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Habro be’Arvo

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Habro goes to bed early on Winternight, and so he does not hear what happened at the ball until breakfast the next morning. But he awakens on that second-shortest day of the year with a sense of foreboding, for he has had the dream again. It always comes when the political winds shift and blow cold, or almost do, just as the bronchine comes when the winter winds shift and blow cold.

***

His lungs labor; his sword-arm and both his legs shake with fatigue. The blow of steel on steel rings down his arm, and he can feel it in his heart and liver. He’s learned the rudiments of swordwork, as all boys of the Fainamere do, but he is no warrior like his brothers are — were. He is small and quiet and studious, not hulking and strutting and bulging with thews.

But his is the wiry build that lends endurance. And his terror has long since hardened into anger, a greater anger than he has ever known in his fifteen years. An anger with the clarity and frigidity of the bitterest winter day, not the hot rages of the warrior youths when their honor is slighted. He will die, he is sure, here in his master’s workroom, collapsing atop Deiedo’s bloody corpse with his own guts spilling out of his belly. But he cannot die until he has dealt at least a maiming blow to the Aijehere warrior who ran after him into the workroom and, when Deiedo tried to shield Habro with his body, cut him down before Habro’s eyes.

He spends what feels like a long, long while dodging and hiding under tables and in cupboards, with occasional lunges into the open followed by speedy retreats. The Aijehere is far larger than Habro’s dead brothers or father or uncles, nearly all of him muscle. He cannot follow Habro into tight spaces, and Habro’s sword blocks his own from stabbing into them. But where the Aijehere’s sword cannot reach, his taunts do, and he utters them without losing a gasp of breath. Were they a warrior’s taunts to a worthy foe it would not be so bad, but they are not, they are far worse: Come out, little silverbird. I’ll spare thy life for sure, if not thy balls. For thou wouldst warm my bedroll quite nicely. Wouldst not like me to console thee for thy losses with my sword of flesh? And I’m sure my comrades would do the same for thee.

But the Aijehere, unlike the ghastly war-witches in his people’s service, is mortal. So determined is he to take Habro as his prize, or perhaps merely so determined not to leave one Fainamere free, he does not scorn this mismatch as beneath his dignity and retreat to fight alongside his comrades-at-arms. It does not occur to him that he might die here, in this modest hut, to an unblooded stripling.

So he tires, he becomes careless, he missteps. The toe of his boot lands in the pool of Deiedo’s gore. And down he goes. As he flails on his back like an overturned turtle, Habro dashes out, pulling the dagger from his boot as he sails through the air. He lands on the Aijehere’s chest with both knees, driving a wheeze out of the man’s lungs. Light though he is, he’s earned himself the final advantage. Shoving the Aijehere’s chin backward with his left hand, he drives the dagger home with his right, drags it from jaw to jaw, and whips it clean out again.

The Aijehere burbles. Blood foams at the corners of his mouth and sprays from the ragged chasm of his throat, drenching Habro’s face and tunic. His eyes blaze an ice-blue mix of surprise and fury as his golden skin — not tawny like a moorcat’s but bright and shimmering, just as Fainamere skin shimmers silver — takes on a sallow sickliness. His sword rises again, slow and trembling, but his leather-backed hand is easily knocked aside.

Habro is dimly aware, somewhere in his head, that he has vanquished his foe and his anger should be cooling. But it is not. His father is dead. His brothers are dead. Two of his uncles and three of his man-cousins are dead. He does not know whether the rest of his man-kin lie on the battlefield, hide in the woods, or kneel in chains awaiting the gelding-knife. His mother was felled by an arrow, and he thinks she is fortunate in that: he watched Aelena be carried off upon the shoulder of another massive Aijehere, screaming, arms flung out for rescue that will never come.

He does not know what became of his other sisters, or his aunts, or his maid-cousins. He prays to the Moonfather that if they could not flee, they are all at least as fortunate as his mother.

Teeth bared at the dying Aijehere, he worms himself further down the man’s body, saws through the thick leather cuirass, and then slices through the heavy woolen trews beneath. The Aijehere still has enough life and wit in him to struggle, though with his windpipe sundered and spouting it is a futile struggle and not much of one at that.

Habro has known that the Aijehere geld their thralls since he was old enough to know what “gelding” means. A few years ago at market, he overheard an Aijehere holiman arguing creed with a Fainamere holiman, and he learned that their Sunfather will take no gelded man into his immortal army. Now he seizes the limp penis, half-shrunken into the Aijehere’s belly, in his left hand. For the first time the man’s eyes widen in actual terror. Thy “sword of flesh,” yes? he snarls.

With one fierce stroke of the dagger, he parts the Aijehere from that sword.

Another gout of blood spurts over Habro’s hand. The warrior’s burbles crest in pitch and urgency as he writhes in agony. Shall I stuff it in thy mouth or cram it up thine arse? Habro demands of him. Either way, canst explain that to thy Sunfather, thou canst. Tell him Habro be’Arvo, apprentice to Deiedo be’Neso Silversmith, is the one who put it there.

Habro, is it?

Terror bursts within Habro, wrenching him out of his fugue of rage, as he throws his dagger-arm over his face and then peeks out from over the edge of it. The shadows of the hut have been bleached away entirely by the blinding-white light emanating from the woman who stands in the open doorway.

War-witches are not Aijehere. Nobody is sure who their people are, or were, or even if they constitute a people at all. They serve the Aijehere, just as they served the now-fallen Teimejere before them, for their allegiance is to power and gold. Other witches shun them, not just as mercenaries but for practicing evil arts that all Five Covenants forbid.

It is then that Habro realizes the Aijehere has fallen silent and still.

The dead man’s cock slips from Habro’s trembling left hand, the dagger from his right. He gapes at the war-witch, fascinated despite his terror. He’s never seen one in person, only the eerie white death-light they can cast for miles and miles. It glows through her flesh, through white robes that have remained pristine throughout the muck and gore of battle. She is neither the haggard fright nor the alluring beauty that all woman war-witches are in the wonder-tales. Were she a mortal woman, he thinks, she would be undistinguished in every way but for the solid milk-white of her eyes.

