The attic in Allatsha’s house was a trove in and of itself. Antiques and baubles dotted the creaking rafters. Most were simply too ancient to be fashionable anymore. Some were more striking to Edam’s eye – pre-revolutionary artifacts that spoke to an earlier form of life in the nation. In a dusty, forgotten corner, a spiraling wreath of animal bones hung on a wall. In the center sat the bleached half-skull of a bull, the horns framing the whole affair. Danza walked up alongside her and whistled in surprise.
“What is it?” Said Edam, genuinely curious about the macabre display.
“A greater charm, or maybe an altarpiece. The pagans used to make these for worship. They’d sacrifice a prize bull and use it to make a wreath as a way of bringing the luck of the bull to the household.”
“Nay, just a superstition. You’d make a charm of dog-bone and iron and such to protect a home from elves in the old days, too. People out on the heaths still do.”
Edam recalled the immense wealth that was only a floor beneath their feet.
“Seems like it worked. The luck, I mean.”
Danza nodded solemnly. There was a silence in the air that needed to be broken. She straightened her dress and fiddled with her the mask in her hand.
“Do I look good?”
“Good enough,” said Danza, after giving her a once over, “You’ll blend. The mask looks a bit awkward compared to the ones I saw on some of the early guests, but you can play it off.”
She looked down at the black dress that covered her. It was one of the best pieces of civilian clothes that she had. She fixed it from going crooked again and walked back towards the center of the attic where Imera was sitting. His fingers twitched on the hex-box as he leaned forward in his moth-eaten cushioned chair. His eyes twinkled with a soft light as she entered. An oil lamp lit them – the faint scent of almonds filling the air.
“Your decorations are set?” She asked.
“Yes. Two in the dining hall, three in the common room. Some more arranged around the rest of the house discreetly. They’ve set up more private areas there for discussions that’d be too sensitive for the rest of the party. I’ll be watching you, but I won’t be able to hear you.”
The thought of him watching her every move was equally disquieting and helpful. His demeanor shifted.
“We’ve got a while before the festivities start properly. Let’s go over the plan, and then I’d like to speak with my cousin privately, if that’s all fine.”
That too was disquieting. She could feel that there was a tension in the air now that had not been there the other day.
“We won’t be doing anything drastic or untoward at the party unless something drastic or untoward happens. That means that we’re staying upstairs and keeping an eye on things on the upper levels that are closed to the party-goers. Danza will be here on the second level, keeping an eye on the bedrooms and the like. Just in case. I’ll be keeping the overall reconnaissance here.”
“I’ve spoken with the servants. There’s going to be a brief recess before the dessert. It’ll be a good time for you to slip back up here. By that time, I’ll have identified the one that got away,” said Imera.
“Then I engage with them, and try to leave with them or at least get an address,” said Edam, “And if that fails, we tail them.”
“We’ll both be ready at a moment’s notice if things go bezhyat.”
Imera and Edam stared at her, not understanding.
“Bezhyat?” She repeated, thinking that they had not heard her clearly, “If it goes wrong, I mean.”
Edam silently added the word to the number of ones that she didn’t recognize from Danza. She knew that she was from far out on the heaths, but the more she listened to her and the more comfortable she was around Edam, the more her colloquialisms seemed to seep in, making her seem more foreign and more familiar all at once. She took a handbag from the floor and put it around her shoulder before checking its contents. She had considered a focus, but in the end it was hard to beat a pistol.
“Otherwise, all you have to do is blend in and enjoy yourself,” said Imera, “Though obviously, don’t take that as an excuse to do anything intemperate or rash.”
“No, of course not,” said Edam.
Imera cocked his head to the side and watched some distant point.
“We’ve got about half an hour or so before guests start filing in. Take your station, Danza.”
She turned and left the attic, and Edam and Imera were alone. Imera’s smile faded. He took another, less-comfortable looking chair from behind him and slid it in front of him.
“Sit,” he said.
Edam did as she was told. This was what she had been fearing – a talking-to. His tone was pitched to tell her that he was upset with her, that he was angry with something she had done, and above all else that she had disappointed him.
