Matches and Murmurs
"But now we had better hurry up," said Uncle Derrien. "I suppose you do want to go to the castle and witness the first meeting between the king and his bride, as long and tiresome as the ride is likely to be?"
"Could you get us in?" Rohir said in flattered tones.
"Oh, Uncle, do let's go, it's going to be so splendid," Kelena echoed rapturously.
"Yes, let's go," said Hinassi, "but let us not linger long. We have many preparations to make yet. The tournament begins tomorrow, and we must look our best," she added, throwing a significant look at her daughters.
The morning of the tournament dawned bright and early, but the house was yet quiet and still, and only the faintest stirring could be heard upstairs. Therefore, Jadine was startled when she ran into Kohir while she crept up, barefoot. Her brother was fully dressed, and his new gilded bow – a gift from Uncle Derrien – was slung across his shoulder. He looked as surprised as she felt to see her.
"Where have you been?" he asked her bluntly.
"To see if breakfast is ready," she said.
"You liar. I just had breakfast, and I ate alone."
"You're heading out already?"
"I must hurry. I entered the lists both for jousting and archery, you know. But don't you try to shrug me off. Where have you been?"
"To the Halls of Learning," Jadine admitted with a scowl.
Kohir studied her face, and seemed disappointed to realize she isn't lying. "Is that where you have been sneaking?" he asked. "I thought there was something more interesting... a suitor, perhaps... what is there in the Halls of Learning but thousands upon thousands of dusty old books?"
"Those dusty old books hold a treasury of knowledge, brother," said Jadine. "They tell of how the worlds were created, and how gates open between our world and the Other, and which selected men crossed them. They tell of the Spirits that are One, and of kings and queens, of heroes and monsters, and of what shall be in the end of all things."
"The Messenger will come," said Kohir with an indifferent shrug. "Everyone knows that."
"No one knows anything," snapped Jadine. "Although perhaps the warlocks of the Emerald Mountains know more than some."
"Why don't you go and learn from them too, then?" laughed Kohir. "I'm sure that will make Mother happy."
"Oh, shut up," said Jadine with a charming smile, yet a shadow flitted in her eyes. "And get going already. It won't do to miss the tournament. We all want to see you unhorsed and splayed in the dust."
"Careful, it's a champion you are speaking too," warned Kohir, but without undue seriousness. He was twenty, a man grown, a fair rider and not a bad sword, but he knew the realm is full of more seasoned warriors. He must have entered the tournament for sport, Jadine thought.
Uncle Derrien procured a very good booth for them – not in the front rows, but in a spot that commanded perhaps an even better view of the field. The tournament was about to begin, and the air was abuzz with excited chatter, the blow of trumpets, and the call of heralds.
Most eyes were drawn towards the royal seats, where the king already took his place, with his bride-to-be by his side. Princess Maviel was resplendent in a gown that was a torrent of peach-colored silk and foamy lace. Her hair was teased up in an elaborate fashion, and twinkled with gemstones – from the distance, it was impossible to make out which. Young King Alvadon, compared to her, was simplicity itself in his snow-white silken tunic, thinly embroidered upon in golden thread. Golden was his hair, too, and his closely cropped beard, and his eyes were like the sea.
"I have never seen such a handsome man," whispered Kelena rapturously in her sister's ear, and for once, Jadine could not but agree.
"Smile," a whisper reached their ears. When the girls looked up, they saw their mother following her own advice. A simpering smile, very much at odds with her cool green eyes, appeared on her face; by her side, Uncle Derrien was re-arranging his belongings like a fussy old lady.
"Gather up your cloak, Jadine, and you, Kelena, move to the side. Your uncle's noble friend is coming up, and I hope he will join us."
Startled, Jadine looked in the direction her mother's chin indicated. Sure enough, there was Dankar Gindur, dark and handsome and slender as she recalled from their meeting yestermorn, walking over to their booth and smiling pleasantly. He made a very flattering bow in Hinassi's direction.
"Come and sit, Dankar," Uncle Derrien said familiarly, patting the empty space between himself and Rohir. Hinassi joined the entreaties, although it was obvious that if she had her way, she would have had the nobleman sit next to her daughters. Dankar accepted the invitation with smooth acquiescence and slid onto the indicated seat with catlike grace.
