Dinner was short. And light. Mostly soup.
Ember was disappointed.
Until a server brought her a plate of roast beef. She noted that no one else got one and glanced at Ean, who was talking to his grandfather Henlan, one of Trin’s favorites. More of his care?
Maybe the cooks were just smart.
She ate it regardless.
Henlan, apparently also the man in charge of big ceremonies, stood up and called the room to attention for a round of speeches. He went first, talking about the exciting times Salshira had entered, the dark challenges that might be ahead of them, and the brave way they were facing them. He finished with a challenge to the nation to pull together under Aihay, their god, and continue unafraid.
After him came the chief elder of the Sunfire Falls Akahllis Council, with a sermon on one of the texts Bethania had Ember reading, something about a foreign woman who was welcomed into an ancient nation and ended up giving birth to a line of kings. She missed most of it while scanning the attentive, and inattentive, faces of the crowd and listening to some of the whispers, but got enough of the subtext to know she was the real topic at discussion.
She liked the part about taking in foreigners and caring for them, but she wasn’t so sure about some of the other implications of the story, which featured an actual marriage.
Well, no escaping that.
Then the King stood up and, with a smile, announced that it was time to begin the celebration in honor of Yahsaw. He made a very short speech about the grim nature of the sacrifice, but the joyous intent behind and before it, and then invited his son Ean and Ean’s guest, Princess Ember Rehksskari, to open with the traditional “Dance of the Mystery.”
The room went silent.
“Wait!” Ember whispered to Trin. “I thought everyone did this.”
Trin looked at her with her eyes wide, then shook her head.
“Noooo…” Trin whispered back. “Just two people. Usually a young betrothed couple.”
Ember felt like the floor had disappeared. She worked a dry mouth for more words and then felt Ean’s hand touch her shoulder.
She rotated her head and tilted it up to look at him. He was standing.
“It will be fine, Ember.” He held out his hand.
She shot a glance around the table for Bethania, but the old woman was apparently sitting elsewhere.
Ember made a note to complain later.
Be a princess. Be a princess. Be a princess.
Going out in public was Seskra’s job! Mother had never considered her fit to display!
Ean reached down and caught her hand himself, pulling her to her feet.
“To victory, Ember!” Trin whispered.
Ember almost shot a hiss at her, but Ean held her gaze with his boring, steady, brown eyes. This was his ground. His palace. His ritual. He was the one who knew what was going on here.
Alright. If she died from the attention it would be his fault.
She followed him out into the middle of the vast, empty, kren-wood dancefloor. The bright lights from above found them again and she couldn’t see for several tikkits. Ean took her other hand in that brief blindness, and when she could see again he was facing her at arm’s length.
Ember started to look around at the crowd, but the light made everything but Ean dark and…
“Don’t worry about them,” he whispered. “Just look at me.”
Ean let go of her hands and went down on one knee before her, keeping his eyes on hers. He looked so serious.
“I have come to purchase for myself a bride,” he intoned. The words echoed in the quiet, bouncing off the distant walls and whispering back.
That look in his eyes…
He wasn’t seeing anything but her.
Did he mean it?!
A smile cracked one side of Ean’s mouth.
“At the…” he mouthed.
She narrowed her eyes at him. She hadn’t forgotten.
“At the price of your life you shall have one.” Her words snapped out and rang back.
She did mean it.
His smile widened.
Ember wanted to slap it off his face, but instead she pulled her sword out of her sash, scabbard and all, and held it out flat in both hands. At the same time Ean pulled out his, in the same way, and laid it on the ground between them.
Next Ean reached up and undid Ember’s black sash and retied it around his own waist, just above his blood-red one. Then he untied his red sash and retied it around her waist.
He snugged it gently. Ember watched his hands and studied his face.
Why did he take this so seriously?
Ean picked up his sword off the floor, stood, and held it in one hand.
“By my death you are free. By my blood you are clean,” he said.
She held out her sword.
“I surrender my fight to my groom.”
Ean took her sword with his free hand and replaced it with his own.
“I deliver my strength to my bride.”
Ember took the sword and slid it into the red sash.
Servants, no, not servants, the two white-tiger-furred twins, dressed up in gray serving outfits, came up behind Ean with a white coat and a golden sash. They removed the black sash and his green coat, then replaced it with the new outfit. She saw Ean wince as they tied the gold sash extra tight.
Ean glared at them both, then laid Ember’s sword in the hands of the twin who had taken the black sash.
“Let this sash and this sword be buried, and never remembered again.”
The twins bowed and vanished back into the darkness.
Ean held out his hands to Ember.
Ember took them.
“Peace be upon you forevermore,” they said together.
“And now we dance,” Ean whispered, pulling her a little closer and taking a step.
The dance that followed, to music that appeared as soon as Ean lifted his foot, should have been beautiful. Ember knew it should have been beautiful. Bethania had shown it to her with Selani and, done properly, it was.
But every time Ean moved, her feet felt stuck to the floor, and every time she glanced at his face and met him looking back at her she had to fight not to step back. She settled for staring at the air just to the right of his neck as they dipped and twirled to slow, measured, notes.
