Days and days more passed before Mellain devised a solution to the problem, and the woman kept popping up in his thoughts at the strangest moments. He’d simply never met a woman with such elegant features and such a devil-may-care attitude. She’d taken a sip of his coffee for Mortis’ sake! For a time Mellain couldn’t decide whether she’d been flirting with him or didn’t give a whit about his opinions of her. Then he realized that both options were equally as intriguing. He had to have her as his date to the ball, and that was that. The strangeness of the situation drove both thoughts of his father and thoughts of dallying out of his mind for nigh on a week. This ended one Gods’ Day. While he was blissfully free of his secular schooling on Gods’ Day, neither he or his siblings were spared their religious education. Which was, for the record, even more grueling than the ordinary sort. One of the local priests came to visit them about an hour after sunrise on this particular day, and they were all forced to gather in the manor’s classroom. For a particularly cheery topic, the priest, an aging acolyte of Celais, goddess of the harvest and prosperity, chose to speak of Mortis’ genesis—the birth of the god of death.
Cole sat, quite naturally, in the front row, answering questions in what he thought was a man’s voice and posturing with his stout and unreasonably muscular body. The boy would’ve been a bully if he’d had any need to. His father’s arm snuck around Cole’s shoulder occasionally, while their mother sat on his other side, plucking at her finery and shifting her legs about. The topic did not bring her much comfort, it would seem. Mellain and Cora, quite naturally, sat in the back, keeping quiet and inconspicuous, Cora fidgeting nervously while trying to maintain a sardonic composure. She’d once said after a particularly brutal sermon that the only thing that worried her more than priests was pregnancy, and there was a fellow on Buckle Street who could help her get rid of the latter. Very few things Cora said to Mellain were not horrible.
The priest milled about the front of the large room, tapping on the benches as he went past, quoting a passage from the Book of the Gods of Reason, the more modern and generally more appealing tome pressed upon the uninterested. Suddenly, he began reading from the black book in his hands. “And so when the first birth came to be—the birth of the dryad Oak—two babes also sprang forth from Heaven’s Font, wet and bewildered. The Primals looked upon them with wonder and terrible fear. One was a girl, sweet of nature even in her infancy, with silver eyes and ruddy skin and the lightest of locks, and the Water Mother took her in her arms, recognizing her for what she was and calling her sister. But the other, a boy, was pale of skin, and dark of eye and hair, and his solemn stare drew away the eyes of even stolid Phaerdra of the Earth. And the Primals convened for many years, and named them Spirit and Mortis, the Soul and Death. And the gods kept Spirit for their own, but for Mortis they traveled to the shores of Earth and came to the barren soil where Oak stood alone, and said, ‘This babe is not yet needed, for life in this world has only begun. Cradle him in your roots until the time arrives when you see the first wrinkle on your firstborn’s brow. Then will Death begin his rule.’” The priest went on to speak about how the Primals had loved Spirit as their dear and abiding sister, and how they had been greatly bereaved when, upon the day of her womanhood, she had broken like an eggshell and become all the aspects of the soul—or at least most of them. “Many years passed,” the priest continued, his hands shaking the book around and slowing his reading down to a crawl. “Finally came the day when Oak saw the wrinkle on the brow of her firstborn, and lifting up her roots she brought forth a man, terrible and beautiful, with the darkest eyes and hair and lips like the freshest blood. She saw at once that this was no man the Primals had brought to her, but a god the equal of Spirit. She woke him, and bade him go to meet the other gods that now roamed the land. She clothed him with her leaves and gave him a knife made of her bark and sent him on his way. And when he met them—Amara, Celais, Moren, and all the others—he said in a shout to the heavens, ‘This is not right. You have coddled my twin, brothers and sisters, and given her only daylight when the world must have darkness as well. You have shadows within each of you, but you would only show the living half of what it means to live!’ And with a great sigh, Mortis took up the knife of bark and cut off three locks of his hair, and when they fell to earth they became Crespus, deity of Pestilence, Lezi, goddess of famine, and Martius, god of war. And sighing again he said to them, ‘You three shall be cursed by the living, but you will be welcome in my halls when no temple will have you and no heaven will abide by you.’ And with these words Mortis cast off his clothing and cast away his knife, and returned to Oak, and he said to her with solemn voice, ‘Oak, first of the dryads, my home shall once again be beneath your feet, but it will grow into a great and hollow cave as more souls come to inhabit this world.’ Oak nodded, her great trunk swaying in unseen gales. ‘This is right, and so shall the passing of souls beneath my feet make this world a stronger place to walk upon.’”
