copyright © 2007 Stephen Leigh
If a city can have a gender, Nessantico was female.
She began life as a jewel in the glittering, slow waters of the River A’Sele. She was an island city in infancy, connected to land by massive stone bridges and connected by the A'Sele to the sea that nourished her with trade goods. The A’Sele bustled with ship-borne commerce from its convergence with the River Clario to the river’s wide, protected mouth in the Nostrosei, all of the largesse passing through Nessantico. As the influence of the tribal chieftains who first settled Nessantico began to grow, so did the city, spreading out from the island to the banks on either side.
By the time the rulers of Nessantico began to call themselves Kraljiki and Kraljica, by the time they extended their rule beyond the city’s borders, she had grown into a vital young woman, swathed and armored in great walls that were never breached by any invader, her armies sweeping over the villages, towns, and city-states around her. Irresistibly strong, she was also seductive: the city where the Kralji held their illustrious courts, where the ambassadors of a hundred lands came to beg and bargain and bluster, where ships from foreign lands of the Strettosei and the Rhittosei brought their goods and treasure, where a dozen cultures melded to form a stronger alloy, where the magical gifts of a dozen gods were displayed and sought after.
Over the decades and the slow centuries -- as the country which took its name from her became yet more influential; as the Kralji became de facto rulers not only of Nessantico but of Il Trebbio, then Firenzcia, Magyari, and more; as the Holdings spread out in all directions even across the Strettosei to the shores of the Westlands; as the Faith of Concénzia subsumed and forcibly converted the majority of the other religions and lesser gods within the Holdings, Nessantico — the city, the woman — allowed herself to relax and enjoy her reputation. Always strong even as the borders of the Holdings ebbed and flowed under the effects of war and commerce, always magnificent even as tastes and styles changed, always seductive and desirable no matter what other exotic lands and places might come in brief fashion, she spread steadily beyond the walls that had once confined her, gathering to herself all that was intellectual, all that was rich, all that was powerful. Her standard of deep blue and rich gold fluttered from the towers, and the lights of the téni glistened like star-jewels in the night.
There was no city in the known world that could rival her.
But there were many who envied her.
Ana knelt down alongside the bed, smiling determinedly at the motionless, unresponsive body under the white linen sheet. She took the woman’s hands: clammy and limp, the loose skin netted with fine wrinkles. “Matarh,” Ana whispered, then spoke her name, since Ana thought she sometimes responded better to that. “Abini, I’m here.”
Eyelids fluttered but did not open, and Abini’s fingers twitched once in Ana’s hand but failed to clasp hers in return. “It’s nearly First Call,” Ana continued, “and I’ve come to pray with you, Matarh.” The wind-horns sounded plaintively from the Temple dome at the same moment, muffled by distance and blurred with echoes from the intervening buildings. Ana glanced up; beyond the curtains, the sun glazed the rooftops of the city. “Do you hear the horns, Matarh? Listen to them, and I’ll pray for both of us.”
Ana placed her matarh’s hands together just under her throat, then clasped her own hands to forehead. She tried to pray, but her mind refused to calm itself. The comforting routine of the evening prayers was diluted with memories: of U’Téni cu’Dosteau’s rebukes, of her fading memories of the time before the Southern Fever left her matarh helpless and unresponsive, of the happier times before Ana had to bear the guilt of what she did nearly every morning just to keep her matarh alive. “Forgive me, Cénzi,” she said, as she always did, wondering whether He heard, wondering when He would punish her for her impertinence — because that was what the Divolonté, the code of rules governing the Concénzia Faith, insisted must inevitably happen. Cénzi was a stern God, and He would insist that Ana pay for her impertinence in subverting His intentions. “Forgive me...”
She wondered where she spoke to Cénzi or to her matarh.
She began to chant, the words coming unbidden: guttural nonsense syllables that were not the rigid forms U’Téni cu’Dosteau taught her. Her hands moved with the chant, as if she were dancing with her fingers alone. Even before Vatarh had sent her to the Temple to become an acolyte, even before she’d begun to learn how to channel the power of Ilmodo, she’d been able to do this.
