Dark Sister (Part 1)
I was sitting with Esty in the library, acting as her conversant for the evening. I dropped my name (ok, my substitute for one) in the hat just as I did every spring for the Oiskog, the week long mating ritual, not really expecting to get a match I’d like, so I sat with the princess talking softly, sharing the latest gossip.
“Lily’s baby is growing so fast, Dodi tells me so,” she was saying, her cloud of soft, brown curls brushing my cheek. God, please not the baby talk again, I sighed inwardly. I swear she does this to annoy me. It pained Esty that her snotty elder sister forbade her from seeing her nephew. I braced myself and prepared to act like I cared. Not like I could fool Esty.
“Firstborn,” Martin, this year’s announcer called out, disrupting my rapt audience act. I raised a hand to show I heard.
“Dodi says Lily might visit soon,” Esty mused. Not bloody likely, we both knew.
“Rev Tim.” Martin’s eyebrows shot up. “Interesting match,” he chuckled in the sudden silence. “A handmaiden of the Lady of Dreams and Death and a servant of the god of Magic and Sciences. Rivals and adversaries from the dawn of time.”
Interesting, indeed. Dark sister and Aziz priest, firstborn and vohiek; something possible only in the Debil-klub.
I sat up straight. “He rigged it.”
“You can say no, you know,” Esty whispered.
“No. If he rigs the draw to end up with me, I wanna know why.”
Tim, Esty’s little bro owns this place. He is also my boss, by the way. I glanced at him but he looked unruffled, burying his nose in one of his books. I turned back toward the table. They were all looking at me, waiting. I nodded consent. It was only half of the deal though; the Rev had to agree to it too. He waved consent with his quill, not looking up. Esty blew out the air she didn’t notice she was holding in. “Well, I guess you’ll have to sit by him.”
I went up to the gallery running around the library a few feet higher than the ground, in a crossfire of vohiek stares. I cleared my throat. Do I greet him? Them? What’s the protocol here?
The rest of the draw went on relatively uneventfully, resulting in only a handful of other couples. Most of them will be dissolved before the week was up. I stole a glance at the prince. If they last through the week – well that’s an entirely different, sometimes delicate situation.
We gathered for the Oiskog dinner and it took a gentle reminder from Gaita, a fellow servant to take my place by him.
Afterwards the whole Saqueroy clan retreated into his room. The girls, Esty, Dodi and Nellie perched on the bed, trying to stare at me without staring at me. Zak, his younger brother had no such misgivings. “Will you marry him if you last through the week?” he asked. He was a little weird – autistic was my guess. In any case he had a penchant for asking the most embarrassing questions. He turned to the Rev. “Maybe Father will make you heir after all, if you manage to…”
“Zak!” Tim snapped. He looked at me for the first time in the evening. “If you are to be my Oiskog-bride, you’ll have to look and live like one of us.” He raised his hands.
“Wait, do I at least get a say in how I’ll look?” I protested.
He made a series of complicated hand gestures. “You’ll also want to choose a vohiek name,” he said when he was finished.
“Can I see first how I look?”
He shrugged. “Mirror’s in the bathroom.” And nowhere else in his room I noted as I rose, prepared for the worst based on the girls’ reactions. I made a small noise when I saw the creature looking back from the mirror. Bluish-green, hairless, with gills on her neck, round, silvery eyes. A pretty enough face in its alien way. It’s an illusion, I reminded myself, lasting only a week, or not even that long. I pulled a finger on the scaly, slightly slimy skin. Felt real enough. He most probably wanted to test me, see if I last through the week. Well, he had his task set out for him if he wanted to upset my cool; I’ve been Death Bride, chosen and trained to accompany a king to the grave.
The creature’s eyes in the mirror narrowed. “You went a lil’ overboard, don’t you think?”
“A name. You’ll need one.”
Being a dark sister I didn’t have one, and what I was called where I came from I no longer remembered. It will be a nice change to being called just Alula – girl, in vohiek.