So you have defiled the body of an Aijehere hero, little silver one?

It does not occur to him to lie, not to a war-witch who has caught him, quite literally, red handed. Though he still trembles in fear, he rises slowly, displaying his open palms, and speaks as calmly as he can: Your “heroes” have slain my master and all or nearly all my kin, my lady. Save my beloved elder sister, whom they carried off as their prize. And this one boasted that I would share her fate.

The witch’s mouth pulls in an unpleasant way that, on a mortal woman, would have been termed a wry smile. That is the way of war, little Habro. The Aijehere have triumphed over the Fainamere, as they have over so many other peoples. Any Fainamere who live must bend the knee to them… in any way they demand.

Though he is still afraid, tendrils of Habro’s anger creep back into his belly. He looks into those orbs burnt to scars by the death-light and replies, I will never bend my knee, my lady. I will die here on my feet, next to my fallen master. I say to you that you can bring the body of your “hero” back to the Aijehere and tell them who killed and unmanned him.

The war-witch begins to laugh. It is a horrible laugh, like the grinding of metal, but it is recognizably laughter. So bold, thou art. And so hateful. I feel a kinship with one who hates as thou dost. So I will not kill thee, Habro, nor will I clap thee into irons. I will instead grant thee, and what is left of thy people, a two-edged boon.

Habro’s throat closes. He knows all about two-edged boons; the wonder-tales are full of them. But usually the boon is asked, not granted on a whim. He waits, and when it is clear to the war-witch that he will not ask her, she says, I grant whatever Fainamere remain the gift of long, long life.

He stares at her. My lady?

Many mortal lifespans to each of you who has not yet grown old, your vigor peaking and abating over the course of them altogether as vigor does over any lifespan. You may aye be rent asunder by a sword or your skulls crushed by a club, but illness shall touch none of you until the very end of your days. Thou, Habro, wilt see many rulers rise and fall, many more folk in irons and collars, many villages and cities burnt to the ground or emptied by pestilence. Wilt learn much from these sorrowful sights. And if comest to love any who are not Fainamere, wilt lay them in the earth or upon the pyre, they sere and frail while mayest still be in thy prime.

Habro does not reply, not right away. He stands staring at the war-witch, even though it is insolent, even though her mortal sight has been replaced by one far more acute and multi-faceted. She gives him that crooked not-smile again. Then she steps into the hut. Shift thyself, boy, she says brusquely. Habro obeys with alacrity, huddling up against the cold hearth.

The war-witch drops to one knee before the dead Aijehere, takes up his severed cock in one hand, and begins to mutter under her breath. Though this land brims with various peoples and their tongues, not one word in the incantation is the least bit familiar to Habro. He does not linger on this thought, however, for the witch’s hand lies open — and the Aijehere’s loins have been made whole again. No wound is apparent, only unmarred, if now pallid, golden skin under a thicket of dark-yellow curls. The blood has been cleansed from between his legs, although the witch has not mended the mostly clotted slash beneath his chin. Habro understands: one wound is honorable, the other not.

It is none of his business, but the question bursts from Habro nonetheless: You can mend … what I did to him. But you can’t bring him back to life, my lady?

The abruptness with which she swings her head around intimates that she’d forgotten he was there at all. He shrinks against the bricks, wondering if he’ll pay for that question. But she merely says, softly, There are some things even war-witches cannot do, Habro. It would be a very different world if we could.

He is not sure he believes her. There are rumors that the war-witches’ evil arts include the restoration of the dead to a grotesque parody of life. But he is not so stupid as to demand the truth of her; he only gulps and nods. She turns back to the corpse and hoists it upon her shoulder as if it weighed no more than a bolt of cloth, and as she rises again she sheathes the Aijehere’s sword in a belt beneath her robes.

Mayest salvage what canst of thy master’s tools before I fire this hut, she says matter-of-factly, as if they were discussing animal husbandry or the weather, looking while not-looking in Habro’s direction. And his body, if wishest to bury it.

I do not, my lady. He’d planned to burn the hut down around Deiedo on his own.

Well and good, then. I shall give thee ‘til the sun touches the tree-tops to the west. Wilt have no other warning. Farewell, little Habro, and mayest thou have a most interesting life.

As always, he awakens in the here and now upon those words, his heart pounding and his forehead moist with sweat. As always, he ponders that her wish for him has come true. How could it have not?

****

The war-witch was not the last soul to ever call him by his true given name. But no one has spoken it to him in centuries except for her, in his nightmares.

Not long after the triumph of the Aijehere, the tattered remnants of the Fainamere fled to an unpeopled mountain in Porcharn. There, they would have to scrabble for sustenance, but never were they attacked again, and they thrived as much as their new milieu would permit. The chronology of their original homeland from that point until it became Estelveriär is spotty, given the great remove of time and the scarcity of that age’s written records. But, in brief, the Aijehere were eventually trampled by the allied Lemothere and Teimejere, who in time became a unified tribe. They were later driven out by the Groczh, who were in turn conquered by the Cemanveriëisei. And finally there came the Estelveriëisei, far more powerful than the rest of them combined, who gave the land its current name.

There are still many Estelveriëisei with Cemanveriëisei blood, and not a few with Groczhi blood. Very likely, quite a few descend at least in part from older rootstocks. But the names of those rootstocks, Lemothere and Teimejere and — it pleases Habro to the depths of his soul to know — Aijehere, have been naught but dry, lifeless words in scholars’ scrolls and books for more than fifteen hundred years.

Habro himself did not flee to Porcharn, guessing that at the top of a remote mountain there would be little need for silversmithry. He fled instead to the capitol of the elven empire, fabled to be piled with untold riches, its halls thronging with lords and ladies ever in need of ornamentation and with the purses to obtain it.