"It promises to be a delightful spectacle," he said, and yet all throughout the joust, while people all around gaped and gasped and oohed and aahed, he sat with his eyelids half-closed, almost bored, sometimes tapping his foot as if the inability to get up and walk about was extremely restrictive. He exchanged but a few words with Uncle Derrien, Rohir and Hinassi, and even fewer with the girls and Nog, but still, his silent presence seemed oppressive to Jadine's acute senses. She wasn't even able to concentrate properly on watching the performance of her brother – who, just as she had predicted, was soon unhorsed.
Then the jousting was over for the day, and the herald called out the first two melee fighters. "Thadorn, son of Andorn," he called, "of the clan Tionae of Rhasket-Tharsanae!"
The name of Thadorn's opponent was lost in the murmurs that erupted by Jadine's side.
"It really is Thadorn!" Kelena peered forward in excitement. She didn't know him well, but he was generally well-liked. "Thadorn from our town, yes, it is him, look!"
"Of course it's him, they said his name," Nog rolled his eyes, sounding for a moment more mature than his sixteen-year-old sister. "Did you think there is another Thadorn Tionae of Rhasket?"
Hinassi tilted her head to the side and observed Thadorn coolly, as a mildly interesting specimen. "I didn't know Andorn's son was going to come," she told her husband. "I didn't know any of the Tionae were going to come. They are harder to move from Rhasket than seaside rocks. Why is he here?"
But no one of her party could have supplied a satisfactory answer – no one but Jadine, who sat with her hands clasped upon her knees, her eyes fixed upon the field, her eyes bright and her cheeks flaming. She was no longer irritated by Dankar Gindur's haughtiness, Kelena's stupidity, her mother's presuming interference. She knew Thadorn came for her, and the certainty of that knowledge went to her head like wine. She watched her townsman take upon opponent after opponent; brilliant he was, young and fierce and strong, and when the fighting was done and he was proclaimed to be the day's winner of the melee, among the clapping and cheering he lifted up his gaze and sought something in the crowd, and when he was satisfied to have her eyes upon him, he brandished his sword and sun sparkled upon steel in blinding whiteness.
It was Kohir, bruised but smiling good-naturedly, who led the victorious Thadorn to their booth. Even though the Tionae and the Kotsar often submitted to petty rivalries, here away from their home town they could almost consider themselves the branches of one clan. Kohir clapped Thadorn on the back in the friendliest manner, and even Hinassi found it in her to offer a cursory nod. Thadorn stood before them, and towered over them all, and perhaps that was why Dankar Gindur got up to his feet as well. He was not a man who liked to be towered over. Following his cue, they all rose.
"I greet you, Rohir," Thadorn said formally, with a slight bow. Now that he was so close, he could not help but see Jadine, and yet he was not looking at her.
"And I congratulate you, Thadorn," Rohir said. "That was very well fought. Your father shall be proud. Is he in the city as well?"
"No, no. My father stayed behind. Such a journey would not have agreed with him."
"Well, I daresay word will reach him soon enough. You have already distinguished yourself; you may very well end up the champion."
"May victory go to the deserving," Thadorn said humbly. He did not stay long. He received a nasty hit to his wrist that needed tending, if he were to carry a shield tomorrow. His eyes sought Jadine's only for a moment before he left, and again, her heart beat in a rush of fierce pride.
Hinassi was in very good spirits – as much as she was capable of being in good spirits – once they were back in Uncle Derrien's mansion and she was upstairs with her daughters.
"The noble Gindur will sup with us, and it can be said he practically asked for the invitation. Your uncle says it is unheard of – he almost always has to be solicited for a good long while before he consents to commit himself for an entire evening. Uncle Derrien is certain his noble friend means to marry one of you."
"Means to marry one of us?" Jadine's nostrils flare. "Do we, or even you and Father, have a say in the matter?"
"Well, as long as no declarations have been made, we mustn't act as if we are expecting them," Hinassi said briskly, and a little frown creased her smooth white forehead. "I wish there was a way to know which of you he prefers."