“Alehna Molia”, I uttered the first name that came to mind. She was one of their writers – a poetess if I recalled right. “Just call me Nenya.”
I couldn’t help flinching as I came out of the bathroom; if I had to wear a disguise for a week, he chose to go without one. He was namwöos – a burned or injured one in their tongue; there was an abundance of them in the ranks of their order. Brilliant. Definitely testing me.
“You’ll need a name too,” I managed.
“I have one.”
“A vohiek one, that is.”
He seemed amused – it was hard to tell. “Yarikh.”
I broke my fast with the rest of the Debil klub – an odd change of being served instead of serving and I wasn’t sure if I liked my pals Gaita and Sindre bustling around me. The klub members stared at me wide eyed – they were seeing my magical transformation for the first time.
Gaita knocked on the door shortly after I retreated to my room. She made herself comfortable on my bed. “So what is it like, being one of us?”
I could understand their excitement. Not only was I a ma’ash – a stranger, a non-vohiek, I was also a firstborn – one that has come from another place, one who could be absolutely certain to have no trace of defected DNA in her. A chalice of untainted blood. That one such should live like a vohiek even for such a short while – the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on any of us. “Like me, except vohiek.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Whatever. Do you have a clue what he’s up to, by any chance?” I asked instead.
I had to give it a try. They might be lord and servant, but they were both part of the jamelo, the vohiek community; pretty much a hive mind, to my experience. It was hopeless, of course. She gave me an innocent look. “Why would you ask me? I’m just a servant, right?”
I went and knocked on his door and he invited me in, elegant and suave as ever. He opened a portal, a hole on reality to a distant shore. We passed through (I could never quite get used to the slight electrical buzz on my skin) and had the famed city of Wibuwwa, forbidden anyone but vohieks, rising in front of us. I’ve heard of it during my studies, but it was a whole different thing to see it in person, towering above us like a giant bird’s nest about a mile from the shore, and for once I was truly at a loss for smart-ass comments.
A fleet of boats awaited by the shore to carry travelers across the water.
I counted approximately two hundred scattered huts as the city unfolded in front of my eyes, caught in the flimsy looking cobweb of tarrite threads. The structure seemingly lacked any conscious planning, but as the boat got closer I could see there were further inner webs within the outer mesh, with bigger and more elaborate huts. Apparently the closer one lived to the center the higher social status they had.
Airy meshwork connected the huts in every direction, but these bridges were sturdier than they looked; horses and ox drawn carts passed on them. There were no joints or any other sign of construction where the threads met.
We climbed to the upper levels dodging clusters of locals of every possible and impossible size and shape. I couldn’t help noticing the looks some of them gave bossman varying between distaste and pity. I even heard a few mumbled ’Mydzi Möjz!’s, the vohiek expression of shock or outrage. He showed no sign of noticing any of it, heading, as it turned out, to a jewelry shop in the high-end inner mesh.
“The lady here is my Oiskog-bride. We need commemorating rings.”
I was just as confused as the shop owner. The Rev took this from firstborns. Vohieks didn’t have the habit of giving each other rings, even for real marriages, let alone for Oiskog. The man shot a questioning look at me. “She doesn’t speak our tongue,” Tim shrugged. “Is from one of those families.”
Families, where a vohiek is born to by’arna – human parents. It happens – the proof of that was standing beside me. That was a good enough explanation for the man; one glance at Tim told him we are prospective well paying customers. He is, at least.
We picked out two silver rings made out of intertwined leaves, with tiny blue stones in the holes between the leaves. They were lovely, really.
“Engrave Yarikh & Nenya on the inside,” Tim instructed him. My eyebrows shot up. Very untraditional. I knew he had firstborn ancestry, but this was just over the top. The man retreated into the tiny workshop behind the store, but not before sending out his assistant to watch us under the pretext of offering refreshment to the dear customers.
