Paths of the Shadow

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The Bride

... "Please, can't I at least be married at home, at the same time as Jadine?" begged Kelena later that day. "It would not be a long delay."

"At home?" her mother sounded incredulous. "Be sensible, child. Here in town you shall have a splendid feast, and all your wedding clothes can be made promptly. Besides, Dankar is eager. We must seize upon this eagerness, and move forward."

"Lest he change his mind?" Jadine put in slyly. Hinassi shot her elder daughter a furious glance.

"Do not be so preposterous, Jadine. Of course he isn't going to... to... to go back on his sworn word, and the betrothal has already been publicly announced. But this is a brilliant match for your sister, and I don't want to keep my future good-son waiting."

"You are actually going to make Kelena go through with it, then?" Jadine turned to her father, smoothly talking over her mother's head. The incredulity was plain in her voice, and Kelena felt a sudden rush of gratitude toward her sister. "Even though you know very well this is the last thing she wants?"

To the credit of Rohir Kotsar, at least he had the honor to look abashed. "Kelena wants to marry Dankar Gindur," he said, sounding none too certain. "Don't you, daughter?"

Kelena's long golden lashes were cast down as she replied, "it is settled already."

"You are being ridiculous, Jadine," snapped Hinassi. "Young women all over the city are going green with envy for Kelena's good fortune. This proposal is a dazzling success. It is more than we could have hoped for when we came here. By the way, Kelena, your bride's gifts arrived not an hour ago, and I permitted myself to have the swiftest peek at them. I have never seen such sapphires, my dear." Her tongue ran over her lower lip, almost lustily. Hinassi Kotsar was mad for jewels, the grander the better. "You must wear blue," she told her daughter decisively. "Blue satin and gold embroidery, and gold and sapphires all about you. You will be a sight to remember."

"Yes, Mother," Kelena said meekly. What did it matter, after all? If the man she were to spend the rest of her life with was chosen for her without considering her opinion, it didn't make the least difference that her mother should also choose her wedding clothes and the bed linens of her dowry.

Days rushed by, and even though she was always on the move – always going to this place or that, to see one thing or another, to bend with her mother over fabrics or flower arrangements – it felt to her as if she was really a passive spectator with her hands folded in her lap. She wasn't needed, except as a piece of decoration, or a pole around which the wedding flowers would be wrapped. And Dankar Gindur's profuse admiration and declarations of the tenderest passion only convinced her more completely than anything else that he didn't really care for her. She only happened to cross his path when his mind was set on marriage. It could have been any other suitable, gullible girl. Kelena envied beyond words her sister Jadine, who chose her wedding clothes with superb indifference, hindered by nobody else's intrusive opinion. Jadine needn't fret; she would marry at home and live a good, quiet life... or so at least Kelena hoped, for Thadorn's sake as much as her sister's.

And then the dreaded morning of her wedding dawned, bright and crisp. It promised to be cooler than it had been in weeks, for which Kelena was thankful, as the luxurious satin of her wedding dress – on which her mother had insisted – would have been unbearable in the heat of the previous fortnight. The dress was the product of feverish labor on part of two seamstresses and four apprentice girls, and looked magnificent, she contemplated detachedly as she viewed herself in the mirror. The bright blue glow of sapphires was attractively displayed against her pale skin and elaborately arranged golden hair – tall and complex hair arrangements were a new fashion instilled in the city by Queen Maviel, and her mother insisted she must do something similar. It didn't matter either way. This was the last time her hair would be seen uncovered, in any case. The custom declared a respectable married woman must cover her hair, and Kelena's dowry included a staggering amount of richly embroidered caps and scarves and thinly woven hair nets, to match her many new gowns.

The morning of one's wedding was to be a jolly affair – the bride's clanswomen and friends were to be gathered around her until the wedding ceremony, to eat breakfast and drink wine and tell stories and make good wishes for the upcoming marriage. Kelena felt a lonely chill as she sat by the window in front of a sumptuously laden breakfast table, with no one but her mother and sister for company. Jadine was silent as she picked absent-mindedly at fish fried in breadcrumbs, and their mother was too agitated to talk. She was looking splendid herself that morning in a new gown of purple silk with an abundance of lace, lovely in her pale cool way.

It was Dankar who several days prior to that voiced the idea that it would be refreshing to take the wedding procession outside, rather than hold the ceremony in the lingering heat of the city. Kelena could tell her mother didn't like the idea, as it meant some of the distinguished guests wouldn't bother to attend, but still she smiled benignly, as she was apt to do whenever her future son-in-law made a suggestion.

"Of course that is just what we'll do," she said. "Everything will be conducted with the most beautiful simplicity."