And even then, she’d known it was something she needed to hide.
She’d listened to the téni thundering their admonitions from the High Lectern enough to realize that. U’Téni cu’Dosteau, the Instruttorei a’Acolyte, was just as blunt and direct: “A téni does not thwart Cénzi’s Will unpunished...” or “To use the Ilmodo for your own desires is forbidden...” or “The Divolonté is clear on this. Read it, and if the harshness of it gives you chills, it should.”
Ana told herself that she wasn’t using the Ilmodo for herself, but for her matarh. She told herself that if it were truly Cénzi’s Will that Abini die, well, Cénzi certainly had the power to make that happen no matter what small efforts she might produce to keep her alive. She told herself that if Cénzi had not wanted her to do this, He would not have given her the gift so early.
Somehow, it never quite convinced. She suspected that Cénzi had already chosen her punishment. She already knew His displeasure.
She shaped the Ilmodo now, quickly. She could feel the cold power of what the téni called the Second World rising between her moving hands, and her chant and the patterns she formed sent tendrils of energy surging toward her matarh. As the Ilmodo touched the prone body, Ana felt the familiar shock of connection. There was a hint of her matarh’s consciousness lost somewhere far below, and she felt that if she wished, she might, she might be able to pull her entirely back.
But that would have been truly wrong, and it would be too obvious. So, as she had done for the last few years, she used just a touch of the Ilmodo, enough to ensure that her matarh would not sink any further away from life, enough for her to know that Abini would live for another few days longer.
And she let the Ilmodo go. She stopped her chanting, her hands dropped to her sides. The guilt — as always — surged over her like the spring flood of the River A’Sele, and with it came the payment for using the Ilmodo: a muscular exhaustion as severe as if she had been up all day laboring at some impossible physical task — once more, she would be fighting an insistent compulsion to sleep as she listened to U’Téni cu’Dosteau’s lectures. She clasped hands to forehead again and prayed for Cénzi’s understanding and forgiveness.
“Ana? Are you with your matarh?”
She heard her vatarh open the door to the bedroom. So quickly, Cénzi? she asked. Is this what I must bear for what I do? Ana bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to let herself cry.
“I know your presence comforts your matarh,” her vatarh said softly, coming up behind her. Tomas cu’Seranta had a voice that purred and growled, and once she’d loved to hear him talk. She would curl up in his lap and ask him to tell him a story, anything, just so she could lay her head against his broad chest and listen to the rumble of his deep voice.
She felt his hand on her shoulder, stroking the soft fabric of her tashta where it gathered. The hand followed the curve of her spine from neck to the middle of her back. His hand slid along the curve of her hip. She closed her eyes, hearing him half-kneel alongside her. “I miss her too,” he whispered. “I don’t know what I’d do if I were to lose you too, my little bird.” She wouldn’t look at him, but she felt him as a warmth along her side, and now his hand slid along the tashta’s folds to where the cloth swelled over her breasts. His fingers cupped her.
She stood abruptly, and his hand dropped away. He was looking down at the floor, not at her nor at Abini. “I have to leave for class, Vatarh,” Ana said. “U’Téni cu’Dosteau said we must be there early today...”
“Can you imagine this in summer?” Mika ce’Gilan whispered, leaning close to Karl. His long, aquiline nose wrinkled dramatically. “I smell more sweat than perfume.”
Karl could only nod in agreement. The Kraljica’s Throne Room was crowded with supplicants. It was the second Cénzidi of the month, the day that the Kraljica accepted all supplicants — at least all those who managed to reach her in the few turns of the glass she sat on the Sun Throne. The long hall was stuffed as tightly as sweetfruit in a crate with people dressed in their best finery. The room sweltered; Karl could feel beads of perspiration gathered at his brow and running freely down his spine to soak the cloth of the bashta he wore. “It’s what all the ca'-and-cu' are wearing this season,” the tailor had declared, but Karl could see nothing at all similar in the cut of the bashtas and tashtas nearest him. He suspected that it was last year’s fashion at best, and that those staring appraisingly at him were snickering behind their fluttering, ornate fans. He also noted that he and Mika stood in their own little open space, as if those with ca’ or cu’ in front of their name would be contaminated if they came too close. He touched the pendant around his neck nervously — a seashell that looked as if it had been carved of stone, the plain gray rock polished from usage.
