3k words in this episode + lots of feels.
47k words in total so far.
I’m having a sketch made of Zara, which I hope to post next week, but in terms of progress, I am singularly failing to get ahead of the story, despite planning to be ready to publish when I reach the 3/4 point.
On minor notes, I’ve seen that having ‘standardized’ on metric measurements, I’ve broken the rule and used imperial for the height of people. I could argue it either way I guess. Zara is 172cm, but I’m old-fashioned enough to feel much more comfortable saying five-eight. I also have used Welarvor and Welarvon as the name of the coast.
Where did we leave it last time? Zara feeling neither ‘on’ the team, not exactly dismissed from it. What will she do? What will the conspirators on Newyan do? Is Esterhauze too good to be true? Did the Duchess really commit suicide? What will Rhoswyn think about having Dancing Mistresses around for the summer? Can the young lady be ‘civilized’ in time for the Summer Ball? And what will Zara wear?
Feedback welcome. The beginning of summer has seen a dip in vistors to the blog site, but there are loads of readers who haven’t said anything yet…
I sleep poorly, skimming nightmares where I’m locked in unwinnable battles with untouchable enemies.
Talan, Esterhauze and I had spent the evening together after leaving the Duke. The kitchen in the new suite was well stocked and I’d suggested we make ourselves dinner.
The others agreed, Talan adding it would be a good chance to get to know each other.
I knew more about Talan, but both Esterhauze and I had steered the conversation away from personal information. Instead, we’d talked about the reasoning behind the Duke’s strategy and what we were going to do with Rhoswyn, who was having dinner with her father. She’d be staying in the family’s rooms while her father was at the fort.
I wouldn’t be teaching her riding, given Esterhauze and Talan’s abilities. They’d agreed my plan of using flying lessons as an incentive for academic work. Esterhauze had offered to take the bulk of actual dancing instruction and etiquette in preparation for the Summer Ball, to my relief. I’d taken estate management training. We’d deferred allocating martial arts and more academic work until we could assess what was needed.
A satisfactory exchange on one level, but at the end, I knew almost nothing more about Esterhauze. In fairness, I’d been as reticient as she had.
It wasn’t surprising that worrying about how to deal with the truth about my position was one of the things that kept me from the kind of sleep I needed.
It’s still not dawn when surreptitious footsteps pass my door.
I get up and peer out, just catching the main door to the suite closing. Esterhauze’s bedroom door is open.
She’s probably entitled to be as sleepless as I am. And more entitled to explore Cardu. I’m supposed to have Talan with me at all times as part of the requirements of my ongoing arrest.
I decide I’m not going to wake Talan. I quickly get dressed in what has become my uniform and slip out of the suite to see where Esterhauze is off to this early.
There’s no sign of her in the main halls, dining room or exercise areas, and I soon realize that hunting for someone in the fort is pointless. I simply don’t know the layout well enough and I can’t guess where she might have gone.
I give up, frustrated, when I find myself at the main gate.
There is something I can usefully do while I’m here: the Goddess’ local Shrine is close by and I’m overdue a visit.
The gate is manned, but they haven’t been given orders to stop me. I sign out and tell them where I’m going. They give me instructions to the grove.
The path is easy to find in the growing light of pre-dawn, and it turns out the Lady’s Shrine is no more than an eight minute walk from the gate.
It’s surrounded by trees, as all Shrines are, but whereas the general layout is common, the actual construction itself is left to the local Priestesses, and these Priestesses have been touched by the Goddess; I’ve never seen a more beautiful Shrine.
It is surrounded by well-tended gardens, and a soaring white roof protects the Shrine itself from the elements. That roof is in the shape of a shell—a scallop shell, like a great curved and rippled fan, held up over the Shrine by tall, smooth columns. The Shrine’s sides are open; protected from the wind only by a thick, well-trimmed hedge and the depth of the woods.
Underneath that floating roof, the heart of the Shrine is laid out in rising concentric circles, flagged with polished quartz and warm pastel sandstone. The innermost two circles, comprising the whole nave and the supplicant’s dais, are held within the apse—a three-quarter circular screen wall that is four meters high in the middle and tapers down to hip level at the two ends. The sweep of the apse represents the Goddess’ arms enfolding the congregation. It’s a brilliant white, made of some nanotech material that absorbs sound, so it’s not until I’m nearly at the entrance that I hear the woman inside.
She is in the very middle, on the supplicants’ dais.
The priestesses say supplicants should stand, or sit, or kneel, as suits the heart and mood. The Goddess knows your heart, they say. She knows, and She will hear.
This supplicant is prostrate on the dais, her arms flung out, a heart-jolting image of grief and despair.
I jerk back out of sight, my cheeks burning with shame at intruding on such a profound, private moment.
However, I’m not quite quick enough; I can’t help but overhear a few words.
It shocks me to my core to realize it’s Esterhauze, and she’s sobbing.
