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Authors: Rachel Neumeier

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BOOK: House of Shadows
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The man dropped his gaze, looking abashed. Now that they stood in this civilized entry hall, the bloody knife Benne still held seemed out of place in his huge hand.

Taudde took a deep breath. Another. Then he said, gesturing to the willow branch, his tone almost ordinary, “You bought this?”

Benne nodded.

“It lends a pleasing touch to the hall. Very suitable. I’m pleased by your efforts on behalf of this house. It was made by a Paliante craftsman, I suppose? Yes. And how much did he ask?”

Benne held up three fingers, and then two.

“And how much did you pay?”

The big man hesitated for an instant. Then he held up four fingers, and one.

“Yes,” said Taudde. He paused for a moment, and then added, “Good taste and judgment, good bargaining skills, good timing with a rescue, and truly amazing brawling talent. I hardly know what to say.”

Benne looked at the floor.

“Well,” Taudde added, “I do know one thing to say. Thank you.”

Benne glanced up for an instant, and then looked down again.

“Come along to the kitchen and wash that blood off,” Taudde said, and turned briskly to walk down the hall.

Nala was at the big kitchen table, sifting flour for the morning bread, Taudde saw.

She glanced up, smiled a reserved professional smile of welcome, glanced past him at Benne, took in the blood and the knife, and lost her smile. “What—are you—Is that—” She stopped, blinked, and
finished more coherently. “Are you all right, lord? Benne?” Her gaze at Taudde was worried and nervous, but the look she gave Benne held something warmer than concern. “Whatever happened?”

Taudde said, in his blandest tone, “Oh, we’re perfectly all right, aren’t we, Benne? It was nothing of moment.”

Benne bobbed his head, looking abashed, and moved past Nala to drop the knife into the sink and rinse the blood off his hands.

Taudde headed for the stairs that led through the parlors and library on the third floor and finally to his own living quarters on the fourth. He stood at his high window and stared out at the dark city, but he found no peace in that quiet darkness. The chill air came into the room, pressing against the warmth of the fire Nala had laid in his fireplace.

Taudde knew the quiet that lay outside his window was an illusion, that the darkness concealed discreet movements and dangerous secrets. The same might be true of any city, but it seemed to him that the pale light of the streetlamps of Lonne accented the city’s darkness; that the magecrafted lights only cast more and darker shadows. To the north and west, there was a steadier, brighter glow than the streetlamps could provide. That was the candlelight district, where from dusk till dawn the city was anything but quiet.

Taudde was very tired, yet he knew he would not be able to rest. Anger and shock still roiled through him. He should frame a plan, something clever that would let him slip through the hands of the conspirators. But he couldn’t think. Not now, not tonight, not while all his thoughts rushed continually forward and backward without coherence or order.

He wanted to pace, but knew it wouldn’t help. He longed for music, but did not dare play so much as a note. He knew he should rest, but could not bear to stay still. Turning on his heel, he strode back toward the stairs. If he dared not go out alone, Benne would evidently serve well as a bodyguard—and a mute man could ask no awkward questions. Benne was a safer escort than any other man could be, for a bardic sorcerer who had dared enter Lirionne in defiance of the Seriantes ban.

Benne did not, in fact, seem to find anything curious about his employer’s desire to go down to the rugged shore and look at the sea. Other men might enjoy the light and laughter of the candlelight district, but if a foreigner from land-bound Miskiannes wished to sit on the cold rocks and stare out at the dark sea, why not?

The sea stretched out infinitely far, melding imperceptibly with the star-flecked sky. Taudde, sitting on a sharp-edged stone new-fallen from the rugged cliffs beneath the Laodd, allowed himself to fall into the endless cadence of the waves, away from all the anger and shock and fear of the endless day and evening. He did not look up toward the road, where Benne waited, patient and silent, unable to question even the strangest orders. If he did not look, Taudde could pretend that he was entirely alone.

The intrinsic magic of the sea compelled attention, drowning other concerns. It blurred at the edges into a kind of music that was tantalizingly close to something Taudde could understand, yet so far always a little out of his grasp. He let his mind pour out into the music of the sea, let it pour itself into him, trying to lose himself in its rhythm.

