The closest you could get to silence in Winding Circle was up on its outer walls, during the tranquil nights without wind. On moonlit nights, you could look behind to watch the bustling pantomime of silver and white in the temple-city, quiet but not silent; and if you faced forward, the sea was an endless abyss, winds racing across its surface, waves swirling deep black, quiet but not silent.
On one such night Dedicate Gorse climbed the long winding staircase in search of that silence, a smile touching thin lips when he remembered four children who had frequented these walls. The children were gone now, had ridden away - removing Winding Circle of their childish happiness - but their ghosts lingered like the numberless cracks on the gray stone. But in the formative years that had come before their wanderings, the children of Discipline Cottage had spent one hot summer evening after another at the height of the walls, bathed in sea-breeze until the heat seemed like a distant memory, and watching the waxing and waning of the silvery moon.
Dedicate Gorse drank in the almost-silence like it was fresh-water, and he, too, watched the moon. The moon was old as he was not, so that what had been many years ago for Gorse was to it nothing but another rotation, another orbit, the past and the present separated by a single tired second. Even if he could not turn back that single second any more easily than he could years, Gorse would always have his memories to treasure in place of those seconds that had slipped away. He could pretend Narmon had happened only yesterday. One second was easier to bridge than many years, and up there moonlight seemed to fall onto his memories until they were lit with silver, outlines sharp and clear, the fuzziness of the kitchen's cacophony falling away under its natural magic.
Dedicate Gorse watched the moon and remembered.
- : -
Yet he had been wealthy still despite the emperor's displeasure, and cultured enough to present the youngest princess - Berenene - with a nearly priceless shakkan that hadn't been quite as priceless as the seller would have had him believe. Court gossip tittered at his audacity, but jeweled belts and precious swords for Berenene's brother, and games of chess with the emperor, quickly halted any hints of his partiality for the Treasure of Narmon.
That Berenene was a treasure, he came to understand from the very first evening the Narmonese Emperor sat her down across from him, leaving her slender fingers in charge of his black lacquered chess pieces. She was the youngest, and she was a girl, but the emperor had caught the spark of intelligence in her dark eyes, and set her to battle against the diplomat from distant Yanjing.
The muted clicks of chess pieces being set on the board. The faint crackling of wood collapsing in the fireplace. The sound of breathing - all quiet, but not silent.
He found himself watching his opponent with the same intensity as the emperor did, intrigued but not fascinated.
"Thank you for the shakkan," she said, when the game was over, and she was to take her leave.
"She's a lovely girl," he said to the emperor once she had gone, in the tone of voice he would have spoken of any other sixteen-year-old. "Sharp," he said, frowning down at the chess game, before belatedly adding, "and beautiful," because sonnets had been written to her piercing eyes and flawless cheeks from all around the empire.
That she WAS beautiful was utterly undeniable, but Yanjing ladies smiled with rose-red lips and teasing eyes, unblemished faces as enigmatically perfect as porcelain dolls standing one after another in a long line.
The emperor's hand landed on a highly polished black pawn. They played.
During this time, the great empires had been extending testing tendrils into one another, feeling before pushing, tracing before shoving. He who would become Gorse had at least two counterparts at the Yanjing court, counterparts written of with such scathing fire by his mild-tempered brother that he wondered what idle gossip HE had inspired in comparison.
Much to his surprise, the young princess was the one to inform him of conversations conducted in giggles - and of a not very secret wager on the extent of his manhood. "There are... such tales of the emperor's eunuchs," she explained, such mystery and such mischief in every curve of her lips that he understood she was not simply 'being frank'. "Endless days snowed in and cringing around fire makes for idle gossip and raging storms."
Berenene, of course, had not a moment of time to waste in such a careless manner. "Not even for you," she laughed, too much innocence to be anything but utterly aware of her game - a fellow Yanjing countryman at heart, with her charmingly vapid face and snake-fast strength, even if only snow-cold Narmonese blood ran through her veins.
He did not know why he had caught her attention. Yanjing had many tales, but equally as many channels through which the youngest princess could study them, strands of stories trapped around her fingers as she took them to bits. Yanjing was distant and thus exotic, but neither as distant nor as exotic as the mahogany-skinned natives imported from across the Endless, eyes glaring as white as the snow they could not stand. He had magic, and quite strong magic too, but cooking was as common as salt, and the Imperial cook sneered at the way he had squandered away his gift.
"But they don't understand the shakkan," Berenene told him, draped in fur-trimmed silk that gathered up at her elbows, hair coiled into jeweled spirals that promised to tumble if she knelt into the earth, as she often did, to berate a careless gardener. "And they don't understand the lilies." On her knees with dirt clinging to red-varnished fingers, she was too sincere to be entirely sincere, and too sincere to be false.