“I know this isn’t an opportune time, but this needs to be said. Now more than ever. Yesterday, I was speaking with Verat, and she disobeyed me, and I made a move to punish her. She threatened to call you. She said that you had promised a shield from punishment.”
She shivered and tried to steel herself.
So it’s that, then.
Edam could not meet his eyes. Instead, they fell on a faded canvas triptych that leaned and sagged against the wall. The design was so faded that the little folk prostrating themselves to some central figure was barely visible through age and wear and tear and-
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, Edamosfa. Why did you say that?”
This was not a question. This was a command, sure as any other. She tried her best to meet his eyes. When she did, they harrowed her. She remembered when she first met him, when she was twelve. He had such a disdainful look then, like he did now, but he had been sweet in his own way as well. Her other cousins had avoided her for most of the first year she had lived with them. Not him. He had been kinder to her, more honest, as difficult as he was.
“I thought you could be reprimanded for it,” she said, trying not to stumble over her words.
“Everything I’ve done has been approved,” he said, “So what is your issue? Has your foot slipped? Are you not certain that out ways are good anymore? Have you gone soft in the head?”
“No. My faith is unwavering,” she said. She almost believed her own lie.
“What’s the issue, then? I thought we got this kind of disobedience out of you ages ago.”
He breathed in deeply, and rubbed his temple with a finger. His eyes were cast in shadow, but there was no mistaking who he was looking at. Edam reached for a response or recourse, and above all else she reached for the strength not to cry. He would only be angrier if she cried.
“I thought your conduct wasn’t in line with our morals. I was wrong.”
“Yes. You were,” said Imera, “Humiliate yourself, Edamosfa.”
Edan bowed her head. She put her hand to her lips, then her hair. She felt prepared to curl up her limbs and die like the spiders that had withered away in the darkened corners of the attic. She found again that she couldn’t meet his gaze.
“Don’t be like that. I know it’s difficult. It’s just that I’m your superior now, and I need to keep order. You’ve been bloodletting, right?”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry. It’s just been hard, we’ve been on the road, and I haven’t had the time.”
“Well, let’s make the time. Do you need help again?”
Panic. There was pure, clarified panic in her chest, rabbit-hearted, yellow-bellied panic and cowardice.
“No, cousin,” she said far too quickly, “No, no, no. I can manage myself. I’m grown.”
She heard his clothes shifting. He lowered himself to her level, and used a hand to raise her head up. She hated it – hated the hand that touched her cheek, callused and harsh, and she hated it touching her hair, and she hated most of all the sheer, uncomfortable feeling of being touched. She pulled her face away, but kept it level. His eyes were like an awl into her own. He had discerned her, cut her up inside and dragged out shavings of something raw, bloody and resinous as heartwood. There was no recourse or response to being so utterly accused.
Edam felt very little left in her head or heart.
“Alright,” he said, “Up you go. That’s all I had to say about it. I trust that you’ll come to the right choices on your own. But if you need help, I’m here.”
Her legs shakily obeyed the order. She cleared the wild hairs from her vision, straightened her spine and began to make for the door.
“I’ll get ready,” said Edam, “Thank you for keeping me honest.”
She dodged out to the upper stairwell, feeling like a cornered animal. She felt a bead of sweat run down her temple as she down the backway that the servants used to get up to the attic, across the carpeted halls. She measured her pace like she was back doing a drill. She didn’t want to stomp or make a scene of things. The expanse of the home was a maze in and of itself, but she kept her bearings well enough. She looked up to a cabinet inset in the wall. Tucked into the corner was a clay eye, staring down at her.
She kept her legs moving, flagging a servant down for directions to a washroom. Edam found her way to it. It was a small room, all wood and finery and a thin window that gave enough light to see by. A washing sink sat in front of the silver mirror, and she looked at herself. The black dress was one of the best that she had, and she had braided her hair and decorated it with a little wooden clasp. She put a hand on the washing basin to steady herself.
