An Excerpt From Riversend by Sylvia Kelso
[ Information on Riversend
The Diaspora. Week 1.
However it feels, this is not a dream. I will not wake to my life's remembered walls; to that Uphill view through wide glass widows, the House around me. The City beyond. I am already wide awake. Perched by a makeshift fire amid miles of dry rice paddies, in the heart of the Sahandan, with half a pilfered archive scroll and somebody's old silverpoint; planning to make a record. Of where we are going. What we have begun.
But it is hard to begin this journal without turning it into a requiem. For how shall I go on without remembering all those who are gone? All my peers, my fellow House-heads: Damas and Eutharie and Ciruil, my rivals; Maeran and Denara and Sevitha, my enemies; Zhee and Ti'e and Averion, my allies; my friends. Averion above all, my lovely general.
And the women who followed them, the House and Craft-folk, the cutters and shapers and troublecrew; so many bringing their men as well. The Downhill clans, the workers and guilds and merchant folk. Even the guerilla raff who came for us or against us out of River Quarter. All the folk of Amberlight. All left, lost, gone.
But how shall I mourn the greatest loss of all? My dear, my darling, the surety under my heart, the life rising to my fingertips, the light in wall and statuette and mother-face, the voice to my silence, the measure to my song? The heart's blood, the treasure, the bane of Amberlight. The city-killer, the king-maker. Pearl-rock. The qherrique.
Blown out of existence, with the armies that besieged us. Never to know, to feel, to share that unhuman answer's mystery, ever again.
Yet who am I to complain? When I surrendered, at that mystery's behest? When my--our--House survived, and relatively intact, after other Heads died with theirs? When most of my folk are here, to shape that House back round me? Safe out of Amberlight, bound for the Iskan marble quarry. Telluir House's traditional holding; a fresh life, a new world. Above all, when I, unlike so many on either side, have brought both my men live out of the wreck?
Both of them. Ah. There begins the difference. We--I was used to sharing, yes, in old Amberlight. By House custom, four, five women take--took--a single husband, who dwelt modestly in the men's tower, while we managed House and Crafts. Sharing a man, I am used to.
But not to two men sharing me.
If they will share. I am House-head still. I can command it. Will that make it happen? Two men together, not in the tower now, no rules laid down for them. Two such men as these?
Sarth, so much the pattern of Uphill Amberlight. I see him still, in those bronze silk trousers, gold-dusted muscles shaped in the tower gymnasium, bronze hair in waist-length lovelocks, gold-shaded eyelids, bronze-gold eyes in that perfect face. Tall, splendid, polished as his tower skills of music and conversation and love.
And the words, the delicate, drawling poison, that he could plant, surer than a Navy gunner, in my heart.
Jealousy, oh, yes. There is an abundance in Sarth of both bile and balm. Sweet work-Mother, how he could make me cringe in those days, after the boys--after I lost my children. After we lost our children; for a man in Uphill Amberlight, children are the only pride. And the worst disaster: a first-born son.
Bitter, deforming, hideous decorum: that only after a House woman's first girl might her male children live. That cost me my first, and second, and third-born child; and with them my husband's love.
Small wonder he compounded that poison on Alkhes. To Sarth, no doubt, in his very person as much insult as antithesis. Small and black-avised and wearing what comes handy. No polish, except in warfare. Outlander. Worse than outland; rankless, nameless, certainly spy, probably mercenary, possibly renegade. Taken in, street flotsam, to our infirmary, our men's tower; named, by the qherrique itself, for the Dark, the holy quarter of the moon. Prisoner, sparring-partner, lover. House-head's favorite, suave in silk and rubies. Troublecrew, lithe and lethal in killer's black. In my bed, in my love; twined into my House.
Or was that Assandar? Before he lost his memory along with his money to that River Quarter gang? Coalition general, top-flight mercenary; imperial officer, caravan guardsman, with ties only to soldiery. Deadly in brawl or battle. Deadliest in his wits.