If court gossips were mentally comparing her mixture of frozen earth and lily-petal softness, intelligent heiress toying with the diplomat, against the endless sea of wine her on which her brother floated away his days, he supposed she could hardly be blamed for putting on a show.
Privately, so many conversations later, he did not deny that he was more fascinated now than intrigued by the heir - the legacy that Berenene's brother upheld with shaking shoulders and she carried as effortlessly as her crown of curls and gold. Even if he drew the line at the idea he was being 'toyed with'.
For although he had come to Narmon at the behest of his emperor, the request had not been as much of a surprise as the Yanjing Emperor might have secretly amused himself with imagining, not when the plan had been broadcast in the Yanjing Emperor's every subtly smug glance. And although he resented the long journey somewhat, he had still spent as much of it studying the customs he would have to uphold as he had wearing his gold rings and coating his tongue in honey - and that first evening he played chess against Berenene, she had grudgingly admitted defeat.
So the Narmon court became a playing field above which he rose - not a piece, as the unobservant might have imagined, but a player - and he did his duty to his empire, even if its leader, as his brother cautiously informed him, turned an interested eye onto religion and did not.
"You're a good friend to have," Berenene told him eventually, when the seasons had changed twice, and linen-clad ladies waved ivory fans to find release from an unexpected bout of summer heat. She smiled at him, the vapid smile all but gone now as she planned in earnest, and every step she took cast another shadow over her older brother as far as any noble or commoner could see. "You have wanted to know why I'm so interested, have you not?" she asked, voice lowered enough that the chattering covered it up, but not so quiet that noblemen would cast suspicious looks in their direction - more than he already received for being in the princess's good graces, anyway. "You are an excellent friend."
"I'm honored your highness thinks that way," he returned politely, smiling at the lily she had coiled with her hair in celebration of the summer. If she frowned at his distance, she did not do so in his proximity, though she was suitably occupied after that short conversation as to prevent it resuming later.
"Wish me luck," she requested when the dashing young men clamored for attention, and once he complied, smiling genuinely at her - and pitying those she would have wrapped around her pinky before the afternoon was through - she was off.
That was the afternoon Berenene stepped, fully and completely, between her brother and any sunlight he would see for a long time. Beautiful, thoughtful, teasing Berenene; fire, laughter, spirit, freedom, a glimpse of the endless blue sky that no one would ever be able to capture. So charming, so witty, so perfectly capable of twining her presence into a conversation and drawing the threads of words into a shimmering patchwork of her command. Those dashing young men trailed her on horseback, unaware of the unreachable distance between dreams and reality, even when she galloped effortlessly ahead once the hounds caught scent and the official hunt began - graceful and showing it. Unofficially, Berenene returned with a jeweled knife in her hand, the crest of a dukedom picked out in precious stones, her peers all too willing to be foxes and kindly hold the knife as long as she was the one who skinned them.
Their eyes met across the crowd of her countrymen, and she smiled.
I'm glad you're not surprised, she didn't say.
I'm glad you didn't think I would be, he did not answer.
- : -
She knew she was beautiful. It was not vanity, but a sort of awareness, exquisite understanding transforming into exquisite weapon once she realized the effects of a coy, sidelong glance. Dirges chanted by lovesick noblemen when, on an impulse that had been planned long ahead, she sliced two feet off her hair and let waves of brown cascade - a fall of softness - to her feet; not-so-brilliant sonnets penned to praise her lips and teeth and eyes. How could she not know?
The ambassador was not handsome, or dashing. No red crept onto his cheeks from her smiles, even when she made them shine like the sun. But his eyes were sharp and knowledgeable, even if there was a certain softness about it that seemed out of place in the porcelain faces of Yanjing. "I'm merely a visitor," he would say, cautious shrewdness in face of her recklessness when she began a discussion on the role of her brother. "This is not my game, your highness."
Privately, Berenene thought caution and political instinct were only part of what stayed him from interfering. Berenene had learned quickly to read men like books, and his mask of imperfect porcelain was not impossible to crack in order to see the man beneath.
He indulged her, yes. That same way he quirked a smile and took their chess game seriously, he had listened to the meaning of her words rather than the deceptive games she could play with her large vocabulary, and answered in kind. That was the ambitious part of him. But on rare occasions, his voice would take on a soft quality when he spoke of his brother, and his smile would be sincerely kind when young ladies, intrigued by Berenene's friendliness to the ambassador, probed him with painful inexperience to try and find out why.
She knew he guarded that gentler facet of himself jealously, which was why, she wondered when, on more than one occasion under her careful eye, he had not even tried to hide it.
Was this his way of hunting?