Mellain and Cora had heard this passage a few hundred times or so, after all it had to be drilled into them that the sorrows of the world were not only insurmountable but also quite just and inevitable. Cole beamed at the priest, nodding solemnly as if he were Mortis himself. The priest shut the book with a thud and set it down, then began pacing about again. “For many centuries, of course, the dead—mostly dryads, some sprites and then elves at the time—went down to Mortis’ Chasm, their souls feeding Oak and reappearing as acorns to give new life. Yet when the dwarves and humans were born, Mortis perceived a flaw. What did he do, young Miss Cora?”
Mellain’s sister smiled sweetly as her mother’s gaze swung back toward her. “He decided the Three Fates of the Dead, father,” she said.
“That is correct,” said the priest. “And what were those three Fates . . . young Cole?”
The ruddy-faced boy beamed at the opportunity to prove his mettle to his father. “The dead would either die forever, be reborn to live again, or go on to Paradise.”
The priest smiled and Arel clapped his younger son on the knee. “Father,” Arel said, “you might do well to remind my sons how one’s Fate is chosen.” The merchant’s balding head swiveled around, looking past Cora as usual and settling on Mellain. There’s that lion’s grin again, Mellain thought to himself.
“Well, Mellain, can you answer that question?” the priest asked.
Mellain nodded, as respectfully as he could manage when he was frozen with fear. “Yes, Father. Those who have achieved true understanding move on to Paradise. Those who prosper and are virtuous and those who move forward with purpose are given the chance to live again. And those who . . . “ Mellain lost his composure only slightly as his father’s stare tightened around him like a hangman’s noose. “Those who fail to make use of themselves, whether good or bad in spirit, are . . . they cease to be.”
Arel nodded, turning his attention back to the priest. “Very good, Mellain,” the acolyte said. The sermon was soon over, but the chill remained in Mellain’s heart. It didn’t matter what he did, or how much he tried to change. He had been marked a failure, condemned to the worst of Fates in his father’s less eternal ledger. Cora caught up to him later pacing through the less-inhabited quarter of the garden, a smile of amusement reaching to her blue eyes. “Daddy really has it out for you, doesn’t he?”
Mellain did not look amused at all. “Yes. I think I’ve overstepped my bounds by a mile or so. I’ve been trying to act respectable, but . . . I’m afraid it’s too late.”
Cora shrugged. “What’s the absolute worst father could do to you? Put you on the streets? I’m sure you could find a widow to take care of you.”
Mellain’s heart skipped a beat at his sister’s words. “What was that?”
She looked at him oddly. “Nothing, I’m just saying you’re excellent at fooling people into liking you. I’d like to think I taught you that skill, but I believe it’s in our blood.” Cora smirked. “Just watch yourself and eventually he’ll forget about it. He’ll never like you, but at least he’ll put up with you.”
Mellain suddenly found himself angry, an emotion he simply didn’t permit himself very often. “Why the bloody hell does he hate me so much anyway? He hated me for years before I became such a bad seed! Bloody prejudice is what it is, and I don’t understand it.”
Cora stopped walking and poked her brother in the middle of the chest, the layered sleeves of her autumn day dress flailing in the breeze. “Well first of all, you say bloody too much, and it’s ridiculous. Stop it or I won’t help you out anymore.”
Mellain smirked. “Yes ma’am, I’ll remove it from my vocabulary immediately.”
“Good,” Cora said. “Now listen, I had no idea you were such a dolt that you didn’t know why you never got along with your father. Do you know the day it began?”
“The day I was born?”
“No, and stop being so damned sarcastic all the time. Sometimes I can’t understand how you’ve managed to get anyone into bed, let alone a third of Serelmouth. He started hating you the day he fired that nursemaid of yours.”
Mellain stepped back, his sister’s bony finger following him. “Tirena?”
Cora shrugged. “Yes, if that was her name.”
Cora stepped back as she heard voices coming from the center of the vast gardens—Cole and Arel were approaching. “I can’t believe you didn’t know that, you idiot,” she whispered, then turned off the other way, mouthing “Meet me in my quarters tonight.”