Resurrected with those memories, and locked in battle against me, the House, Amberlight. Is there any dividing them, troublecrew and mercenary, beloved and enemy, Alkhes and Assandar? Less one man than two at once.
And how will Sarth understand that?
Any more than he will understand Sarth?
But for the future, all our futures, that I glimpse--that I am trying to see--the men, these men, are the keystone. They have to understand. What do we have, if they cannot?
As I write this, it is quiet; camp pitched at last, after more hours of chaos with folk who never had to find a new home every night. Fireglow on the patched dun Dhasdeini tent wall behind me, on shadow and motion I know better than the rhythms of my heart: Hanni with the handful of slates and tallies she already calls Head's records. Shia yet again stirring pots. Shapes that come and go, prowling our perimeter, Zuri, Azo, Verrith. Troublecrew at work. A snatch of acid voice out in the dust-light. Iatha, stewarding my House.
And the shadows that move inside my tent.
What are they doing? What do they say to each other? Twin shadows, one tall, one small; one with a stately elegance, one with a weapon's tempered grace. If not now, with a slung arm and three ribs in a cincture of bandages, with bruises, grazes, contusions everywhere, from the huge black eye to the blisters in a stranger's boots.
I tallied that damage this afternoon. All of it. When he caught us up. Obsessed lunatic, escaping, chased clear of the--catastrophe. Whatever the price. Salving, then abandoning his army, his conquest. Leaving a letter of resignation to the Emperor, before he cast himself, knowingly this time, on his enemies' mercy. Riding, doubly outcast, incurably stubborn, after us.
And there was water in the last, bigger stream our ramshackle caravan labored over; an upstream pool, relatively clear of stagnance, sheltered by plumes of gold-tinged poplar and clumpy silver-gray hellien. A place to water a horse, and tie it up. And then, behind the shield of Zuri and her troublecrew, strip down my restored man; to purge away travel, battle, an old life.
I put the borrowed soap and towels on a tussock. He had halted, his back to me; trying to decide, forespent and one-handed, what to tackle first. But when I walked up and put both arms around him, he sighed, and leant back into my embrace.
His good hand covered mine. I locked the other over it. How to speak, in the body's language, of joy beyond what had been mortal loss? I am too tall to burrow in his shoulder; he turned his face, burying it in my neck.
Loss, and killing grief, and thankfulness, for what we had never thought to have again.
A long time after, he whispered, "I missed you so much..."
I started to undo the acrid, mud-smeared laborer's shirt. Miss him, yes. What words can shape the truth of "miss"? The ache, the physical ache of it, like a cancer, night after night?
"All down the River--in Dhasdein--in the siege--all I could think was--I have to get back..."
He was fumbling, one-handed, with what had been an infantryman's belt.
"Not just you--or this. I never understood what it meant, Tel. The--the House. I never had it before. Not belonging. Not like that."
House-folk. Community, fellowship. Precious beyond all empathies. Except one.
The sword-ties had trapped his hand. I freed it. Pulled the heavy buckle loose. Undid the trouser strings beneath, found the hard, sunken belly muscles below that, and he caught his breath and pushed backward, twisting to find my mouth.
"Oh, gods, Tel--"
He was dirty and bristly as a porcupine, I could not even hold him tight. And when I let go he swayed, pressing a hand into his side.
"We better stop." It was breathless as the shaky laugh. "Sorry--no good for any more. Not right now..."
I worked the shirt off, to bare the wad of soiled linen, wide as a packhorse's surcingle, that girdled his ribs. He slid down on another tussock and scrabbled at the ties of the heavy, cross-laced cavalry boots. But when I knelt and set his hand aside he battled it, catching his breath. "No, don't--Tellurith!"
The knots were solid. Drawing the boot-knife unearthed from some Verrainer's tent-kit, I felt his hand brush my hair.
Breast-long, crinkle-curled, brandy-brown hair of Amberlight. He had undone it, releasing its mazes, that first night.
"I thought--you'd send me back..."
It was less than a whisper. I looked up. Our eyes locked. I could have stayed forever, his hand on my shoulder, my arm across his thigh, he bending over me, gathered between his knees.
