Duchal Palace of Glass
The Duchal Palace in Glass overlooked the city from a great, floating island, suspended there by several gravity wells anchored by thick, heavy strands of fiberglass. Traffic flowed up and down, back and forth, here and there, like a hundred thousand fireflies beneath Aniseth’s fingertips. He touched the glass and frowned, and wondered, and waited.
Beneath his feet, on the floors far below, preparations were underway for the Anniversary of his children’s birth. Artisans were preparing their finest and newest wares for exhibition during the week long festival in the exhibition halls and streets below. Smaller floating islands encircled the palace and were connected by floating stone walkways bordered by floating lanterns and force fields to keep the stray merrymakers from falling to their deaths. The last few years, people had made a sport of pushing people off, particularly his youngest daughter, Anastaysia. She had been warned against the behavior this year.
The distant rumblings of muffled gunfire and the clanking of swords echoed through the palace as their finest soldiers prepared for the tournament that would proceed the closing gala. Anticipations for the holiday exhibitions were high: to the winner of the tournament was a large reward purse and glory; and to the spectators, the energy of battle from the safety of their seats. Promising warriors were often approached by weapons companies that hoped to see increased revenue in the wake of victory but many hedged their bets by sponsoring multiple entrants.
Aniseth wasn’t sure how it had happened but it had become custom for entrants to seek audience with the Lady Whitemeadow to gain her favor in the games, as if her token would somehow give them an advantage over their opponents. He supposed it was some custom from ancient history that had been dredged up as a consequence of the restoration of tatya hini nobility and knightly orders. The first time it had happened it was amusing to watch Aleksaha’s shy discomfort in the request but after twenty years of enraptured young men with stars in their eyes supplicating themselves at his wife’s feet to become her champion, he was more irritated than amused. Uncertainty gnawed at him each time he saw her smile at someone else, the words from his one time captor haunted him still, like the itch of an old scar.
He had bound her down, and she had borne his children, helped him achieve what he had achieved now. And yet, even when she smiled at him and moved about, his dutiful wife, in all ways loving, he had his doubts. They existed like shadows at the edge of his vision. He did not often see her upset, almost never in fact - and after a while, watching her interact with other nobility in perfect doll-like form, he had begun to wonder if he was seeing the true woman or whether he saw the woman that she wanted him to see.
Did she love him? Did he even want to know?
After all this time, he still did not fully understand the inner machinations of his wife. He was aware of the masks she wore in her previous line of work but the triplets and their marriage had changed her. But, even if she was no longer stalking the hallways or standing unseen vigil on top of the palace walls, she was still something of a mystery in her persistent presence. She ran the Meadow wings less directly than she ran the Uilag Lug Free Company. Her most trusted lieutenants had grown too old for the battlefield but their children were promising and being groomed for leadership at 18 and 19 years old. The role of mentor and teacher was one that Aleksasha had enjoyed more than Aniseth had expected from a woman that had abandoned her first child.
And, he thought, it was a position that he was coming to enjoy himself. His guilds had spread across the Solar Empire. The Wings of Heled spread far and wide and had brought his house, and his land, a great deal of wealth. Along with the wealth had come a seat on the Lord Empress’s private council, one of the few ‘peaceful men’ besides the Chancellor to be worthy of the warlady’s time. For a merchant Duke, it was a high honor, and the recognition of his status had drawn wealthy men like flies.
He could not have come this far without his wife. Aleksasha possessed everything he didn’t, and they complimented each other almost perfectly. Where he knew little of martial action, she knew a great deal; where he wavered, she supplied the pillar, the bulwark. And when she needed supplies for her companies, he adjusted taxes, and moved great men of business. Where she lacked in aesthetics, in ceremony, he provided great and rousing displays - such as the Golden Week.
He let his fingers part from the glass, and watched the reflection of his lovely wife approach against the dark skyline instead.
“I saw the manifest for the tournament, Jory make sure that the Gold security detail is ready to deal with the RRF and Alliance Marine brawls that are about to happen. I don’t know if any Kirshirgal are in the mood to scrap but make sure that Antonello and Destiny are prepared,” Aleksasha’s low voice as she issued orders preceded her as she came up behind Aniseth and kissed his cheek. She nodded to the voice that only she could hear and smiled at him. Her delicate perfume was fragrant and inviting as ever, it reminded him of a spring garden after the rain. “Sorry about that, Andris and Markos helped with the security planning so it took me longer than I intended.”