Well, simplicity was not exactly the word that came to Kelena's mind as she allowed herself to be carried in the palanquin – walking or riding, of course, would render unthinkable damage to her costly wedding gown, and to be frank she wasn't certain her wobbly legs would carry her – and peered through its heavy embroidered curtains. The procession of velvet-draped palanquins went on as far as the eye could see, to a lovely gold-green meadow where servants were already bustling about, preparing for the feast. Countless dishes were laid out on long trestle tables. A natural clump of wild vines was stretched across a small clearing and decorated with flowers artfully twined through the boughs and leaves, to form the effect of a flowering canopy. It was there that the young couple would soon say their vows. Kelena saw her bridegroom, resplendent in green and silver, and his handsome black horse tied some way aside.

They were close to the Spring of Spring, she realized, the magical place whence came the enigmatic substance of Stormstone, which was fashioned into Stormglass, and which enabled the mystery-shrouded travels between their world and the Other. How she longed for such a Stormglass gate to carry her away, beyond worry and doubt, beyond fear and mistrust, beyond treachery and deceit!

She stepped gracefully and walked forward, drawing herself as tall as she could, her head held proud and high beneath the weight of golden braids and shining blue sapphires. She could feel a collective draw of breath, an admiring sigh that went through the crowd like a ripple. Before, she used to indulge her vanity with dreams of a moment such as this. Now it was all meaningless. Her eye cast around for members of her family, hoping to draw some inspiration or comfort – not from her mother's satisfied countenance, nor from her father's abashedly grave expression. But Kohir looked angry, which was something, and he placed a restraining hand on Nog's shoulder, to prevent the lad from bursting out and saying something inappropriate. And Jadine was as near as propriety would allow, with Thadorn's silent bulky form faithfully by her side. When Kelena's eyes met those of her sister, she saw a dark blaze. She cares, she told herself. Perhaps for the first time in our lives, she cares what will become of me. This filled her with a strange satisfaction and courage. Suddenly she felt she is ready to face anything, even the carefully measured voice of her father.

"Do you, Dankar of the clan of Gindur, take this woman, my daughter, Kelena of the Kotsar, to love and protect, to honor and cherish, for now and all time?"

"I take this woman," Dankar replied solemnly.

"Then I give her to you, and pledge her to love and obey you, to honor and cherish you, for now and all time."

And so it was done. Kelena was given away, without a chance to speak, without a chance to even show the wavering of her heart. Smiling placidly, her bridegroom took hold of her hand.

"Accept this as a token of my love," he said, slipping a ring on her finger. It was of beautifully wrought deep yellow gold, with a black diamond in the center, and its weight instantly made her slender hand uncomfortable. She would have torn it off and thrown it on the ground if she dared, but she did not. Instead, she meekly leaned on the arm of her new husband and allowed him to take her away to the head of the long table, where the servants had spread a magnificent feast not a bite of which she would taste. Minstrels strolled around and played and sang, but she was impervious to it all. She sat there, beautiful and silent, unmoved and unmoving, and did not tear her eyes from the brilliant blue sky, strewn with light white clouds, until the sunset colored it in a hundred hues of red and gold, pink and orange and purple, and it was time to head back to the city. Kelena made an uncertain motion back toward the palanquin, but Dankar detained her.

"It would take too long," he said, smiling. "Let us ride double, my lady."

So she placed herself behind him on the tall black horse, with her hands clasped safely but stiffly around his waist. She had no doubt what he was hastening back for, and she knew he could feel the fluttering of her heart. Dankar spurred the magnificent black stallion, and within moments they had left everyone behind. Now she was really and truly alone with him, at his mercy.

The Upper Esplanade was empty when they reached it, and for a moment Kelena had the comforting vision of her uncle's house with its golden lit windows, but of course they weren't going to stop there. They proceeded toward Dankar's house, the splendid mansion she had never set foot in before. Her mother visited once, and came back all in raptures.

A servant heeded their knock and promptly opened the door, but scurried away just as hastily after taking their cloaks. For all Kelena knew, they could be all alone in the eerily dark house. Only a few oil lamps illuminated their progress up the stairs, and on one occasion Kelena nearly tripped over her trailing skirt. A strong hand steadied her, not allowing her to stumble.

"I sent them all to bed," her husband explained. "I thought it would be more comfortable if we had the house all to ourselves."

Heart hammering, Kelena followed him through the remainder of the carpeted hall. A very heavy, very finely polished door opened almost soundlessly, into a spacious bedchamber with a high, imperceptibly slanting ceiling. Its center was occupied by an immense silk-covered bed, wide and low. Intricately woven straw mats covered the floor, with a few embroidered sitting cushions spread here and there. Despite the heat, a low fire was crackling in the grate, and for this Kelena was grateful, for a shiver crept up her spine, and gooseflesh covered her arms all of a sudden. Dankar promptly closed the door and barred it behind him, which did nothing to reassure her. She was locked in with this man now, in the luxurious room that felt like a tomb.