"You should have known better than that."
He lifted the hand to cup my cheek. I touched the splint's edge, luckily not unseated by zealous handling, and murmured, "I'm sorry. Back on the road... Zuri was--upset."
"I expected it."
"I thought they might kill me. Before I got to you."
"Kill you! Sweet Mother--"
"They had the right."
I let go the boot, half-off. He stared past me, mouth set, that silky black wing of hair, matted now, falling in his eyes.
"I was troublecrew." He said it harshly. "One of them. I betrayed the trust."
"And you'd have let them finish you. For that?"
"I betrayed the House."
I worked one boot off. Started on the other. We both knew there was no reply to that.
"I had to go, Tel. Nothing could have stopped it. They'd made up their minds. All I could do was go back and try to get some say in it. Try to hold off the worst... Gods, do you have any idea what it took to get that command?"
I had to go back, he had said to me, at that first parley, after his troops sealed Amberlight. I had contracts, I had obligations. I couldn't break them, and keep myself.
It made far more sense this time. Far harder, less noble, more likely sense, that our destruction was already destined, that Dhasdein and Verrain and Cataract had fixed on it, that he had indeed fought tooth and nail for the general's command. Not to have his revenge on us. Simply, as he had tried, over and over, to protect his new loyalties. To save as much as he could of Amberlight.
I pulled the second boot off. Stood up and held out my hands. When he reached his feet again, I touched his cheek and said, "I can guess."
Some of the strain went out of him, a long, soundless breath. Carefully, I worked the trousers down his hips. We were close beside the water. I gave him a hand down the stones.
It was evening, autumn, and a stream off the Iskans. He was out in two shaken gasps and I picked my way over him with the soap. When I took up the bucket he said, "I can get in again."
"Yes, of course--"
In some ways that was the worst moment of all. Worse than losing him that first time, thinking myself betrayed. For this was the new life. I had taken him into it. And now I saw the gulf between us: that he, even he, who had begun as a foot soldier, who could feel a child-bereft woman's grief, could so simply think--could just assume--it did not matter if we fouled the water.
With a camp of three hundred people downstream.
What woman of Amberlight could forget? Could act, were she the veriest stevedore, as if they were not part of her? Sweet work-Mother! I nearly shouted. You accused us of injustice! And you want to be part of us. Coming from a world like that: where even generals like you can't see the people underneath.
"Tel. Tel. I'm sorry. I didn't think. I'm not used--Tel, give me time. I'll work at it. It won't happen again."
And he would work at it, fast as he had understood, it needed no pledge beyond those inimitable wits.
He was huddled over, clutching the bad arm, shivering as hard as his chattering teeth. I yanked the bucket over and sank it with one vehement swirl, heaved up and ran it to his side. "Hold on. I'll be quick."
When I had him dry, a pair of someone's leggings, a Dhasdein infantry tunic and some cameleer's coat on him, the shivering had almost stopped. He picked up the dirty clothes himself. It was true, he would work at it. Azo took the horse. Walking back into camp, I touched his cheek again. "I don't have a razor, myself."
"There's one somewhere." Meaning his own makeshift kit, slung in a knapsack at the saddlebow. "Only I can't manage it..."
But someone else could. I pushed his hair back, clean now, if not so finely scented as once. "Will you let Azo take you wherever they've put me? I'll be back as soon as I can."
I had been Head when he first knew me. When did he not have to compete for my time? He moved the right arm to put it round me; winced. Tried to smile. "I won't be going anywhere."
After fur nightds on the road I could hope my target would be at his self-appointed work; hence out of my camp, and handily open to approach. I caught him just walking from the pair of Dhasdein five-man infantry shelters that had become Ahio the shaper's tents.
He broke stride; swung round, mallet dangling. He smelt of cow dung and sweat instead of hyacinths, there was grease on his green and brown troublecrew shirt, his beautiful hair was tied back in a tail under yet another rascally straw hat. His features looked naked, without the men's house-veil, his exquisite skin was sunburnt. But he could still make my pulse jump with that smile.