And all the emptiness filled up at once, and she was an animal. She looked in the mirror and she could not recognize it, the thing in front of her. It shattered its way through her lungs, billowed in shaking hands and knees, in the fat and scars and muscles. It was a sensation without release, the flood of raw and unnatural emotion. It raced so quickly that she could not even place it. At one moment, it urged her to scream and beat her chest and wail like a mourner, and at another to never speak again. It urged her to grab the mirror from the wall and throw it through the window, to smash every expensive thing in the house and to hammer porcelain into her beastly flesh. It was a hideous wild rage that took her, then a spasm of indignant sadness, then a repetition from the top. She was living and dead already, and furious and sedate, and thoughts racing and empty of any real cognition. She gritted her teeth against each other, and sobbed. One of her nails bent against the wood as she clenched it.
It took everything in her to not scream. She was senselessly angry, and she wasn’t even sure what she was angry at. She couldn’t find a true flaw in her cousin’s argument, or in his authority over her and Verat. She couldn’t be angry at him. It wouldn’t get her anywhere – and yet all the same, she felt it deep in her body.
Somewhere down the hall a piper tested his flute. The sound was so clear and clean that she felt filthy for even being in its presence. She managed at last to pry her own grip from the basin and make herself civilized again. She dabbed away a few tears with a handkerchief, and put on the mask. She still thought she didn’t look presentable enough, but ultimately she had to put her trust in Danza. The mask was something she could be proud of, more than her face. She had carved most of it herself, over the course of a few months between other projects. Edam stared herself in the eye, through the holes in the mask as she fastened it around her head.
She couldn’t be feeling sorry for herself or be second-guessing. There were lives on the line. People who needed her. He was half-right, and she could deal with it when she got back to Verat. Now, she needed to focus on this. She fixed her hair once more and straightened her dress. The nail was mostly umarred in spite of her clenched hands.
She left to the hall again, and started to walk to the dining room. Before the sight of it, she heard the din – the instruments being tuned, the guests that had already arrived talking and laughing, the constant tramp of the feet across the wood and tiles. The sight of it was more ordered. There must have been at least a dozen circular tables arranged around the enormous hall, each covered with white cloth. Every guest was masked, and most were quite unique. Here, a man wearing a half-mask that was adorned with pearls; there, a young woman with a mask of carved red wood, extended out into a raven’s beak. Eventually, she found a seat at one of the more occupied tables. The cups had already been set out and filled with wine so dark it looked black.
She took stock of her company. Two red-haired men in matching masks, painted black and white, softly murmuring to each other. The man opposite her was a somewhat fatty, soft looking fellow with a silver mask and a winestain birthmark that made a patchwork on his neck. Then, lastly, to her right was a foreigner. She was a dark-skinned woman with long, curly hair, who played an idle finger around the rim of her cup. Her manner of dress was clearly out of place – the bright blue dye in the hems of her dress marked her as being from somewhere far off. The mask, though, was the most fascinating thing. Where every other mask was tame enough to be seen for polite society, hers was downright fearsome. A heavy brow and bulbous painted eyes marked the top half; the bottom, an underbite jaw and teeth that jutted upwards like a dog’s. It had clearly been hinged at the jaw so that it could be opened and closed. Now, it was open, revealing a gentle smile.
Edam admired the workmanship. She almost felt silly for not making a hinge for herself so that she could eat with her mask on. She mentally prepared herself to compliment her on it, but she was interrupted. To the far side of the room, a pair had entered. One was obviously Allatsha. He had the same stature, with a much showier suit, and a wife adorning his hip. She was a very thin woman, in a fine red dress and mask to accentuate her husband’s red lapel. He cleared his throat loudly, and the crowd went silent.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a hard year,” he started, “A long, hard year. Many of you knew my father from the previous years that we’ve all met here in this estate, and if you do not, I think you ought to know that he’s the reason this tradition has persisted for over a hundred years now. His grandfather – my great-great grandfather – was the man who started this, before it even the revolution.”
He cleared his throat again.
“And my father has entrusted this great tradition to me now. And I knew that I had to maintain in ways that he could never have done. You see, I am a student of history. Of the revolution, and of my nation. And I recalled reading of those days and what had been done to the people of Koletya during the revolution, and I was heartbroken. Thousands upon thousands of refugees, forced from their homes in the terror and fire, flung to the far corners of the world. There are Kolets in Veleda, in Darea, in Agora, even as far flung as Sondi, as Miskasea. And then, when my father died, I knew my duty. I have invited today guests from so many corners of the world – from the far reaches of civilized society and to almost every nation I know that has offered my people shelter as my show of thanks.”
