“All rise for the kin House Morien. Heisir Graydon, second of his name and third rank in high army, noble Lord of Castle Grey and master of his House. Heimadam Laura, first of her name, linguist of the arts...”
The procession continued. Every name of our allied houses Morien, Brilantis, Khaym, Watersons, even the Jaitings, whom my father was trying to join us to, had their names and titles announced by Ross, our Minister of Processions and Holy Affairs. Each of them had likely been drilled in everyone’s names and titles since childhood, but the role call was still compulsory.
“This feast is called in the name of Paul Morien, first of his name and second heir to the Morien title, noble Lord of Castle Grey and second Master of his House. Commissioned by High Soldier Rahul Morien, third of his name and General of the High Army, noble Lord of Castle Grey, Holder of Morien land and title, praised with honors as the next LandKing, and suchlike, et cetera.”
The guests seated themselves, sweeping jeweled robes under the long wooden tables of the hall. As host family, we sat above the rest on an elevated table, our table weighed down with the fires of Choice.
The center flame, the most important of the three, was glowing in a bright green urn, with the appropriate green fire. The red pot, to its left, was stoked with traditional flames, the Choice of history, culture, writing, scholars. It was usually only reserved for women, but kept so as to not displease the powers above. The Husbands have no preference, but it is not they who determine these tasks. Most men fail at this Choice, and those that succeed win little honor.
The urn on the right hand side, and farthest from me, floats in a crystal blue vase and casts a purple haze around those closest to it. The Unknown Goddess. The goddess of the beyond. The goddess of the sea. The one passion I had of my own.
The candles surmounted in their glows as the night waned and as the nobility grew more drunk off my father’s wine.
My father, or rather, Laura acting under the pretense of my father, had gone through all measures of extravagance for this feast. Rare yellowroot stews, a sweet stew usually reserved for soldiers before they went to battle. The root was mixed with Maltese seedlings, some of the best-tasting spices in the world, and one of my family’s trademarks. Access to the seed of the region proclaimed direct and absolute control, as it is said that the Husbands chose the rulers of their lands carefully.
The other nobles, of Brilantis and Khaym, had picked at these delicately until the meats were brought out. This is to be expected. My father himself had led the hunt for the twenty-four kelken, the thin, two legged beasts with puffed up breasts, and the rare twelve mangere birds at the table. Our guests gorged themselves on these, and the suckling hoggs my father provided, one per table, as they were each as large as a rowboat, save for our table, already laden with the urns.
At first, I too, ate well, the yellowroot was a specialty of the kitchens here, and should have been more appreciated. I stopped myself when the scent of freshly baked blood bread filled the hall, accompanied by the slain beasts, eyes closed on the silver platters that contained their heads. These were the first to come out so that higher lords could select portions of the brains to sample with golden pokers. The rest was to be eaten between slices of the red bread, after the beast was proclaimed good to eat by the Elders of each house. The Husbands would act through the creatures, and bless the House. Our meat was never spoiled, and many said that House Morien had the best in the land. No one contested it, but the thought always made me sick to my stomach. If I chose today what I did, I would be no sooner hunted like one of these beasts, by my father no less. Better that then destroying the House.
I poked at the blood bread until Laura came over to me, smiling, a hint of forceful maternity in her eyes.
“Dear brother, are you not enjoying this fine food?” Her eyes informed me of my own answer before it curled my lips.
“Of course, both the Husbands and the Goddesses bless our table today, they bless us with such fine men around even finer dishes.” I took a colossal bite of the bread and the blood nearly burst through my cheeks, I let it do so as I swallowed, probably looking every bit as pathetic as I felt. She smiled as I attempted to unredden my cheeks and clean the blood from my fingers. “May the sun bless you, sister, you have truly prepared a meal for the Gods.”
That last line saved me, and she sat down on the vacant stool next to my right, a little behind the table. The stools were placed intermittently around the room for the women to get up and talk to other men or courtiers if they were unmarried. “I am so proud of you, little brother. You have made excellent progress in all of your studies, and you will be one of the greatest soldiers of Morien name.” Her eyes shimmered with joy and reverence, as if she were looking directly into the face of the Goddesses.
I shook my head and tried to push the thought out of my head, “You flatter me sister, but we must remain humble before Them.”
“We remain humble to Them, brother, but I am proud still. The Gods allow as much.” She reached into the folds of her skirt and withdrew a large parchment. “I am excited for this day, brother, and have been awaiting it since father began your studies.” She sounded slightly bitter about this. Our mother had asked father to incorporate her in military strategy, and she did for a time. She drew up one of the most finely detailed militia plans Chayya had ever seen, but that changed when mother died. Father forbid her now, brilliant as she was.
I tried to change the topic before it became as bitter as the blood bread. “What is on the parchment, sister? Old Maltese rosters?” My sister had a love for the historical schools of Chayya, which had taught philosophy to both men and women.
