1627, Dark Season
Venlar says as they are going out of the gate, “I am going back to the Sambari house…” He gives Varanis a look filled with unknown significance.
“Do you want company?” Varanis says. Something in her expression suggests that she has other words, but is holding back. Courtesy, perhaps.
“I would hate to keep Berra out in the cold,” Venlar says smoothly.
“Nah, I’m good. In fact, I’m kinda wanting to talk to you too,” Berra replies, butting in with her chirpy, aggressive look.
“And it’s probably best that conversation doesn’t happen in such a public location, I think.” Varanis glances between Berra and Venlar.
Berra rolls her shoulders. “Sure. The Sambari house sounds good to me.”
Yehna looks at her sister, unsure.
“Berra,” Varanis warns. “Mine.” She threads her arm through Venlar’s. “Shall we?”
Berra looks at Yehna, and for a moment seems like she will make a scene, and then she does not. Instead, she tugs her bison into motion and then mounts up. She tells her sister, “Yehna, you might not want to be around for a bit. I’m probably going to be shouting.”
Venlar looks distinctly nervous at something he has overheard.
Varanis passes Doqeia’s reins up to Berra. “Do you mind? I’d prefer to walk just now.”
“Sure,” Berra says, taking them, and telling the horse, “You try it, and I will punch you. We’ll have words.”
Yehna does not remonstrate – she just adopts a look that says she has seen this a lot.
“Which one is Sambari House?” The Esrolian tugs at Venlar’s arm discreetly, to get him moving.
Venlar whispers urgently, “Please no.” He freezes, letting his arm loose. It seems he is making sure of his balance.
Berra looks like she was considering side-swiping him with a horse, but steers Followed and therefore Doqeia well clear.
Varanis stops moving. “Berra, you and Yehna pick a direction and go, please. I’m staying with Venlar.”
There is no room for argument.
“I just need a moment,” Venlar says. “Or else I’ll lose balance.”
Nevertheless, Berra gives Varanis a long look, and then a nod. She looks up to the Ramp and the North Gate, and down to the city below, and then makes up her mind. “We’ll go up and look at the view, and then come back down.” She points to the cluster of tribal mansions to say where she’ll be coming to, but tells Yehna, “I can show you what I’m probably going to be running up once the snow’s gone.” Beat-pause. “I hope the snow will have gone.” The pause is just a little too long for comfort – her mind is not on that conversation.
Varanis waits until the others have ridden away, before she says, “In your own time, Venlar. I’m going to need an explanation as to what has just happened. It can be here, but we are likely to be observed. I’ll let you set the pace and the place, but I need to understand.”
Venlar takes a moment to walk on, and then when they are on the road to the mansions, sighs deeply before beginning. “That was not perfect timing. I was trying to find Yehna a husband, and the plan involved persuading several people they should consider her. Unfortunately, they were all there at the same time as she was, which was not part of the plan.”
“I see. Does Yehna know that you are match-making for her? And why are you doing this instead of one of Blue Tree’s women folk? What do men know of such things?” Her expression is unreadable.
“No women here, and nobody with my access to these places – save you, and you’re busy.” Venlar looks contrite. “Perhaps I should have asked you first, for help.”
“I’m a Vingan,” she points out. “Not my role either. But I can help, if Yehna wishes.”
“Role?” Venlar looks interested, but slightly confused. “Do only women do this, in Esrolia?”
“Generally, yes. In some instances Orlanth may assist, but the arranging is usually Ernalda’s.”
“It’s something I suppose I learned from my father,” Venlar says almost distantly. “While Ernalda does a lot of it, the negotiation is usually done by men, the arranging by women. That is to say, the women will find someone suitable and the men will talk terms. Father, of course, did not work quite that way. Rather, he would do both, and is at home with it.” His pace eats up the ground now that he is recovered from his near fall.
“You still haven’t told me if Yehna wishes this.”
“She’s starting to look at men again,” Venlar says. “I was going to let her have the choice, but if she is flattered by the attention it will help her. She is too used to leaving a dance-day on her own.”
“But throwing her into that without warning was unfair. You do realise that Berra is likely to go for your balls if you’ve upset her sister?”
