This is the first of five short stories by Jessica, set in the world of Madrahar before the events of the Orphaned Gods series. Illustration by Ruth and Birdy!
City of Zarachar, Naidjat, Year 1048 Post Downfall
Nedira picked her way through the gardens in full court robes, stepping carefully over a curving bank of ferns and some low-growing roses. She hitched her train up over her shoulder to keep it from getting stuck on the thorns. Normally her woman navigated her train through awkward spots, but one didn’t bring company on unauthorized escapades. Nedira glanced over her shoulder—no one was following her, or watching out any of the house’s many windows—and pressed on past the topiaries of courting cranes, toward the men’s wing.
She had talked to her brother through his window plenty of times before. Even though she didn’t think herself especially stealthy, no one had yet caught her. Or perhaps they had, and were too polite to mention it.
She ducked down below her brother’s windowsill, trying to keep both her robes and her hair from dragging in the damp gravel. No voices from within, so he was probably alone. She gave the usual knock and waited. After a long moment, the shutters opened slightly and Alir’s big green eyes peered over the edge of the sill. His hair was down, and he wasn’t wearing any of his ceremonial jewelry.
“I’m not going,” he said, without any sort of proper greeting.
Well, just because he felt rude didn’t mean she had to be. “Lynx’s blessing on you, dear brother,” she said. That was appropriate to the day. “May she grant you joy and courage.”
Alir frowned. “I’m not going. I’m sorry you had to walk all the way through the gardens, but you won’t change my mind.”
“If you had let your man tell my woman what the trouble was, I wouldn’t have had to walk through the gardens.”
Alir shrank a little lower, until only a sliver of his eyes could be seen. Nedira pushed the shutters all the way open and shoved herself up, with some effort, to sit on the sill. Her hand and hair jewelry clattered. “Stop trying to hide,” she told Alir. “Does it befit the High Lord’s heir to shut himself in his room and refuse to go out? Anyway, I though you liked holy days.”
Alir folded himself onto the stool beside his writing table and tucked his feet up. He was, as she had suspected, still in his sleeping robes. “I liked the Spider’s Day displays. They were most informative.”
“Didn’t you like parading through the city with me? And sitting at Father’s right hand in the Temple?” Nedira had been attending the various Ancestors’ holy days with her father for several years now. She was good at sitting still during the shamans’ long rituals, and at saying polite things to all the lords who paraded past her father’s seat. And to their sons. She would soon be betrothed to one of those sons. She had already been betrothed to several, before she was old enough to remember. Her grandmother had told her so.
Alir had only just started coming to the holy days this year. He wasn’t yet a man, any more than she was yet a woman, but he was old enough to sit still and hold his peace. “The lords want to see my son,” Father had said. “And I want you to be seen by them.”
“I like sitting by Father,” Alir admitted. “But Uncle will be there too.”
“What’s wrong with Uncle?” Uncle Zarodja was not as nice as most of her aunts. He talked over her head at her father, never directly to her. Grownups didn’t realize that children were always listening. Especially children who sat politely and didn’t interrupt.
Alir curled further into himself. “He’s going to ask me about the sword training.”
“So?” Nedira didn’t see why Father had made Alir start sword training already. He was smaller than most boys his age and not especially good at running or climbing. He liked collecting moths, stones, and commemorative Ancestor pins. Sword training wouldn’t make him better at any of the things he enjoyed. “If he asks, just tell him you’ve started it.”
“He’ll ask me the names of the forms. And he’ll want me to show him, maybe.” Alir blinked hard. “That’s what happens on Lynx’s Day, isn’t it? People have to show off their fighting.”
Nedira sighed. “Not little boys. Nobody makes boys show off their fighting, especially not when they’ve just started to learn. Uncle will probably show off his fighting. He does that every year. He’ll be too busy to bother you about what you’ve learned.”
“What I haven’t learned,” Alir said, morosely. “I’m the worst lord ever.”
“You’ve got years yet,” Nedira said. “And maybe you’ll be a great mage instead of a great warrior. That’s more usual for our lineage.” She thought great mages were more interesting than great warriors. Not that she would ever get to be either.
Alir sniffled, and rubbed his face on his sleeve.
“Are you going to let your man dress you?” Nedira prompted, indicating the slave who had been standing quietly in the corner through this whole conversation. “Or do I have to climb through the window?”
Alir made a scrunchy face. “You wouldn’t.”
She freed one leg from its layers of robes and slid her foot up onto the sill. “Watch me.”
Alir looked distressed. “No, please. Don’t. We’ll get in trouble.”
“Then get dressed and come to Lynx’s Day.”
He nodded. “I will. But close the window.”
She smiled, slid down from the sill, and closed the shutters.