“Two marks sir,” the serving maid said, smiling sheepishly. No, too shy. Cute in a boring way, though, Mellain thought, his eyes ever open for his prey. Mellain smiled back, accepting his steaming mug of coffee and holding it gingerly while she slid a cork coaster onto the mirror-polished mahogany table he was sitting at. This was definitely the nicest café in town, and more importantly the best cup of coffee in this leg of the Riviera. When Sovereign Jelentha’s family had moved here a few generations ago from southern Matara, they had brought their own coffee plants with them and tended them with incredible care. Jelentha’s niece now owned the café that was the meeting place of the rich and influential of Serelmouth. Mellain halfway hoped that his father would see him here just so that he could show him that he was making himself a part of polite society, coming out as it were, but mostly he was here for the beverage in front of him. A beverage which was, as his lips were now telling him in no short order, still far too hot to drink.
Mellain had been traipsing about town since early morning, bouncing between the usual romantic hotspots—the library, a garden park, fine establishments that girls his age either frequented or helped their fathers, usually pleasantly absent, run. To his mild irritation, not a single hopeful situation had arisen. No eyes meeting over a work by the same philosopher, no playing genially with small yippy dogs that turned out to belong to beautiful young socialite daughters. He had played with a yippy dog, mind you, but as it so happened it belong to an eerily effeminate old university bursar who wasn’t terribly pleased with its sharing of canine affections. His legs tired, his hind end sweaty, and his perilously underused heart creaking with exhaustion after being asked to run the show all day, Mellain had finally plopped down for a pleasant drink.
Attempting to wait patiently for his coffee to cool, Mellain brushed a few stray hairs out of his face with his hand, then set to looking around the room he was sitting in. This was the main commons of the sprawling café, and he recognized several faces in the crowd. A business partner of his father’s here, a fellow who had buggered his sister once there. I owe that fellow a farthing or two, he thought to himself, spotting an upwardly-married grain merchant in a high collar a few tables away. Thank you for using your marital expertise on my sister and then being so mortified at finding out she was only fifteen that you nearly started crying and then lost your pants in a holly bush. Mellain remembered that night as his first real bonding with his sister. It seemed funny now, but he had laughed about it for weeks when he was twelve! Not to mention the fact that Cora had doubled his usual hush money to two gold marks just because the whole business was so hilarious. Of course from the sound of it he hadn’t been half bad at what he was doing either, which probably contributed equally to her magnanimity at the time. Mellain glanced back to his coffee in a flash; the man had seen him and was giving him the most unnerved look out of the corner of his eye. Mellain chuckled as he sipped his still-too-hot coffee, then resumed his look around the room.
Finally, after hours of attempting to find a decent date, he spotted her. A dark-haired, pale-faced girl with a slightly sideways smile was doling out silver from her purse, buying a pastry from the counter in front. He schooled himself back to his drink, looking as lost in thought as he could. As she meandered his way looking for a table, he looked up, trying to seem as if he’d just noticed her. “This seat is free,” he said as nonchalantly as possible. The girl—was she a girl? She was definitely older than him—smiled politely and took a seat, setting her eclair down on the table and signaling the serving girl. Mellain took a deeper sip from his cup, actually noticing how rich the old Mataran design was on the tempered ceramic.
When the serving girl arrived, the woman across from Mellain asked quietly for a knife and fork. She smiled and headed back for the kitchen. “They always get so messy,” she said, looking at Mellain.
“Hmm?” he said, looking up from his cup. She’s buying my act, he thought, which was a surprise considering how terrible he was at it.
“These little eclairs, they get rather messy if you eat them by hand.”
“Ah yes,” Mellain said after a sip of coffee. “I always ask for a fork,” he said. It was a bald lie—at home he usually ate the popular little pastries by hand, standing up, in the middle of the parlor. And he wondered why the servants would rat him out to his father. “You should try a cup of their coffee with it,” he said.
She wrinkled her nose a bit, making eye contact with Mellain. “Coffee is a touch bitter for me,” she said.
Mellain smiled, he hoped and hoped, in a friendly fashion. That old lion’s grin he had seen on his father had its way of sneaking onto his face at the most inopportune times. “I find it does wonders to balance out the sweetness of the pastry,” he said. “I am simply of the opinion that everyone should try it.” At that moment the serving girl arrived with the requested flatware, and the mysterious stranger began to slice her first bite of pastry.