"What brings me this honor, Tellurith?"
Once it would have slid malice like a stiletto, straight between your ribs. How can I say what it was, to hear honest amusement instead?
"I need you for something, of course." I smiled too, putting my hand on his arm. No hardship in either move. He was still so splendidly tall. And to him, fresh from the tower, there could be no greater compliment.
"A double honor. Might one ask... ?"
It had all come so happily, it was so logical, so apt. But now, of a sudden, there was a constriction in my breath.
"I just wanted you to--ah--"
He was waiting, brows up, that lovely new, open smile.
Trust, warmth, love renewed. And I was going to smash it. With my own two hands.
"What is it, Tellurith?"
The voice had changed. In his own way he was as redoubtably shrewd as Alkhes. Just trained in a different field.
I looked up the five inches to those topaz eyes. So warm, so kind, so wholly concerned with me; the way he had used to ask, when nothing mattered more than solacing my woes.
I said it baldly. There was no other way.
"No, you don't, Sarth, wait!" He had not moved. It was in himself he was going away from me, the warmth running like blood. "He didn't get killed, he came after us, he--"
"He's in your tent."
How much explanation, how much plea, can you put in a single word?
"I'll get my things out, now."
"No! Listen to me! That's not what I want!"
He stood there. Stone to the very eyes.
"You're my husband--"
The stiletto never cut so deep. I actually put a hand to my side. His muscles flexed to turn.
"Blast it, wait! It's not temporary! That's what I'm saying!"
It stopped him dead. All he could do was stare.
"He's your lover--"
"I told you--!"
I actually shook him. "Sarth, will you listen? This is not the tower and it's not Amberlight. We can do what we want now. I can do what I want. You're my husband and I've got you back. And I'm keeping you. I'm marrying him as well!"
For a while I thought he really had died. But eventually his face shifted. He started breathing again.
Looked down, and then, one by one, loosened my fingers from his arm.
"Tellurith." He actually sounded groggy. "Even for you, this is--"
"For me it's just good sense." I had not meant to break it this way, but there was no going back.
"But you can't--"
"We're on our own now, and I can!"
He shook his head. "I don't--"
"Do you want to go?"
People and beasts squirmed by us in the alleyway, children skirmished round our legs. The sky had gone ice-pink and lavender between the silhouettes of tent. I knew there were people, a whole camp's routine waiting on me. But for that moment, we were alone.
And at last, so slowly, he shook his head.
I felt my breath go out. "I know it won't be easy. I know I'm asking far too much. But if you could try..."
He was still looking at me. Those topaz eyes had darkened with the twilight, but he could not seem to blink. Then, once more, he shook his head.
My heart stopped. But he let the mallet drop. Groped for my hands. Held them, a clumsy blend of schooled grace and pure feeling, against himself.
"You want the craziest things." He was trying, like a man trying to walk with a broken leg, to smile. "And I can't imagine how to--but I'll try."
"Oh, Sarth." What sweet thankfulness, to come into his arms as Alkhes had into mine, to rest in safety, however briefly, my head on his chest.
"Oh, Tellurith." He smoothed my hair. "And now; what is it you want me to do?"
"I just thought--it was just an idea--"
"Just thought what?"
"We had this problem--"
"I, ah-- Tell me, can you shave someone else?"
"Naturally, we all learnt." The hidden smile was dying. Too much like recall to that frivolous, pointless life. Then his voice changed. "You don't mean--"
"Sarth, he's broken an arm and three ribs and he's been riding after us four days-- Somebody has to do it! And I don't know how and outlanders are funny about depending on women at the best of times, and I thought--I thought--it would be a start..."
His muscles jerked and I nearly cringed. I had feared Sarth in malice. I had never felt him approach rage.
"Forget it, it was stupid, I'll think of something else..."
"No." The anger checked. Then he sighed and let me release myself. "I'll do it. You have enough to think about."
I kissed him. He held me gently, but close. When I stood back this time, the bystanders read it as conclusion, and moved in from all directions. I did not see him walk away.