When he arrived in the Elflands, Cetho had already united the lands of Thu-Cethor, Thu-Athamar, and Thu-Tetar into a single polity beneath it a millennium before, officially ending the mist-shrouded, blood-soaked time known as the Age of Kings. But those three former nations had continued to seethe beneath the imperial yoke, throwing up a challenger for the Ivory Throne at least once every two years. Contrary to today’s history books, the Belthelemeise “dynasty” was but a continuation of what Habro has always thought should be called the Age of Petty Lordlings. The Belthelemas — and there were far more than the eleven acknowledged and named by historians — were no blood dynasty. They hailed from noble houses all over the three lands with any possible claim to the throne, no matter how tenuous or fictive, and enough gold and sway to raise a force with which to take it. Each pushed his predecessor off the throne and into the Nevennamire, and eventually onto the executioner’s block, before he was so pushed in turn. His kin and his allies not infrequently joined him in dungeon and in death.

After Habro had completed his apprenticeship and his journeyman service in the employ of a lesser court silversmith, the old imperial sealmaker retired, naming his long-time assistant Razhona as his successor. When Dachensol Razhona put out a call for a new assistant, Habro strove for and gained the post, despite his having earned the right to hang up his own shingle and take on his own apprentices according to the by-laws of the Silversmiths’ Guild. In that post, and later as Razhona’s own successor, he would make or help make signets for more than half the Belthelemeisei.

The Belthelemeisei, he muttered one afternoon in the workroom as he swept the floor. It was not the cavernous display vault that the court regarded as the imperial sealmaker’s “workroom,” but a broad, filthy chamber reeking of hot metal and acid; the afternoon sun pouring into its great skylight and wide southern window would often, and still does, set the haze of smoke and dust within it aglow. More like the elven branch of the Aijehere they are, yes? Except even more of them conceived on the wrong side of the blanket.

He winced, then, as short but sharp fingernails dug into his jaw and yanked his head upward. Dachensol Razhona was looking down at him, heavily beringèd ears flat to his head, dark-green eyes hard and cold as slate under thick, snowy brows. Have we not told thee since the day began’st with us, Dachensol Razhona said in a voice to match his eyes, that there are no partisans in our workroom?

Habro swallowed hard. Dachensol Razhona only ever addressed him in the informal when he was angry. He did not anger often. I pray you forgive me, Dachensol. You must know I would never say such a thing if there were any but yourself and myself about—

Canst be sure of that, Habrobar? How many years hast been at court all told, now?

Habro felt his face heat. Ten years, Dachensol.

Ten years, and thou’rt a man full-grown now. For some definitions of “full-grown,” anyway. Yet still think’st no one could be listening at the windows, or lurking at the door? Dost not know yet the value of rumor at court, that many will take great risks to be the first to repeat it? Dost not yet know that a misplaced word could cost thee thy head — and especially in so precarious a time?

He had, in sooth, known. But his scorn burned bright in those days, as the war-witch had said, and he was young and foolish. It would take age and experience to burnish these things away, as a metal rod burnishes dross from a ring.

****

Ten years was, however, more than long enough for him to begin answering to “Habrobar” without thinking twice. The elves, with few exceptions, are notorious for mangling the tongues of foreigners, which is uncommendable in and of itself but even more so in such a slowly spoken race. Within six months of his arrival in Cetho he had stopped trying to explain how Fainamere kin-names worked, stopped trying to explain that, no, he did not bear a woman’s name. If asked why he did not have a given as well as a family name, he’d shrug and lie: It is an ill-omened name; we do not like it, and so we do not use it.

But to this day, in his missives to the Fainamere who survived the war and to their progeny, he calls himself “Habro.” His tribesmen are mostly unlettered, but the merchants and couriers who pass within a day’s ride of their mountain can be paid a few coins extra to read letters aloud. A few can be paid a little more to write down a letter for one who cannot, and then to carry it at least part of the way to Cetho.

At first Habro dictated the letters to one of the cheaper scribes on the fringes of court, then rolled them up and pressed his signet bearing his silversmith’s mark into the wax. Before long, however, he realized that an unlettered man could not live as well at court as he could have on a mountaintop. He scrimped and saved and took on custom in his off-hours until he could hire a writing tutor, and after a few years he was able to pen a respectably neat letter on his own.

For the body of his letters, he writes in the common script. But he could not resist asking his tutor to show him how to write his name — both his true name and his Ethuverazheise name — in the barzhad of the learnèd, fearsome warrior-spies who strode the echoing stone halls of the ancient Untheileneise Court. And it is in the barzhad that he signs his letters HABRO BE’ARVO. As his fortunes have grown, he has from time to time accompanied the letter with a wooden box that holds earrings or a little dagger or a figurine of the Moonfather. If a piece is large enough, the barzhad for his name can be found etched into the back of it.

He has never stopped writing to his tribesmen, even when the only response was decades of silence. He still has two man-cousins who remember the Aijehere bitterly. The other survivors, to most of whom he is not direct kin, include some men who escaped Aijehere thralldom. No Fainamere woman ever did; the Aijehere kept their womenfolk, “free” or enthralled, extremely close confined. Habro has always tried not to wonder overmuch whether Aelena strove for her freedom and was slain for it, or whether the children she unwillingly bore the Aijehere who seized her were as much of a fetter to the man as any iron ring. It took him many, many centuries to come to hope she was able to find some joy in her lot, even if it meant allowing the enemy into her heart.

Habro has not met and, he knows, will never meet most living Fainamere. In his long, long youth he contemplated visiting their mountain from time to time, but each time he’d acknowledge ruefully that court life had left him too soft: he’d not be able to stomach the rigors of either the journey or the stay. And then, ever so slowly, his constitution has ceased to permit such a visit, his will regardless.

He has known one other Fainamere, or rather half-Fainamere, in his exile: a fine man who lived to what any but his paternal kin would consider a ripe old age. As much as he loved and was proud of his son, however, Habro has sometimes harbored the shameful wish that he had remained content with being the sole member of his kind in the Elflands.