His wife shifted under his grip. The servants had all stood at attention, silver plates at the ready for his command.
“And I have invited no small number of such refugee families here today as well! To all of you, I hope that even as you return to your distant new homes, you will count this as a second one. And I hope that I come to know you all very well today, beneath the masks.”
At first, Edam could not place his tone – it felt almost too magnanimous to be genuine. Still, as he continued it grew on her and by the time he reached the last words, she was no longer sure which parts were calculated and which parts were genuinely held. It was a charismatic display, that was certain, if a little clumsy.
“But enough of my prattling about the past and tradition. Come, eat, drink and be merry!”
He gave a slight bow to the crowd, and they applauded him. Edam joined in. The servants moved with a startlingly rehearsed synchronicity, moving from table to table and producing an array of silverware and plates. Just as quickly the conversation and revelry erupted in full. Several servants came and produced plates of seafood for each of them – raw oysters, some finely cooked white fish and ruby pomegranate seeds serving as a replacement for the pearls. The band struck up a jaunty, happy tune.
“So, where are you all from?” Asked the wine-stained man.
“Is the guessing game already starting?” Asked one of the red-haired men, “No point in holding it off, I suppose. Alright, we’re a long way from home. My brother and I are from Perasef.”
He punctuated his sentence by taking one of the opened oysters and slurped it down greedily.
“Agora,” said Edam, “But I’ve been living here in Koletya for a few years now.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” said the wine-stained man, “I visited once, lovely country, charitable people. I was there on… oh, what was it? I believe you Agorans call it tokyan?”
“Tochian,” said Edam, correcting his pronunciation. The wine-stain man barreled on in conversation while the foreigner squinted through her mask at the food.
“Yes, tokyan. It’s a kind of wine, very expensive, but I found a viticulturist there who made a deal with me. Quite good business, and good wine,” he explained to the other two men.
“I’m very sorry,” said the foreign woman in a soft accent, “But is this raw?”
She held up one of the oysters.
“Yes,” said Edam, “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I am… used to fish being cooked,” said the woman, “Forgive my ignorance. I am from Sondi, as you call it.”
“Ah, explains the dress,” said Edam, “So, what brings you so far from home?”
“Word travels fast,” she said, “Hmph. When in the land of the Sepulcherite, follow his law.”
She put her shell to her lips and slurped down the white meat whole. Edam pulled her mask aside and did the same, swallowing the briny water and the fish. It had just a hint of sweetness to it, and it should have been delicious, but it did nothing to sate the hungry anger and frustration that laid in her belly.
“Not bad,” said the woman, thinking for a second, “Not bad at all. My compliments to the sea.”
“Don’t you mean the chef?” Asked Edam.
“How could I mean the chef? They didn’t cook it!”
A polite laugh circled the table.
“But seriously, I happened to pick up word that there was a great party in Kallin with guests from all over the world from a merchant during my travels. I’m something of an adventurer, and I thought it would be a shame, a downright shame, if this little exhibition of the world had no guests from Mishe, my home province.”
“Alright, I suppose it’s my turn,” said the wine-stained man, smiling, “I’m from Bivetsi, a town a upriver from here. Nothing special.”
“I came from Fraimon. A little town on the Agoran border. Not a bad place, but it was nothing compared to this. I’m pretty sure there are more people in a single block than there were in the whole of that place.”
“So you come from nowhere?” Asked the foreigner.
“More or less,” said Edam, “My family, less so. My uncle was well-off and he raised me.”
More words tickled her throat as she took a sip of wine. The leaking bile of her anger emerged from her mouth.
“Not that he wanted to. My father threw me to him as soon as he could find a good reason. Still, I found my own way. Became a student of sorcery, and found my way here.”
“And how were you invited?”
“A friend of a friend found himself unexpectedly ill and donated an invitation to me,” she said, “I’m not really a member of this… high society thing”
“But you came from money,” said the foreigner, “Didn’t you?”
Edam felt her face twitch under her mask. The bile had to be spat up. She took another taste of the wine, letting the acidic taste coat her throat.
“Do you really want to know the story? Do you really? It’s not a happy one.”