The Diaspora. Week 1.
Journal kept by Sarth
He was so blasted small. I stamped into that tent ready to bite him in half and spit out the bits, and he was huddled up on the floor against a saddlebag. Like a twelve-year-old bridegroom, just brought into the Tower. So blasted small. Nothing to spit.
He must have been half asleep. He felt me come in, jumped up, hit his arm--or the ribs--and doubled up. I grabbed him, down on my knees, before I thought. I've seen so many children come into the Tower. Little. Uprooted. Afraid.
"Steady," I think I said. "It's all right."
We were staring, a foot apart. He has these enormous eyes. Far too big for a grown man. Black as pitch. A whole night sky, in one human face.
He knew me, without a doubt. He tried to straighten--or stand up, outland soldiers have pride but absolutely no wits. "Whoa," I said. I had been prodding draught-bullocks all day. "I've seen Tellurith."
The last time we met he had seemed twice my size. An avenger, a demon with a dagger who filled Tellurith's rooms to the roof. And he threw me out. It should have been pleasant, to know we had exchanged boots.
I felt the bones in his shoulder move. Below its padding the faded roan infantry tunic bulked awry; the bandage round his ribs. His fingers clamped the bad arm's wrist.
"What did she say... to you?"
The ribs had pinched his breath. It came out ragged. Masking the intonation. Telling me more about damage, and exhaustion, and being here alone, an exile, than Tellurith had explained.
I could have retorted, I imagine you know, or even, Don't you know? I could have said, Another of Tellurith's crazy ideas. She wants to marry us both. Or, She expects me to open gates with you. Somehow. But the first two were war-signals, and the next friends' talk. And the last was franker than I could manage. Then.
We were still staring, all but nose to nose. The eyes had got bigger. Or the face had shrunk, under the beard-shadow, the bruise. A scrap of a man, hurt, tired, hunted into a corner. Cold. Afraid.
I had moved before I knew it, too. As if he were just another new, unkempt boy. I pushed the hair out of his eyes and drew my palm on down the black bristle on his jaw.
"She asked," I said, "if someone could help you shave."
He froze solid. I should think his very heart stopped. And in that moment, I understood.
Just as he took a great breath, and clutched his ribs and got out through it, ". . . never know--how m-much..."
The ribs pinched him on the stammer, that came from his chattering teeth. The sense was clear as a flag. Relief; apology; thankfulness; gratitude, decently controlled.
I found the cameleer's jacket they had given him, and put it round his shoulders. Outside it was quite dark, and the sound of Shia's pots said supper was close. "It's warmer out there," I said, "though you may not believe it. And I could do with supper first."
We did not wait for Tellurith. He was past keeping a House-head's schedule, whose one certainty is Late. Azo, of all people, dour scar-cheeked troublecrew, cut up what meat Shia missed, so he fed himself. My own razor was in the camp gear. Imported ivory handle, chased Dhasdein steel. Shia let me thieve hot water. We went back inside, for the steadier light, he splashed water and worked up a lather one-handed. I took the razor, and gathered myself up.
And he shut his eyes and lifted his face like a child ready to be washed. Offering me, offering the razor, his unprotected throat.
Tellurith was back before we finished. A shadow against the coals, head tilted from the papers in her lap. Bronze-crinkle Craft plait, every hair etched by firelight, the high cheekbones and arrogant jaw. Features I can shape from memory, in the dark, in my sleep. Like the question, the anxiety, the dawning, vindicated, once more successful gleam in those narrow chestnut eyes.
"There you are." Scrambling up to meet us, a hand on my chest, on his intact arm. A smile for me. For him a scrutiny, then a butterfly, multiply significant touch on the cheek.
And then to me, "Do you want the last hot water, before we turn down?"
Old House usage. Dim the qherrique, that was both light and heat, for the night. Not so subtle reminder that they had bathed, as I had not. Horrifying signal that she was going to throw us all in bed together. Right now.