Aniseth turned to view her. Unlike the rest of the Meadow Wing who wore royal blue, the Lady Whitemeadow wore a black uniform elaborately embroidered with golden wyverns along the cuffs and secured closed by vibrant red buttons resembling roses. This time, he hadn’t designed it himself - it had been a long time since his hands had touched a bolt of cloth. However, he could appreciate the craftsmanship regardless. It caught her beauty as though it were gossamer in moonlight.
He touched her cheek fondly and looked down into her pale green eyes, wrestling with words as he always seemed to. “You are beautiful, as always.”
“And you handsome, though, you look weary. Are you feeling alright?” The smile reflected in her eyes, though he saw the edge of concern there as well. “Has the planning gotten away from us this year? Or have our daughters gotten into mischief?”
“Mischief as usual.” He fell back into the comfortable banter like old clothing, but this time he took her hand and settled it on his arm, looking back out across Glass. “I have arranged for the new armors from the Magisters Guild to be displayed against all private challengers. That is something I believe that you will enjoy, and that may give our companies a surprise, this year. I have thought about giving one as a gift to Andris. He takes after you.”
She chuckled, and the amusement carried in her voice. “He’d enjoy that. He is devising a way to sneak entrance into the games again this year, I suspect, to impress a young woman.” Her touch was warm and light as she seemed to wait for him to continue.
“Markos as well,” he observed. Then, he fell silent, unwilling to go much further verbally. He did not want the old venom to creep into his voice again. He need not have said anything, however; both of them knew the objects of their sons’ affections. They had not been particularly private about the issue, and they had grown faster than Aniseth had ever remembered himself growing. At twenty, they seemed nearly mature - and Isao’s daughters were certainly mature, and beautiful, and though they were not tatiya hini, they were still of the correct station.
He shut his eyes for a moment and felt the warmth of his wife’s hand on his arm. He put his hand over hers, running his thumb over her slender fingers. They were as strong as they ever were. Usually he found it comforting. When he opened his eyes again, he found that he had looked down.
“They are young and anxious. The stories of the war and their aunt’s exploits have captured their attention.. They want to prove their valor but, this is not what you wished to discuss with me,” her gaze was fixed on him, patient, expectant. Her coppery tresses cascaded over her left shoulder in a loose braid as she leaned against him.
It wasn’t. Aniseth had worn it too openly on his face. Maybe it was the touch that had given him away. Perhaps he had stayed in the Solar, the great open-windowed room that had become his study and his office, over-long. And yet, he did not feel like saying it. The words stuck in his throat. How would he ask, after all these years? Why would he ask a question he feared to be answered? Yet, what could he lose, now? His wife.
He looked at her again, at her smile, at the knowing glint in her eyes. Could he lose something that was never his to begin with?
Aniseth had trouble forming the words, but he managed to make them, voice near a whisper. “I haven’t been cruel to you?”
Aleksasha considered the question. “Having concern over breaking someone’s heart would imply that you believe that one exists,” her voice was thoughtful as she continued. “I think we have progressed past those words after all this time or do you still feel that my heart ‘is black and pitiless as my soul’?” She let the words fall to silence for a few moments, before she finally shook her head.
“No, Seth, you have not been cruel to me.”
Anseth continued watching her. The comment about her heart had hurt, but no greater harm than he had done years ago to her. There did not seem to be good words for what he felt, for her or because of her. There would be no elegant speechcraft here, though he had learned some elegance over the last few decades. No money would buy the question away from his mind. And, truth be told, he had never been able to read Aleksasha. Sometimes he got feelings from her, picked up on thoughts, and he had come to understand her moods as they came and they went, but she could fool him every time if she wished.
So he just asked it, softly and quietly. “Are you certain? Would you like for me to let you go?”
“I think the moment for that oath has passed,” came her own soft reply. “Would you unbind me, after all this?” Her expression had become neutral again. There was no indication in what manner Aleksasha had actually meant her response nor did she elaborate further.
He pulled his eyes away and remembered to breathe. He let his own expression fade to neutral. How long had they played this game with each other, back and forth over the years? And yet, he felt a strange relief at the end of it. He could look at their reflections in the window and not shed tears. How long had he feared this moment, and now that it had come, it wasn’t as he had expected at all. It hurt. He felt empty, and tired, bearing the weight of two decades of worry, and yet he had decided at the end after all.