“I did not realise she was arriving, and then… I misjudged. I had to go in; I had arranged it. I failed to keep others away, however.” Venlar winces. “Clumsy. I am too obvious.”
“We’ll have to see how things play out. Tell me which of them you were considering for her.” Varanis has moved beyond whatever chastising she’d intended. Now it is time to plan.
“Oh, several are still on the list. Felgan is off, given he seems to like you and I am certain Yehna noted that.” Venlar indicates a left turn with an expansive gesture. “The nobility and the warriors there are generally of high status but not loved enough by Leika to have her keep them at court. However, several have parents in Clearwine, or brothers, as far as I can make out.” He rolls up his sleeves in preparation for oratory, or in this case a clear enumeration. He counts on his fingers.
“Mehrim, whose mother is a Clearwine Priestess, was the one who told the story about the frog. Tarafal is the young singer. He’s too young for her, I think, at sixteen, but his father is Leika’s bard, Torograi Birdcharmer. I suspect that marriage would not last long, but it would give her status of a sort. Asdel Hargransson is a brave warrior, and troublesome when it comes to Kallyr. He is the man with the beard that refuses to grow in properly. Drangen is handsome and rich and has never been tried in battle, but his father fell at Boldhome in the defence of the Flame. He has no other lineage, but he is well liked. Gerast would have been my ideal, of course. The steward of such a house would be a shield for you, but he is approaching thirty, and I have a distaste for such relationships.”
“Well, Felgan is of no interest to me, save as a climbing partner. And ‘seems to like’ after one meeting is meaningless. So, if Yehna has interest, then she has my support. Tarafel is too young. He needs to grow a beard before he will be suitable husband material. Troublesome with regards to Kallyr is problematic. If Yehna likes him, it can be worked around. But it would be difficult. The others…” She shrugs. “If they can be the kind of husband Yehna wants, then I see no issues.”
“The trouble with Kallyr is the main thing in Asdel’s favour. It makes him into Berra’s kin. He cannot grow a moustache, however, which prejudices me against him as I feel he should take the dignified course and admit it.” Venlar slows down to avoid getting to the house too fast, and uses the change of pace to weigh those two nearly equal points against each other.
“Stay that horse and explain, please. Why is the Kallyr thing an advantage?”
“In favour of that marriage, should he be kin to Berra, how can he argue with her?” Venlar smiles slightly. “He is the most outspoken of his friends here in Boldhome, so either here or at home in Clearwine, his poison is drawn. Silencing him may be good, but he is brave, and he will respect his new sister. With a little work, he could come to see how what Berra supported with such courage was what a warrior should do.”
“And you think he would be good for Yehna? She deserves a husband who is right for her.”
“That is for her to decide,” Venlar says. “Those are the people I was considering. Three stand out, and the rest are guards and warriors of the Colymar, or others. I suspect she does not want a crafter’s cottage, however.”
Varanis chews her lip thoughtfully. “Shall I make her aware of your plans or do you wish to?”
“Well, what a question.” Venlar looks towards the Ramp. “They will be a while. Tell me what you advise here. I know her, but I have just messed up very badly on her behalf.”
“I think you should explain. It will be better coming from you. Berra may yell, but it’s possible she will restrain herself in front of her sister. Your good intentions are likely to matter to Yehna, at least.” Varanis peers up at him as they walk. “You are assuming that all is lost. Why?”
“I am not. However, the timing did make things harder. My plan was to have them compete amongst themselves for what they imagined – that would draw in the reluctant, for everyone I have listed can make their own decisions on marriage. The weather will keep us in Boldhome for months now, and I was planning on finding Yehna the clothes and jewellery I would assume she would like… But now they know her they must be cajoled differently. More difficult, not impossible.”
“Why? She is lovely, capable… proven fertility. Why must they be cajoled?” Varanis sounds offended. “Anyone who wants her must surely cajole her, not the other way around.”