“Well if you’re so strongly of the opinion that I should try it I imagine you wouldn’t mind offering a sip of your own,” she said, with what he suspected was a coy smile on her face. Mellain had no experience with this type of woman! And she was a woman, not a girl, which unnerved him to no end. For that matter, what was a lone woman doing alone in a well-established hall of business such as this, poking daintily at a chocolate eclair while fat men nattered about spices and grain commodities all around her? He didn’t feel love by any means, but Mellain, for the first time, felt respect and genuine interest merge as he watched this likely older woman take a sip of his coffee. Her nose wrinkled adorably when she sipped it, washing down her sweet crème-filled forkful, but when she sat it down she nodded in appreciation. “I must admit, good sir, you were right about the balance. I still don’t think I’d like it on its own.”
“Ah, now that’s why you stir chocolate into it,” he said, and the two of them bantered for a minute or two about the possible applications of coffee versus various sweet items. After a bit she looked around the room. “I thank you for your education in beverages, but I may have to take your leave in a few moments. I came her ahead of time so I could enjoy myself, but I am expecting a business meeting any minute.”
“Oh,” Mellain said, trying very hard not to ask her how a woman should become a merchant. He had an acute feeling that there would be no return from such a slight. “And what do you trade in, if you don’t mind me asking?” he said.
“Only the finest glassware, mirrors mainly,” the woman said, smoothing back her dark hair as if she were looking in one at that moment. Mellain began to remember something.
Taking the last drink of his coffee, and suffering through the few grounds that swirled up from the bottom of the mug, Mellain stood up from the table. “Well, given that my coffee is, with a small sip of your help, gone, I will take your leave and give your business partner a nice, pre-warmed place to sit.” The woman laughed, although a bit too throatily. Mellain turned back to her. “How remiss of me though, not having introduced myself. I am Mellain Dorenne,” he said, extending his hand.
“And I am Sindra Tarsus,” she said, taking his hand. Mellain recognized the name at once—and remembered why her remark about mirrors had nearly rung a bell. She was the widow of Andre Tarsus, who had sold Mellain’s father a large mirror just last year. It had been a 19th birthday present for Cora.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Mellain said. “Your late husband did business with my family,” he said. “He was a man who took great pride in his wares.”
“And he has passed that pride on to me,” Sindra said, smiling. “Some think me odd for running the business myself, but I really do care about it.”
“I think it’s excellent,” Mellain said, then watched her eyes jump to the door. “Well, it looks like you have your man, and it was very nice meeting you.” He took her hand a second time, smiled, then walked out the door. It wasn’t until he was halfway down the street that the smile began to fade from his face—the smile of success as well as the smile of having made a new—friend, maybe? He really didn’t know. The whole thing was so far out of his experience. He wondered if a widow like herself would even consider accepting a date to the Sovereign’s party. Of course she’d be there, and he was fairly sure he was roughly her age despite her young bereavement, but could he play his cards well enough to go there with her on his arm? For a young man, Mellain was a master of timing, a skillful hand at turn of phrase and a virtuoso at smiling. He would only have to learn a new skill or two if he hoped to turn today’s meeting to his advantage.
Mellain sat up in his bed, brushing a shock of scarlet hair away from his face in an attempt to look out the window. “Bloody spirits,” he muttered to himself. The sunlight was streaming in his perfectly framed window, through gossamer curtains onto his soft down bed, resplendent with its bright white goose down comforter and mirror-bright brass knobs. Well, it never changes, he thought to himself. Even after a good night’s sleep . . . I still hate this bloody place. Half-heartedly wishing to avoid his mother’s reproach when he was already suffering from the daylight revenge of all the wine he’d drank the night before, he searched in his bureau for a clean and unwrinkled doublet, successfully locating a golden garment that still stank of the heavily perfumed soap his mother’s servants washed it in.
By Mellain’s reckoning it was already pushing 9 in the morning, which would mean he’d missed the morning meal—luckily a somewhat excusable affront on a Day of Rest—and would have to find whatever the cooks had left out in the kitchen. Pulling his hair up into a rough ponytail, Mellain made his way downstairs, feeling the desperate need for something sweet and creamy. Luckily he found what he was looking for, grabbing two pastries off of the table set just inside the larder. The cooks were given the time between breakfast and dinner off each Rest Day, which normally meant a cold lunch for his family, given that while none of them knew the first thing at all about cooking, it would also be a grave insult for one of the servants to find their masters doing their work for them . . . even in their off hours. And, by Mellain’s reckoning, idiocies like that were just a minute portion of all the ridiculous rules and taboos he had to live by.
