Palace Patronia, of the nine hills and the ten thousand flags; how grand you are. With your pennants fretting in a lazy wind, raise your celebratory colors. Blue and green and gold, no red this day, even rubies are forbidden, and to spill blood would be tantamount to sacrilege. Sweet Petronica, jewel of the fallen, with your empty streets and dust strewn thoroughfares, with your weeds germinating in the fractured pavement, you who are home to hunted eyes. The drudgery of teeming thousands is today set aside. Many of the shops are closed, the clothiers and lapidaries, the butchers and tanneries. The smiths have stilled their bellows and the marketmen swallowed their cries. Not to say that no business is being done; trays and spears of greasy meats and dried fruits are carried among the crowds, and copper bases are exchanged.
The brothels, as always, remain open and inviting.
Today the King, Magal Stronghand Petronus, 73rd to wear the diadem, will give his daughter in formal trothing. Even if the teeming thousands never catch a glimpse of her or him, it is still a holiday.
There are dances and feasts and contests, jongluers and bards perform at every open corner, and naturally, there will be a hundred weddings. It is a promise of good fortune to be wed on the same day as one of the royal line.
In the palace, if the atmosphere is not more festive, it is more fervid. An event of such importance is not, in simple fact, of such importance to those it actually concerns. The binding beneath the shield is ultimately a formality, much as the registry in the royal archives. It is a way to spend the afternoon. But to the servants, whose livelihoods and very lives depend on not spilling anything on the bride, or not burning the cakes, it is a very serious business indeed.
And to one prince.
Ariad Thoughtful paced the upper corridors about his chamber with a phlegmatic air, his forehead high and his brows dangerously arched. His hands clasped opposite forearms behind his back. He muttered to himself.
"Idiots... headless wonders... sparks and ashes..." and so on. He alone among the princes sensed something amiss in all the fanfare. Why, in the names of all the gods, would anyone want to marry Ursula? Not for love or coin, certainly. Ariad was close to the Steward, Minda, and he knew the palace finances to the sliver and shaving. The kingdom had been mismanaged for the last four generations, and the third prince had found no reason in the coffers to murder his way to first. Surely Hamal knew the dowry would be minimal, consisting primarily of the princesses wardrobe. There were a score of better prospects in Petronica for a noble in his position. Hamal carried the blood of two renowned Houses, and he was obviously favored by his adopted family. He could have any jewel in the kingdom, and yet he chose the one that was Unloved. Why?
Ariad Thoughtful suddenly stopped, silhouetted in a window's wide arch, looking down upon his father's city as he looked down upon his father. Now everything made sense. He saw it in the curling banners, and the squirming hoi polloi of the streets. He saw it in the malice of the sky.
Ariad Thoughtful ran a hand along the fine fabric of his vest, smoothing it, and caressed the ornate sheathe of the dagger at his hip. He smiled as he did so.
Many halls and stairs led from the airy regions where the third prince had made his home. Down and to the west, the passages narrowed and the servants took on a less harried presentation. This was the princess's domain, not so much because she held power as because none of the other royal personages bothered to extend their own so far. And she was kind.
But unlike her brother, today she was not smiling. The weeks that had gone by since the announcement of her engagement to Lord Hamal had been all haze and fog. She understood implicitly that she would not be rescued. She had known that from the first. Yet somehow the fact of her wedding had never concretized within her mind and heart. It was not something she could internalize until it had already happened, and perhaps not even then.
Daya went about the business of brushing out her lackluster hair, and the lengthy trial of bedighting her in all the accouterments of her entrance into woman and wifehood. There were ribbons and buckles and jewels, and five layers of increasingly overwrought garments. The overdress itself was lambent and twisted black, a unwantedly threatening creation that all the princesses wore, in one iteration or another, to be wed. Ursula knew that it was meant to recall Bemoi herself, the frightening queen of the gods. On her though, it was out of place. She was no one's queen, and would never be, even if her soon to be husband and lord intended otherwise.
"There we are," Daya said, "almost ready." The blankness of the maid's expression in the silvered mirror saddened Ursula, causing a twinge in her chest. The normally pretty girl took care now to appear unkempt. Her attire was as loose and copious as could be managed, dulling her curves, and she met no one's eye. Since Hamal had used her in his object lesson she had spoken less and less substantively, and operated more and more by rote. Ursula knew not what to say to her or what, if anything, she could do. Maybe the best thing would be to send her away, but it wasn't as if the other girls who lived and worked within the palace walls were free from casual abuse. It could hardly be safer than 'maid to the first princess,' Hamal or no Hamal. This was the world, and there was no other.
