Saturday, November 12, 2005

fiction: Three Deaths

   Herme was gone, in an eyeblink. That morning, it had been, "Say hello to your fiancée for me, Hebra. Oh, and find some way of suggesting she learn the details of our family's trade a bit better. Perhaps the sixteenth sonnet in Weyman's second volume." The poem rang vaguely: something about finding a new land in a lover's eye. Appropriate. That was his little sister: sharp, but never mean enough to cut. He'd have to rummage around in the library downstairs to refresh his memory. Sometimes Hebra was sure he'd remember this stuff better if there wasn't so much of it. Right now he was immersed in political study, public relations and public speaking, all of which had pushed poetry off the table of his mind.

   "And you're off to ... ?"

   "Riding lesson every Thursday."

   "I forgot. Well, give my regards to Adest, and make sure the maid brings lots of water – it looks deadly out there." Herme was graceful enough, but she lacked the strength and rudeness to control anything besides an agreeable horse. His friend from Fourth House had been teaching her since spring, with good results. At first, people frowned on it, saying there was no need for a princess to learn serious riding. After his mother reminded them Herme had every right to learn, the other Houses found something else to cluck about. They gossiped distrustfully about Adest's hours with Herme, even though he was completely devoted to his own fiancée. Those lower Houses just had no sense sometimes. That he would have to control them one day, as king, was depressing.

   A few hours later, his last words to her stabbed him, for she was dead.

   Hebra didn't learn about it until his friend Adest had already been declared responsible, had already been subjected to torture by their enraged mother. His mouth gaped at the servant who told him – no one had been tortured in five centuries. She had the right to be furious, but to throw back to complete barbarity, and to Adest too, was insane! All their personal and cultural training revered rationality, clearheadedness, fairness. What had happened? By the time he returned to First House, a dozen versions of the event had spun his head, versions that were unflattering to everyone, particularly the speaker for spewing such nonsense.

   But as he'd ridden in, he spotted a carriage with Fourth House's emblem rushing out with, he would swear, Adest's father Iat at the reins. Only a hundred yards separated them, and for a moment Hebra was torn between family and friend. Friends are dearer, being a matter of choice, but propriety prevailed, and he nudged his mount toward First House.

   A servant led him to the library, where the drapes had been drawn. Elder relatives and cousins milled, fanning themselves nervously and muttering. The room was too crowded, and stifling. As he and they bowed greeting to each other, he kept his head up, looking for someone to say something, but only one aunt motioned him to enter one of the small reading rooms. His other siblings, too young to be shown death, were probably being tended by servants.

   Herme had been laid on the table, four or five healers examining her. His mother stood pressed against a wall, unable to watch and unable to look away. She stared at him as he bowed greeting, trembled at the knees and sat, then jumped up again as if she meant to approach the table. But she couldn't take a step. If only father was still alive, Hebra thought, but it is I who will have to take care of her. He nudged the healers aside and looked down.

   The terrible wound on her right temple seized his attention; it made her face pale. Yet it seemed too small to have taken all the life she'd had. Her dress was still damp, her hair water-darkened to the color of grass in winter. A lock of hair stuck in an awkward place, over one eye. He reached forward to push it aside, but stopped, hearing a sudden intake of breath all around him. In his peripheral vision he could see the healers, all women, all shifting away from him an inch or two. It was verboten for a man touch the princess, of course, but she was dead, and he her brother. I must show my strength, Hebra thought, and, tilting his chin up a little, continued the motion his hand had begun.

   "Do not!" Queen Iridan shouted, lunging forward and slapping his arm aside. The healers scattered to the edges of the room.

   "She is dead. May I not show care for – "

   "Fourth House is the cause of this. Your friend Adest, whom you recommended for her training. Leave us," she snapped at the healers, who filed out the door with straight backs and noses up. "You said he was responsible. You said he was disciplined. You said he was a good horseman." Her eyes, her voice were raw.

   "He is. All those things."

   "Then why is your sister ... there? Dead! He is not. Responsible and disciplined, he is not. You bear responsibility for this, too, for your recommendation."

   Her knees were wobbling again, and he closed his mouth, took her hands, led her to a chair. "Queen mother. Mama. Tell me what happened. I've heard crazy things. Set me straight."