There were two people in his life that had freed him from such a narrow field of existence . . . and he didn’t know whether to thank them or curse them. The more recent had been his grandfather, a simple man born and bred in the country of Derea—a man equally as proud of his son for achieving success as his son was ashamed of him. Mellain had been allowed to spend precious little time with the kindly older man growing up, but in that time he’d learned some valuable things about taking care of himself, not to mention the relative value of whiskey in comparison to wine. Mellain wasn’t sure where his grandfather was . . . his family hadn’t requested his presence in nearly a decade, and Mellain strongly doubted he’d see him again. It wasn’t so much that his family didn’t want to see his grandfather—in their own sense they loved him. They were just quite simply too occupied with their social machinations to think of something as mundane as family.
The thought of Mellain’s other emancipator left a pang in his heart. When he was a child, his father had hired a beautiful half-elven nanny for him. He more than likely had one or two of the same reasons for hiring her as his mother had for letting her go around the time Mellain turned eight. The knowledge that children in less pampered nations let go of their caretakers at the age of five, or had to have their mothers take care of them, had always scared the boy, and he could not remember a more sorrowful day in his life than when he saw her come downstairs in her gray velvet dress and kissed him on his forehead for the last time. He had literally been beside his small seven-year-old self. She had been . . . not a mommy to him, exactly, but perhaps something more significant.
Tirena, half-elven though she was, was nothing like the proper and terse gold-toned elves that lived on the Golden Islands out in Lake Serel. Her skin had always stayed pale, like the moon, even in the highest sun, and her hair had been silver, shaded only slightly pewter by her human heritage. She had been friendly and more than a little impish, always laughing like a bell when she caught her charge in mischief before stifling herself and scolding him. He would get up to the smallest bits of no good in the hopes that she would only laugh, but she would always remind him to be a good little boy, to be polite and proper.
He never really thought she meant it . . . but he knew from one awful day that Tirena could be scolded just as well as he could, and it had broken his heart to see his mother coax a tear from his nanny’s grey eyes. So he stayed out of trouble, at least until she left. With only himself to find trouble for, he had held nothing back, and he had found himself more and more constricted as he ran afoul of his parents’ expectations again and again.
Mellain wandered from the kitchen into a small sitting parlor, looking out at the garden through the picture window that was the centerpiece of the room. He munched thoughtfully on the pastry, filled with fresh spring berries, and crumbs of flaky crust fell disregarded to the lavish carpet as his mind slipped back into reminiscence. The garden always reminded Mellain, not of a piece of living art, or a place of beauty, but rather a twisted child of the forests Tirena had always spoken of. She had a bureau in her room with a mirror, and each night before she set Mellain to bed, she would hold him in her lap as she brushed out her long hair and tell him a great story of the forest--a tale of the dryads, or the sprites, and sometimes even of the lord of the forest, a being she always seemed to hold in the greatest of regard. The perfume of her hair used to fill the air around Mellain, and somehow, while it had been the scent of comfort to the young boy, it also had something wild and untamed about it. To this day when Mellain thought of the forested lands, he imagined them smelling like Tirena, a thought that made him want more badly than ever to flee his boredom and seek them out.
As he had grown older, Mellain had begun to suspect that Tirena was not only the founder of his discontent with the Riviera, but perhaps also the founder of his obsession with women . . . and more disconcertingly perhaps the all-too-high standard against which he held pampered merchants’ daughters and servant girls alike. No wonder he grew bored with the girls he wooed so quickly if he expected them to be as enchanting as her.
Brushing the last of the crumbs off of his doublet, Mellain stepped out the parlor door into the garden. It really was a labor of love, a vast tract of carefully placed flowers, topiaries, tall lonely trees and white stones glaring in the vernal sunshine. He could hear the crack of reed on reed as his younger brother Cole and his father sparred in the practice yard, hidden away on the far side of the garden. After treading the cobblestone path he was on for what seemed a minute, he reached a majestically overgrown willow which, so far from a stream, had to be watered profusely each day by the gardener’s young daughter. It was amazing how far a cocksure smile, an offer of assistance, and a leisurely stroll through the more secluded parts of the garden could get a boy of fourteen. Of course, boys of fourteen had to learn all about boundaries and proper etiquette as well, and to this very day Mellain looked askance and hurried on his way when passing the rather misplaced-looking tree.