At the front of the room, the Sun Throne gleamed beneath the Kraljica Marguerite ca’Ludovici: the ruler of Nessantico and the Holdings, the great Généra a’Pace, the Wielder of the Iron Staff, the Matarh a’Dominion, who would in a few months be celebrating the Jubilee of the 50th year of her reign: the longest reign yet of any Kralji. Most of the people now living in the Holdings had known no other ruler. The seat of the Kralji was carved from a single massive crystal, enchanted by the first Archigos Siwel ca’Elad over three centuries ago in a way that no téni had since been able to duplicate. When someone wearing the Ring of the Kralji sat in its hard, glittering embrace, the Sun Throne gleamed a pale yellow. Karl knew there were persistent whispers that the radiance had actually vanished long ago; now, skeptics insisted, the interior light was created at need by special téni sent by the Archigos whenever the Kraljica appeared publicly on the Sun Throne. It was certainly true, given accounts written during Archigos Siwel’s lifetime of how the throne had “shone like a true sun, blinding all with its radiance,” that the Sun Throne must have paled considerably in the intervening centuries. In full daylight, its glow could barely be seen. The swaying chandeliers overhead were decidedly necessary: even though it was nearly Second Call, the tall windows of the Throne Room were too narrow to allow much of the light to enter.
It was also true that Karl would have been able to duplicate that glow himself, had he dared to do such a thing here.
“Vajiki Tomas cu’Seranta!” Renard, the Kraljica’s ancient and wizened aide, called out the name in a wavering voice, reading from a scroll in his hand. The murmur of voices in the room went momentarily quiet. Karl saw someone moving toward the Sun Throne in response, a middle-aged man who bowed low as he approached, and Karl scowled and sighed at the same time.
“I told you that you should have slipped Renard a siqil or two,” Mika stage-whispered. “He’s not going to call us forward.”
“I’m the Envoy a’Paeti a’Numetodo,” Karl answered. “How can he ignore us?”
“For the same reasons that the Kraljica ignored the Marque of Paeti that you sent her when you requested a private audience. She’s tied too tightly to the Concénzia Faith; she doesn’t want to contaminate herself by acknowledging heretics.”
“You’re a pessimist, Mika.”
“I’m a realist,” Mika retorted. “‘I would remind you that I have been here in Nessantico for far longer than you, my friend, and I know these people all too well. I think we’re lucky to have even been allowed in the hall — it’s only your pretty title that got us past Renard. Look over there to the side. You see that man staring our way? The one in black? You can’t miss him — he has a silver nose.”
Karl lifted up on his toes, scanning the room in the direction in which Mika had nodded. The man stood against the wall, too casually posed. When he noticed Karl’s gaze, the mustachioed lips under the metallic nose twisted in what might have been an amused smirk. He nodded faintly in Karl’s direction. “That’s Commandant ca'Rudka of the Garde Kralji,” Mika continued. “If either of us appear to be even halfway threatening, we’ll be in the Bastida faster than a fly to a dead horse. So don’t make any sudden gestures.”
“I think you’re being paranoid.”
Mika sniffed. “Things are different in the west away from Nessantico,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll wager you dinner tonight that we don’t meet the Kraljica today.”
“Done,” Karl said.
Three turns of the glass later, the Kraljica rose and everyone bowed as she left the room. Karl had yet to be called forward for his audience.
“I’m terrifically hungry,” Mika commented as those in attendance filed from the Throne Room. “How about you?”
The reception — as it did every month — left Marguerite exhausted and irritated. Renard, her aide, waved away the cluster of servants who had accompanied them from the Throne Room. When the door closed behind them, his stiff, proper stance finally relaxed. “Here, Margu,” Renard said as he handed her a glass of cool water freshened with slices of yellow fruit. His use of her familiar name pleased her — in this place, where no one else could hear. “I know your throat is parched.”