"It's not one of my favorite hobbies," he demurred carefully, when she inquired whether he would be joining the court to go riding.
He never had, after that first triumphant, when she'd returned with a beautiful knife, but Berenene, while aware of her beauty, rather doubted she was the cause.
"The Empire of Silk," he had told her once, "is also an empire of porcelain. It is... beautiful."
Berenene remembered the softness in his gaze when he recalled home - softness he himself might be unaware of - and thought it similar to his expression when speaking to those young ladies who were doomed to failure. It was sincere.
He wasn't hunting, then.
Nevertheless, it bothered Berenene that he had let her see that side of himself, when it was clear that she was not the same as the other young noblewomen, who wouldn't know what to do with such vulnerability. She was beautiful, but so was Yanjing; she was young, but they both knew that age mattered little when evaluating a threat - just look at her brother! She was his friend - and it had surprised her that she genuinely thought of him that way - but her empire was not. Why would he take such a risk?
Why did she want him to?
No, she knew why she wanted him to. Despite their little dance, their word games, the way they shared quiet revelations - these noblemen are going to be under my grasp by the time the afternoon is over - was without pretense. She did not lie to him. He did not lie to her. They were friends.
Friendship, Berenene thought, could be a rare virtue at court.
How ironic, she decided, that she had found it in him - an Ambassador from the enemy, a man born of the empire of porcelain masks, but who had nevertheless let her see through it.
But despite their tacit understanding - the ambition and the honesty - it took a full year at court, a full year of friendship, before he admitted to her that Narmon had changed him. After another hunt, the entire party had retreated into the Imperial Gardens, spinning plots and gossip beneath a shower of gold and red leaves.
"It's cold," he began with, his presence surprising a smile from her as she turned to give him her full attention. "I've never been so cold before."
Berenene regarded him skeptically. "And Yanjing doesn't have a North?"
He shrugged, scarlet silk whispering over leather boots. He looked striking, if still not quite handsome. "I've never been there."
"Perhaps I could convince father to send my brother there," Berenene mused, knowing he - and most of the court - was well aware of her feelings on that matter. "It could encourage him into a suitable occupation. Imperial Drunkard isn't particularly desirable."
His answering smile was small. Amused. "I believe the ability to hold one's liquor, however, is."
They both looked at the "Imperial Drunkard." He had dragged himself with great effort out of the fathomless depths of his gold-and-mahogany chambers, so shocking the court with a rare sight of their heir that even noble masks had been unable to the surprise. Berenene wasted no strength on worry, for wine seemed doomed to follow him all his days, and barely no time at all found him with drinks pressed relentlessly into both hands, smiles hidden behind fur-trimmed sleeves as gossips contemplated reviving a topic to be dissected around roaring hearths.
"Unfortunately," Berenene returned, watching the dazed look on his face, "he does not hold that title."
In an unguarded moment, he murmured, "He would not hold that title, even if he could drink a basin and still stay awake."
Something about the way he was looking at her...
"No," she agreed, "he would not. I'm not sorry about it."
"He's still your brother," he reminded her, and winced.
Berenene stared at him, and wondered about masks and about compassion. "You would not have said that, when you first arrived."
"The Empire of Silk is also an empire of porcelain. It was... beautiful," he said. He stopped, and was quiet for a long time, but his breath was not silent, and she could almost hear him thinking. Then, he said slowly, "But just as beauty and intelligence aren't what make someone special... until I came to Narmon, until I saw laughter in the court and its servants alike, and brutal honesty behind ambition" - his eyes flicked briefly to hers before returning to the hunting party - "I never knew what it meant to be alive."
Berenene thought of picking a calm, foreign, not really handsome man as her friend, being his confidant in turn, and understood.
- : -
It took him one week to fall for her.
On the first day of the week, he finally agreed to go hunting again. Unable to keep up with the retinue, which was only to be expected after his neglect of his horsemanship, he watched as a magnificent falcon soared from her wrist, as she laughed in delight at the wilderness.
"I received him as a gift a few days ago," Berenene explained later, while he admired the bird's feathers.
"You should have used the bird then," he said. "Why wait?"
She smiled at him and did not answer.
On the second day, they played chess again, the fire banked and crystals flaring with bright light. White, he thought, suited her just as well as black - white chess pieces advancing into his territory, white silk draped over bronzed skin, white and even teeth, beauty to make her claim to the throne shine.
"I see you haven't lost your touch," she said an hour later, her army depleted and hiding.
"Narmon has not caused THAT much of a change," he returned, thanking a servant when she delivered drinks. When he looked up from the tea, he found her watching him, enigmatic, magnetic.
"I think, perhaps it has." Her eyes softened, just a little. "I am glad."