Picking from a number of paths, Mellain took a rather acute right turn onto a uniformly meandering trail that picked its way through a stand of high rushes. The path took him over a highly-arched wooden footbridge, an excellent place as he recalled to meet a fine lass. Especially if you show up just a few minutes late, he noted to himself, give her plenty of time to get sentimental watching the water. Mellain put all thoughts of plying his evening trade out of his mind as he approached his mother and sister. The two sat on a canopied bench next to one of the garden’s more splendid fountains, bubbling away gleefully as they tried to talk over it. Mellain had good ears, and so he overheard part of their conversation before they heard him coming. His mother was describing to his sole older sibling an apparently dashing young man whose family had recently begun looking for potential suitors. He smirked at his sister’s naïve responses to his mother’s oblique suggestions of seeking the boy out, reminding her of the next soiree the Sovereign would be throwing. He had over the years accidentally obtained many a tidbit of knowledge on the fashion in which Cora sought out young or rather more often older men at Serelmouth’s annual balls. Quite coincidentally Mellain had also over the years obtained a respite from some of his more odious responsibilities and several very shiny golden coins in exchange for an equally golden silence.
“Good morning mother, Cora,” Mellain said as evenly as he could. As his mother turned to face him, Cora’s insipid mask dropped, revealing the tightly-coiled ball of cynicism that she truly was. Recently, Mellain had been surprised to find he actually respected his sister. This, of course, would have called his values into question if he in fact had owned any values.
“Is it still morning, Mellain?” his mother replied dryly. “Next time you go out you should probably consider at least trying to find a clean shirt.” Damn. And he’d thought he was golden.
“Many apologies, mother,” Mellain said, injecting just as much mockery into his words as he felt he could afford. “The day beckoned me outside into your beautiful garden.”
An instant later, Mellain wasn’t sure what had possessed him to act so defiantly. He saw the anger flare in his mother’s green eyes, a relic of her Hedraen heritage. Right now the other thing that he could see was honest sadness and hurt, radiating outward in tiny hairline fractures in her skin from those blazing eyes. That was what stopped him, what made him show the first emotion toward one of his parents other than disdain for the first time in . . . well, years.
Mellain glanced downward. “I, uh . . . sorry Mother, it really is quite nice. The, uh . . . the garden.” He turned around, looking around on his clothing for the stain his mother had so easily caught. “Bloody hell,” he muttered.
The rest of the day passed in the usual numb fashion, as did the following day, the following week. The chink in Mellain’s armor had been revealed, though, and he was beginning to feel like he couldn’t keep up along his usual lines. If the thought of his grasp on the reins of sarcasm and casual cruelty slipping again didn’t unnerve him, the thought of feigning indifference for too much longer most certainly did. There was a pressure building up inside him again—the last time he’d felt such a welling he’d turned to women, living through his callow, foul-humored days to be a charming young poet-gentleman at night. A few months ago even that had begun to grow old and even depressing as he realized how easy it had all become. When he’d been fifteen, even sixteen, he’d occasionally been slapped, punched, and threatened by fathers so hard that he’d had some need for determination, for expertise and skill in the bedroom games the young so enthusiastically played in Serelmouth. Now he was so damned good at it that he could have whoever and whatever he wanted. Older women had been a challenge for a while until he worked out how to play the part of the earnest young artist.
Now, with such inevitable conquests no longer fulfilling him—not to mention making him feel like a right bastard half the time—a similar pressure had begun to build. This had centered on his mind rather than suffusing his body, but it was much the same thing. He needed somewhere to focus his energies, something to DO that he could actually bring himself to care about. Half the time he was worried that his eternal vigil against avarice would slip and that he would find his energies focused in the same direction as his father’s, amassing impressive numbers in both the monetary and social fields without ever accomplishing anything tangible. More distressingly, Mellain had no idea what he wanted. So, for the time being he would simply have to be an indifferent, cruel little bastard.
The summer began to wane, and reached that insipidly languorous point upon which every day was golden and glaring and the grasshoppers that had once been bright green began to change their color to a dull brown. It did, however, mean that the humid nights of summer were nearly gone, and soon cool, crisp winds would blow around gardens and hayfields alike. Autumn was a time for romance, and Mellain was bound and determined to enjoy it. He had decided to take it as a challenge to avoid the usual act of seduction in the hopes that a drop or two of sexual frustration might be the elixir he was looking for.