   Adest had been teaching hunt riding: jumping with speed. This, Hebra established, had gone without incident. The tragedy had happened after the lesson, when he'd run the horses into a shallow stream leading off the river. "Everyone knows that the little streams grow algae in this season. Her horse stumbled, and she was thrown. But the rocks, why have we not removed the rocks?" Iridan crumpled up a little, staring, then her head snapped back to face Hebra. "Had your friend not led her there, she would be alive."

   "That's possible."

   "I wanted him to suffer."

   "Did he?"

   She nodded slowly, then shook her head. "Yet, it didn't satisfy me." What did you do to him? Hebra wanted to ask. "His father bought him off. He threatened we would have to pay gold for his and his allies' wheat for five seasons." That was extreme, and Hebra suspected the elder Adest had been bluffing. Had there been enough time to get an agreement from the Houses allied with his own? Doubtful. But Adest was his only child. A father could go to extreme measures to preserve his son – and Hebra suddenly realized his mother had been willing to execute Adest. He shivered at that, and her next words. "I'll make sure that boy pays for this."

   She's mad for revenge, he thought. Cool heads must prevail. "Of course, Mama. But that's for later – we must prepare the funeral first." She listened expressionlessly as he rattled off the steps involved. Rising, he returned to the body on the table. "But why won't you let me touch Herme? Her honor can't be damaged now." He looked at Iridan, but she wasn't listening or even looking. He tugged the strand of hair back from Herme's eye, touched her cold hand, remembered she'd told him to read the poetry. It was unbelievable, unthinkable that her life was extinguished, and he rubbed at his gathering tears. She was to be eighteen in December.

   His mother's words, though, shocked him out of his thoughts. "Why did he do it? Was he jealous that he wasn't engaged to her? Would he do such a thing for that?" Iridan asked softly.

   My God, she's twisting reality, taking the rumors, trying to make it intentional! "What are you implying?! Queen Iridan!" he said sharply. Hearing her title brought her back to earth. He opened the door and said loudly enough, "You should hear your elders' opinion on this idea." With a swift bow, he admitted the healers back in, then rushed to his grandparents gathered in a little clutch by a window.

   When he explained, Iridan's mother shook his head. "This isn't the time to be concerned about fine lines. You're just impatient, young prince. She needs time to mourn. She has a right to anger. We all do."

   "But it must stay within boundaries!" he hissed. "Her anger took her the wrong way trying to dispense justice. She was ready to kill Adest herself."

   His other grandfather said, "We know, and agree it was good she was stopped before one crime became two. We have no doubt Fourth would make good on its threat if that happened. However, your friend Adest," pronouncing the name with a spitting sound, "will bear responsibility. Unless you wish to share it, you should distance yourself from him."

   The funeral came and went. Hebra stayed cloistered with his immediate family in First House. Though his mornings were punctured by Herme's absence, from the reaction of the rest of the House, one would think no one young had ever died before. Yes, he missed her smile and her quick wit, but it seemed like half his relatives were missing legs from the way they limped into the breakfast room, supported by servants. And it wasn't as if they'd lost their future queen; that was for Hebra's fiancée. When they weren't wailing, they huddled glumly with the House's lawyer, working out strategies. At times he was called in to meet with the lawyers, other times pushed off to explain matters to his younger brother and sister. I should set the date for my wedding, he thought, that way they'll take my opinion seriously.

   He sneaked off to Fourth House hoping to visit Adest, but was told his friend was mostly unconscious from an infection that had set in. The healer did say he had all his appendages, at least; it had been dicey at first, but now he was expected to recover. Fourth House, too, was in deep discussion with their lawyer, and everywhere he went, people stopped their conversations, plainly waiting until he passed. Adest's father received him but, apparently distrusting the crown prince's motives, said little and excused himself as soon as was polite.