****

Serenity. The word echoes up from the chill floor of the display room where Habro lies prostrate, as if he prays in an othasmere. The room is a veritable cavern, hewn of age- and soot-stained stone some unknown century in the Age of Kings, and the spoken word reverberates off the great vaulted ceiling and off the walls between the massifs of the wooden cabinets with their infinite tiny drawers. And Your Highness.

Rise, Dachensol, says the erstwhile Prince of the Court, Caranta Drazhar, now Beltanthiar, fourth of that name. High up on the walls are candle sconces that are lit with very long torches; they are cupped in thick glass to protect the cabinets from flame and soot. Their uneven light flickers eerily across the emperor’s fine features and those of his son.

Habro is now well into his second millennium, and over most of the last century the energy and loose-limbedness of youth have begun to leach from him. Yet still he gets easily to his feet from the hard, cold floor, with no protests from his bones or joints. It helps that he is continually up and down the ladder that stands in the corner, a breathtakingly high and deceptively fragile-looking iron contraption on wheels. He is glad he does not fear heights.

The Prince — the Emperor now — is as handsome as his father was. Though he is only three-and-thirty, dark swaths stretch beneath his pale eyes. Drazhadeise eyes, Habro has come to recognize them as. Though the fourth Beltanthiar is the one hundred fourteenth emperor of the Ethuveraz, he is only the thirteenth to spring from the Drazh. Habro is cautiously impressed with this young house; since their relatively bloodless coup not quite three centuries before, the Age of Petty Lordlings seems to have ground to a halt. Of course, there was the unpleasantness of a few months ago, but that came from a very different corner of the playing-board. Habro wonders if the Athmaz’are has its its own version of the Chant of Obliteration, which the Five Covenants would perform to sever their spiritual bond with a witch who took the path of darkness.

Only the pearl buttons that fasten it relieve the ink-black of the emperor’s cloak. Beneath it, his silken hose and his fine leather boots are no less dark. His white braids are wound with strings that alternate pearls with onyx beads and pinned to his head with onyx tashin sticks; his silver rings are set with the dark, clouded gems known as stormstones; and a silver torc inlaid with moonstone and onyx sits about his throat. Imperial mourning flatters him, in a severe way.

Behind him stand his First Nohecharei, their right upper arms banded in black. Captain Hular is thirty and stone-faced. Baizha Athmaza looks all of seventeen and, although his expression meets courtly standards for placid neutrality, no less woebegone than his master. Habro does not wonder at either man’s mien.

And to the emperor’s side stands the eldest current Prince of the Court, Herenis Drazhar, who recently celebrated his thirteenth birthday with much ado. His own cloak and hose are conifer green, the former slashed with black and white and fastened with white frogs sewn to evoke the barzhad. His boots are black; his own braids are set with pearl and amber. With eyes like his father’s and grandfather’s he takes in the display room, his fascination and excitement muted to acceptable levels by his breeding.

Although they are a shade too light, his eyes, Habro thinks with a wholly expected pang, are not very dissimilar from Deieda’s.

We would like to profess to you our most profound condolences upon the death of your father, Serenity, and your grandfather, Your Highness, the late Beltanthiar Zhas, he says. The sentiment is sincere on his part, although the pang makes it ring truer.

We thank you, Dachensol, the current Beltanthiar says, and for the barest moment his eyes are wells of deep sadness.

Yes, thank you, Dachensol, Prince Herenis echoes in a hushed tone.

Then the emperor’s countenance smooths. We, he says in the plural, are here that His Highness may select his own signet. For although he will not be a man for another three years and hence does not wear full formal mourning for his grandfather, the prince is no longer a michen.

Of course, Serenity, Habro says. He opens the lid of the display box on the central table. Within gleam three dozen signets, some preceding the rise of the Drazhada. It is both sweet and bitter to see the young prince’s eyes widen for the brief moment before he checks himself.

The sign of the ruling house is the common cat: nimble, sly, gracile, fierce, protector of crops from pests and of men from pestilence. As Habro lifts each type out from the tiny padded well into which his assistant placed it last night and sets it on the table’s polished surface, he names the emperor or empress, archduke or archduchess, or lesser scion of House Drazhada who commissioned it. Their collected signets display cats couchant, cats rampant, pouncing, sleeping, snarling, staring up at the moon, doing many catlike things and many uncatlike things.

He must refrain from biting his lip when he comes to the type upon which a white cat curls about a black one. Emperor and prince are both well bred enough to keep their faces and their ears schooled, but their sudden silence and the involuntary tightness about their mouths are eloquent.

We … do not think we will choose that one, the prince says very quietly.

Indeed, we do not think it meet for thee, his father says, clipping off his words.

Serenity, Your Highness, Habro murmurs, placing the signet of Beltanthiar III back into the well to which it was only very recently returned.

Is it a signet of ill omen, now? He cannot say, and perhaps it is not for him to say. The rule of the emperor who has just died — of a broken heart, it is said — was a fair and prosperous one. But the prelacy, or at least some of it, takes a different measure of the man. It has been preached in distant corners of the three lands that the gods sent Orava to purify the Untheileneise Court of marneise corruption — the unholy liaison of elven emperor and goblin maza-nohecharis. Habro has never understood this proscription; the Moonfather does not forbid men to lie with men, so long as enough children are begotten. But Beltanthiar did not follow the Moonfather, and neither do his children and grandchildren.

The late emperor, too, selected his signet at the age of thirteen, long before he ever met Hanevis Athmaza. The man whose gentle nature and love of beauty cloaked a core of steel and a keen mind was already surfacing in the boy: he was drawn to the entwined cats for the exquisite design and for the symbolism of devotion. His pale-grey eyes were the first Drazhadeise eyes to stir melancholy in Habro’s breast: Deieda’s third century was then coming to a close, and he had begun to walk gingerly with cane in hand. Yet Habro, a thousand and more years of life behind him, still strode the earth with the vigor of a man in his prime.