“Everyone has unhappy tales,” said the wine-stain man. The foreigner nodded in agreement. The brothers looked on with a vague interest.
“Tell us,” one of them said, “You’ve made it here now, so clearly whatever it was had a happy ending.”
“Fine,” she said, looking to her left and right. She took a bite of the cooked fish to prepare herself, and then let it come out in a hush low enough that the other tables wouldn’t hear.
“My mother was an adultress. It was an open secret, more or less, and everyone knew except for my father. Of course, my father was a busy man. He went away for a few months shortly after they were first married.”
She took a last drink of wine before she put it far from herself. She didn’t want to get drunk. There was still work to be done, and being sloppy wouldn’t help her.
“And then he came back, and my mother was pregnant. One month pregnant. It was pretty easy for him to figure out what had happened. So I was a bastard, and I never knew my real father. My other father wanted nothing to do with me. He made an attempt, I suppose, but he didn’t want me. So he sent me to live with his brother.”
As much as it stung, it felt good to get the words out of her mouth at last. The strangers, the masks, freed her to speak without much consequence. Just saying it, saying the shameful fact that she was a bastard felt freeing. She rolled her shoulders and relaxed.
“I think he said, oh, what was it – that I was too unruly. That he didn’t have the time or the discipline to raise a bastard wasn’t his, that wouldn’t amount to anything. I mean, he didn’t say that. He meant it, though, I know that much. So I proved him wrong, I guess. Put work in, learned sorcery, made something of myself here in Koletya. And now I’m dining with the rich and famous.”
“What a wonderful nation you have here in Koletya,” said the woman, “Such a thing, an illegitimate child reaching a high status would be unheard of where I come from. I’m glad for you. I myself am a student of sorcery.”
“Really?” Asked Edam, “What’s your specialty?”
“Ah, this, that and the other thing. When you spend your life traveling it’s a practicality – a necessity really – to learn many different trades. I’ve performed alchemy, chirurgery, all manners of combative sorcery and I’ve learned the methods of creating a watcher. I actually came here to study some of these new methods. I want to bring some of that knowledge back home.”
Edam nodded. She might have been a pagan, but she seemed quite agreeable. She finished her fish as the other three men ate in silence. They seemed almost cowed by the outburst, as hushed as it was. That, or they didn’t know enough about sorcery to contribute.
“What about you?” Asked the foreigner.
“Ah, I’m a student of war in many respects. Or I’ve made myself an aegis, if that’s what you want me to say. I protect important folks and get paid for it. But I’ve got interest in other disciplines. Maybe we could connect after the party?”
“Certainly. I’ll be staying here for at least a few more weeks, and I’d love to compare notes.”
Eventually, the men restarted conversation about their business affairs and their favorite kinds of wine, disinterested in the whole sorcery matter. Edam humored them, their prattling questions, their jokes, the wine-stained man’s annoying laughter. The appetizer was traded out for a rather nice soup, then an entrée of beef and greens, and all the while the band played on from piece to piece, slowing as the night continued. It was perhaps one of the better dinners she had in her life. It was certainly the most expensive one. Eventually, it was clear that the venue was going to change, the serving men slowly filing towards the common room. She excused herself to go to the bathroom, and retreated down the halls and back to the attic.
Imera was waiting for her with Danza, smiling mischievously.
“I’ve got her. It’s the woman wearing a white mask that’s decorated with flowers, blond hair, white dress. And, well, somehow she’s pregnant.”
“She wasn’t a few weeks ago?”
He shook his head.
“Skinny as a twig then. Now it looks like she’s been pregnant for months.”
There was a silence between them. So Akham was right, at least to some extent. None of the possibilities here were good though.
“Some kind of witchcraft? Maybe she’s the blueblood?” Asked Danza.
“Maybe,” said Edam, “Could just be vampire physiology. Either way… we stick to the plan. I’ll head back down and try to strike a conversation with her.”
She rolled her shoulders again, shaking off the stress. She opened her purse, checked the gun again, and opened the door to the stairwell again, to the breach below. One identified and known. Four to go.
One thought on “A Celebration of Lesser Evils 3.4”
god Edam is so sharply painful to read at times. I love the descriptive language used on her emotional states