"He is welcome to Kelena," Jadine said with a feigned yawn of boredom. "As for me, I shall never marry that man."
Hinassi shot her a look of cold anger. "I cannot help but hope that he does prefer Kelena, as you are sure to make a botch of this marvelous opportunity," she said contemptuously.
But Kelena did not seem thrilled by the prospect either. "Jadine is older," she pointed out. "I am sure that if the noble Gindur has his sights fixed on one of us, it must be her."
Hinassi stroked her younger daughter's golden hair with a smile of indulgence. "Jadine is older, but you are cleverer, my dear. You know what is good for you."
It was one rare occasion when Jadine sympathized with her sister. It appeared that, as awed and impressed as Kelena was by Dankar Gindur, she did not entertain the notion of becoming his wife. Her mother's suggestions left Kelena childishly frightened.
"Before you promote a match, you should hear what is said of that man," said Jadine. "Did you know he was married not once, but twice? Both his wives were young and pretty, both from rich families, and both brought a very handsome bride gift just as our noble Gindur happened to be in debt. Both conveniently died soon after the debt was paid. You never miss a shred of gossip, you must have heard of that, Mother."
Kelena now looked positively frightened, and Hinassi glared at her eldest daughter furiously. "Ridiculous slander!" she sputtered. "How can you be stupid enough to listen to such tales, let alone spread them further?"
Jadine shrugged. "The deaths of those girls are a fact," she said.
"You are insufferable," said Hinassi in cold haughtiness. "Well, I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate, then, that whatever bride gift we can give with either of you will seem insignificant to noble Gindur. If he wishes to marry one of you, it shall be a match of pure affection."
Jadine didn't believe the man was capable of affection. "If he wishes to marry Kelena, you mean," she corrected her mother, and flashed an apologetic smile at her sister. "Sorry, Kel, but if this man wants a bride from our family, it will be your fate that – "
"Listen to me," Hinassi cut across her daughter, and her voice had the force of a glacier, "this is an opportunity we will not squander. If the noble Gindur wants Kelena, he will have Kelena. And if he insists on having you, Jadine, then he shall have you, and don't you dare look at me that way. I would let him have both of you, if he wished it, and if law still permitted it. And now, to work. We have exactly an hour till supper, and we must make the two of you as handsome as possible. Call the maids, Kelena."
Cousin Beryen, Uncle Derrien's son, joined their supper party together with his wife. He was an insipid young man, she a little grey mouse to match him, and neither of them left the smallest impact on Jadine's imagination. Not so Dankar Gindur, who appeared fresh and alert despite the sweltering heat of the night, which threw almost everyone into languor. All windows were wide open to catch a drift of wind, but the pleasant, steady sea breeze that normally ventilated the houses of the Upper Esplanade was nowhere to be found. The air hung sultry and still, and even the enormous fans Uncle Derrien's servants operated through a hidden opening in the wall brought little relief. But Dankar brought with him a fresh scent of pine and lemons, his walk was springy, and not a hint of sweat could be noticed on his smooth brow. He wore a suit of rippling black silk, and his silver belt was studded with black amethysts. His hair was black silk too, his smile a flash of white in his dark face. Jadine didn't know whether to feel annoyed that his clothes seemed finer than hers, or to mock herself for minding it.
"I am relieved to see I am not late," he said with one of his smooth courteous bows, "it would have been a crime to keep such fair ladies waiting."
He spoke expressly to Hinassi, and she accepted his words with a simper that made Jadine's stomach churn with revolt. The man was impeccably polite and well-bred, yet somehow, every word out of his mouth seemed a mockery. Try as she might, she could not understand his designs. Did he really wish to marry one of them, and if so, which one? And why? Half the highborn of Aldon-Sur threw their daughters in Dankar Gindur's way, she learned that too. Why would he seek a bride from the provinces, and with little money to offer at that?
Meanwhile, everyone were seated around the smoothly polished table, and the first course – a light cold fish stew – was served. Jadine tasted it. It was much too salty. Dankar seemed to have reached the same conclusion, because he set his spoon aside and spoke to Rohir.