One might string a harp with the winds from the heights, but the music of the sea had so far eluded Taudde’s attempts to bind it into wire. Perhaps pipes… perhaps reeds? If the sea’s music could not be bound, it might perhaps be echoed… There was no intrinsic reason this wild magic could not be blended into bardic sorcery. Surely there was not. He was so close to understanding the heart of the sea… yet he had thought so for days, for weeks, and seemed never quite able to plunge from the edge of the cliff into that wild heart.

But he could lose himself, and all his ephemeral worries, in the attempt.

In the morning, Taudde, wakening at dawn as always despite his late night, stood at the window to watch the sunlight pour over the crests of the mountains and fill the streets. Then he went thoughtfully down the stairs to the kitchen.

Nala gave him a cordial nod, a smile, and a plate of sweet rolls. She had been stirring the savory rice porridge with which the folk of Lonne liked to break their fast, sprinkling a handful of shredded dried scallops into the pot, but she knew that the rolls were more to Taudde’s taste. The fragrance of honey and toasted walnuts filled the air.

Taudde took a roll and leaned his hip on the edge of the table while he ate it. “Tell me, Nala,” he asked as he picked up a second roll, “what is the best keiso House in this city?”

“Maple Leaf House is very glamorous, lord,” the woman said promptly, “if my lord wishes the very highest style. Cloisonné House or the House of Butterflies are also elegant, but not so… so…”

“Snobbish?”

The woman blinked at this, but agreed, “Just so, lord. The keiso at the House of Butterflies are famous for their good cheer.” She gave him an appraising stare and then went on, “Though the more discerning often consider that the keiso of Cloisonné House are more graceful.” From Nala’s matter-of-fact tone, he might have asked her for the names of the best spice merchants in Lonne.

“The most artistic? The most accomplished?”

“Ah, now, that is likely Cloisonné,” Nala said decisively. “They have very fine dancers there, and the best instrumentalist in Lonne came out of that House.”

Taudde inclined his head, acknowledging the woman’s expertise. “I will be dining at Lord Miennes’s house tomorrow evening.”

“Yes, lord. The invitation arrived this morning.” Nala indicated a slim scroll in the letter rack, bound with an ivory-colored ribbon.

Already? Taudde lifted the scroll, undid the ribbon, and glanced over the graceful script. The hand that had written the invitation appeared to be the same that had signed it. “He wrote this himself,” Taudde commented, not quite a question, angling the letter for Nala to see.

“Oh, yes, lord. That’s the custom with invitations.”

“Is it?” This seemed, for a reason Taudde could not quite grasp, an important tidbit of information. He let the scroll roll itself up
again. “You know everything, Nala—let me ask your advice. I believe there may well be noble guests present. I may wish to invite one or more of these guests to a later function of my own. Do I correctly gather that a keiso House is considered a suitable venue for such an event?”

“Oh, yes, lord! Nothing could be more suitable.”

After a moment Taudde managed to frame the sort of elliptical question preferred in Lonne. “As a foreigner, Nala, I am naturally not very familiar with the keiso of Lonne. But in Miskiannes, that, um, sort of establishment is not often considered proper for, ah, a high-class gathering.”

“Oh, no, keiso Houses aren’t
that
sort of establishment at all,” the woman exclaimed. Her voice held underlying tones of both amusement at the foreigner’s ignorance and shock at the suggestion he had skirted. “My lord is thinking of aika, not of keiso, and that’s no wonder, I suppose, since no other city in the world has keiso. Not but that our aika aren’t also the most glamorous anywhere. But, see, my lord, if a man wants more than elegant companionship from a keiso, he must handfast her as a flower wife, a keimiso. Then he must buy her a house of her own, and maybe a shop or restaurant if she wishes such a thing, and he must acknowledge any left-hand children she might bear him and set the boys up in a trade—the girls usually follow their mother’s path and become keiso, of course.”