“Not for me, Lady. I can ask nothing for me. For her. Let it be as…”
The wall of the apse mutes the sound until the words are unintelligible. I run silently until the tallest section of the apse rises between me and her. Even though it’s over twice my height there, I crouch down, as if to hide. I want to bury my face in my hands, or cover my ears. I can make out no words, but what sound remains carries a sense of overwhelming distress.
I should just leave and return another time. If it was someone else, I would already be half way back to the fort. Hearing her grief is making my stomach churn.
And yet, and yet…what does that beautiful, well-schooled face hide, that she comes here alone and cries out to the Goddess in such pain?
A memory floats up. To be wounded, my Grandfather says, is to give your enemies a way to break you. Offer no weakness; suffer no wound.
I can’t remember what had brought that lecture on, but behind those words, I’d known he was thinking of my parents. Love is an opening, he’d said many times to me. An opening is a weakness.
A tear falls. For me, my family or in sympathy for Esterhauze, I can’t tell.
A minute passes. Two. The Shrine falls silent.
I creep my way along the screen of the apse until I can see that the dais is empty, and I walk inside, glancing around shame-faced, as I do. I’m still alone, but the dawn is close, and the priestesses will be here soon.
The inner wall of the apse bears representations of the Goddess in her many forms. These are paintings, hung and moved and replaced on some rotation devised by the priestesses. There are four paintings showing in the gentle light of night lamps left for that purpose.
I know them well: Bounty, Nuture, Courage and Sorrow.
The dais is round, it faces no one representation of the Goddess, but Esterhauze had lain with her head towards an image of the Goddess in chains.
Our Lady of Sorrows.
I kneel on the dais and stretch out my hand tentatively.
Where her face had rested, I can still feel the wetness of her tears on the stone.
I wipe my hand guiltily. I’m no expert on the higher theological concepts, but I belatedly think the tears form an offering and that makes my touching them a sacrilege.
The Goddess knows your heart.
I sigh, and shuffle until I face Courage, the manifestation of the Lady I believe I most need, but my shame at spying on Esterhauze fights with my growing worries, and I cannot open myself to the presence of the Goddess.
The moment seems to have slipped away from me. I offer up an apology and walk back the way I came, meeting the priestesses as they arrive. They smile and greet me without pressing themselves on me, for which I’m grateful.
Esterhauze is long gone, but there is one other figure present.
It’s Moyle, the trooper who came flying with me. His uniform is protected by coveralls while he kneels in one of the gardens and weeds around the flowers.
It’s clear his presence does not surprise the priestesses, and they make no move to talk to him. His head is bowed, and he doesn’t see me. I can’t be sure from a distance, but there’s a sense of deep sorrow in his posture. A sense that his work is a form of prayer.
There’s a small printed notice on the way out. It acknowledges the gardens were designed, laid out and maintained personally by Duchess Tremayne during her life, and are now kept in her memory. There’s an image of her in the garden. It somehow sums up a feeling I have about the way the people on this coast are—she’s not cutting a ribbon to declare the gardens open, she’s planting flowers; actually making the garden. It’s no token effort either. From the look of the line of sacks behind her, she started the row and intends to finish the whole bed. Her hands are muddy, there’s a streak on her forehead where she’s pushed her hair out of her face, and she’s laughing.
I can see her daughter in her.
I’m reminded that Moyle and Talan went very quiet when I asked about the Duchess’ death. Neither said suicide, even if their own corps’ investigation concluded that.
More secrets and sorrows than mine weave their way through the heart of Cardu, the dark fortress.
Esterhauze is back in the suite, cooking us omlettes for breakfast, clear-eyed and smiling, as if nothing had happened this morning.
Talan is up, looking rumpled and giving me the eye, but she doesn’t take me to task for going out. I’m getting a lot of leeway from her, and I need to be careful. I have a feeling her patience with me will not be stretched beyond a certain point.
“That’s so thoughtful, thank you, Hanna,” I say.
I’m still wary of her, but for some reason, I can’t call her Esterhauze; not after witnessing her grief. It’s the first time I have used her given name.
I’m half turned away, washing the bowl she used for the eggs, and I feel those grey eyes on me.
“It’s my pleasure, Zara,” she replies.
Rhoswyn arrives as we sit down at table. She’s surprised that Hanna has cooked, and that there is some for her. It would seem none of the Dancing Mistresses who’ve preceeded us ever made any kind of effort.
The girl is conflicted. It shows in her expression and the suppression of her natural vivaciousness. That is, along with being typically early-morning teen—grumpy and sleepy. I suspect she’s only here this early because the Duke got her up.
I know what’s going through her mind. Rhoswyn thinks I’m cool because I’m a hardened criminal in her eyes, still under arrest and I can fly. Hanna’s cool because she saved Rhoswyn’s life and is such an excellent rider. And yet, we’re both hated Dancing Mistresses. We hold the threat of a summertime of boredom over her head, not to mention becoming competitors for her father’s affections.
Both Hanna and I see it, but I beat her to suggesting the first step to overcoming it.
“There’s a troopers’ training session this morning,” I say casually. “I’d like us to attend.”
“Why?” Rhoswyn says warily, and blinks. “What kind of training?”