Halfway through he pulled her a little closer.
She almost tripped and fell down. What was he doing?
“Why are you so angry at me?” he whispered in her ear.
“I’m not…” she started to say, then cut it down to a whisper. “I’m not angry.”
“Then why are you giving me my sister’s “punch you in the face” look every time our eyes meet?”
“It’s… ugh…” What was he thinking!? It was hard enough following him without any talking!
“Alright. You aren’t angry. I have a different question.”
He brought her through another spin and into a series of back and side steps.
“What?” she whispered.
“Those words you said to me the other day. I translated them. ‘You build me.’ ‘You destroy me.’ What does that mean?”
Ember stumbled, but Ean held her up and brought her to the next step.
That? She’d completely forgotten she’d even said that. She felt her heart beating faster as she tried to think of why she’d even said it in the first place.
“It’s from an old poem.”
“A Garagran poem?”
“Garagran’s write poetry?”
“Of course we do!” Ember hissed. “Everybody writes poetry!”
Ean lead Ember forward again, diagonal to the retreat.
“I apologize,” he whispered. “What kind of poem?”
Ember hesitated. No! She would not stop moving. Step. Next step.
“A love poem.”
Ean tried to look at her face but she avoided his eyes. He let her be until they switched direction again, starting on the third side of a diamond.
“So how does the whole poem go?”
Ember growled, then turned toward his ear and whispered a long series of slipping fricatives, sharp consonants, and sliding sibilants.
“It would take me a while to translate it,” she said at the end. “Some of it wouldn’t have words in Tokarien.”
“You memorized it.”
“Yes. But that’s only the ending.”
“What’s it about?”
And change direction again.
Ember sighed softly.
“You won’t leave me alone, will you?”
“I can ask some other time…”
“No. Now is fine. Here in front of your entire kingdom. Now is great.”
“Shutup. It’s about a General in the second Skahllian empire and his best lieutenant. Khelvedre and Zikkassia. Zikkassia was utterly loyal to her General. She fought at his side tirelessly, took any order he gave her, and watched his back continuously. Literally the only thing she wanted was to serve him and be his mate. The words I said to you are what General Khelvedre said to her. ‘You build me, and you destroy me.’”
“What does that…”
“I said shutup.” She stepped hard and missed his foot by the width of a thumb.
He shut his mouth.
“He said it because her selfless devotion both built him up and tore him down. He couldn’t be around her, without being changed by her. Her love was so powerful, and so selfless, that it made him feel like he was having his heart torn out of his chest to be around her. In one place he says, ‘I would strip my own scales off for you.’”
And complete the diamond, and take a slow whirl through the middle.
“In the end he couldn’t bear it anymore. To be with her was to be under the power of another, exposed and unsafe.”
She paused as Ean brought her back to the middle of the diamond and lead her in a small box. Ean started to open his mouth halfway through, then stopped and waited.
She studied his eyes, his intent, open eyes, and wanted to bite him.
“Should I ask?” he finally said.
“You know the end.”
“Alright. I’ll tell you. He killed her. Khelvedre made love to Zikkassia one night and then killed her quickly while she slept. Then he made poetry about her for the rest of the campaign and died when he came home, torn apart by his rivals. According to witnesses, he didn’t even fight back.”
“Is that how I make you feel?”
He moved her back on the first arm of a cross pattern. Step and spin, step and spin.
“It’s how all of you make me feel. But you the most.”
“Do you want to…”
“No. I’d just run away. And die alone when the Empire finds me.”
Ember felt Ean’s grip on her tighten.
Thek. She returned the grip with crushing interest.
His face whitened but he held steady and brought her into the return, stepping and spinning toward the top of the cross.
“Why do you… why do Garagrans hate being loved so much?”
“‘Love gives more than all, a bargain none can afford.’ ‘He who gives more, will lose his own scales.’ ‘Lose your scales, lose your life.’ ‘Your life is all you have.’ These are the teachings of Nk’drak’sil, the god of my people.”
And reverse again, toward the middle.
“I see. I’ve… never heard them explained so clearly.”
“Of course not. Bethania showed me the copy of the Scales in your library. But you have to be a Garagran to truly understand them.”
“Does it make you… happy to follow these things?”
“Happy is for fools, and even you know that. This is what I am, and it keeps my people alive to follow these teachings.”
Ean gave her a long look with his eyebrows pulled together, like he was in pain, then nodded. He brought her to the middle, and started them on the the first arm.
Out and back and out and back and she would be done.
“Happy is for fools. But there is more than happy. And more than staying safe and alive.”
“Safe and powerful and alive.”
“Your teachings haven’t given you any of those, Ember.”
Her step hitched again and she stumbled. He carried her through once more.
“Do you know what our teachings say?”
“‘Lose your life and you will gain it.’”
“That’s idiocy. Dead is dead.”
He started them on the second to last return.
“Not if you get your life back. And somewhere, in that place of utter nakedness and surrender that Garagrans fear so much, beyond the threat of death, is someone who can make that happen. Who has. And that’s what everyone around you is trying to show you. By loving you like they value you more than their own lives.”
“Because some of us do.”