Doubt the Stars Are Fire

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Chapter 5 - Brocade and Ornament

Leda and her mother didn’t exchange a word until their carriages passed through a hidden portal leading directly to the sovereign’s palace. Hidden between the folds of Haight and London, when Leda’s carriage passed through the dimension she noticed the air ripple like water, and suddenly the surrounding area had melted into a landscape of long groves and manicured gardens. Ahead, was a palace that appeared flat with an arcade of doric columns, and a rich blue dome that arched at its top. And in the rising sun, it shone gold in the light.

“Do you still create those circles?” Irena’s voice penetrated the rushing silence. They were almost upon the entrance, and Leda could detect a note of urgency in her voice.

“Sometimes,” Leda lied. She always created watery circles with her magic. They were, as Irena called them, “parlor tricks.” But since Irena did not describe them as such, Leda glanced at her warily: Irena was worried about something.

“Don’t show them anything.” Irena watched the passing scenery.


“You don’t know what Adonis Tariel is capable of. Best not let him get any more of the upper-hand than he already has.”

Leda narrowed her eyes at her mother trying to understand what she was being told to do. She knew not to believe rumors, as Gemma instructed her to do, but there was something about Irena’s words that unnerved her.

“I’m not powerful enough, though...” Leda offered.

“It doesn’t matter. Just don’t show anything, do you understand?” Irena flashed a look of both frustration and concern at her daughter.

Leda just nodded, still not understanding anything.

When the carriages pulled up to the entrance, there were the two Valkyries that were at Gemma’s house earlier that morning. Irena was the first to step out, then Gemma and Soler. Pyramus helped Leda down, and the both of them trailed after Gemma and Soler.

Pyramus gave his niece’s hand a little squeeze-- “this will all be over soon,” he muttered.

“The outcome won’t be in my favor, either way, will it?” Leda tried not have an edge in her voice as she said it.

“None of us are leaving you to the wolves, Leda,” he whispered back, “even if you have to go through every bloody step of being bound to a Tariel--”

And Leda winced at the thought.

“What if he pours gold down my throat?” Leda knew she could say foolish and wildly absurd things to her uncle, who wasn’t as concerned about her growing up within a period of day.

Pyramus smiled a little. He still wore his dark sunglasses. His thin lips and bony nose gave him a devilish look.

“I’m sure there are worse ways to go.”

“Not helping.”

“He won’t, then!”

“How do you know?”

Pyramus just shot her a look: It was what everyone had been telling her. What was Adonis Tariel’s advantage in killing her?

They descended into the central hallway which was at once also a statuary and gallerie with curved ceilings of gold and frescos. Delicate, stain-glassed tracery windows lit the gallerie from above, and rich, ornate tapestries hung against the walls, deepening the surroundings so that all the colors almost created a sense of claustrophobia. Once they had crossed, they ascended another stairway where they met Lydos Calfury, the fox-faced warlock. Irena greeted him with a delicate kiss on the cheek, and he silently escorted them up another set of stairs that curved around the gallerie.

They were led into a room with light blue brocade walls and an enormous fanlight at the other end. It was a beautiful room with divans and cushiony chairs. There was even a table against one of the walls, lined with confections and pastries as well as coffee and tea.

“How long will we have to wait, Lydos?” Irena turned to him as he was just leaving. Leda had never heard her mother’s voice to be that soft.

“His sovereign is just finishing his meeting. You’ll be called shortly,” he replied politely, while nodding to the table of sweets.

Gemma had settled at the edge of a yellow divan. She sighed, pulling off her gloves as Pyramus grabbed a square pastry with purple icing, which looked quite heavy, and collapsed in a chair, placing his feet on a silk ottoman. Irena shot him a dirty look for being so coarse, but Pyramus ignored her. Soler solemnly poured himself coffee, and Leda wandered to the fanlight window. Her breath had grown short. She wasn’t sure if it was all those stairs she had to climb or if it was nerves. But she had to look away. She had to at least pretend that she was getting fresh air by looking out the window. She must have been looking out the window for a solid minute before she realized she was looking at an elaborate garden with a hedge maze. But she did not notice that one of the Valkyries, whether by Irena’s orders or not, had prepared a cup of lemon tea for her. When she heard the clink of china and the rattle of small silver spoon behind her, she looked over her shoulder. The Valkyrie girl offered her the green china cup with a grim smile, her eyes shooting down at her feet. Her black hair was parted in the middle and tightly pulled back in the Valkyrie fashion. Her dark eyes were her most striking feature: they were shaped like an open fan and framed by a set of rectangular brows. She had a pretty, open face, with a frank expression. Leda hadn’t seen this Valkyrie before, but Leda could tell that she wasn’t steely like the rest of them. And the fact that she was giving Leda tea made her gawk at the girl all the more.