“I can see,” Taudde told her, “that you will need to teach me more of your Lonne customs, if I do entertain guests. But first we shall see how this dinner of Lord Miennes’s goes. It is to be a formal occasion, I believe. Have I anything suitable to wear?”

Nala pursed her lips consideringly. “There are very good tailors in the Paliante, my lord. Benne can guide you.”

“A man of multitudinous talents,” Taudde murmured.

“Lord?”

“Never mind.” Taudde went to find the big man.

Lonne, as befit the most refined city of sophisticated Lirionne, possessed many elegant treasures. Perhaps the queen among these
was the Paliante, which lay immediately below the King’s District. Farther back, the Laodd climbed the rugged cliffs. Immediately south of this fortress, the Nijiadde River flung itself over the cliffs and fell a thousand feet to shatter into diamond spume where it struck the stone below. Together, fortress and waterfall formed, as though by design, an imposing backdrop to the graceful Paliante.

Homes in the Paliante were faced with carved stone or expensive pale gold brick; the intricate wrought-iron work that guarded their spacious courtyards and windows was twisted into fanciful dragons or dolphins or eagles. Shops in the Paliante sold the work of the best perfumers and jewelers and woodcrafters to an exclusive clientele that, after dark, drifted across the Niarre to the theaters, aika establishments, fine restaurants, and keiso Houses of the candlelight district.

Far to the south of the Paliante, sprawling mercantile yards received overland trade from across the mountains—less trade than usual, in these tense times. Near the great tradeyards lay manufacturing districts where the dyers and coppersmiths, the woodworkers and stone masons had their establishments. And besides all this, street vendors held busy and crowded open-air markets down by the docks where they sold many odd and interesting objects.

This was where Taudde found himself an hour after dawn, in a morning that promised at least beauty if not clarity or confidence. The Paliante would be the place to purchase formal clothing for the evening, but it was the sea itself that drew Taudde. Slate gray where it washed up on the shale beaches, the sea turned brilliant sapphire farther out. The rhythm of its waves coming up against the shale formed a harmony with the clamor of the streets, the rattle of wheels across cobbles and the singing calls of vendors advertising their wares.

A fine three-masted ship had made its way out past the crowd at dock and was heading out toward the sapphire horizon. Taudde wished, suddenly and intensely, that he was aboard her—heading for Erhlianne perhaps, away from duty and peril and the hope or threat
of vengeance. What would it be like to stand on the deck of a moving ship, surrounded by measureless blue fathoms? The music of the sea would not be a thin trace barely audible behind the clamor of the city, but all-enveloping. He half closed his eyes, listening for that music.

And heard an echo of it, captured and transmuted to a more familiar form.

The vendor was clearly an old sailor stranded ashore by age and infirmity. He had a thin bony face, deep-set eyes, and hands crippled by years of hard use. His booth was set low, tucked nearly out of sight under a dock, where the sea broke across the slate. It was a small booth and held very little, mostly rough objects made out of driftwood. But Taudde had been caught by the sound of a flute the man played.

The old sailor played with his eyes closed and his face tilted toward the sky. The flute was a crude instrument. But in it, the man had managed to capture an echo of the drawing tide. Intrigued, Taudde gave him a small silver coin for the flute. Then he spent an hour sitting on the rocks below the dock, sea spume dashing across his toes, discovering the little instrument’s range and breadth and listening to the breathy echo of the sea hiding behind all its notes. It was a very simple flute, much plainer than Taudde’s own, with no metalwork to increase its range or multiply its notes. But Taudde almost thought he might finally have found a way to begin binding the mysterious magic of the sea into a form he could actually understand and use. If he had time to work on it… time… what
was
the time? Taudde looked at the sun and jumped to his feet.

Lonne styles were set by law and by strict custom: Foreigners, no matter how wealthy or distinguished, were expected to comport themselves with modesty. The richest dyes were for Lonne nobility. Lavenders and blues were for wellborn or wealthy women, or for keiso. Flat red was for the military, black for the King’s Own, and saffron only for the king’s family.

BOOK: House of Shadows
6.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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