A stick of fragrant incense sent a thin tendril of smoke into the air from a lacquered tray on which it stood, along with a heavy jug of wine made of costly colored glass.

"Would you like a cup, my lady?" asked Dankar, going over to pour one for himself.

"No, thank you," she said, shaking her head rather jerkily. "I... I doubt wine would agree with me right now."

"Surely not," he said, with a dark twinkle of his eyes. They were like liquid coal, and seemed to suck in every source of light in the room. "You scarcely touched the food."

Cradling his cup in one long-fingered hand, he lightly sat down, cross-legged, on one of the cushions by the whispering fire and motioned her to take a seat by his side. Stiffly, Kelena took a cushion for herself as well and sat, facing him. He took a sip of wine and smiled, then set his cup aside and lightly touched her face.

"You are beautiful, my lady," he told her. "Even now that you are frightened."

"I am not," Kelena protested, fully aware of how unconvincing she must sound.

"Oh, you are," his smile widened, "but you needn't be. I am no threat to you, Kelena."

This was the first time he spoke her name with such familiarity, and it did something to rouse her sense of dread more than anything else that had happened that day.

"I do not understand," she said bluntly.

"You will in a minute. Your face is all sweet innocence, but you are a clever girl – if I thought otherwise, I would not have married you."

Blood rushed into Kelena's pale face at the vague insult, but she remained silent.

"You must have heard I was married before – twice, actually," said Dankar. She nodded. "And you must have also heard all sorts of fear-inducing rumours about me."

"I never for a moment believed – "

"Oh, but you should," he said lightly, reaching for his wine cup again and taking another sip. "Very choice," he remarked. "It is a pity you declined to take a drink. Do let me know if you change your mind... but I digress, of course. My wives. Two silly women who were offered the world at their feet – and threw it all away for a stupid whim."

Kelena sat very straight, listening intently. Her eyes bore into his, and her hands were clasped in her lap.

"A man of my position in life is expected to marry," said Dankar. "I've been the legitimate prey of the bridegroom hunt since I was a boy. When I was twenty, I could have any highborn maid in the country. It is a pity," his mouth twisted in amusement, "that none of them interested me in the least."

She was still as far as ever from understanding, and there was a hint of impatience in his voice as he talked on.

"You are innocent, Kelena, I know, and you have lived a sheltered life. Yet I... oh, very well," he snapped. "Milling around won't do. I will speak clearly once and for all. Women never meant a thing to me. But... the same cannot be said about men."

"Men?" Kelena repeated, dumbstruck. A thought darted into her mind; she heard some men were – but surely not him – it was too grotesque –

"Boys, actually," said Dankar, flitting back into his easy assured manner. "They are sweetest when their voice is yet unchanged. And once they begin to shave, they are a lost cause. The charm is gone in almost every case."

Finally, the truth sank in at once, horrible and unyielding, and terror crept in with it.

"Your wives..." she said in a faltering voice.

"Threatened public disgrace, yes," he nodded. "Both persisted in this folly, and sought separation and exposure. I deeply regretted what had to be done... yet I had no choice," he sighed, and took another sip of wine.

Kelena got up to her feet. Strangely, now that the mystery of this man was unveiled, she was no longer afraid. With a cold hard look she stared at the beautifully dressed, refined monster in front of her. The message of contempt, clearly, was not lost on her new husband, for he got up as well, so as to stand taller than her.

"I understand what you must be thinking," he said, "yet in my way, I am an honorable man. I care about reputation, mine and my clan's. All I sought was peace and privacy; in return, I was ready to give these women anything – as I will offer you, if you do not break faith with me. I have learned from past mistakes, you see. I no longer attempt concealment. I am honest with you, and I expect you to reward this honesty by helping me keep appearances."

"So this is what I am to you," Kelena said rather loudly, in undisguised bitterness. "A painted screen."

"Do not make it sound so unsavory. You shall be my true friend and constant companion, and in return, you will have all my wealth can buy. The finest clothes and jewels will be yours, and any renovations you might want to make in one of my houses – well, you need only speak. Travels abroad, court attendance, the best society... whatever you want, you shall have. I promise you, you will be the envy of every woman in Tilir. Your freedom will belong to you as well, to a large degree, although," his eyes flashed threateningly, "I must warn you against indulging certain dangerous affections to the point of making them visible to the public. Discretion must be kept at all costs."

This suggestion was too foul to even begin to contemplate, and her rage was mounting. Kelena wanted to scream. This was what he wanted from her, then. He wanted someone gullible and tractable, someone who wouldn't dare to reveal his secret... a prisoner to be kept in a gilded cage out of which there is no escape.