Perhaps it was the apparent alarm in Leda’s expression, but the Valkyrie muttered, “I’m sorry,” after giving her the cup, and slipped away. Leda blushed immediately, suddenly feeling very stupid for saying nothing. She caught her mother’s eye whose eyebrows were raised-- So? I can’t give you a cup of tea?

Leda just turned away. Everything was too confusing. She hadn’t seen Adonis Tariel yet, and her mother showing her the least bit of concern was far more disconcerting.

But Leda didn’t drink her tea. She just fixed her eyes on the hedge maze. Perhaps she could work it out from her vantage point. If she distracted herself long enough, the knot in her stomach that had been forming since they left Gemma’s house would undo itself before she had to face the Fate.

The door suddenly opened behind them, and no sooner than it did than Leda heard her mother’s electric magic summon into her hands.

“We’re in the sovereign’s palace, Irena!” It was Horus, the man in red. Adonis Tariel’s man. He looked at Irena like an errant child, but Leda could also see that he was ready to laugh at her as well.

Leda felt her cheeks drain of blood, and her eyes shot beyond Horus’ shoulders. Was he here? So soon? It was too soon. But Horus was alone. He shone fresh and bright as fiery emblem in his deep red, Trym colors in the blue room. Irena’s magic dissipated with Gemma rushing to her side, and gently touching the back of her elbow.

Horus glanced at Leda, who immediately looked down at her brown tea. Now she felt really sick. The knot only tightened.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Adonis Tariel employs the cheap labor of a Trym warlock,” Irena’s words cut through the air as she gestured to his pin, a Tariel pin, which was a swan made of black pearl, its beak made of coral, embossed on a small gold oval pinned to Horus’ jacket.

“A cheap and disgraced Trym warlock,” Horus raised his finger, correcting her with a lethal and ironic smile, “that has mastered the seven weapons, which your little militia can only dream of accomplishing. Jealously is an unforgiving shade that doesn’t suit your pallor.”

“Why be jealous when my ‘little militia’ directly protects the sovereign himself?” Irena narrowed her eyes at him. “I am not encumbered by crippling disgrace.”

“I’d rather be a free devil than have my hands bound as an angel.”

“Enough!” Gemma inserted herself between the two of them, and then turned to Horus. “I assume you’re here for more than just needless squabbling.”

Horus’ lids sunk a little with admiration and respect as he looked upon Gemma.

“The sovereign will see us now, and I am to escort the lady in.” He nodded to Leda, who suddenly felt her skin tingle with apprehension.

Irena reared but then Pyramus jumped to his feet.

“It’s tradition, Irena!” Pyramus hastily muttered into her ear, “it’s apart of the courtship arrangement.” It was the first time Leda had seen her uncle serious and concerned with protocol. But Leda also knew how deadly her mother’s temper could be.

“We need to abide given the circumstances,” Gemma offered softly, running her fingers down her sister’s arm. Irena’s shoulders dropped in a huff.

And Leda could see now it had nothing to do with her: her mother just wanted to be in control. And Horus’ taunting smile only infuriated her. With a quick motion of her hand, the two Valkyries exited from the room, and Gemma, Soler, Pyramus, and Irena followed after. Leda was still at the other end of the room, feeling forgotten and suddenly frightened to be alone with Horus Trym.

He held out his arm and looked expectedly at her.

“I’m not going to bite,” he finally smiled.

