“I don’t like this,” says Merreth as she and Ammantha walk down a hallway cloaked in shadow.
It’s just before dawn. Heavy velvet curtains drawn across tall windows keep out any early light. Large, stern portraits march along the opposite wall. Oil lamps set between the paintings throw soft yellow pools of light onto the carpet. A distant clock strikes the quarter hour.
“We should hurry,” says Ammantha, “the footmen will be by to the check the lamps soon.”
“I know when they make their rounds,” says Merreth. “I used to try to sneak up on them when I was a child, remember?” She works short tight gloves over her fingers. They are fashioned from black leather, as are her boots, breeches, and riding vest. A coiled, ten foot whip hangs from her belt. A dirk’s hilt protrudes from the top of her right boot. The gloom darkens her light olive skin and turns her wavy, mahogany-coloured hair black.
“Yes,” says Ammantha, frowning, “I do. Everyone worried about you. Ten years old and running around in the dead of night. If you’d hurt yourself with that silly wooden sword of yours, the footmen would have paid for it.”
Ammantha is High Mistress of Sable House, Protector of the Temple Way, Guardian of Sable Province, and sworn vassal of the Wechtan Matriarch. She has pale skin, a heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and is svelte and graceful in her tunic, flowing skirt, and knee-length boots. Her ash-blonde hair turns golden as the two pass each lamp. She always makes Merreth feel gangly and awkward. Ammantha is procedure, protocol, and ceremony. Though not apparent from appearances, she is also Merreth’s twin sister, older by a handful of heartbeats.
“Father didn’t seem to mind,” says Merreth.
“Father is dead, and mother did mind,” says Ammantha.
“Mother’s dead as well.” Merreth swallows to get rid of the lump in her throat.
“Yes, but both would want us to do what,” Ammantha hesitates, her lips pressed into a thin line. “what has to be done now to keep our House safe. To keep you safe.”
Merreth winces. House first, me second. “Then let’s do that,” she says. Her voice is edged, raw, and harsh. Her anger is misplaced, but she needs it. The alternative is a ink-black pit, with her fears baying and snapping at her from the bottom. “You can end this farce with a single letter to the Whip. Most loyal to the Matriarch. That’s us, that’s our House, thanks to mother, and her mother before her. Now you’re High Mistress, Ammantha. That loyalty must count for something!” Pleasant memories of playing hide and seek with the footmen have rotted into an image of her hands bound to her saddle pommel, her mount surrounded by Red Hand House guards. Vicious thugs.
“A letter will not end this, Merreth,” Ammantha snaps. “The Matriarch will have to consider the charge and the evidence provided by the Red Hand and, for the love of the Goddess, by you!” She seizes Merreth’s arms. “The blood,” Ammantha looks up and down the hallway and lowers her voice. “You said the blood was up to your elbows, your arms soaked in it!”
Merreth squeezes her eyes shut, her heart hammers at her ribs like a caged hare desperate to escape. She opens them after a moment and stares at her sister. “I told you I don’t remember what happened. It wasn’t real, it was a nightmare,” she whispers. But she does remember, at least some of it.
She’d struggled into a sitting position and shook her head to clear the groggy, gauzy feeling. Her hands and arms felt wet. She studied them, blinking until her four arms merged back into two and steadied. They were slick with deep-red blood. She held her hands up and watched in fascination as it had rolled down her arms, slid off her elbows, drip by drip, and been swallowed by the greedy carpet.
An excited, coppery taste flooded her mouth. Bayllos lay on the bed in front of her, face up, mouth open. Her eyes widened at the row of small, jagged, bloody-white sticks poking up from his chest and her body tingled at the sight. Then her screams had filled up the room.
Her grandmother’s portrait stares down from the wall. Merreth was never her favourite, and now the oiled rendering glares at her over Ammantha’s shoulder.
“Nightmare?” Ammantha’s face is darkened by shadow. And doubt.
Merreth pulls free of her sister’s grasp. “You don’t believe me.”
“Merreth, he wasn’t just some pleasureman ...”
Her sister’s words are sparks to tinder. “Shut. Up,” Merreth says in a low flat voice. “Never say that! Never even imply that I’m like any of those vultures. I’m no butcher.” She glances away. Something worse, maybe.
“You were going to take one of those ‘vultures’ as a consort, Merreth.” Ammantha’s eyes are hard, unblinking.
“Yes, I was.” A Sable House Mistress and a Red Hand consort. A good political match, ending years – decades – of suspicion, rivalry, and intrigue all in one ceremony. Good for Sable House, good for the Red Hand, and good for the Wechtan Matriarchy, however personally distasteful it might be. Except it wasn’t distasteful, not after a while. “Bayllos came from a granted branch of the Red Hand. He wasn’t tainted, poisoned by the rest of them.”