On the third day of the week, they visited that first shakkan he had gifted her, a year and a month ago. The greenhouses were a riot of color, defying the resplendent gold and red shower of leaves beyond its glass walls, yet nestled between gigantic blooms of pink flowers, the shakkan's presence could not be overwhelmed at all.
He was unsurprised when she kneeled in the dirt, her hair a tumble of rich depth, but his eyes widened at her raised eyebrow, gesturing for him to join her. "I would not want to give the court the wrong impression," he warned quietly, but obeyed, reaching with rusty magic to coax green life, and failing.
Berenene laughed. "Just this once, let them see I can be warm."
On the fourth day, she introduced him to Olennika Potcracker.
On the fifth day, the celebration began: a three day long celebration, or perhaps lamentation, of the beginning of winter. Mage-lights danced around the room, patterns of light and dark wood being overlaid by the illusions of fire blooming in every corner. When he caught himself nearly remarking, tired from working magic again after such long neglect, that they barely compared to Berenene, he wasn't sure what to think.
He closed his eyes, thought about his brother's most recent lady-love, and, for the first time, asked Berenene to dance.
"Is this a special occasion?" she asked, whirling into a blur of bronze and rose, cheeks flushed from the exercise and skin deliciously warm against his when the dance required contact. "You hate the dance. All the noise, all the bustle."
"I don't hate those," he denied. "I would have no problem running a... say, a kitchen, just like that."
She used her exquisite ability to understand, and laughed, vivacious, burning, the life of the court, making his heart skip a beat - but surely, that was just the dance. "You wouldn't have admitted that, when you first came."
He thought of the nature of joy, of the gleam and heat of burnt iron. They were so real that he hadn't known what real meant before that. And then he had met her, and thought he hadn't known what real meant before that either.
"When I first came, I didn't know what I really wanted." That he did now went unspoken, but it hummed in the air between them, a flash of seed lightning, a moment of frozen time. "Thank you."
She pressed closer, as the other pairs on the dance had, eyes lifting to examine him. Her careful gaze pinned his, unable to look away, and she smiled. "You're welcome."
On the sixth day, he spent his time alone with endless thoughts and tired magic - feeling like an overcooked noodle - hands tucked into fur to defy the frost settling in a thick layer on the ground. That brilliant mind ticked away while he paced, a letter from his brother lying unread in a pocket. He thought about the fallen charm of gold when compared to magic-enhanced iron; about the burst of life in the kitchen. He thought about the porcelain and silk of Yanjing; about the leather and snow of Narmon.
While celebrations continued, he thought about quiet conversations and chess matches shared without silence; about understanding, accepting, and murmuring 'I love you,' without saying a word. About making love without touching.
On the seventh day, standing across from her under a full moon, the music and laughter of the ball a world removed, her face was radiant as she placed a hand on his cheek. As she drew her fingers across his lips. As he kissed them. "I wondered how long you would keep me waiting."
His skin was molten heat where they touched. Was this what it felt like to burn?
Her hands on his shoulder, and his at her waist, they danced.
- : -
- : -
Theirs was a moonlit garden, silver falling in waves through clear glass to edge marble seats, and shadows murmuring, quiet but not silent.
"It's not war," she said quietly, staring at the clasp of their hands, at the black silk of his sleeve tangling with the gold of her bracelet.
"It might as well be for me," he answered, and she murmured in tired agreement, thinking about families and how they were bigger than the people who represented them.
How the Empire of Silk was ruled by a man who'd accused the ambassador's brother of treason, and then destroyed him.
"I don't regret it," he said softly, "even if we only had that one day."
Berenene rose, gliding with the grace she was esteemed for, smiling with the beauty she was famous for, and watching him with the understanding only he would ever see. The full moon gleamed on the branches of the shakkan, which still writhed with life.
"We had much longer than that," she said, and kissed him for the first and last time.
- : -
Berenene walks among grass and leaves, hair coiled up with jeweled pins and velvet whispering as she traces the paths of her greenhouse.
It is lauded throughout her empire, and in the lands beyond.
He still turned it down, and for what? His friends? His sisters? The child-mages who are so full of themselves?
For a moment, Berenene remembers when the greenhouse was just that, not an icon of her rule, and the man she had spent so much time with in it. She had felt the same about friendship, then, her world so far removed from the intrigues she dabbles with now.
But the shakkan is gone, killed in the same frost that tore away her fortune of lilies, his name is Dedicate Gorse now, not Ambassador, and the memory of his face beneath her fingers has long since faded.
Twenty years and countless lovers - some she really loved, too - separate the then and the now.
The moon is on her periodic abandonment, leaving an endless abyss where shouts and old pain and memories vanish without a trace, and for that she knows she should be glad the sky is empty and black.
She still wishes it wasn't.