But Leda’s bright cold eyes blinked emptily. Her dark brows arched critically at him. As she placed the cup on a nearby table, it shook violently, allowing the tea to spill around the saucer. And without thinking or putting much thought into what she was doing next, Leda just lifted the hem of her skirt and started walking toward him. It was as though something other than herself was moving her toward the door. When she finally reached Horus she looked down at his arm, and suddenly felt the coldness of contempt. She wasn’t a child. She was tired of being viewed as one. She certainly didn’t need help going into a Fate that she didn’t want. And Leda walked past him and went through the door. The figures of her aunt, her mother, Soler, Pyramus, and the Valkyries were retreating, and she walked quickly to catch up to them.

Leda nearly ran headlong into Soler’s back when they reached a set of tall gold doors. Horus jogged to keep up with her. He looked both annoyed and defeated that he couldn’t quite accomplish his task, but instead of feeling worried, Leda just felt angry. She did want to get this over with. The sooner the better. She straightened her shoulders and inhaled deeply. Pyramus knocked on the doors, and no sooner he did than they opened with a yawning moan.

Leda’s nostrils flared as she braced herself.

As the doors opened, they revealed a room with long, pink-marbled columns, arched ceilings and more fanlight windows. The walls were covered in the traditional colors of the Pantaleon coven: a chartreuse brocade with gold and pink motif. Ahead of them was, compared to the other riches in the room, a modest, wooden chair with a high back and a finial at the top. In it sat a young, a man with blonde hair, and warm grey eyes. Leander Pantaleon had also been awake for some time: his green jacket was undone and his shirt collar was not buttoned. His hair was pushed back, and his eyes looked tired. Leander’s long, ringed fingers coursed absently through his beard as he assessed them.

But then, Leda noticed someone standing in front but off to the side of Leander Pantaleon. For all of Leander’s lighter features-- his summery face, his spring-green jacket, and his powerful build-- the other figure stood in sharp juxtaposition to the sovereign. Tall, balletic, ethereal. But as he turned, Leda realized there was something different about seeing Adonis Tariel now rather than by accident, the first time she saw him: Standing in the presence of a dark immortal was like standing before cataclysms that mesmerized; supernovas frozen in a single entity— deadly and wondrous. And there was nothing about Adonis Tariel that fell short of that awe and terror that Leda felt.

She now regretted not accepting Horus’ arm. Her breath painfully caught at the bottom of her throat, and she looked anywhere but at him, as Adonis Tariel kept turning his dark gaze toward her.

Leander Pantaleon pushed himself off from his chair and stepped down from his dais. Pyramus, Irena, and Gemma lined up in front of him and bowed low. And Leander took both Irena’s hands into his:

“I’m only sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances, Irena.” His voice was reedy and reassuring.

“We’re here to serve you, my lord,” Irena’s words dripped earnestly.

Then Leander made his way to Soler, and they embraced smiling at each other jocularly.

All the while, Leda had been gathering too much breath, aware that eventually everyone would be looking at her. This was all a prelude before the finale, and she was at the very center of it. Her fright suddenly gave way to anger, and she could help but tremble. And when Leander reached her, the bodies of her family had parted, and she stood at the end of the train.

Leander took both her hands, his eyes candid and curious. Leda let out shaky breaths.

Her expression was blank, pretty, innocent, and Leander leaned a little toward her as he spoke: “You’re carrying a great weight right now. It’s normal to be frightened.”

Fuck you, she thought. Even though there was nothing about Leander Pantaleon that could make her angry. If anything, he was wonderfully comforting. But Leda didn’t want to be comforted. She wanted to go home.

Fuck this, and she visibly trembled as he held her hands in his.

Off to the side stood a gaggle of ministers in long, violet robes, except for one. The man in the short mousy hair, and bright green eyes stood solemnly watching. Leander nodded to the priest, which Leda understood to be Henry Pantaleon-- one of the brothers was the head priest while the other was the king. But Henry’s gaze was not warm. It was stark, cool, and dismissive.

“We’ll make this brief,” Henry Pantaleon shook his sleeves up toward his elbows as he crossed to the other end of the room where, much to Leda’s surprise, she hadn’t noticed a wide, silver bowl of waterfire that was churning gently. Henry waved his arm, and a skylight suddenly shown down upon the waterfire, giving it a bright and dazzling appearance.

But Leda could feel a hesitancy in her family. Irena glanced at Henry in alarm: “This isn’t... the ceremony?”