“Had he been blood nobility you’d likely be dead,” says Ammantha. “That aside, your own interests are … congruent.”
There are a hundred more things Merreth wants to say about that, but the image of Bayllos lying before her is too raw; he’s been ripped from her life and she’s close to weeping. Later, she thinks, I’ll grieve. Grieve, and rage. Where no one can see her. “I’m better than that now,” she says.
Ammantha doesn’t nod, doesn’t agree, and doesn’t smile. She takes Merreth’s arm and walks her towards the doorway at the end of the hall. “I don’t know why they ...”
“Why they would lie?” asks Merreth. “Because that’s what they do.”
“No, Merreth. Let me finish!”
Ammantha’s cold, edged tone cuts at Merreth. She jerks away from her sister.
Ammantha sighs. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why they sent you back here, even under the ban. The letter is quite explicit. It certainly inventoried sufficient evidence to petition for a formal judicature. They would have been entirely within their rights to keep you there at Red Hand Hold.” Despite her apology Ammantha’s tone is still cool and detached.
Merreth’s fingers curl in frustration. There had been no answer to that question when Merreth had been delivered back to Sable House hold a scant day earlier. No answer now, either. And Ammantha still hadn’t said that she believed her. “Nothing but lies in pretty script. Probably got one of those temple hags to write them up. They have nothing, they’re,” she trails off. Black anger, bitterly spiced and leavened with despair rises in her stomache. “They’re fucking bi ...”
“Merreth!” Ammantha halts and glares at her sister. She despises profanity.
The two stand silent until Merreth lets her gaze slide away. She unclenches her fists.
“Better you’re free than penned up here like a goose waiting for slaughter,” says Ammantha. “It’s only been a couple of days. Ride to the Western Watch. You’re fast on a horse. You’ll arrive before couriers bearing news of the ban.”
“The couriers will arrive eventually.”
“They can’t pry you out of there without a summons and they won’t have one. Why would they? The Red Hand thinks you’re here. When they find out differently, it will take time to produce a summons; the proper forms must be followed. I’ll insist on it. I can use the delay to halt this affair, completely and permanently.”
“How?” Merreth struggles to keep her voice even. “You said a letter can’t end this.”
“It can’t.” Ammantha’s expression turns grim. “Cutting away the noose you’ve placed around your — our — neck will time and favours. A lot of favours.”
The hall ends in a tall set of double wooden doors, inlaid with intricate carved floral patterns. Behind them lie the back veranda, the stables, the estate gardens, and dozens of forested acres. Beyond that, the farms and villages of Sable province scattered over the land like an errant child’s blocks. Merreth stops her sister as she reaches for the door handles. Her anger is gone, cold ashes on a stone; replaced by doubt and unease. “You can do all that while I’m here, Ammantha.”
“I can’t keep you safe, Merreth.” Ammantha’s voice is matter-of-fact. “It’s as simple as that. Unless you want to hide in your bedchamber with watchmen standing guard at the doors and windows. Even then, I can’t guarantee an assassin won’t slip or carve their way through to you. The ‘Blood Years’ are a century past.” She glances back at the brooding portraits. “We’re weaker than we were a hundred — even ten — years ago.”
“They can do the same thing there, as here.”
“Yes and they’ll invite Western Watch anger as a result.”
Ammantha’s eyes are hard as flint. “The very nature of your crime all but ensures the Red Hand would be held culpable. They won’t want that.”
“Your alleged crime.”
“I’ll still be dead if they do come after me in the Watch.”
“Yes.” Ammantha takes Merreth’s hand in her own. “There’s something else. I’ll have to say you slipped away on your own. If anyone suspects that we planned this,” she shakes her head. “I won’t be able to help you. I probably won’t be able to help our House.”
Ammantha grasps the door handle and gently pushes. She walks out onto the veranda with Merreth a pace behind her.
Scents of honeysuckle and pine carry on the morning breeze to tickle Merreth’s nose. She brushes a strand of hair away from her eyes and sees the dawn starting to bleed over the eastern tree line.
Her eyes are drawn to a small break in the trees, a black sliver in the deep green. Right about ... there, was where she had disappeared into the woods on her first solitary overnight camping venture. Forbidden of course, and hence secret. Fourteen year old Heir Secondaries did not go anywhere outside unattended. They certainly didn’t sleep alone in the woods like commoner bandits and footpads. She’d been scared to death but absolutely determined, even as night had closed in on her small sputtering campfire, to prove she could do it. Her escape from servants, and studies, and suffocating noble obligations, however brief.
