacked the delicacy that made for true beauty. Her hair was Samenian black: not the desirable jet prized in the flower life, but muted with reddish highlights.

None of that mattered. Rue had left the household of her wealthy father to become keiso because her heart was given to dance. A wife must be a wife, and a mother a mother; a lady must be a lady; only a keiso could make art the center of her life. Rue had become keiso on her nineteenth birthday, had bought out her contract at twenty-three, and now, at thirty-four, was one of the great ornaments of Cloisonné
House and of all the flower world. Neither needing nor desiring to tie herself to a man, even the noblest or richest, Rue had no keisonne and would probably never accept one. Further, too secure within herself to concern herself with issues of status and rank, Rue was one of the easiest of all the House keiso for residents of lesser rank to approach.

“The House has gained a new deisa,” Leilis told her.

“Yes, even I could not miss the word of it.” Rue ate a slice of duck breast with concentrated pleasure and began to nibble the orange strands of urchin roe off the creamy mound of mashed parsnips.

“A lovely girl,” remarked Leilis.

Rue made a perfunctory sound of mild interest without glancing up.

“Lily also thinks so.”

Rue paused in the midst of her second slice of duck breast. She looked at Leilis, a searching look. “And so you bring me a tray?”

“With cherry sauce.”

A slight smile crooked Rue’s mouth. “I’m surprised you care.”

Leilis did not know how to defend her own sympathy for the new girl. She said nothing.

“Does she dance?” Rue asked after a moment.

“Compared to you?”

Rue smiled again and went back to her duck. She knew, all possible modesty aside, that there was no likelihood that this new girl would even be able to perceive the distant heights of her art.

“Mother will want to protect her,” said Leilis. “But she won’t.” She meant,
Not from Lily.
The faint, bitter edge to her voice surprised her, and she stopped.

The keiso, understanding, lifted an eyebrow in cynical agreement. “Children blind a mother. Even a Mother. Lily might have grown into a less selfish snip if Narienneh had fostered her out just as she’d have done with a boy.” Even Rue would not have said anything that direct to just any servant, but then Leilis was not an ordinary servant. Rue simply went on, “But as she hasn’t and won’t, what do you think
will be able to do for this new deisa of ours?”

There was, of course, very little even an influential and well-disposed keiso could do for a deisa among deisa. Leilis lifted a shoulder in a tiny shrug.

Rue finished the duck and thoughtfully broke one of the cakes in two, exposing the thick cream filling. She ate the cake in two neat bites and licked cream off her fingers. “Very beautiful, is she?”

“She’ll surprise you,” Leilis promised. “Even though I tell you so now.”

Rue made a skeptical little sound, ate the second pastry, and rose to her feet in one neat motion. “Will you take the tray back to the kitchens, or shall I?”

“I ought to leave it for you. Then at least you would have to leave the studio for half a moment.”

The dancer only laughed, not at all offended at this impertinence. She glanced at the rail, at the mirror, but pulled herself away and strolled toward the door instead. She said over her shoulder to Leilis, who had picked up the tray and followed her, “I’m going out to the theater with Lord Nahadde soon. He gifts well, but he wishes an attentive companion, so I had better not be late. I must thank you for bringing the tray, Leilis. I would have noticed later that I had missed supper!”

Leilis watched Rue walk away, then turned and headed slowly back herself toward the kitchens.

Cloisonné’s banquet would certainly continue into the small hours, leaving the House itself largely deserted until the keiso came wearily home to seek their beds. In the meantime, a deep quiet settled throughout the House. The young servants had already retired; they would rise early, while the keiso were still sleeping off their night. And the retired keiso who had never acquired property of their own and remained in the House were mostly elderly and abed with the sunset.

And, of course, the new girl would have been left to sleep in the deisa gallery, she being too new to the House to accompany the keiso to their banquet. Leilis wondered whether she had yet met
the other deisa. Whether she had yet met Lily. Whether she slept, and whether her dreams troubled her.

Probably she was not asleep. Probably she lay awake in her narrow deisa bed and cried for her sisters. Especially if she had encountered Lily. She would be justified if she wept, then.

More important… more important, Mother would be in her apartment. Leilis changed her direction and quickened her step, realized she still held Rue’s empty tray, hesitated, and turned back toward the kitchens after all.

The kitchens were dark, if still warm; they were never really cold, even in the depths of winter. Leilis put the tray down quietly by the nearest sink, lit a candle from a coal banked in a fireplace, and swung open the door to the cellars.

A sharp cold emanated from the stairway. Leilis’s steps fell more softly than seemed reasonable, as though here sound itself became muted and tentative. Accustomed to this muffling of sound and sense and less given to fancies than most residents of Cloisonné House, Leilis did not pause but quickly went down another flight of stairs into the deeper, larger cellar beyond. There she found a bottle of straw-colored Enescene wine. The bottle was cold in the hand, and dusty. Leilis blew the dust off its label, holding the candle close to the cramped angular writing to make out the script. Then, satisfied, she went again through the small cellar and up the stairs.

Up in the kitchens once more, she dusted the bottle more thoroughly and set it and a tall goblet on a tray. She added a narrow vase of clear glass and a sprig of moonflowers from an arrangement chilling in the ice pantry, added a single cream-filled cake on a delicate plate painted with more moonflowers, and slipped out of the kitchens again without waking the girls.

Narienneh was awake; light showed in a narrow line beneath her door. Leilis was not surprised. She would probably be fretting about the new deisa she had bought into the House. Though probably she would not have framed clearly to herself any question about Lily in that connection, or Leilis would have no necessity to trouble her.

The door was shut nearly to, but not latched; a touch of Leilis’s
hand swung it inward. A small fire of rowan and mountain cedar was burning in the center of her large fireplace. A kettle of tea had been set to one side of the fire to keep hot, though Mother did not seem to have poured a cup. She was sitting at her small writing desk close by the fire, with the house ledger open before her and an abstracted expression on her aged, elegant face. Though she held a quill in her hand, she was not writing, but only gazing into the fire. But she glanced around as her door opened.

Her eyes traveled from Leilis’s face to the tray she held, and she smiled a little. “Leilis.”

“You seemed tired.”

“I am, a little. Thank you.”

Leilis walked forward, waited for Narienneh to close the ledger and move it aside, and laid her tray down on the table. “I presumed to open a bottle of the Enescene gold.”

“That is thoughtfulness, not presumption. You have always,” said Narienneh, with regret, “had a fine instinct.”

Leilis said nothing. Even after so long, even spoken kindly, such a comment still had the power to wound. She refused, however, to flinch. Instead, she opened the bottle of wine and carefully poured, then set the goblet of wine down near Mother’s hand, backed up a step, and settled herself on the floor by the hearth.

Narienneh lifted the goblet, sipped, sighed, and set the goblet back on the table again. She closed her eyes, leaning back in her chair.

“A pretty girl. A pretty naïveté,” Leilis observed. “Doubtless she will ally the House with a most noble kisonne in her first keiso month, if she still owns such sweetness when she turns nineteen.” Leilis did not stress the
by even so much as a direct glance up at Mother. Leilis, of all women of the House, did not need to.

BOOK: House of Shadows
7.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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