How were he and Nevu to have known at Deieda’s birth that while a half-Fainamere child will long, long outlive the parent without that lineage, his Fainamere parent is fated to bury him? The letters from Porcharn never mentioned such things, although the remnants of their people came to their mountaintop in such small numbers, he cannot imagine they have survived so long with no fresh blood. Did the war-witch know, when she gave them the boon unasked? Habro wonders if she and her fellows live still, serving Estelveriär in secret, despite the Estelveriëisei having boasted of cleansing the last of them from the earth. He never wanted to see her again until Deieda began to wizen and his step to falter; once Deieda lay in his crypt alongside Nevu, Habro began to wish he could see her just once more, to ask her. Whether she answers or not. Even if she answers his impudence this time by striking him dead.

In the display room now, he takes out the signet of a cat whose teeth grip the hilt of a wickedly sharp dagger. He is about to name the original owner when Prince Herenis catches his breath. Habro holds his tongue as the boy’s forefinger with its long, lacquered nail brushes against the intaglio. Papa, he says in eerily measured tones for one his age, we think we would like this one.

Dost know whose signet that was, Herenis? the emperor asks, and though he does not speak sternly it is obvious he is testing his son.

We do, Papa. Beldrenemar, first of that name, who founded the Drazhadeise Dynasty.

Well done, Beltanthiar says, and his glinting hand comes to rest on the prince’s shoulder. A muted smile plays briefly at the corners of the prince’s lips, and then it is gone.

It is a very fine signet indeed, Your Highness, Habro agrees. A fierce hunter with a fierce weapon. An excellent choice for a vigorous young man from a vigorous young house.

“Young”? Beltanthiar asks with a note of irony. House Drazhada was founded a thousand years ago, and we have ruled the Ethuveraz for nearly the last three hundred thereof.

Ah, well, Serenity, we are of a long-lived people, and we ourself are slightly more than a thousand years old. As you can see, we are still relatively young and vigorous, yes? And therefore, so must be your house, and we have great hope we will witness many more centuries and perhaps millennia of its rule.

Beltanthiar almost, but does not quite, laugh. It heartens Habro to see the crinkles about his eyes offsetting the dark patches beneath, the quirk of his full lips despite the frown-lines that bracket them. We are grateful that you have given us this prospect to contemplate, Dachensol Habrobar, and we hope indeed you will live to bear such witness.

****

Habro’s wont in the evenings is to bathe, dress for bed, spill a few drops of wine and set a crust of good bread upon the little silver shrine in the corner of his bedchamber, and pray to the Moonfather before he goes to sleep. He smithed the shrine himself, studding it with moonstones and stormstones, perhaps half a century after arriving at court. From time to time a housekeeper has admired his “shrine to Ulis.” He has never corrected such an impression. Some archprelates have been lax in their propagation of the elvish faith; others, decidedly not.

In the mornings, if the weather is warm or if he is to see a patron that day, he washes again briefly with basin, towel, and soap. He shivers as he does so now, and he wonders for the ten thousandth time why Edrethelema, third of that name, had never considered installing hypocausts in his grand creation. The Cemanveriëisei, let alone the Estelveriëisei, had had them for a thousand years before Edrethelema drew up his designs for the new court. And, for the ten thousandth time, he supposes that it is in the nature of a war-commander to place efficiency over comfort. And in the nature of the elves to scorn the accomplishments of other peoples unless they can claim them as their own.

****

Merrem Tevaran has sent us to help you move, Dachensol, the burly young foreman says cheerfully in the plural. There are a dozen others standing behind him, all likewise tall and broad-shouldered, wearing court devices and affable smiles. The doorway dwarfs them all. Have all the drawers been locked?

Habro nods; the tiny key on its narrow ribbon is cool against his breast under his linen shirt. They have. We will get out of your way.

He walks past them, rather more stiffly than he used to walk, and exits into brilliant noon sunshine, which makes him squint. Behind the men are several great wheeled pallets piled with thick cotton canvases and long ropes. He watches as four of them pull the first one into the display room. With the sun in his eyes he can barely see them moving about in the gloom within, but the foreman’s barked orders — one, two, three, up! — echo off the interior. So do the men’s grunts and groans, the creaking of the wood as the first cabinet clears the floor, the muffled thud of it upon the pallet. The din grows ever deeper and louder as each canvas-draped cabinet is wheeled out, leaving more and more stone wall revealed.

We’ll have to come back for the rest, Dachensol, the foreman says. Only so many pallets.

We understand, Habro says. We do not wish to be in your way, so we shall absent ourselves for a while. We will be in our other workroom, should you or anyone else require our presence. Please do ask Merrem Tevaran to send us a message when everything is settled, yes?

His other workroom is the same bright, hot, reeking chamber he used to sweep for Dachensol Razhona. Though twenty-five hundred years of serving the highborn have polished his manner to diamond smoothness, he will never feel at home in the display room as he does in this room. The smells of solder, ash, and acid bring back painfully sweet flashes of memory to him. Dachensol Razhona. His previous master, on the fringes of the court. Deiedo, his son’s valiant namesake. And several dozen apprentices, each initially as young and as headstrong as Habro had been.

No new signets have been commissioned of late, which is just as well, given that his display room is in transit and all the types locked up. He works instead on finely chasing the dagger that he will present to Edrelethema, fourth of that name, at the emperor’s birthday feast in two weeks. As he always has, he loses himself to the rhythms of his labor; they are his balm, and he thanks the Moonfather that this is so. For too many men, balm is found in a bottle of metheglin or wine, or in the throw of the dice, or in ill-chosen beds.

He sings a little, too, as he works. He could never carry a tune very well, but he sings only for himself and the Moonfather so it matters not. He sings a satirical tune, “Brave Belmaliven,” that used to send Belmaliven the Child-Slayer into vein-bursting crimson rage and eventually cost the satirist his head. He sings a pretty and complex air about roses and lilies that has been popular at court the last several months. He sings a ballad of Edrevenivar the Conqueror that he knows to be full of outrageously untrue flattery, for while Edrevenivar was a powerful general who brought two vast new provinces into the empire, he was also a crude, vicious bully who beat his pages, kicked his dogs, and once drunkenly shat on the floor of the Untheileneise’meire and then told the nonplussed archprelate, Behold our fucking offering. He sings what used to be a marching song of the Untheileneise Guard and has evolved into a cheerful tavern song, although he does not sing the obscene verses and he changes some of the scabrous words in the verses he does sing. He sings a mournful Fainamere lullaby that he taught Nevu when Deieda was in the cradle; he can hear her singing along with him in his mind’s ear, and he wonders whether it is still sung in Porcharn.