“Yes. I thought at the time if I bound you, I could keep you, that in time the wound would heal. I remember how I saw you, how desperately I wanted you, and when I could not bear to lose you, I forced you to swear to me.” He looked at her eyes in the reflection. They seemed dim. Beyond the smooth pane, the world carried on beneath them. “I have kept you bound in blood at my side, and you have borne my children, and served me as my wife. But this has always been between us, hasn’t it? That I grasped too hard?”
“What words will alleviate the burden on your heart? I cannot change how you feel. The last star has not lost its light, and the universe still goes on.” Her hand lingered on his arm as she waited. Her tone was even and calm. “I cannot break the cage my oath has placed me within.”
“I release you from it.” Aniseth watched Aleksasha, weighed her neutral expression. He could feel his heart twist in his throat, but he didn’t let it master him. “You may go as you please.”
The light reflected in Aleksasha’s eyes flickered as she let out a deep breath that he had not been aware of her holding. She closed her eyes for a couple of heartbeats. When she opened them again she stood in front of Aniseth more squarely. “It’s been said that as a Bloodtree, I am cursed to lose the ones I love. No matter how many of my clan have tried to lock their hearts away, people loved them easily. We have planted many draugr pines for the ones we’ve lost over the years.”
Her hand moved toward his face but it lingered beside his cheek without touching his skin. “Fear is the serpent that coils around us. It is easier to be despised by those you love if it means they might live full lives in our absence.” Her smile was pained. “It’s easier to be bound by chains than to run from the moira. Mara claims us all in the end, but we still have the choice.
Aniseth, I offer a different oath as the old one has fallen away. Will you humor to hear it?”
Not wishing to speak, Aniseth nodded his assent. Her hand still rested on his arm, and his hand over hers. They had gone on for this long, what use would hurrying be?
“Can you hear it?” She asked gently. He strained to listen and heard the faint clanking of metal against metal; the soft percussion of gunfire; the hum of the lights; the dull rumblings of merchant vessels beyond the glass; and the nervous thumping of a heartbeat.
Was that his heart? No. It was Aleksasha’s.
“The goddess within the heart of Heled woke when we touched the soil. She hears us, feels us and has blessed us. With her, we have prospered. In the illumination of a new moon and with the blessing of the minya hinya of our home, tie with me a golden thread,” Her expression brightened as she spoke.
“Join our lives together with the radiance of our goddess so we may prosper in the sunlight and know comfort in the absence of her light. We have severed the chains forged with blood and cinders, to join our hands together with the flowers of spring and the warmth of our hearth in winter.” Her hand caressed his cheek. Her pale eyes held a strange luminescence.
“Nothing can take away the love I have for you and our family. I love you.” The words flowed from her lips. He had desperately waited for twenty years for her to say those three words. A shy smile played across her lips, her lovely face flushed pink. “There is no other place that I would rather be than here with you. I pledge myself to you, Aniseth Whitemeadow, to keep your faith, to be a mother to our children the ones that are and the ones that will be, from now until the light of the last star’s dying.”
Aniseth stood, struck silent, staring at his wife - at Aleksasha Whitemeadow.
He felt something odd that had nothing to do with the decorative glove he wore that connected him to Alek in a technological way. He could check her vital signs, if he wanted, or find her location, or speak to her at distance even as she had been speaking to their house soldiers and servants earlier. But he felt her in a way that eased his troubled conscience.
It rose like a hum in the back of his mind and ebbed gently back until it was tolerable and almost forgettable, but something had changed within him that he couldn’t quite place and it called to him.
Aniseth kissed her. He took her in his arms and drew her close, and marveled in the feel of her, the warmth and the solidarity. Her hair, freshly combed and perfumed, smelled more vividly than he had remembered. He knew suddenly that it had been buried in disregard, becoming commonplace over time.
He dared to whisper, “I accept you. But, what is this? This is no power I am familiar with. Could it be the minya of this planet?”
“A promise, gilded with the blessing of the Minya.” Aleksasha whispered back. A light breeze brushed against his skin carrying the scent of winter roses, though the room was closed and no air moved within. They stared at each other in the dim light growing up from the city at festival, far down below, having felt, very briefly, the touch of a planetary deity.
Finally, Aniseth broke the silence. “Do you know her name?”
“Koliada, the herald of Saule.”