"That townsman of yours – Thadorn Tionae, I believe he is called – was very impressive today. The king himself noted his prowess, and Princess Maviel urged His Grace to name this Thadorn a member of his personal guard."
"That would be a great honor for him, to be sure," replied Hinassi, but then a hint of suspicion must have darted into her mind, because she gave Jadine a swift, stern look, and added with a sweet smile, "you mustn't presume we are always on such familiar terms with the Tionae, though, o noble Gindur. We exchanged greetings as fellow townsmen chance met in the capital, but we really don't have much to do with the Tionae at all."
He inclined his head ever so slightly, his solemnity too deep to be real. "I see."
It was so hot no one felt like eating much; the mushroom-stuffed salmon was barely touched, the roast duck sent away before it even reached the table. Several flagons of iced wine were consumed, though, and Rohir was in a rather good mood by the time the fruit and frozen cream were served.
"Music would help to lift us out of this languor," he said.
"We can have music," said his wife with silken complaisance. "Jadine, you will humor us with a song, will you not?" she indicated the large gilded harp standing in one of the corners.
"I don't fancy playing, Mother," said Jadine with a faint shrug. Her mother didn't dare to berate her in front of everyone, but her lips turned thin and white, and her eyes were like chips of green ice.
"I shall play," Kelena said meekly and went to the instrument, and it was clear to Jadine her sister did that to prevent a row, not to show off her own talent. Kelena has been unusually silent since their mother declared she means to marry one of them to Gindur if only she can, and during supper she laid aside her knife and fork more than once, looking queasy. When Dankar chanced to speak to her, she was unfailingly polite, but none of her usual gayness was present in her voice. After almost sixteen years of misunderstanding, Jadine finally felt she is warming up to her sister.
The conversation turned to the upcoming royal wedding, which was to take place a week hence – a fact that threw all the court into a fit of feverish preparation. Gowns were sewn, courses planned, cooks, serving girls, singers and dancers hired.
"It is going to be a splendid event," noted Beryen Mokkar's wife in her insipid little voice.
"Splendid, but small," Dankar replied in his alert manner. "Traditionally, only ninety-nine guests will attend the wedding feast... myself among them, I have that honor. The three tournament champions will be honored guests as well – the jousting champion, the melee winner, and the best archer."
"How lovely," Hinassi chimed in. To Dankar's credit it must be said he seemed faintly bored with her simpering, which was so unbecoming to that cool pale face.
"Your fair daughter plays very well," he said to her, dramatically lowering his voice just enough to attract everyone's attention. Kelena, not taking her eyes off the harp, blushed crimson.
"Oh, yes," Hinassi nodded eagerly, "but then, my Kelena does everything well," she added with a look that was meant to convey motherly fondness.
Later that night, Jadine was surprised to hear a timid knock on her door. Following her response, her sister slipped into the room quietly and sat on the edge of her bed. In the weak flickering light of the oil lamp, Kelena's eyes looked dark, sad and haunted.
"What is the matter?" Jadine asked. The two sisters never shared nighttime heart-to-heart talks as girls are prone to do. They never shared anything, much.
"They are going to marry me to him, Jadine," Kelena whispered, sounding like a scared child. "I know it. I know it."
"Calm down, you silly," said Jadine, propping herself up on her pillows. "So far, it is all Mother's fantasies. Why would he want you if he can have anyone he wants?" This was meant to lighten up the mood, but Kelena bit her lip in worry.
"I don't know," she breathed out. "I just know he frightens me. All the rumors about him... you are cleverer than I, Jadine. You always have been. Do you believe he is a bad man?"
"I don't know," said Jadine. I am certain he is a dangerous man, though.
"You are the one who should marry him," said Kelena. "You fear nothing."
Jadine yawned. "I fear I shan't be able to get up tomorrow if you don't let me sleep," she said, yet Kelena remained seated.
"He is very handsome, is he not?" she mused. "And noble and rich besides. But somehow... somehow, there is something about him that unnerves me. I feel I could never understand him, even if I knew him a thousand years."
Jadine laughed softly. "And is that why you think he might be a good match for me? Because you will never understand me, either?"
Kelena got up, and her final words were no more than a murmur. "I understand you better than you think," she said, and got out of the room.