   The trial came and went. Adest was to be exiled: a harsh sentence, to be cut off from everyone and everything he'd known, but at least he kept his life. Thankfully, no one suggested Herme's death was intended. Hebra's name was, seemingly by mutual agreement, never mentioned; apparently his elders wanted no controversy around their crown prince. He could see their point; there was nothing good about his involvement. And yet there was something dishonest about it that he couldn't put his finger on. Fourth House's arguments about limiting blame for accidents had made sense to him, but the loss of his sister kept him silent. The arguments had whirled in his head like a blind hummingbird, and part of him had wanted to leap up and shout "Stop!"

   After Adest rode away, following a caravan of foreign traders, everyone thought it was over. Hebra felt that way too, but he hadn't slept well for the entire three weeks. His sister was dead, and his friend was in a different way just as dead. It was his duty and training to understand all sides and see the larger picture, but everyone he knew, even his circle of friends of which Adest had been a member, had an opinion. The only person he felt could talk to was his valet who, after being so often abandoned or pushed out the door by Hebra, was now too timid to admit to knowing anything about the case. He felt like he was going to explode.

   Instead, he studied furiously, presented his thesis (three projections of the country's economic future), and received for it an ebony headdress inlaid with gems, a symbol of achievement. He married, and learned that as crown prince he could not spend nearly as much time with his wife as he would have liked. She spent most days learning her future role and powers from his mother and the previous monarchs. He was busy with the elders who oversaw various aspects of the House's operations, getting a handle on the details as well as the overall process. Like most Houses, they grew fruit and had a vineyard, and had an individual specialty: First mined ore and clay, made ceramics, and refined metals. As leaders, they were responsible for not only their own financial health but oversaw the country's as well. As tests of his understanding, Hebra had to make what felt like a thousand decisions every day, and listen to the reasons why the decision was or wasn't tenable.

   After a time, the knowledge that factored into his decision-making became second nature. The language of neutrality and the ability to choose which emotion to express in a given situation began to grow into him. Hebra shouldered them awkwardly at first, but by now people were telling him the role of king would suit him. His wife also absorbed the queenly aura, but she seemed more comfortable with the process, willing to sit for hours listening to petitioners, speaking thoughtfully. What he didn't like is that she kept it up even at home with him. It's an act, it's all an act, he thought. It isn't what we were before.

   But when he tried to recall it, he had a hard time remembering what he was like before the responsibilities came. His old friends were now classified according to their alliance with First House. He no longer had a younger sister and brother, but successors to the throne if he died without an heir. Even on his mother's name-days he couldn't help thinking of the number of years until her retirement. It loomed, desirable as sunrise, terrifying as nightfall, and as unavoidable as both.

   There was no single day or moment that Hebra became king in his mind. But the day his daughter was born, he kissed his wife and allowed the midwives to place the child in his arms. She was beet red and her face was squinched furiously, but he declared her utterly beautiful, and carried her to the reception hall. The entire family and many well-wishers from all the Houses were present, far more people than he'd expected. He raised her, turned her to face the crowd, and announced, "I present to you Galidia Andovar, princess, future queen of our country." The room erupted with applause, and Galidia began to cry. Hebra tucked her close to him and rocked her a bit while the visitors filed past, bowing greeting, bowing a second time when a gift was placed on the table beside him. He cheerfully ignored her noise, even though it made hearing impossible. Everyone was giving congratulations and blessings for a healthy life, and he knew it.

   After some time his mother came in his periphery, standing to his left. "Queen mother," he said with some surprise. "You should have been first in line."

   "I was, prince son."

   "I'm sorry. Of course you were. There's just so many people to see her," he said, bowing distractedly to someone from Eighth House.

   "Prince Hebra, I think the child should go back to her mother now," she murmured. "She's making a racket and clearly upset."

   "She'll be fine." He glanced around. "There's only about thirty people still in line. She's a princess, isn't she? She must get used to all this, anyway. Thank you for you blessing," he added to someone else.

   The line moved swiftly, then after one more round of applause, it was over. Hebra thanked the crowd once more, almost shouting to be heard, then at a fast trot brought Galidia back to the nursery. In the quiet of the hallway she finally stopped squalling and began to bubble instead. He gratefully placed the baby into his wife's arms. "How did the presentation go?" she asked.

   "What?"

   She repeated the question, enunciating carefully.

   "Oh, fine. Just beautifully. She was an angel. She'll be a perfect queen one day."






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