Chapter 1 Part 1 | Son in Sorrow | IHGK Book 2
Paggday night, the 9th day of Spring's Beginning
Tremont Keep, Tremont City
"I do not understand, Your Grace, why so glum the faces," said an enormous brown-skinned man. His long cloak of iridescent feathers covered otherwise unexceptional evening wear; his strong, naturally crimped black hair streamed unfettered down his back, and as he frowned around the ballroom in woozy concentration the blue-black tattoos curling round his nose and eyes furrowed.
"Glum, Your Excellency?" said his light-skinned companion. Anvalt Vonturus, Duke of Litta, was not a short man, but next to the tall ambassador even his stiff military bearing could not overcome an impression of smallness. In contrast with the ambassador's tattoos, a pale scar slashed through his left brow; a black ribbon clubbed his slate-colored hair in a queue that announced he was a conservative.
Litta glanced around the assembly milling about Tremont Keep's Great Ballroom in nervous clumps spiky with the glint of jewels. They winked on countless fingers; in the curls of women's hair; around slender wrists and wrists so fat they nearly hid their bracelets in their folds, and around necks both wrinkled and smooth; and from countless medals--some earned and some Litta knew were given to shut the bearer up. What a decadent age.
His eye settled on the musicians, fidgeting on the bandstand. To his approval, all the orchestra's members wore spotless evening attire, their brass and silver instruments polished to a blinding luster. The more careless musicians impatiently tapped violin and cello bows against their chair legs as the more careful ones rosined theirs; fingers ran up and down silent flutes, exercising the valves. Despite the orchestra's splendor, despite the brilliance of the Great Ballroom and its hundreds of inhabitants, a hesitant, uncertain mood hung over the whole.
"I suppose one might call it glum, sir," he continued. "This is not just the Heir's nineteenth birthday, but also his return to the Keep. Some are unsure how he will be received."
"Received, sir?" The Ambassador of the Vakale'le Confederacy, a Pau'an chieftain of birth high enough to match his stature, fidgeted in his unfamiliar suit; his broad, twitching shoulders set the feathers of his traditional cape to whispering. "Who by?"
"By His Majesty King Harsin."
"Happy the father on the birth date of the son, no? In Pau'a, this is so."
Litta allowed himself a smirk. "Oh, it is so here as well. Prince Temmin has been elsewhere for the last year."
"Where the Heir has been?"
"His Highness took religious orders at the Lovers' Temple."
The feathers rustled in shock. "The Heir is a priest?"
"Temporary orders. Supplicancy," muttered Litta. "They end next year at Neya's Day."
The Ambassador nudged the Duke, gently enough that Litta just stayed on his feet. "Ha! My wife hopes we are to be here for the Day of Neya Spectacle. That makes two for us this year. Your Gods Days, they are reversed--your Day of Neya, our Day of Harla. It is fall for us when it is spring for you--Tremont is the far side of the world." The Ambassador's tattoos softened, and Litta realized the man was a bit drunk. "Same Gods the world round, though different names. In strange lands, a comfort. It is said the Embodiments of the Lovers are most beautiful. To take on the Beloved Neya and the Lover Nerr--they must be so beautiful, indeed. They are real twins?"
"Issak and Allis Obby, yes," said Litta; his scar twitched.
The Ambassador pursed his lips. "The Heir is Supplicant, you say? How brave to learn from the Gods, how strange he would have that much skill--no, what word, not skill yet, he learns now the skill--perhaps talent? Talent needs learning to become skill. Oh, to see that deep into someone, to know what he wants. What advantages they could be!" He chose his next words carefully. "The King does not like this?"
"Oh, very much not." Few nobles did. Litta himself feared the prophecy attending Temmin's Supplicancy. He'd helped the King try to stop it, but what had that gotten him but the worst run of luck he'd ever had in his life?
Movement at the top of the ballroom stairs drew everyone's attention upward. On the landing stood a breathtaking pair, a young man and woman each with the same luminous green eyes and loose, thick black hair. The Pau'an hissed, low and soft. "This is them? Real twins, not a matched pair? Have you seen them together on Neya's Day, when the Gods possess them?"
Litta nodded. He'd watched as the Gods borrowed the Obbys' bodies for lovemaking--but not last year. Probably not this year, either. He didn't even bother entering the lottery for tickets, supposing his entry would be "mislaid." When he died, his body would be received into Harla's Hill, but his soul might wander the earth forever, a howling, despairing spirit. Blasphemy always carried such a risk.
In his still-reverent youth, he would have said he'd blaspheme when Nerr got the Heir--though he would never say the phrase aloud. The rather vulgar colloquialism meant "that will never happen." It was the remnant of an old prophecy: when an Heir to the throne became Nerr's Supplicant, the common people would rise to equal the nobility. Of course, no one believed it would ever happen, hence the vulgar meaning.
Commoners believed fulfilling the prophecy meant their prosperity. As Litta grew older, studied more and came into his full inheritance, he'd come to disagree. The Scholars, the priests of Eddin the Wise One, had it right: when "Nerr got the Heir" as a Supplicant, the commoners would revolt and the nobility would fall. When it looked as if Prince Temmin would fulfill the prophecy, Litta blackmailed the Obbys to stop him; it backfired, and now Litta faced damnation. For nothing. At least the monarchy hadn't fallen. Yet.
Behind the twins stood an overly-rounded girl he recognized as Anda Barrows, and Temmin himself: the two Supplicants of the Lovers. The lanky young man had put on weight in his year at the Temple--not fat, simply more of a man's stature than a boy's. His beard had finally filled in, and Litta grudgingly approved the proper if short queue curling at the Heir's nape. None of that modern, liberal shagginess that made men look more like dogs, short hair flapping around their temples like a retriever's ears. The Prince seemed relaxed, unruffled and confident. Even when he spotted Litta, his poise never faltered; he twitched one golden eyebrow in recognition and looked away.
Litta shifted his own gaze to King Harsin; his old friend's face was closed, unreadable. Let Temmin and his priests puzzle something out of that.