“She is many things, but this is politics, and they need to be persuaded to admire her. Once that grows, it can grow truly, but while for her it must be love, for Berra it must be alliance. The biggest thing that Yehna brings to a marriage is a sister who is famed, and reliable as a warrior. Yehna is her heir, and Berra will be sung of in sagas this winter. This is not a marriage about who wants her. It is a marriage about her position.” Venlar uses that trick of counting points on his fingers again, even though they are simply different parts of his argument. The motion binds them together.
“Huh. I always thought that…” Varanis trails off, searching for the words. “Well, I didn’t realise it mattered for people of their station too.” She flushes with embarrassment, aware of how that sounded.
“Berra is likely to change station in her life,” Venlar points out. “Yehna will be sister to a Sword of Humakt. Otherwise, I think there is little other than fame or riches to tempt a man, and who would be tempted by that?”
“A mother for his children? A competent partner to face life’s challenges? A companion in age? You’re right. I’m foolish to think of such things.” The level of bitterness that comes with this statement is new to Venlar.
“Ah, of course.” Venlar gives Varanis a wry look tinged with sympathy. “She would have a different set of choices, but for her family.”
“You got to marry someone of your choosing,” Varanis blurts accusingly before she can stop herself.
Venlar waits a moment, and then nods. “I was very fortunate. Your band came into my life. I had thought I would never be able to father children, and now I have hope. Some things do change.” Now he looks like he is back in the role of advisor, a calm kindness creeping over him.
After drawing a shuddering breath, Varanis apologises. “That was unjust of me. I’m not sure where that came from.” She takes another, slower breath, then turns the subject back to Yehna. “Assuming she agrees, how do you think we should proceed?”
Venlar lets the change in subject happen. “We should spend a few weeks getting people interested in the idea, and then let Arahna know. I’ve already established an appropriate size of gift for them, although they’ll know what I’m up to now, so I should make sure to let them know I reward friends.”
“I wonder if her association with me would be seen as an advantage or a problem. Last I heard, Leika wasn’t particularly fond of me.”
“We have all winter to produce the right result,” Venlar says with a smile. “And it will depend upon the person, of course. But we are here. Shall we put aside the political talk, and make a room warm for your dear friend?” He so nearly said ‘your Humakti’ but managed to veer off at the last minute.
“Let’s,” Varanis agrees. “She can have hot water to sip, I think.”
Mellia has a quiet chat with Varanis in the White Grape. Mellia then goes out in search of Venlar.
Venlar is found easily. While he has organised staying at the mansion, he knows that the social hub here is the White Grape.
Mellia carols, “Sweetheart, we need to talk before Berra kills you.”
Venlar pauses in lifting a cup to his lips, and with his usual care when he thinks he might be about to spill something, casts around for somewhere to put it before answering. “She will not,” he says confidently. Perhaps there is more confidence than warranted, when the items ‘Berra’ and ‘killing’ can be put together.
“She is that angry with you,” Mellia replies. “Can I try to fend off a duel?”
“I do not think she was angry when I left her,” Venlar replies. “Certainly not in a killing mood, or she would have said something then. She is at her Temple now, anyhow. What makes you think she is that irate she would invite me to breakfast for one?”
Mellia says, “Venlar, did you go looking for suitors for Berra’s sister?”
“No, I went looking for a situation in which I could cause people to wish to be suitors for Berra’s sister. That’s a fine distinction, and one to which I hold firm.” He smiles in a way that just about anyone would find heart-melting, and then removes the smile so he can pay attention to Mellia.[[footnote]]Criticalled Charm. That cute thing that he doesn’t know he’s doing? He’s probably doing it. Mellia passed Charm, and he thinks she is just wonderful right now.[[/footnote]]
“Dearest love, I think Berra feels you think she can’t take care of her sister.”
“She has little political acuity,” Venlar says carefully. It is not the instant support of Berra that it could be.
Mellia says,”How did politics get involved?”
“Berra is rich and related to powerful people,” her husband replies. “Her sister is the closest that anyone will get to marrying her, and as we are in Boldhome I want to take advantage of that by getting her the best husband we can. I should have asked Varanis for help, but I did not think I needed it, yet.”
Mellia nods. “Does Yehna want a husband? “
“She’s been widowed for a year. She’s looking at men again, and she’s the marrying sort. I talked it through with my sister, who is not an expert on love, but a very good observer of people. She does not know she wants a husband yet, Yamia says, but the want is there.”