All the books in the library couldn't reverse what had happened to Daya, nor could they prevent what was soon to happen to her. Ursula looked at herself in the polished silver, and held back the tears gathering behind her eyes.
* * *
Henai sat before her own mirror, her face a mask concealing nothing. This was the emptiness she allowed herself to assume only when she was alone, with even the servants dismissed and all the hidden alcoves cleared. Henai meditated upon herself and upon the course of her mission, upon the allegiance that was written in her skin and in the angle of her eyes. A half blood she may be, but as beautiful as any of the other flowers of the emperor's exquisite garden. If her service was true enough, it would be her reward to return to that garden where she had been cultivated, and into the emperors burning embrace.
But only if she were true.
Henai thought with distaste of Magal's clumsy coupling, and of the younger Magal, who was no better though she told him so. She was rigorous with her tinctures, lest she be tainted by their seed. Still, were her love of the emperor any less she could not have suffered the duty. She would have gutted them both. She would have inserted her pin blades into the eyes of their snakes and twisted them free. Not necessarily in that order.
Henai had her duties and by them was constrained. She allowed herself a moment to indulge in the thought of the king's face frozen in absolute and prolonged agony and felt a stirring of warmth between her thighs. Then she collected her hair, arranging it in an elegant bisected plum shape on the back of her head, and secured it in place with a pair of glinting jade pins. She wore a tightly fitted kimono in the nihonese style, the servants having affixed her obi before being sent away. It was light blue and accented with white herons, a pair of them at her hem and a miniature flock flowing over her right shoulder. Henai was fond of this piece, and she thought that one day she would die in it.
She schooled herself. There was no time for such wandering consciousness. The girl child of these ugly barbarians was to be wed today to a bad match with ill intent, who obviously disdained the king and the king's house. An odd development, and yet Henai knew it could only be to her gain. Every ounce of chaos would act to ease her task when the time was right, and fire would grace the hills of Petronica with just the touch of lurid grandeur that they lacked. She suppressed a smirk. It was time for a wedding.
* * *
The cathedral stood tall as the glory of the old empire and was in equal disrepair. Built a millenia and a half in the past, before what the Priests of Ashram refer to in their secret histories as The Apostasy, it was originally a shrine to the One God Ashar. That faith was no longer welcome in the lower kingdoms, and for many centuries the cathedral had sat empty at all times excepting the royal marriages. For this one, they had not bothered to replace the banners.
Windows of stained glass, cast and bright, depicted stories that none attending knew. Thyriel, who alone among them might have learned those ancient names, had not bothered. This version of the worship of Ashar was out of fashion even in Ashram, and he, like the others, gave no heed to the decayed meanings if the decor.
Ninety-nine pews ran down each side of the nave, their outermost edges overshadowed by the galleries. Every eleventh pew was foreshortened to accommodate the deeply fluted columns that supported the galleries, and each of them was carved from a single seamless trunk of pale fyr wood. The pews were not quite half full, though this had strained the royal family and the high houses to their utmost courtesy. There were simply not enough noble bodies to fill the cathedral, even if all of them had come. And they had not.
The best showing was given by the Lomans, followed by the Myrminde line. The lords of Gable, Debarra, and Fagan were all present with their many children, but no retainers were in evidence that were not themselves of high blood. Hence, the empty pews. Only the royal Petronian guard was given leave of this enjoinder. In the white armor and gold crests of their dress regalia, they formed a solid and unmoving wall about the entrance to the cathedral and before the altar, shielding the King and his kin.
Roseate light angled down from a circular window high above the altar, bathing the princess and her groom in fae radiance. Ursula was still staving off her tears, so far successfully. The princes flanked them, three to each side. First prince Magal eyed his father and his father's consort, hardly noting the proceedings. Ariad was calculating, his eyes cold, while Allum Lastson sneered at his twin in her false finery. He knew that she was ugly whatever she wore.
Thyrial smiled beatifically down upon them all from his place before the altar. His hands were secreted in the voluminous sleeves of his showy ceremonial robes.
"Children of the light," he began, "We have come into this hallowed hall that we might bind two sparks as one, that two fates be twined into a single cord; and known forevermore to the gods under a single name. This day the ancient and most noble house of Petronus ties itself in trothal to the House of Loman, a tie that shall not be undone.
We do this under the eyes of the gods, wherever they be, and under the eyes of our idols. Since the days of Patrick, the first Petronus..."
It was at this juncture that Ursula stopped hearing what was said, the words melted, warm as wax, into a single formless mass that flowed just outside of her awareness. She examined the face of her husband to be, it's hard lines and joyless lips. He looked, if anything, less pleased than she felt, and eyed her with open derision.
She was afraid.
