Sifadis Lafdi shooed her seleman away. She had no need of a sedan-chair; she was a woman, not an invalid. And the past week had been dry, the day was fine, and used to the tip-a-tilt deck of a ship, her step was far from dainty. In twenty or so steps she was across the Processional Way and into the cluttered courtyard of Two Boars House.
Stup and Dizpeter, and the lesser (warrior) gods arrayed around the two colossi, failed to intimidate her. They were set on the courtyard’s chequered paving like pieces upon a chess-board – though the black and white queen were loud in their absence. The silver hawk seemed mal-placed amongst them, its talons and beak more threatening than all the war-gods together. But she admired its crafting; a gift, it was said, from long centuries gone. Heli’s rays glinting off its many small parts made darker yawning arches of the flanking veranda. She ignored the lateral doors set within them, and headed for the ‘official’ entrance, symbolically guarded by two fierce-looking boars that were painted upon the copper-red wall.
Ineffectual-looking in front of the boars, two armed holden, sparkling in their uniform trappings, crossed their pikes to bar her way.
“Lorken, Kullt, you dare question me?”
“We do our duty, Sifadis Lafdi, Bel Hade,” said the older guard, Lorken.
“So consider it done. Now let me pass.”
With a glance at each other they swiftly obeyed.
She hiked up the skirt of her treacle-and-amber brocaded silk kirtle. The deep trim of ginger minever made it weighty round the hem and she had no wish to trip. She knew the fashion now was to wear knee-length kirtles but those who followed it didn’t live on the east coast. The Ram-and-Lambs’ weeks here were as cold as full winter despite Heli’s return. And since nothing could chill the bones as deep as the sea-mist she wore a cloak too. It dragged behind her, heavy with its encrustation of golden embroidery. As she stooped to scoop up her hem, her blood-red hair fell like a veil around her. She swept it back with impatient hand. She did not like this need to dress-up.
The ‘official’ entrance gave onto a circular chamber, three storeys high. The heart of the house, it pulsed with light as if the gleaming gold-veined marble that swept aloft the stairs were its source. But Sifadis barely looked at the spiral of arches with their part-hidden doors; Breken Lafard’s audience chamber was off to her right. A ‘path’ of green marble tiles led her there.
This was by no means the first time she had attended here. Yet it was her first summons and, as with a passenger’s first time on the sea, her stomach was lurching. Ay, she thought, and imagine how worse for those attending charged with treason. Restless and anxious, her gaze was everywhere despite the chamber was cavernous, being the entire east wing. It also was dark, though that was no failing of Heli’s. It was more that the windows, set high, were green and blue glazed. She could see no Mikel Lafard-Awis. At least this was not to be a trial.
Breken Lafard Legere was already present, seated upon his short-legged circular legere-chair – an imitation, and hardly old. Its canopy made her think of her summer parasol; she ought to have a new one made.
The chamber was silent but for the sounds made by her clothes and trappings as she walked. The soft shush of her cloak on the carpet; the clip and whisper of her shoes. The many strands of her silver-gilt belt, where they hung down behind, set up an arrhythmic tinkle. The gold repoussé torc annoyed her by slipping – as frequently it did. She resisted the urge to push it back up despite a cascade of jangling bracelets descended with it. At last she arrived at the base of the steps to the legere-chair. She clasped her hands before her though she wasn’t here in supplication.
“Sifadis Lafdi of Old Shore House,” announced Breken Lafard’s young cousin Garawen. Breken Lafard scowl at him.
Sifadis briefly bowed.
“Sifadis,” Breken Lafard said in friendly, brotherly, tone. “You are not ignorant of why you are here.”
Ay, and how could she be when the entire citadel was abuzz with the talk. Ember, her most valued dulsind and kamerlinc, had reported only yesterday that the hindlings and urbs were wagering on it. She expected her hamlets too were stirred, particularly the bachelor of Henet manse. Their concern she could understand; today’s decision could drastically alter their lives.
“Impolite to ask a young woman –” Breken Lafard smiled “– but how many years have you now?”
“Twenty-three, Hadd Leef.” Her voice sounded child-like, anxiety weakened. That was the last thing she needed.
“And how many years in Gowen Sivator’s ward?” Breken Lafard asked though surely he knew.
“Five years, Hadd Leef.” Though with her not a minor, that wardship meant only that Gowen Sivator must co-sign her documents.
“You know, were you of a lesser birth, even though born of a House, you would have been married ten years since. You do know this? So how much longer do you think to stay it?”
“Until I meet a man who suits me, Hadd Leef. It is not intentionally stayed.” That, of course, was a lie, but the truth could not be said here.
“Ten years? And not yet a hint? I begin to gather doubts, particularly since you seem content to be alone with the Book. Now, were you of a lesser House, and not the last of your line, I would leave you to your studies, and willingly. But your husband – when he appears – must become one with us. A stranger to be invited in; you must appreciate how vulnerable that makes us feel. So, for the sake of Lecheni, and the security of all, I now must press you. I shall not be unreasonable in it. I will provide to you five suitable suitors. Five, that is more choice than most women have. And you will agree to wed just one of them. Well?”
Sifadis bowed her head, drew in a deep breath – and discovered her ability to argue had fled her. Worse, there were tears. They stung and she cursed them. She held out her hands in mute appeal. But Breken Lafard was waiting and she had to say something. “Ay, I agree, Hadd Leef, this is fair.”