Mother had been furious when she’d returned home from inspecting the House manorial estates. How could Merreth have been so selfish? Not stupid, not careless, but selfish. Merreth was Heir Secondary, only a heartbeat away from being Heir Primary. She’d risked a twenty generation bloodline to go pick flowers in the moonlight. Goddess forbid that anything happen to her sister Ammantha, but if it did, Merreth would eventually become High Mistress of Sable House. And that couldn’t happen if Merreth were dead, now could it?
Only one of her father’s rare interventions had saved her from a sound thrashing. She’d found out later that he’d seen through her laughable attempts at secrecy and had arranged for the senior gamekeeper to keep watch over her during the clandestine outing. No farther than ten yards from her the entire night and she’d never known it.
Fourteen years. Half her lifetime ago. And she’s still causing trouble for her House. Thank the Goddess her mother and father are dead these past two years.
A lantern approaches from the stables. As it bobs closer she hears Winddancer’s hooves clip-clopping on the stone path leading to the veranda. He’s led by Symmens, head groom for as long as Merreth can remember. She joins Ammantha at the top of the veranda steps.
“High Mistress Ammantha, Mistress Merreth.” Symmens is tall, perpetually gaunt, and bald as a boot-toe. He bows to the two women then meets their eyes.
No averted gaze or service collar for him, or for any man in Sable province for that matter. Her mother had hammered a stake through the heart of that dying custom. “Respect is earned, Merreth. Not demanded, coerced, purchased, or inherited.” That idea had been impressed upon first the household, and then the entire province.
And her mother led by example. Merreth approved. A man’s easier to read when you can see his eyes.
Ammantha goes down the steps and walks around Winddancer. She has always liked Merreth’s mount. Her hand slides over saddlebags, bedroll, coiled rope, and water skins. “Do you have everything, Merreth?”
Merreth nods. “Yes, I think so.” And she’ll lose everything when she rides out the gate. “What makes you think the Western Watch will...”
Ammantha waves her into silence and motions Symmens away.
Merreth steps closer and takes Winddancer’s reins from her sister. “What makes you think the Western Watch will,” she pauses, grasping for the correct phrase. Accept me? Take me in? Shelter me? None fit; all make her sound less a noble in the Wechtan Matriarchy and more a street urchin, begging for sufferance.
“They’ll help,” says Ammantha. “Grandmother was held in great regard by the Western Watch. Mother too.” She studies Merreth for a moment before continuing. “We’ve done much for them in the past. And you know the trouble the Watch is having with the steppe clans. They’ve been seeking support.”
“In other words they’re desperate”, says Merreth, “and they don’t know what I’ve done. What I’m accused of doing,” she corrects herself. “So they need more cutthroats out west, or am I to be one half of a trade, the price they’ll pay in return for our past and future support?”
“Past, mostly,” says Ammantha, frowning.
The reins tighten in Merreth’s grip. So like Ammantha to coldly assess that possibility. Did Sable House favour really weigh that heavily in the balance?
Dawn is coming up fast, washing everything in soft grays.
“I’d best be on my way,” says Merreth.
The veranda doors open again and small, rotund figure hurries towards them. It’s Hannthar, the House Steward.
“Not yet,” says Ammantha.
Despite the early hour Hannthar is turned out in his best shirt, waistcoat, and breeches. The lamp light dances off his polished, buckled shoes. He advances towards the two women in short, precise strides, carrying a long cloth-swaddled bundle and what looks to be a hat box. “Good morning, High Mistress, Mistress Merreth.” In lieu of a bow he inclines his head.
A cold, wet cloak wraps itself around Merreth’s heart. Hannthar is jovial, almost jolly in the execution of his duties and irreverent to a fault. To hear him now, precise and proper as a Temple priestess shakes her. This is happening; it’s real, not some waking nightmare. “I think it’s anything but good,” she says.
“I have something for you,” says Ammantha. She takes the box from Hannthar, opens it, and takes out a black wide-brimmed hat, fashioned from leather. “Here,” she hands it to Merreth. “I was saving this for our birthing day celebration, but thought you might have need of it sooner.”
Merreth settles it on her head, adjusts the draw string, and pulls the brim down a bit in front. “It’s beautiful.” Beyond that Merreth is at a loss for words. Ammantha is sparing in her displays of familial affection. As High Mistress, she’s become distant and reserved. Merreth doesn’t like the change. So this hat, she runs a gloved finger along the brim, is more than a gift, much more.