Mellia looks comforted, but says, “An apology to Yehna and Berra for not consulting them first would be wise.”
“Oh, I’ll talk to Yehna first, of course,” Venlar says. “But I wanted to take her shopping and the snow is coming down. She needs new clothes. I suppose that helps a woman be happier about an explanation.”
Mellia nods. “Gifts are always useful, my love. I may go find Berra before the snow gets worse.”
“Up at her Temple. Take warm clothes in case they make you wait.” Venlar rises and stretches, remembers his wine, and sinks it back. A couple of drinkers look on in envy or amusement.
Mellia kisses Venlar on the cheek. She wraps up in a white wool cloak and ducks out to find Berra at the Humakti temple.
The snow drifts down, covering houses and turning to water under the feet of traffic along the roads. The Humakti Temple has its gates open, indicating not only that it is open for visitors, but also that Death cannot be held in.
Mellia does her best to keep her feet dry. She asks for Berra at the gate.
The guard goes in to see if Berra is available, and a few minutes later comes out to tell her, “Initiate Berra is busy, but you are welcome to come in and wait.”
Mellia thanks the guard and goes in. She asks if any need her help.
There is a courtyard, half empty, in which people are practicing, some with blunt weapons and some with sharp ones against shields. There is a little blood on the ground, but nobody seems hurt. Healing must have happened already. Inside there is a practice hall, and here people are not using weapons, but are generally meditating or doing slow-motion weights. Berra is there, eyes closed, dressed only in her loin cloth and chest wrap, feet bare on the cold floor. Her eyes are closed, and D’Val is painting sigils on her in woad.
She is, of course, attending at her Temple for training. The Humakti Temple has rather harsher ways than the White Lady’s House.
Mellia quietly watched for a while. As soon as D’Val is done, she says, “Sword of Humakt, may I borrow your student please?”
“You may speak with her as long as you make not attempt to warm her or comfort her,” D’Val says, his duck accent light.
“Thank you. Berra, how do I get you not to challenge Venlar to a duel?”
Berra looks at Mellia in puzzlement. “Did someone say I was going to?” she asks, staying very still and hardly looking at Mellia.
“Varanis said you were angry enough to kill him. I can understand why, but he does have a point.”
“Varanis was wrong, then, or speaking wild air,” Berra replies. “I’d have sent someone to find a time if I wanted to fight him.” She winces as D’Val runs a loaded brush of cold mud up her back, and then puts her expression back to studied calm.
Mellia says,” I shall have to shout at Varanis extra next time. I was being quiet. Argh. Should I still get an apology from him?”
“About? Oh, right, that. No, but tell him he doesn’t know shi… sorry, Sword. Doesn’t know anything about the Colymar so he’s going to want to talk to me. Or Yehna. Pretty soon.”
“Temper your language, yess,” murmurs D’Val.
“I will see what I can do. Just keep in mind that you are rich now, so Yehna needs to wed with care.”
Berra pauses, and then says, “Yes. I should do that. She deserves someone who can match me.” The little Humakti looks determined, if maybe a little prideful.
Mellia asks,”Anyone in mind?”
“Not really. That’s a fertility thing. But I know all about how to ask.” Berra relaxes for a moment and then D’Val hefts a small bucket of cold water and throws it over her. She whimpers but manages not to flinch.
“Hmm. We should all sit down and talk about this, just as soon as you recover from pneumonia.”
“Sshe will not be allowed to die,” D’Val says reassuringly. “But she may nexst leave the Temple three days from now.”
Mellia says, “Thank you, Sword of Humakt.”
D’Val bows his head, or at least bobs his long neck down. “Isz that all you require from the Initiate?”
Mellia replies, “I think anything else can wait. Thank you for allowing me to speak with her.” Mellia bows deeply to D’Val.
This time his bow is just a nod, and he turns back to Berra. “Duelss do not count as warming exercise,” he says, “But non-metal armour countst as clothesz.” He seems to have said that before.
Mellia says, “Duels count as ignoring your healer.” She leaves before she starts a holy war.