Crud and crusts! She felt like the stone of her tomb had just grated over her. But at least Affalind Lafdi Legara was not there to witness her recalcitrant tears; she’d not hear the end of that, else. Lah! Proud Sifadis cried. She sniffed but it now was too late. The tears coursed down her face.
Breken Lafard turned to his young cousin Garawen – the house servants had a name for him and sivator was not it (though he had trained to that, Gowen Sivator now being old). Nay, it referred to tongues and the lower anatomy and might more politely be called a ‘ruffler’.
“We shall start with the nearest,” Breken Lafard said. “An alliance with Cordoen is not to be poo’d at.” He turned back to Sifadis. “Aithis Lafard Legere of Citadel Cordoen has a nephew this year granted his sword. So, he is only a few years your junior.”
She desperately wanted to look away yet she managed to held her poise. Ay, said nephew of Aithis Lafard was her junior. By ten years.
~ ~ ~
Sifadis looked up at the sound of steps behind her.
“I thought I might discover you here,” Gowen Sivator said.
Ay. Thoroughly miserable, she sat upon the stone of her father’s tomb. She often came to this garden; whenever she had a need of solitude, whenever she needed to think. Its high stone walls, formed of the back of Shore House, the side wall of House Eland, the tawny stone of the warison-wall, and the wall alongside the Processional Way, four rods high, provided privacy and shelter. Here grew a tree from the Old World, a rose that had climbed a now-dead apple. Its gnarled old stem was as thick as the holha-grass, and every morning a blackbird perched in it to sing. In season a bee-eater used it as well. And the flowers here . . . though they were only those brought by the Founders as herbs, yet their flowers were pretty and they smelled both sweet and spicy when Heli’s midday fingers reached in to touch them. But Sifadis’s pride was none of the Old World plants but a Daabian fire-juice tree. Savannah born, it only grew here because it was sheltered. But all this was lost on her today. She felt more akin to the bones in the tombs around her, the past generations of Shore House women.
The old sivator sat down beside her and held her hand. His was dry and bony but as warm as the warison on a high-summer day. Friend of her father, co-tender of this garden, he was more than the pen that co-signed her receipts and charters.
“If I could, I would save you from it,” he said.
She sighed. “Aye. But it must be done.”
“Had you accepted Skaga . . . ” he said, and added when Sifadis made no response, “He is my sister’s son.”
“Och, Gowen Hadd, and you should have said. I am sorry.”
“I would not press. Whoever weds you will be powerful and wealthy – and for that reason I urge you not to say, ‘Loh!’ and take the first of Breken Lafard’s suitors. You meet all five before you decide.”
“But what difference, Gowen, which one I wed? Still he will change me until I’m no longer me. A woman is nothing until moulded and shaped by her husband – is that not what my father said?”
Gowen Sivator slowly shook his head. “And you believe that?”
“Nay, and aye. Of course a woman has shape and is someone. But then along comes her husband and – as you say – Loh! She now is someone other. Affalind Lafdi, look at her. That is a woman man-ufactured, shaped first by her father and then by her husband. A woman’s mind is an empty box waiting to be filled – is that not what my father used to say? And, truly, I want no man’s direction.”
“Yet you will have a husband.”
“Would you have the House die with you?” Gowen Sivator said, though he had no need to remind her of what was involved. “Would you have it pass to the lafard legere’s son. Or to Iffig, if the lafdi legara produces none?”
Sifadis tutted impatiently. “Ay, and to save the House some man must reshape my belly. You know, Gowen, just like the Shore women before me, I’ll produce only daughters. There is a curse on this House.”
“That is rot and you know it,” Gowen Sivator said more sternly than she had previously heard him.
“It is not and I don’t! Gowen, it’s there. In the House records. I’ve been delving of late, curious of why an ancient legere-chair should sit here in Shore House – curious, too, of the size of our holdings.” Though that wasn’t her real reason for delving through the dusty vellum. Her ancestress Ffadise had prompted her, whispering in the garden, beside her tomb. And loh, the things she had found! “You know the tale of Keril-og?”
“I am not a Lecheni-man,” Gowen Sivator said. “I came in service to House Eland, when they still held the chair.”
Sifadis looked at him askance. “But I thought Greystone House . . .” She never had asked him; she had assumed it was his by inheritance.
“It was in Eland’s holding and was my reward – though with no hamlet and manse . . .” There was no need to say more. With no hamlet and manse there was no income. He was dependent upon the good will of the lafard legere. Sifadis hung her head, reprimanded; she had given no mind to his state.
“So you will not be a while-a-day?” Gowen Sivator asked her, his deeply lined face showing deeper concern than lay in his words. “I worry for you, what with your hythes and your fleets.”
She laughed at the notion. “And where would I go, Gowen, where? If I leave Lecheni I must leave my title, so where then my ships? And to do what, hur? Become one of Mikel Lafard’s stews? Nah. I must face it now; my years of being me are done. Like it or no, I now must be someone other.”
She knew nothing yet of Keefer-Papa Kalamite’s plans – though perhaps her ancestress Ffadise did. Perhaps it was Ffadise, working subtly inside Kalamite’s head that gave her words a different cast.
~ ~ ~