The next day, after receiving a note from Merrem Tevaran, he inspects his new display room, the cabinets arranged within it in the order he requested. It is even vaster than the old one. It is also quite chill, despite the rapid approach of summer. But the walls are plaster, not stone, and the vault is not a freestanding edifice but enclosed within the new construction that has begun to accrue about the ancient nucleus of the old court. He hopes that it is not as frigid in the winter as the display room he has just vacated.

It was built during the second round of new construction. The Alcethmeret was built out first, of course, with its own kitchen, its servants’ quarters, and the sundry other utilitarian spaces necessary to its smooth running. His Serenity not being in immediate need of signet services, the creation of Habro’s new display room was delayed. So was that of Dachensol Para’s atélier. The courtiers were scandalized. The imperial edocharei despaired. The emperor himself shrugged and said, We are realizing our father’s dream. We will do so in the same plain tabard and hose for a year if the gods demand it.

On a warm evening two weeks later, Habro approaches the Ivory Throne with permission, prostrates himself before it, and, slowly, rises to his aching knees. Serenity, he murmurs, ignoring the stab of pain in his lower back; the floor of the Untheileian seems to grow harder and colder every year.

Rise, Dachensol Habrobar, comes the bass-voiced command. We see you have something for us?

Edrethelema, fourth of that name, takes more after his Tethimadeise dam than his Drazhadeise sire. His face is handsome after a broad fashion, his eyes midnight blue; he is broad through the chest as well as the shoulders. Though his beringèd hands are clean and smooth, their nails well kempt, Habro could easily imagine him carrying wooden beams on his shoulder through the worksite on which his father’s architectural plans have begun to be realized.

We do, Serenity. The dagger is wrapped in multiple layers of blue silk and bound with a broad white ribbon, which is permissible for a gift to a member of the imperial household. Though the silk conceals its shape as well as blunts its blade, Habro is careful to hand it to Edrethelema hilt first.

The emperor unwraps it, then exclaims over it in genuine appreciation to vigorous applause, even a few shouts of Dachensol Habrobar!, from the courtiers all around. Habrobar turns and half-bows in the direction of each shout.

Edrethelema is a well-bred man, there’s no question of that, but he is also a bluntly spoken man of practical tastes, one who prefers his mother’s family’s rude hunting lodge in Thu-Athamar to the luxuries of court. The dagger is lavishly wrought, as befits an imperial hand, and this is what matters most to the courtiers. It is also quite deadly. The latter, Habro knows, what matters most to Edrethelema. And, for all the effort Habro put into the ornamentation, this fact endears the current emperor to him far beyond nearly all the others he has served.

****

After he washes up in the morning, he dabs his body with a solid perfume made of sage, verashme, and zinc. An old recipe, seldom used anymore. With relief he pulls heavy woolen undergarments, then loose but finely made woolen shirt and trousers that were last popular during Varevesena’s reign, over his shivering bones. He is grateful that nobody expects a very old man of curious lineage to conform to the height of tight-nipped fashion. If he thought it would not look too strange he’d don heavy Belveseneise robes over his undergarments.

“Dachensol, did you hear the news?” Merrem Shenaran asks him breathlessly this morning as he seats himself at the little table in the kitchen. He has no dining room in his suite; as he seldom entertains and then no more than one or two guests at a time, he sees no purpose in devoting a large, drafty room to a long table at which he would eat alone. “About the Winternight Ball?” Her blue eyes are enormous, her ears halfway back.

The fine hairs on Habro’s nape rise. Had he not had the dream again, he’d assume the news was something along the lines of, Dach’osmin So-and-So made a scene at the ball last night, calling out Dach’osmer Such-and-Such in front of his dach’osmerrem for ruining the dach’osmin, and her father Dach’osmer So-and-So challenged Dach’osmer Such-and-Such to a duel, and Dach’osmerrem Such-and-Such fainted. These things are known to happen at imperial balls. But he had the dream, so whatever happened must have been of greater import. “No?” he asks.

“The emperor was attacked! On the Ivory Throne!” his housekeeper cries, her fists clenching at her sides. “Dach’osmer Eshevis Tethimar tried to stab him! But his First Nohecharei saved him and killed the dach’osmer!” She shivers. “It was horrible! The maza-nohecharis, we don’t recall his name, called down a revethmaz! Dach’osmer Tethimar was lying dead on the Untheileian floor! And Lieutenant Beshelar — that’s the soldier-nohecharis, the tall and handsome one —” Habro does not attempt to interrupt her to say he knows who Lieutenant Beshelar is — “leapt into His Serenity’s lap and took the wound to his arm! So brave of him!”

“It is what nohecharei are trained to do, yes?” Habro says with a blandness he does not feel. His heart pounds for the gentle young emperor and the fate he’s narrowly escaped — twice, in fact, in a few short months.

“Well, yes, Dachensol, but — still! It’s so brave!” Her voice wobbles a little, and her eyes mist.

Habro, who personally knew Hanevis Athmaza, reminds himself to be charitable. “Yes, merrem, we agree that it is no small thing to thrust oneself into harm’s way to protect another.”

He does not ask or even wonder to himself why Dach’osmer Tethimar would have done such a thing. Edrehasivar thwarted the dach’osmer’s plans to marry the Archduchess, the bridge he wishes to build would gravely undermine the labor supply for the silk factories of the east, and, well, Eshevis Tethimar was not quite sane. Habro has heard some of the more … outlandish stories from Merrem Esaran and Captain Volsharezh, who hear them from their subordinates. Their predecessors heard stories of Duke Tethimel’s debauchery, but the son began to surpass the father in wickedness at a shockingly early age. Both men’s misdeeds were hardly unprecedented; those with very few limits to their power will abuse it horrifically. But Eshevis Tethimar’s were sordid even by the low standards of Ethuverazheise nobility.