Outside it is snowing steadily, far heavier than it ever does in Nochet. The streets are still half full, although as evening is here they are emptying rapidly. It is as cold as mid-winter at home.
Mellia thinks the inn is closest. She hurries there, hoping Venlar is still there.
Venlar is reading a scroll, which he rolls up as Mellia comes in. “Well, my love? Am I to survive?” He is an old hand at reading, and has a little tag left in the scroll to mark his place. It pokes out at both ends of the roll, an expensive dyed bit of thread.
“Berra is busy for the next three days. She told me to tell you that there are important things about the Colymar you don’t know yet. She didn’t say what they were.”
The door opens again and is hurriedly slammed shut behind the person entering into the warmth of the inn. Varanis stomps the snow off her boots and brushes it off her cloak. There will be puddles there soon.
“Rondrik, do you have a room free? I’m not heading back up to the palace in such a snow storm.”
“Yes, Thane,” Rondrik says, “But not the usual one. It’s a little smaller than you might like.”
Mellia says,”Hello, Varanis. What were you doing out in the snow?”
The Vingan gives Rondrik a nod of acceptance before turning to her cousin’s voice. “Mellia! Venlar! I’m glad you’re not out in this. The snow has become thick very suddenly.”
She takes a cup of hot wine and moves to join her kin.
Mellia gets out of her cloak. “You will never believe what Berra is doing.”
“Try me,” Varanis replies. She wraps her own cloak more tightly around herself, not yet ready to surrender its warmth. She doesn’t have a spouse to snuggle up to the way Mellia does.
Venlar does indeed snuggles Mellia closer.
Mellia snuggles with Venlar. “Berra is wearing almost nothing but woad and D’Val is throwing cold water on her.”
“I think she is doing conditioning. Things to make her stronger,” Varanis says after a moment. “I doubt they will kill her, as that would be wasteful.” An unusually pragmatic perspective from the Vingan.
Mellia says,”They won’t let her die, but she’s probably going to get sick.”
“I am sure they know what they are doing,” Venlar says. “Three days, you say? In that case, we must take that time to make Yehna as acceptable to young warriors and poets as we can.”
Varanis raises an eyebrow at him, then leans over to whisper loudly to Mellia. “Did you check that he still has all his bits?”
Venlar looks rather puzzled, which he manages to make suit him.
Mellia says, “We should talk to Yehna about this first, dearest love.”
“That will be part of the making her acceptable. Even if she does not marry, she should show well in Boldhome. She is one of us.” He could mean anything by that; Varanis’ people, his group of friends, the people who hang around Berra…
“Besides, we all need warmer clothes if it is going to be this cold through all of Dark Season,” Varanis adds. “I don’t really want to wear my Praxian garments in Boldhome. I’ll smell like bison again.”
“Yuck,” Mellia agrees. “I know just the merchant.”
Venlar says, “Shopping is a little different in the snow. A lot of merchants will have moved inside, of course, and of those who stay out, there will be tents and coverings. Still, this is the first fall of the season, and it will be a day before everyone decides where they want to be. Furriers will be common but their wares expensive.”
Mellia says,” I think the market is closed for the night. We can hope that the snow stops.”
“It will probably go on for a day or two,” Venlar says, “But it looks like we might have a light winter, from the omens. That at least will be good for Berra.”
Mellia looks happy at that. “In the meantime we can talk to Yehna and see what Colymar customs apply.”
Venlar looks briefly unsure, and then nods. “We can find commodious and enjoyable ways to keep warm as well. A surprising number of children are born in Dark Season.”
Mellia grins and chuckles. “I should check in with the hospital, but I want to keep this visit quiet.”
“You’re in white,” Venlar points out. “How will they notice you?”
Mellia muses,”If I wear gloves and hide my face, that’ll work.”
“Both of those are wise in the snow,” Venlar says evenly.
“Is there a reason why the tailor won’t come to us?” Varanis interjects, breaking out of her reverie. “I’m used to them coming to me when I want more than an item or two.”
“None,” Venlar says, “But they cannot bring their whole stock, and in the snow, they may wish to huddle down for customers. I admit I have never over-wintered in a city this large, or bought clothes in bulk.”