Henry Pantaleon was bending down running his fingers through the water as though he were checking for temperature for a bath. He looked up, watching Irena.

“And if it was?” He said clearly and coldly.

Leander interjected, stepping toward Irena.

“There is a preliminary test. We need to know for certain if Leda can replace...”

Leda watched him. He was going to say her name, and she wanted to know how it sounded from his lips. She wanted to know how she acted, how she felt when she was in this room. Leda suddenly wanted to know everything, and how Valentina felt about any of this. Did she also dip her hands in the waterfire? Was she shocked when she saw that she had to be Fated? Was she hoping it wasn’t true?

“Considering what has happened in the east, Mrs. Stryker,” Henry rose swiftly from the pool and took a step toward the family, “if your daughter fulfills the Fate’s expectations, then we will have to go through with the ceremony immediately.”

Leda’s head shot toward Pyramus and Gemma. She briefly caught Adonis Tariel’s eyes as he had turned to glance at the family. Leda blushed and looked down at her feet, and as she did she heard the decisive foot fall from the other side of her family.

“Surely, Henry,” Adonis stepped forward, into the light a little more, standing between the Strykers and the ministers. He clasped his hands behind his back, and his lips formed into a conciliatory smile. “The sky will not cease to fall if we were to perform this ceremony today.”

Then Adonis crossed to where the ministers stood, long, sullen and sour-faced. They immediately parted, as though being close to a dark, immortal warlock would immediately plague them. Adonis placed one hand on the broad, wooden table. A large map with chess-pieces and figurines as well as notes and scribblings nearly covered the whole thing. Adonis pointed a long, pale finger at a spot on the map. Leda could only see his bent silhouette against the fanlight window.

“As you can see, the tear is over a portion of land completely uninhabited. If anything, the direction in which it is tearing, it will only destroy desolate wastelands. Where the Song coven was located was at the very fringes, and we know that their coven hasn’t expanded beyond these boarders in centuries.”

His voice sounded like the quiet unspooling of fine silk ribbons, and everyone was held in the enchantment and authority of his voice. All except Henry, who stared coldly at him. Adonis straightened, still smiling a little.

"By all means, however," Adonis gestured to the waterfire, "let us proceed with the test-- that is vital, no doubt."

"How can we trust a Tariel? He could be lying. Another attempt to bamboozle yet another depraved rival! They're all pirates, your majesty--" a gruff minister with long, wrinkly jowls barked behind Adonis.

But Adonis merely turned in the voice's direction, having heard him quite clearly. "Bamboozle? Pirate?"

It was like watching a lightning storm without the thunder, and to Leda it was all the more frightening to listen to Adonis' silence than to feel his fury.

"Your minister offers slander, while I offer undeniable proof, which I am certain your ministers have expressly told you..." Adonis paused, clasping his hands behind his back and straightening his shoulders toward Leander Pantaleon. Then adding in a mocking voice toward the minister, "your majesty."

Leander licked his lips and smiled.

"I hope that brother of yours, Adonis, has not been spying on me again. That is more unforgivable than not unfounded slander from a minister."

Adonis pressed his hand to his chest bowing slightly, and the gesture nearly made Leda laugh: Adonis was pretending. But no one else seemed to see it but her when she looked into everyone's face.

He lifted his hand, his black eyes shining with laughter, "There are no insects or birds, your majesty, as you can see!"

"Torex Tariel doesn't care about the Fate his brother receives?" Leander tilted his head to the side.

"As long as it doesn't interfere with his trading prospects." Adonis returned with the same geniality.

Then he nodded to Irena, "and a Stryker alliance can only strengthen his footholds."

Irena blushed angrily, but Leander grinned and nodded. His eyes switched to his brother, who was stiff and visibly angry that Leander was getting on so well with Adonis Tariel. Leander just waved at Henry to proceed.

Leda was suddenly guided by the back of the elbow: it was Gemma. She kept her chin low to her chest.

"Be brave, my dear."

But for all Leda's obstinance, the strength to even stand in that room and laugh at Adonis' antics, her knees suddenly started to quake. And Gemma tightened her grip around Leda's arm as they silently and clumsily walked toward the wide, silver basin.

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