“And it wasn’t just Dach’osmer Tethimar — it was a conspiracy, Dachensol!” Merrem Shenaran exclaims. She has the ferrety features of an elvish noble, with an overbite to complete the picture; Habro has always assumed she’s a courtier’s by-blow. “Duke Tethimel was a part of it, no less! And Dach’osmer Ubezhar, and Count Solichel, and we don’t know who else.”

“Oh, dear,” Habro says. “That is quite sobering to hear. We wonder what will happen to House Tethimada.”

Extirpation, perhaps? No noble house has been extirpated in centuries. Millennia, really; the practice slowed down greatly once the Age of Petty Lordlings ground to a halt and vanished during the first millennium of Drazhadeise reign. (Now, one could look at the extinction of a certain house half a millennium ago and call it an extirpation, but the death of its very last member obviated any need for formal action on the part of the emperor — notwithstanding that the individual died at the emperor’s command — and to Habro’s thinking it therefore does not count.) He makes a mental note to set aside a drawer for Tethimadeise signets, possibly Ubezhadeise and Solichadeise signets too. While it is entirely within an emperor’s rights to order traitors’ signets to be melted down, custom dictates that they be discreetly preserved within the vault. There is a practical reason behind it: the head of a newly ennobled or newly prosperous house is always anxious not to choose a signet of ill omen, especially not one that might anger the ruling house.

“Something quite severe, we should hope!” the housekeeper exclaims in indignation. “His Serenity is such a nice young man. We’ve heard only good things about him. He’s polite to his servants, even!” She shakes her head, and Habro wonders whether she is more baffled by Edrehasivar’s courtesy to servants or by anyone wanting to harm such a man. In sooth, he thinks the former is far more remarkable.

The samovar on the counter has begun to rumble in earnest. It is not nearly as grand as the one in the Alcethmeret, a gift to one of the earlier Edrevechelars, but it is more than half a millennium older and has never once failed. A Branerezh. A fine apprentice was Branerezh, who learned well from Habro and several other masters; an even finer artisan in his own right, lauded in many lands for a long time after his death. A good man, too, charitable in his prosperous old age. Habro doubts any outside the universities would know his name by now. Merrem Shenaran, shifting neatly from personal outrage to professional efficiency, takes down the teapot from atop the samovar. “May we pour for you, Dachensol?”

Habro gave up two dozen housekeepers ago on discouraging the asking of the question. She is just doing her job: all the world round, Ethuveraz is a byword for a fussy formality with a ridiculous number of layers to it, and nowhere so much as at the Untheileneise Court. But as long as Habro’s hands remain steady enough for him to make signets, he will pour his own tea. “Just set the pot down for us, please.”

“Of course, Dachensol.”

The tea is perfect: hot, strong, and sweet. Goblin tea, most elves think of it as. Of course, the Barizheisei are only the northernmost people who drink it as a staple, and it was grown far south of them long before they rode into their current lands and gave them their name. With it Habro washes down with one soft-boiled egg on one piece of toast. His luncheon will be somewhat more substantial, but he has not eaten much in the mornings for several centuries now.

Mentally he reviews his schedule for the day. Oftentimes he has no appointments at all and blissfully spends the day’s entirety with his saws and snips and solder and solutions. Today he will receive one Osmin Lahenin in his vault. The Lahenada are a minor house of Thu-Athamar who have improved their declining fortunes by dabbling in businesses other than silk, though of course through two or three layers of intermediaries. Their sign is the wild boar. Not a creature he imagines that one newly come to womanhood would wish to choose as her signet. On the other hand, the weight of tradition has its own power. None better might grasp this than the daughter of a lesser house that has condescended to involve itself in the trades.

He hopes she chooses better than another young woman did.

****

Dach’osmin Lisethu Pevennin reminds him, in some ways, of the war-witch. No great beauty, she: the Pevennada were always a plain-favored house. She is markedly taller than Habro is — most women are — but not unusually tall for her sex, although she is broad through the shoulders. Her piercing eye, her conqueror’s stride, and her clarion voice mark her as Pevennada, even though she is but a week past her sixteenth birthday. No signet Habro could fashion for her would better attest to her bloodline.

Her gown is well-made, but it is as plain as her face, and in the fashion of nearly half a century ago. Of course, the Pevennada flourish no longer in either progeny or gold, thanks to their centuries-long feud with the Drazhada; the lack of the latter is why the dach’osmin is only now being fitted for her first signet, rather than three years ago. She is the last of her line, the only child of a mother who died in childbed and a brotherless father who died last year of an apoplexy. By law and custom she cannot be declared Viscount, or even Viscountess, Pevennel. Yet her late father and his solicitors contrived somehow to keep the minimal family lands in her power. Habro wonders that the current Edrelethema permitted it, although perhaps he did so out of nothing more than pity for the girl. The Moonfather knows, between her plainness and her penury she does not have a broad choice of suitors.

Dach’osmin, he says, bowing and straightening as his voice echoes. The workroom is still brand-new to him, only about twenty-five years old. How can we serve you?

We are here to choose our signet, Dachensol Habrobar, Dach’osmin Pevennin says, her words sharp and crisp.

Of course, Dach’osmin. You wish to choose a variant on your family’s sign, yes?

Yes, please.

Habro does not blink at the please; sometimes, the elves actually are polite to their inferiors. Having assumed she would answer his question in the affirmative, he opens the ornate display box on the table. Within gleam a dozen signets, set into their padded wells by Habro’s current apprentice. Although the styles are all quite different, the intaglio of each bears the image of a swan.