Mellia thinks. “I am used to going to her, and she has a stall. I can ask her if she can come over tomorrow.”
“Did we ever pay for my wedding dress?” Mellia adds.
“Hey! Rondrik!” Venlar calls across the room. “We will need some snow-sandals for Mellia.”
The innkeeper nods, and gets on with what he is doing. Venlar looks blank about the wedding dress. “It will have been drawn from my estates, surely? Mother will have seen to it.”
“I suppose I can go to her, but I don’t know that I want to be fitted or measured in a tent. Oh… measured.” Varanis looks uncertain. She glances down, then reaches for her wine again.
“She is used to such things. Her niece was a White Lady.”
Venlar stretches. “We can bring her here.”
“I…” Varanis swears, then rises. “Rondrik, where will I be sleeping? I’d like to see the room, if I may.” She manages a polite goodbye, before following Rondrik’s wife up the stairs.
The room is small, up under the roof. It is cozy and comfortable, however, as all the private rooms are. There is a tiny window for light, and a small brazier for heat. A rag rug keeps draughts and noise from below to a minimum, and the room is over the kitchen, so it never gets truly cold.
Downstairs, Venlar finally asks, “Where is Yehna, anyhow?”
As on cue the door opens and a small figure in a cloak slides in.
Venlar nods his head to the newcomer.
Mellia says, “I think that is her now.”
The tingling sound when she shakes snow from her brown hair tells it is Lenta.
She flashes a smile to Rondrik and Venlar and nods to Mellia.
Mellia says,”Hello, Lenta.”
“Hello, Mellia” the brunette answers while walking towards the stairs The weather is wonderful. So fresh. And all that snow.”
Venlar sips at his wine, letting the women talk.
Mellia says, “Too much snow for me.”
“More than ever in Nochet or Monros” Lenta agrees and vanishes upstairs.
“This is just the start of it,” Venlar says. “You will have to learn to wear plenty of layers, with wool next to your skin.”
Mellia says, “I will try to do that. I think my favorite dress merchant is still speaking to me.”
Yehna has Haran with her when she walks in from the stable, snow already mostly melted on her thick homespun cloak. The boy is attached to her by a sling, and deeply asleep, a little pointed hat keeping his head warm. Yehna gives Mellia a familiar smile and a nod. Venlar, now reading his scroll again, gets a brief look and no more.
Mellia whispers, “Yehna, we need to talk.” Mellia is trying not to wake Haran up.
Yehna slips onto a stool, and says, “Of course.” She is speaking quietly, but not whispering.
Mellia says,”My husband thinks you might appreciate suitors. We all need winter clothes.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready yet,” Yehna says. “But I can help you find clothes.”
Venlar glances up from his scroll and perhaps wisely looks down at it again.
Mellia nods. “Varanis and I will be thankful for your help shopping, Yehna. Do you think the market will be open tomorrow?”
“It depends on the weather. Something will be, but it might not be in the open.” Yehna leans down and kisses Haran’s brow. “I’ll be free in the morning without a child, and in the afternoon with one.”
“Does Haran need clothes? If he doesn’t, I think we should go in the morning.”
“No, I brought big clothes that I can put him into, over the smaller ones. Unless he grows a lot while he is here, he will be fine.” Yehna smiles down at the boy. “He does like the food, but he is running around looking at everything, so he is not going to get fat and big.”
Mellia smiles at Haran. “Then we can leave him behind to play. Varanis wants me to bring the tailor here, but I think we’ll do better at the market.”
“Walking is good, but buying warm clothes in the cold can be expensive,” Yehna notes. “You’re so tempted to just buy and get home.”
“Do you think we could get my favorite merchant to come here? Should we pick over the market and then choose a merchant?”
“Money always moves people,” Yehna points out, and gives Venlar a glance.
“I think I just felt my purse contract,” he says mildly. “But then again, I do love Mellia.”
“We represent a lot of clothes, my love. I just hope we’re not fleeced.” Mellia smiles at Venlar.
Venlar smirks. “That was truly terrible. It does not stop me from loving you.” He keeps his eyes on his reading.
Mellia says,” I love you too, sweetheart.”