I think I managed not to gulp. Hot water? I wanted a full, hour-long bath. I wanted skin softener and hair wash and perfume, a manicure, my eye make-up, a face-veil and jewelry, sheets on my bed. Not to wash and shave by guess behind a wagon in the cold and dark, then fall into dirty blankets with my hair still stinking of sweat. And not, Mother save us, with another man!
One is grateful, at times, for the discipline of the Tower. I was thankful, at least, that she waited for me by the coals rather than give him first possession of the tent. Even if she waited in his arms.
The tent was a Verrain subaltern's, built for one man and his servant, and that only while he dressed. It was actually an honor that Tellurith had one, technically, to herself. Otherwise we would have bedded down in the big infantry shelter. Figure such antics under the eyes of Shia and Azo and Hanni and her husband, and the Mother knows who else.
The Tower taught me, long ago, the dance of entry and apportion in shared territory, but it is always so delicate. This one was damnably delicate. And I was so tired. So tired I sat down like a peasant on a pack-bag and left arrangements to Tellurith.
So it was my own fault we wound up with a blanket on the ground canvas under us, and two beneath the Dhasdein officer's cloak atop. And Tellurith nearest the door--"in case there's trouble in the night"--and me against the wind-side wall. And the third between us: on his side to protect his broken ribs, and his bad arm, if you please, pillowed on my chest. "Because you're the right size, Sarth. And you don't thrash about."
It is true, she sleeps like a net-cork in a gale. And true too, though she does not know, that I have learnt to tender fragile bed-mates in my sleep. How many times, in the Tower, has a boy with homesickness or some direr fever ended in my bed?
Outside the Tower, rumor has some nasty words for it. And sometimes, they are true, whether from lust or loneliness--too often you sleep solitary, even with five wives--or from honest love.
Perhaps such shadow territory stretches beyond the Tower. Certainly, no boy inside it ever made such a fuss.
The Diaspora. Week 1.
He was so damned big. I'd dropped off when they left me alone. Three nights huddled in ditches with the bridle over my arm... I was still on hunt alert. So I jumped up the minute the shadow moved and there he was, right on top of me. Ten feet tall.
And so damned handsome. Built big, but perfect shape. Long legs, broad shoulders, narrow hips. Face like a temple sculpture. Not pretty. A man's model. And those cursed lion's eyes.
I remember him from Amberlight, got up like an artist's whore, all gold-dust and jewels and paint. The sod's better-looking without. Even with his nails broken and his hair uncurled and axle grease all over his shirt.
I expected him to hit me. Or to snipe. He's got a tongue like a Heartland poison dart. I don't know why he shut up. Or why he touched me, but it scared me dumb. If I'd been less cold, and less damaged, and less--daunted--I would have hit out myself. There are plenty of those around the court. In Dhasdein. Even in Cataract, sometimes. And they seem to like my looks.
And then Tellurith had to put me in bed with him. Like a damned woman, plastered all over his chest.
I have been in bed with men before. Not at court. In the field, on picket, or a retreat, you can get caught without blankets. Or even a cloak. When a raid hits the caravan, and you wind up on a sandhill with your gear on a camel thirty miles away, in one of those freezing Verrain desert nights. Or you can have wounded, and sometimes, to keep warm's their only chance.
But I do not, not, not expect to wind up beside a man who looks like the River-lord's statue, with the woman I'm supposed to have married on my other side.
May I be hung if he doesn't look better in bed than Tellurith as well. All that hair--longer than hers, and thicker--spread out over the saddlebags like black-bronze silk. Profile like a cursed--statue. Plenty of muscle to fill out the blankets. And of course he'd never dribble or break wind. I doubt the bastard so much as snores.
Not that I had a chance to find out. If the rest hadn't done for me, Tellurith did. Dropped sleep-syrup in the last tea we had, waiting for--Sarth--to wash. I knew by my next morning mouth. But after that, I hardly got past, "I can't sleep in there, wait, listen, Tellurith ..."
And part of it, gods know, was the relief. Oh, gods, to have that pain stop. To rest a broken bone on something not too hard, not too soft, just the right height. And not have to move again. To know yourself back in friendly lines. Safe.
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