“It’s hotter out west,” says Ammantha. “Since you insist on wearing your leathers, I should at least provide something that will prevent your brain from baking.”
“Quite a rakish look, Mistress Merreth,” says Hannthar. She can see a smile on his face. A sad one, but a smile nonetheless.
Ammantha’s face is flat, her lips thinned like a crack in granite. “Certainly no one will mistake you for anything other than a Mistress of Sable House.” She gestures at cloth-swaddled bundle in Hannthar’s arms. “There’s something else.”
Merreth studies the cloth wrapped shape for a moment, unwilling to reach for it. She knows what it is. Hannthar says nothing, but a slight tremor runs down his outstretched arms. Merreth sighs and takes bundle from him.
“Your mother’s,” he says.
Merreth nods while she pulls back the wrapping. The cloth slips off an ebony and brass scabbard. A simple wire-wrapped hilt juts from the end. “This belongs to you, Ammantha,” she says.
“Your need will be practical, mine would be purely ceremonial,” says Ammantha. “I think yours is greater.” She smiles, or tries to. “Besides, you were always the one rushing around with wooden swords, begging to go on hunts with father and mother, and giving the kitchen hands a fright when you tried to juggle their knives. You’re better at ...” she trails off.
Merreth’s eyes narrow. Blood. Better at blood, isn’t that what people will think? What Ammantha thinks? Her gloved fingers wrap around the hilt. It settles into her palm like it’s come home. To stay. She draws the blade from its scabbard. The motion is smooth, almost slick. A thought, dark and eager, slips around the edges of her mind. If she’d had this earlier ...
The blow split her lower lip and rocked her back in her saddle. Her wrists, ceremonially bound to her pommel, are the only thing that keeps her upright on Winddancer. Beside her Lady Syltannya glares, lips drawn back in a snarl of hate. “Fucking, sadistic, bitch! He was helpless and you cracked him open like a crab in a cook-pot!”
Did I? She’s fighting tears. Mounted Red Hand guards trot on either side of them, truncheons swinging from their belts, sword catchers slung over their backs. Pain, fear, humiliation, loss, a toxic pool threatens to drown her.
She’s desperate for anything to grab on to. Something to drag herself out of it, however loathsome, poisonous, and costly it might later prove. And something had crawled up from deep within her to present itself.
Blood pools in her mouth. Merreth leans over and spits. It spatters over Syltannya’s cheek and slides down her neck. “Hit me again,” she snarls, “and when I’m free I will take your blade,” she nods at the dagger clipped to Syltannya’s thigh and smiles. “And use it to take your arm. At the elbow.”
The sword thuds into the ground, raising a small puff of dust quickly whisked away by the breeze. “I don’t want that in my hand,” says Merreth.
“Mistress Merreth,” says Hannthar.
“Don’t ... call me that.” Merreth focuses on the tree break where she’d disappeared fourteen years earlier. “Not anymore. A Sable House Mistress has never run. I won’t be the first.”
“As you wish, Mis ...” Hannthar glances at Ammantha and back at Merreth. “What should I call you?”
“’Lady’ will do.”
“Merreth, don’t be stupid,” says Ammantha. “Take the sword as a mark of rank, if nothing else.”
“I said I didn’t want that thing in my hand. I have my whip. That should be sufficient.” Her hand drops to the coiled whip hanging at her thigh. Ten feet of intricately hand-braided leather tapering to a hair-thin point, her whip is the ultimate symbol of rank in Wechtan noble houses. Only High Mistresses and their direct heirs are permitted to wear them.
“That won’t keep you safe, Merreth,” says Ammantha. “It doesn’t matter how good you are with the damned thing. Take the sword.” She bends down and picks it up, carefully wipes the blade, and holds it out.
Guilt blooms in Merreth’s heart at the sight. The sword had been her mother’s, a venerated symbol of her House’s power and status. And she had dropped it in the dirt like a discarded kitchen ladle. Her cheeks redden at the thought. She takes the sword from Ammantha and sheaths it as quickly as possible. After slinging the scabbard on to her back she looks at Ammantha. “I still don’t want it.”
“But you will take it.”
Early morning songbirds are beginning to fill the air with chirps and warbles. Merreth puts her foot in the stirrup and pauses, fighting a queasy, excited feeling churning in her stomach. She shakes her head and pulls herself into the saddle. Something in her is looking ahead, not behind.
“You can draw funds as you need them from one of the local counting houses,” says Ammantha. “You know which ones.”
The sun crests the far tree line. The feeling is stronger now, as if Merreth has swallowed a flock of butterflies. Some part of her is eager to break free, to flee. “I’d better go,” she says.
There should be more words, but no one seems to have any.