“And my rear is sore, as well,” Marguerite answered. She handed him her cane. “The cushion did nothing against that damned crystal.”
“We can’t have that, can we?“ He chuckled. “I’ll see that it’s replaced with a more appropriate covering.” He proffered the water again, and this time she took it. She let herself sink gratefully into one of the well-padded chairs in the private reception room. The windows were opened slightly though the air still held much of winter’s nip, and the fire roaring in its hearth was welcome. Marguerite sighed. “I’m sorry, Renard. It’s my duty and I shouldn’t complain.”
“You are the Kraljica,” he told her. “You can do whatever you’d like.”
She smiled at that. Renard cu’Bellona had been with for the bulk of her five decades as Kraljica. Marguerite might be Kraljica, but it was Renard who scheduled her life and made certain that the days ran smoothly. Brought into her service as a page at age five, he had been simply Renard Bellona, with not even a lowly ce’ before his family name, but he had shown his loyalty and intelligence and progressed over the years to his current position.
Then she had not been the ‘Généra a’Pace’ but the ‘Spada Terribile,’ the Awful Sword, who brought the Outer Lands into the Holdings by negotiation when she could, and with the Garde Civile, her armies, and simple brute force when she could not. She had been young then, energetic, and full of anger at the way her vatarh had been treated as Kraljiki. She had vowed that the ca'-and-cu' would never call her ‘weak,’ that the chevarittai of the Holdings would never call her ‘cowardly.’ None of them would ever call her ‘fool’... not and keep their lives.
“...Marguerite?” Renard was saying.
“I’m sorry,” she told him. “You were saying?”
“I was asking if you wished to know the evening’s appointments.”
“Will it matter?” she asked, and they both smiled at each other.
“The Archigos Dhosti is bringing his niece Safina to meet you at dinner,” Renard told her. “I have asked the A’Kralj to be there as well, so he might have a chance to talk with her.”
“And will he attend?”
Renard shrugged. “The A’Kralj pleaded other commitments. But if you sent word to him...”
Marguerite shook her head. “No. If my son can’t be bothered to meet the women I suggest as good matches, then Justi will have to be satisfied when I choose a wife for him.”
Renard nodded, his face carefully neutral.
It was a full decade after her husband died that she finally took Renard into her bed. The seduction was unplanned but seemed entirely natural. They had become more than servant and mistress over the years. In private, they had long been friends, and Renard had no family of his own. “I can’t ever offer you more,” she told him that night. “I know,” he’d answered, with that gentle lifting of his lips that she loved to see. “The Kraljica might need to use marriage as a tool. I understand. I do...”
“… and also the planning committee for your Jubilee Celebration would like to go over their tentative arrangements with you to see if they meet your approval,” Renard was saying. “I’ve told them that you might have time tonight following your dinner with the Archigos, but I can delay them until tomorrow if you’d like.”
Marguerite waved a hand. “No, that’s fine. Let them come. I’ll listen and nod my head as long as they haven’t done anything enormously stupid.”
Renard nodded. He touched her shoulder softly, almost a caress. Even here, alone, he was careful of the boundaries between them. “Then I’ll send word to the committee to be prepared. And...” He stopped. Pressed his lips together. “There is a letter from Hïrzgin Gretchen, brought by private courier. I took the liberty of decoding it for you.”
“Bring it here.” She didn’t ask what her niece, married to the impetuous Jan ca’Vörl, the Hïrzg of Firenzcia, had said; she could see from Renard’s suddenly-clouded face that it was not good news. She unfolded the paper Renard handed her and read the underlined words. She shook her head and let the paper drop. “Thirty Numetodo publicly executed in Brezno... A’Téni ca’Cellibrecca goes too far, and the Hïrzg encourages him. Does the Archigos know?” she asked.
“I suspect the news will have reached him through his own sources,” Renard said. “I will draft a strongly-worded letter to Hïrzg ca’Vörl from you. I’m sure the Archigos will be doing the same for A’Téni ca’Cellibrecca.”
“I’m certain of that,” Marguerite replied. “And I’m sure the families of the slain Numetodo will be very pleased with a strongly-worded letter.”
BACK TO S.L. FARRELL