Nearly a Walk distant, in a muddy outskirt of Petronica, where the dilapidated streets were lined by edifices cracked and seemingly abandoned, there was a bar. The name of this establishment was carved into its side in numerous places, a handswith or a manslength wide. It was also carved into the window boards in iterations too numerous to count, like the murmuring of wraiths. It was two words in the original language, and three in the common tongue; "The Dusty Hush."
Men here drank to the princess and the health of her royal kin, and described in detail the sexual trades they would have plied on her had she been kidnapped, say, and left for their convenience. Many of them spoke in similar terms about her brothers. These were not picky men, and their respect for the most noble and most ancient houses was the same as they would accord to any thug who happened to be in possession of the larger knife, for now.
There were howls and hacking coughs, and fists pounded onto tables or into shoulders, and orders called out, and bawdy jokes told as a fire blazed unnecessarily in a magnificently ugly hearth. A jongleur played his lute in a chair beside the fire, badly out of tune. No one listened. Dice clattered on the wood or onto the decimated tile of the dirt carpeted floor. Rats lounged in the rafters, and waitresses went from bench to bench refilling endless pewter tankards, wearing mostly knives.
The owner stood behind the bar, idly cleaning a mug with a rag that looked like the rats had slept in it. He weighed something like four hundred pounds, and stood somewhere near seven feet when he slouched. He never smiled.
"Another round, Whispers." The man who addressed him looked severely out of place, but he was a regular here, and his appearance was tolerated because he would have been just as severely malapropos anywhere he went. He wore dark blue robes that looked to have been fitted for a hippopotamus, and lank black hair obscured his face. Resting beside him was a straw hat like the ones codlies wore in Nihon, though oversized. It was easily four feet in diameter, and it leaned sideways against the bar like it was another person. People of the disk have an innate respect for this kind of absurdity, the living ones do, in any case.
"Coming up, Black." The giant barkeep took the man's cup and refilled it from a keg tap. He replaced it and returned to dirtying his favorite mug.
Both men were silent for a time
"Hey! You! You in the dress!"
Black turned in his stool. A trio of glassy-eyed rough men stood a pace or two distant. Two of them leered, the leader went on talking.
"Yeah. You. I heard you, you do some magic. Do some magic for me dress man! I want to see some magic."
Black said nothing, nor did the Barkeep.
"You hear me? You deaf, huh? Me and my boys want some entertainment. And Zima," his attention briefly slipped over to the giant, "get three Zima's for me and my boys!"
Three purple tinted drinks were produced. The drunks offered payment, but it was refused. The giant shook his head, and turned his back on them, still cleaning the mug. The trio took a moment to celebrate their good fortune, but soon their inclinations returned to bullying.
"Hey, magic man, whassa matter. You ain't got no magic for us, huh?" Spittle dribbled from the corner of the leader's mouth. Quiet diffused from the bar, slowly overtaking table after table all the way to the hearth. Even the jongluer twanged to a halt. Yellow teeth glinted out of the soiled nests of beards.
"I do have something," the man in the blue robe said. "Would you like to see a magic trick?"
"Wha?" The drunkard blinked. "Hah! Yeah! That's what I been sayin'. We wanna trick, don't we boys?" His thugs laughed with him.
Black nodded, as if all that had been said had been perfectly reasonable, and he produced a double pointed pin from his folds. Carefully, with easy deliberation, he twisted the pin into the wood of the bar so that it stood upright. It was perhaps a hand-span tall.
"Wass that?" the drunk inquired, grinning dully.
"I'm going to make it disappear."
The drunk leaned forward. "Yeah? Less see." All around the Tables, more teeth showed. One of the drunk's cronies was uneasy.
"Hey," he said, "we don't want no trouble."
Blacks hand blurred. There was a thud as the lead drunk's head hit the bar top, and a softer sound as he slumped to the tiles without a twitch. The pin was gone.
"Ta da!" Black shook his fingers like fans.
"Son of a whore!" the second man exclaimed, and the two of them drew daggers, attacking with the same snarl. They launched themselves at Black, stabbing into his robes, and all three went tumbling to the tiles as the stool overturned. Then Black stood up. The trio did not. There was a cobalt glimmer as he slid something back into his sleeves.
Sound returned to the rest of 'The Dusty Hush'.
"I think I'm going to head out," Black said.
"South. I think." A sack of coins appeared on the bar.
"As good a way as any," the barkeep said.
"Yes, well, as always, Whispers." The man in the blue robe left. His hat was so large he could not put it on until after he had passed out of the door.
It was at about this time that Ursula the Unloved was officially wed. Words were spoken, and bells rang throughout the city. She cried.