“There is really no need for this,” I hissed. Tim didn’t answer, busy looking at some necklaces in one of the display windows.
The man was back soon. “Here you are, Ai – I wish you all the best with the lovely lady. It is to be applauded, Eas,” he turned to me, using the word of respect for ‘Lady’, “agreeing to be the wife of a namwöos. You are a gem among women.”
I opened my mouth to protest – I wasn’t about to become his wife, but decided that maybe this wasn’t the best moment to point that out. I let Tim pull the ring on my finger – left index, where I used to wear my Death Bride ring up until yesterday.
We climbed to the lookout at the top of the city, with the whole of Wibuwwa beneath our feet, visible through the mesh. I covered up against the chill wind, but bossman didn’t seem to mind. His smooth, dark tresses whipped around his face, beneficially hiding it.
“Where I come from you put a ring on a girl’s finger, you kiss her.”
His eyes – well, his good eye narrowed. That’s right mister, two can play this game.
“You’re not there,” was all he said.
“Why are you doing this shit job? You should be married to a king or a prince, with that blood of yours,” Gaita once asked me. I couldn’t mistake the longing in her voice.
“I’m not gonna be the breeding mare of no fucking prince,” I told her then. I was no breeding mare, alright – but I’d been Death Bride to a king. By all means I should be dead, I mused, as I turned bossman’s ring on my finger, so the tiny sapphire drops caught the light. It cost more than a month of my salary. Not like money mattered any to this aristocratic prick.
“Sooo?” Gai barged into my room as soon as we got back.
“He goes pretty vanilla on me so far. I guess he reserves the hardcore stuff for later…”
She chose not to get the clue. “What do you mean?”
I sighed. “Nevermind.” Damned vohieks!
In the afternoon we headed out again, this time to Kensington, one of the poshest cities of the empire, capital city of Kensington princedom. Knowing his past involvement with the Kensington princess it was a rather piquant choice. Even more so, knowing my opinion of the princess, which I never really kept quiet. As it turned out, neither of that figured in his decision to bring us there.
We walked along high street, the only vohieks – well, a true vohiek and a pretend one – as far as I could see, in a barrage of scornful glances and nasty remarks, until we reached a glitzy hotel. “Do you think this is a good idea…?” I began, but he was already in the revolving door.
Tim went straight up to the concierge. “Sir, I’m looking for a guest.” His humble tone I hated more than all the insults we had to endure so far. “By the name of Liliana Saqueroy. To my knowledge she is…”
“No such lady staying here, and even if she did, I’d not harass her for the likes of you, boy. Now get out of here, while I’m telling you nicely.”
We were watching the sea from the promenade in relative peace. There weren’t many passersby, but I pulled up my hood regardless and hated myself for it.
“So, how are you feeling?”
I winced at his voice. That was the longest string of words I’ve heard from him today. “Was that supposed to freak me out? A show of the sad vohiek life?” I snorted. “Bitch, I’m a dark sister. I’ve been the Death Bride of the leper king. I died to get into this world. Hardly anything surprises me anymore.”
He cast me a long, inscrutable look. “Why are you not dead, then?”
“I am, I guess, in a way.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I knew full well what he meant. My mask of bravado slipped. “My services were, um. Not required.”
“That’s really not your business.”
“Why did you elect to be a Death Bride? You’re a daughter of the Lady of the Stars; there are so many things you could’ve learned in the Sisterhood. This way the only thing you did learn was how to die.”
I did not like this. How did he know so much about our order? Well of course, spying on each other was an ancient sport between dark sisters and Aziz priests. “Neither is that.”
He shrugged. “You could still be a princess though – you’re not too old yet. Any prince or noble would be glad to have that pure blood in their dynasty. Instead of cleaning shit for aristocrats – something you deem so beneath yourself.”
I cast him a glance. “I’d much rather clean shit for some rich fuck than to be a breeding mare to one.”
Next part comes next week!