“It’s hand-to-hand combat techniques, and I want to see what style they use.”
Rhoswyn’s eyes narrow suspiciously. The Duke evidentally has not told her that her curriculum is being expanded. I like it that he’s left it to us.
“Your curriculum for the summer will include basic martial arts,” I say, and her eyes widen.
Maybe the poor girl thought we’d tie her to a chair and shout mathematical formulae at her all day.
“And without getting too carried away, I would like to suggest a dance lesson this afternoon,” Hanna says. “Tomorrow, we can all review indoor subjects in the morning, then you could give us a tour of the estate in the afternoon.”
I know she’ll enjoy doing that.
This is perfect. Little by little, we’ll unpick Rhoswyn’s wariness and have her achieving her potential in no time.
I find I’m looking forward to this.
The training session is daunting.
Talan tells me that there is no rule saying that the Welarvor Mounted Police have to be over six foot tall like her and the Duke, but most of them are just that; big, raw-boned men and women.
I’m by no means small at five-eight, but a roomful of large troops is intimidating.
With Rhoswyn and the others right behind me, I can’t let it show, so I perform my bow on entering the dojo, take off my shoes, and then walk the way my old sensei used to walk; like I owned the place.
I’m not in gi, I’m in Danny’s old discards, well washed but still with a faint smell of bale-fruit brandy. The sensei looks me over as I describe what we’re here for and motions me to join the line.
“Best way to find out what we do and how we do it,” he says.
Talan is in her gi, and also takes her place in the line. Rhoswyn and Hanna sit on the side and watch.
I want to spar against Hanna, but maybe that will have to wait.
Also watching from the side is the Duke’s red-haired security advisor, the man who was with us last night on the storm porch and after. Talan’s told me his name is Pollard. He’s new, six months into the job, and a recommendation from some association of estates. Talan doesn’t like him, but I think that might simply be a suspicion about newcomers. Certainly Pollard seems suspicious of the newest newcomers, those being Hanna and me. I’m pretty sure I know who searched through my duffle.
The class starts with loosening up, some strength exercises, some basic forms. It turns out that the sensei is drilling the troops in basic ju-jitsu. It’s a sound foundation. These troops will normally be armed, and the kind of martial arts they need complement that: how to deal with an attacker when you’ve been disarmed, or how to disable an attacker using non-lethal force.
I quickly decide that little of this is useful for Rhoswyn. I have no time to make her into a leaping, kicking warrior either—she just doesn’t have the size and strength yet. And it shouldn’t be what she needs anyway; she should always have help at hand. What she does need is the ability to buy time, to escape from holds, or evade holds. Add in a couple of throws using an opponent’s weight against him and one or two easy disabling kicks.
“Pair off,” the sensei calls.
So what I need to teach Rhoswyn is the core of what Bernard was teaching me while we sparred on the Shohwa—the art of being not there, as I thought of it. Bernard would make a perfect sensei for Rhoswyn, but as I’m the one here, I better practice what I’m going to teach.
My partner grins confidently at me. She’s almost as tall as Talan and looks every bit as strong. I do not want to grapple with her.
She makes to grip me like we were going to practice throws. I have no intention of being used as a dummy, so I slap her hands away and let off a kick and punch combination before stepping back out of the way of her response. We’re not wearing protection, so I held the blows back, not landing them, but she knows I could have in a real fight. She scowls and comes after me. I spin, getting on the outside of her arms and jabbing at her ribs and kidneys as she passes, stopping just short of contact each time.
Three or four minutes later the sensei calls a halt to swap partners.
My opponent is red-faced and angry. What she thought would be an easy sparring session turned out to be anything but, and she probably feels foolish at not being able to close with me.
Then her face clears. She laughs and bows.
“You’re quick,” she says. “Have to teach me those moves,”
“Glad to.” I return the bow.
We change partners. And again. And again. Inevitably, I get caught a couple of times and make the close acquaintance of the mats.
Then it’s the sensei standing opposite me and bowing as my new opponent.
It seems I’ve drawn attention to myself.
Five painful minutes later, we stop sparring.
“Most interesting,” the sensei says after the concluding bow. “We would be honored if you continued to practice with us. These moves are useful.”
Nice of him to say it. Useful, but not perfect against someone as quick as he is.
The session is split up. Gi are supplied for me, Rhoswyn and Hanna. Talan and the sensei join us and discuss my plans and possible training regimes while the rest of the class continues.
Rhoswyn is a bit embarassed at being the center of our attention, but she really likes the idea of training, even when it’s pointed out that it might be early in the morning.
I catch her practicing my I-own-the-room swagger.
“You need to earn that,” I say, and she nods and giggles.
I guess these Dancing Mistresses are turning out more fun than she expected.
Keeping our group separate, we go through some stretching and strengthening exercises, some basic moves, and then, at the end, we take turns sparring with each other.
I can catch her easily, but Rhoswyn’s well suited to the style I’m proposing. She’s quick and slippery as an eel.
Give me six months, I’m thinking, but I haven’t got six months. I wonder if I’ve even got six weeks.