He was normally very good at avoiding his father’s attentions, but one day his vigilance slipped critically, and he found himself just outside the door to his quarters, his merchant father’s cool, meaty hand gripping his left shoulder with the sort of mock companionship he displayed to his professional victims. Like a herd dog’s nip on a sheep’s flank, the grip was just firm enough that he knew what it could mean—control, both physical and mental. Backed into a corner like this, no servants or other family to keep his father from making a scene, he wouldn’t dare be anything but sincere and honest to his father. Then again, considering how eager he had been in the past to destroy any respect his parents might have for him, he was afraid even that might not be enough.
“How are your studies going, boy?” his father asked. This was obviously a front—Mellain’s tutors had returned from their summer break from him only a couple of weeks prior.
“Very well, sir,” he said in as level a tone as he could manage.
His father’s smile was not quite predatory, but it was certainly false. His balding head looked cool and dry in the filtered sunlight despite his intentions. “I’m afraid I’d be inclined to differ,” the merchant said. “Regardless of your marks, your tutors tell me you still haven’t chosen a vocation, and it’s past time now you start considering what school to attend. You’ll be eighteen in just two months; you need to start behaving as an adult or you won’t manage to be successful. Gods know I won’t support you after the way you’ve conducted yourself.”
“I’m sorry sir, I—“
“Sorry is not the least bit of comfort to me in this situation, Mellain. You haven’t taken your life seriously, you refuse to take your future seriously. And now the servants tell me about how loose your morals have been.” Mellain’s father stopped talking for a moment in order to give his son a truly disappointed glare. It was around then that Mellain lost his composure.
“Well, no more than any other boys I know—“
“That is quite beside the point!” his father yelled, his plump face shading toward red. “Mellain, you have been a continual disappointment to me, and I can easily tell you that your wits are not dull—you simply don’t care. Cole has better business acumen than you, and he is only twelve!” Mellain’s father took a moment to bring himself together, his coldly friendly tone returning. “See to it that you do something about your usefulness, or I might be inclined to reconsider your standing within this family.” The grip on Mellain’s shoulder relaxed, the man stormed off in the other direction.
So that was that. Mellain had always intended to lower his parents’ expectations of him, not drive them to disown him. Apparently he had done too good of a job of being a lout. He might even be thrilled at the idea of being out on his own, but for one thing: no one would dare employ or even help him if they thought they would be risking the wrath of Arel Dorenne. The man was known for his quiet vindictiveness as well as his kindness to those who remained loyal to him. Mellain would be in very serious trouble on his own in Serelmouth.
Which simply meant that he would have to take extra care not to be forcibly removed from Dorenne Manor.
It was easy at first, really. It wasn’t that his attitude toward his family had changed, just his understanding of the stakes. As the nights cooled, Mellain wrested some control of himself in the lust department and began actually looking for someone to have a medium-term relationship with. Over the last year at least he’d been very careful to choose for his nighttime larks the sort of girl who would appreciate his attention, but the thought of a sobbing daughter running to tell her father about what that Dorenne boy had done to her gave him a fit of worry. His father would drop him like a hot rock if such a thing happened. As a novel alternative, he began to look for the sort of girl he would be able to talk to for more than a few minutes without becoming bored out of his skull. Such a girl was not an easy thing to find in a flimsy-minded town like Serelmouth, but he did his best. Besides, it was only two weeks now until Sovereign Jelentha’s Autumn Ball, held quite naturally on the night of the equinox. It was intended to be the last real outdoor event of the year, and people made a large fuss of it. Maybe if Mellain showed up to the ball with a respectable girl on his shoulder he would be able to buy himself a few months of his affairs being minded a little less closely.
None of the girls who tutored at his school would do. None of the girls he had ever dated before would do. He began to tease himself that he would have to meet this elusive specimen completely by chance. One day when his tutor called in sick with a crushing head cold, Mellain marked it mentally as kismet, and went wandering the town.