Dach’osmin Pevennin’s pale gimlet eye rakes over each ring. Habro, as he often does when a patron is browsing his wares, makes a silent wager with himself as to which one she will choose. He dismisses the intaglio that shows two swans, cob and pen, with their necks intertwined to signify lifelong devotion. So, too, does he doubt she will choose that of a mother swan drawing her wings over a cygnet on either side of her, or another mother swan passing a bit of food in her beak to one of her chicks. The very delicate rendering of a swan in a diamond tiara? Possibly, but he does not think it quite suits the dach’osmin. More importantly, a tiara is for a lady of much higher rank than the daughter of a viscount, and an impoverished viscount at that. Surely she would not presume…?

By process of elimination he decides she will choose the signet on which the swan’s neck is curved and its wings flaring as if to attack. He stifles his surprise when, indeed, she lifts out the one with the becrownèd swan and holds it before her.

This one, she says, and there is not a note of doubt in her voice.

Rumors of all sorts have always permeated the Untheileneise Court as foul odors do a hovel. Most turn out to be unfounded, of course, but one does not survive at court for long if one is not attuned to them. With the dach’osmin’s selection, things Habro has heard click together, like the lacquered pieces of a michen-puzzle: – “A host of young Cethoreise men have been seen training in the yards of Castle Pevennee.” – “A new moat has been dug around the castle.” – “It is said that the castellan has been buying large quantities of salt, dried mutton, and wine; and that she has set out twice as many rainbarrels as usual.”

Even in the days when he served Dachensol Razhona, he knew enough not only to hold his tongue but to school his features before a client. Dach’osmin, he says smoothly. If you would permit us to take the measure of your ring finger and of your hand overall?

She proffers her hand as a lord might proffer his booted foot for blacking. Habrobar takes it in his own left hand to steady it, as he favors his right. He has held the signet hand of many a highborn lady, and over the millennia he has perfected his touch: delicate, deferential, but never lingering.

From a hand, one can glean much of its owner. Although edocharei at the Untheileneise Court labor long to assure the seeming flawlessness of all imperial and noble bodies, age takes its toll on all hands, and so do many illnesses and ill habits. Habrobar has held hands that trembled with palsies, hands that were badly crabbed, hands with nails gone white from drink, blood-starved hands tinted blue. There are the unduly thick knuckles that speak of a temper poorly controlled, the tattered flesh about the nail that speaks of anxious compulsion, the bruises and abrasions that speak of ill use at the hands of another.

Habrobar sees none of these things in Dach’osmin Pevennin’s hands. He does see, however, the slight, wavering line that crosses each of her court-long fingernails, imperfectly concealed by the white lacquer. His guess is that she did not naturally grow the lengths outward of those lines, but that they are made of ivory, or perhaps they were grown by another elf who clipped them and sold them. It is possible her own are too brittle to grow much beyond the fingertip before they chip and split.

It is also possible that she prefers to wear her nails short for practical reasons but does not wish to occasion gossip at court. The calluses on her left palm, under her fingers, suggest to Habrobar that the latter is the stronger possibility.

As he tells her in their parting conversation, as he tells all his clients, the making of the ring takes no longer than one week. It is thus one week and one day after their appointment that Dach’osmin Pevennin and her followers strike at the gates of Cetho. And it is only two weeks after that when her head comes to adorn the tallest spike at the city gates, those of her fellow conspirators on the other spikes.

He said nothing of his suspicions to anyone before her rebellion. What was there to report? A girl practicing with a sword on her family’s land? There have always been such girls, even when the mores of the day frown upon them, and for a girl with no menfolk to defend her it is not the worst choice of pastime. The rumors concerning Castle Pevennee had already been in the mill for weeks, if not months, and he very much doubts Edrelethema’s spies had not informed him of them. His Serenity had decided she posed no threat. And, given how little of her enemy’s blood she spilled before she and her men were hunted down, he had not exactly been wrong.

Habro attended the execution, as did all of court. While his absence would not have endangered his life, as it would have during the Age of Petty Lordlings, it would have been taken by many as disloyal to his Serenity, and it would not do to be the subject of gossip. Dach’osmin Pevennin went to the block with the same piercing eye and conqueror’s stride with which she had entered Habro’s workroom.

At the very last moment Habro, who once severed an Aijehere’s penis from his body, looked away. He was far too old to feel any shame for doing so, nor for shuddering at the heavy, wet thunk of a sword sundering flesh and bone to bury itself in wood.

****

He finishes his breakfast and washes his hands well in the lavatory. Then he dons a heavy fur coat and hat as well as fur-lined gloves and boots, and he bids Merrem Shenaran good day. As he passes through the corridors of the Untheileneise Court, he smiles and nods politely at a variety of courtiers, servants, and workmen. Eventually he gains one of the court’s exits, a pair of double doors manned by two very young and very large Untheileneise Guardsmen. They know him by sight, and though their faces are strained with tension and lack of sleep, they open the doors for him with smiling alacrity. The blast of frigid air slices clean through his furs and woolens, but the call of his true workroom warms him against it.

And its long-familiar smells — solder, ash, and acid — mitigate its own chill and its grime. This, more than any other place on earth, is his true home: not the land he and his kin fled, not the mountaintop where the remnants of them live to this day, not his cozy but lonely suite of rooms, and certainly not the lavish vault in which he receives his clients. He recalls the voices of many clients who long ago went to their own moon-god, but the walls of the vault do not ring with them. The walls of this room still ring with Dachensol Razhona’s orders, and with every Yes, Dachensol from every apprentice Habro has ever had, just as it rings with the voices of Deieda and Nevu and Deiedo and Aelena and all the other kin he’s ever known whenever he sings a Fainamere song. It will ring with those voices until the day the Moonfather stretches out his cold silver hand and speaks Habro’s true name.

His current apprentice has the day off. Osmin Lahenin will not make her appearance until after luncheon, and Habro assumes she will be late, as is the wont of courtiers. He spends about fifteen minutes at the desk in the corner, reviewing the week’s requisitions: silver, copper, washing soda, pickle solution, sandpaper, a new escapement file, a new brush to clean it with. Then he takes up a burnishing rod, and he takes up a pair of earrings he has been fashioning for a younger Ormevada son, and as he applies the one to the other he begins to sing.