She shook her head and unfolded it, showing the most elaborate portrait she had ever done. It was of myself, and my father, and Graydon. Each of us were on night-colored horses detailed in thick charcoal. The three of us were leading a cavalry charge, bronze swords aloft to imagined sunlight and sparkling, white on the paper.
What was most striking were our expression, done in excruciating detail. They didn’t look happy or valiant. The faces were puckered, fraught with wrinkles and speckled with drops of ichor. The eyes, obsidian in the charcoal, were focused with wrath, power, and a hunger that made us hold the expressions of the Husbands themselves.
I looked at her in surprise, and her eyes glittered.
“It’s a blueprint for the new tapestry that will hang in these halls. After your first victory. We will hang it on the central wall for all to see the three powerful men in our family, the most fantastic in all the lands. Men will fear us the minute they see the look in your eyes, dear brother.” She looked elated as she said this, that military strategist showing faintly through her painted lips and powdered eyelids.
I swallowed, feeling dry blood caked down the insides of my throat, which was far too dry. I took her hand and forced a smile. “You are a good sister, and a good daughter, Laura.”
She smiled, more gently this time, and squeezed my hand. “You gave up the sea, Paul. You have finally put the needs of the family first, and for that I am proud and honored to have such a strong brother.” She kissed my forehead and unclasped my hand. “Father is so proud of you, you know. He won’t show it, but he is.” She walked off without another word, her words hanging in the air and drawing my attention to my father himself.
He seemed quite drunk, and the drunkenness always gave a jovial look to his deep-set features. I doubted he was proud. He was likely more happy to be handing off his youngest son to his own fate. Freedom at last for an old man who liked the taste of suckling hogg too much.
I turned my head back down to my plate and gulped down some of the greenish wine in an efforts to relinquish my throat. I had little success.
At last, my father called them all to attention, and the other lights in the room aside from the flames at our table were extinguished.
All that was left was myself and those three pots of flame, each flickering a different halo of light around the room and onto my skin. In the darkness, no one could see my face, which was wet with sweat and pressure form the the other bodies. I remembered my promise to my brother, the one man I had left at my side who I knew well and honored so. I recall his saddened eyes and my hands begin to clench. The shining hope upon our agreement, that let him become guardian and steward of the Morien name.
Dishonor and fear would come if I broke our curse, lands would dry, people would perish.
I thought of Arcadia, who sends her meager wages home to feed her family, even when she can barely eat herself. I thought of them being hunted and turned to ash by the Lords of the green stone.
But then I thought of my love, my true hope, festered inside me since I was a child, the one thing in this world that had felt truly right to me, that I could do no wrong at. The bluest light, of typhoons and highest days and calming bays, all the same, incredible being. Her silvery breath threaded towards me, telling me to come to her.
I looked at the urns. Three brightly lit paths, three goddesses to weld myself to, until the remainder of my days had left me an old man in a spindled rocker, in the high realms where all of the eldest go, if I ever made it that far.
I felt the pulsation in my fingertips, the biting, writhing blood within me scrambling to choose, like irascible red warriors sent from my heart to do her bidding. I could feel my father’s eyes upon me, his youngest son, the final nail to hammer in the family title against all odds. But I could hear her whispers too. I inhaled whatever was left of my family, held their final proud gaze, and walked forward.
I turned to the center urn, green, and stared at it. Then I turned again and thrust my hand into the red, the urn of the Arts, and let the fire burn in the red stone at the bottom. My father screamed and I could hear jeers from the other lords and ladies of the court. My brother stood up, his mouth a gaping hole. Lady Sophia dragged him back down to his seat and watched me steadily.
The fire kept burning, glowing brighter and brighter, extinguishing the other lights,
cloaking the room in a red smoke that burned my eyes. My hand singed, and then I
noticed my chest. The stone Arcadia had given me was heated too, beneath my robes, burning my skin like fire tongs.
At last the smoke dissipated and the fires went out. The other lights were slowly gathered and I remained, standing there, hand in the red jar, flatly looking at my family whose faces showed an expression of mirth, fear, and horror. And then I met my brother’s eyes. Pure sorrow sprouted from his eyeballs and touched me as he clutched Sophia’s hand.
No one spoke in the hall. You could hear the other candles, the jars of fire, all crackle.
At last, my father cleared his throat and very slowly asked me, “Son. What is the meaning of this? Is this your Choice?”
I felt the small piped burn in the skin of my chest, now finally cooling, the skin repairing, slightly steaming. I looked down at my hand and saw the red stone welded beneath the beginnings of my middle finger. I felt the pitying eyes of the crowd and walked out of the room, attempting to drown out my father’s disbelief, slowly molding itself into rage.
My chest hurt as I left. I opened the buttons down to my neck, and exposed the blue sapphire stone now glowing between my collarbones. By some Goddess-like grace, this stone had clung to me in the fire. They gave me two. Two. Gods Almighty! I buttoned up again, quickly and stifled my surprise to the passing Kingsguard.
I didn’t need to Choose. The stones had Chosen me too.
I took a deep breath and prepared for the long walk to my room, and the even longer night I would spend when dealing with the questions of my father and his council.