Prologue: A Divination
It was Caphius’ favorite sort of summer day, the kind of day so gentle that, rather than pick up his quill or even his brushes, the centaur was fully content to simply absorb the scent and sensation of deep contentment that accompanied the midsummer weather. On days like these, the sunlight warming the high boughs angled its way down in golden shafts all the way into the deep, cool hollows of the Wellwood, the darkest and oldest part of the Silver Wood—and not coincidentally, the home of Caphius’ oldest and best friend, Argentus. The poet found his inspiration in the minute details and changes of the natural world, and made his way slowly to the forest’s center, taking time to study the ferns and other plants of the forest floor as they stretched toward the long beams of sunlight that so rarely touched them. Miles from his destination, Caphius’ sense of ease began to ebb as he began to sense the Well itself, worming its way in to his subconscious as it had these last several years. Argentus had found in his friend the gift of seeing, if not prophecy, and had given him the very rare privilege of learning to use the Well as the forest lord himself had for so many millennia. Caphius was at best adequate at understanding what it showed him—when it chose to show him anything—but its effect on his psyche was anything but minute. Stretching his powerful legs for a moment, Caphius broke into a canter, letting the air rushing by him dry the beads of sweat that had collected on his broad forehead.
It was not long before the forest path began to wind down a steep hillside into a hollow untouched by any light, save in its very center. There stood the Well, long ago known as the Well of Life, a spiral of crystals dredged up from the earth and filled with something more pure and clear than the purest water in the world. It had given up its most profound power to give birth to the great forest of which it was now the center, but was still a tool of great utility to those who could wield it, showing the secrets of past, present, and the less perceivable secrets of the future. Its most expert wielder was of course Argentus, who stood before it now, a troubled and perplexed look on his face. Today the forest lord was wearing his elven form, which he said he preferred for what he thought of as everyday tasks, such as divination or simple matters of ruling. Caphius stepped to the opposite side, and Argentus did not flinch, looking instead at the changing images reflected in the surface of the well’s utterly smooth water.
Caphius watched the images for a few moments, seeing them pass between a scene of terror and one of seeming mundanity, and then across the length and breadth of the world and perhaps time. One of the most useful things Argentus had taught him during the years of training had been how to perceive the time in which the Well’s images took place—without that context, nothing he was witnessing would make sense. As it was, he understood that a trade had taken place, that two pieces that had been moved by each side in the inevitable conflict—and not necessarily in the last millennium or even the same millennium—had fallen into place almost simultaneously. The fact that only the sketchiest images of the future appeared in the Well were cause to believe that either side would have to move with the greatest of care.
At last the images faded, and the only view the two friends had was of the crystal clear well stretching deep into the earth. Caphius looked up to find Argentus meeting his gaze. The look on his face was troubled, but with hope as well. “So,” the centaur said. His voice cracked, and he began to realize just how long he’d been gazing into the well.
Argentus nodded. “I did not know Ingre’s children would bring that to pass so soon,” he said, his soft voice somehow filling the grotto.
Caphius smiled. “And yet you knew that would happen. The other . . . “
Argentus returned the centaur’s smile. “We must take the small victories, I suppose. I know not this one’s significance, but I did see a human face . . . which means we will have to treat this matter with care. I will need your council, friend. You have done a better job of retaining your kindness.”
Caphius laughed, stepping around the Well and placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Friend, if I had lived for half the years you have I would not have held on to even a scrap of kindness.”
Argentus smiled, but it held a glimmer of sadness. “Come, let’s do our best and try to enjoy what’s left of this fine day now that our lovely Well has taken away its sweetest hours.” Caphius tried to put the face he’d seen out of his mind, a task which enjoyed a greater degree of success than the banishment of the terrors he’d witnessed, but he hoped the day would come when he would see him again. Neither he nor Argentus knew what it meant that they had seen that strange human’s visage in the waters, but the Well did not show them anything in vain. It was hard to understand the Well, but it had something of a will of its own, almost a personality, and it had presented the man—well, boy really—as a gift, as a counterpart to the darkness that was growing unfettered in these late years. Caphius tried to count it simply as a blessing . . . for to weigh an unknown, callow youth against the plans of their enemies was not the path to hope.
- Current Mood: hopeful
I started this journal precisely for the purpose of posting what I've been writing recently, which in this case is what was once going to be a short story leading up to a novel. Then it turned into a really long short story. Now I'm thinking we can call it a novella, but who's counting words. It's set in a fantasy world much like the one I live in . . . wait, scratch that. I could tell you a lot of boring backstory and the like, but you're not supposed to know any of that. So please suspend your disbelief and read the next thing. Thanks!