"My freedom," she repeated calmly. There was nothing to be done, and she knew it very well. Even if he consented to dissolve the marriage now, there would be no return for her to the home of her clan. Her mother would make sure of that. "My sister Jadine is to be wed soon," she said. "I want to be present."

"But of course," he said magnanimously. "Anything you want, consider it done... as long as you remain as wise as I know you to be," he added with the most unpleasant smile she had ever seen.

Later, much to Kelena's aggravation, he insisted on settling down in bed by her side. "It would seem strange if we spent our wedding night in separate bedchambers," he wisely pointed out, "but you can keep your own rooms later, the manse is large enough. Although of course, I will be obliged to visit fairly regularly," he added.

He turned his back on her and went to sleep soon enough, cat-quiet, while Kelena remained awake in the dark, her eyes wide open. She didn't know what to think or to feel. Despite the fact that she had been threatened quite openly, her fear was gone now, to be replaced by anger and – as much as she was loath to admit that – a touch of wounded pride. She didn't ever fancy this man was truly in love with her, of course, but she thought that perhaps there was something about her which attracted him. It was all a lie, though. He wanted nothing from her but obedient meekness.

The worst of it, perhaps, was that she had no one to confide in. Her friends were all in Rhasket-Tharsanae, and though she expected to see them soon, at Jadine's wedding, former intimacy would be made impossible. Her mother, if she knew the truth... she would side with Dankar once more, Kelena thought bitterly. She would tell her not to be a fool and to hold her tongue and to take advantage of all her new position had to offer. Jadine, though... once more, Kelena thought more warmly of her sister. She, at least, was not afraid to speak her mind. On the night before the wedding, Kelena overheard Jadine speaking to their father, telling him he should call off the match. To be sure, her sister didn't tear her clothes as a sign of mourning on her behalf, but at least she said what she thought was right.

...Their farewells to Uncle Derrien were cordial and, at least on his part, spoken in a tone of much satisfaction, as he was pleased to see his nieces settled – one respectably, and one brilliantly. He expressed his remorse for not being able to follow them to Rhasket to attend Jadine's wedding, but as he said, "at my age, such travels would induce unhealthy fatigue. No, no, I shall part from you here, and wish Jadine every happiness. I think it would be reasonable to expect dear Kelena back before long, and of course you all shall come and visit her in due time. Then we will meet again."

And so they were back on the road, heading back to the place which had been home for so long, and now would never be. Kelena rode a new horse, a beautiful white filly which stood out in her stark brightness against the midnight-black stallion her husband mounted. She hoped Dankar would remain behind, but he cheerfully assured her that he wishes to pay respects to his new relatives, and meet the rest of her clan. This didn't convince her. She rather thought he didn't want to let her out of his sight until he became quite sure he could trust her.

Jadine trotted over to them, tall and straight on horseback. True to her word, she practiced riding during their stay in the city, between wedding plans and sneaking off to the Halls of Learning. Now she looked as though she could ride all day, while Kelena already felt weary. In the background she saw Thadorn, who was ever near his betrothed, following her like a shadow.

"Mother sends word she is in the palanquin now, due to the dust on the road," said Jadine rather indifferently. "Perhaps you would like to join her, once you are done showing off this pretty horse of yours."

"By all means," Dankar said courteously, "do rest in the palanquin, my lady. As loath as I am to dispense with your pleasant company, it would not do to have you fatigued so soon. In the meantime I can ride forward and explore the countryside. There are some spots of exquisite beauty here, so I've heard."

Kelena obeyed, as always. She dismounted, handed in the reins of her horse, and allowed her husband to hand her into the palanquin. Once there, she settled opposite to her mother, who reclined luxuriously on the cushions, her green eyes sparkling with delight.

"This is the most triumphant return I could dream of," she said, gazing at her daughter fondly. "When we were going to Aldon-Sur, I had my hopes for you, of course, but I never imagined... you have done better than I expected, whereas Jadine... well, she has done better than I expected as well," Hinassi said disdainfully. "At least she is finally going to get married, and it can be hoped Thadorn will keep her in rein."

"No one will keep Jadine in rein," Kelena blurted out. Her mother didn't seem to hear.

"I suppose I shall have to pay a visit to Andorn Tionae's house," she went on musingly. "It will only be appropriate, after all. But at least we can skip the betrothal celebration, as the wedding will take place so soon."

Kelena had not the slightest interest in her mother's talk of indulged ambition. She set the palanquin curtains slightly aside and saw her sister's figure from the back. Jadine's cloak was rippling in the wind, her flaming hair streamed freely behind her. Her profile was turned to Thadorn, who looked on her with tender adoration especially touching in such a big man. Great Spirit, let her love him, a sudden earnest prayer sprang in Kelena's heart. Let her love him enough to be happy in the duties of a wife, in the bearing of children and keeping of house. Let her love him so that she has happiness enough for us both.

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