Consider What Becomes of the Ashes
The matron's name is Reiche. She is married to an old general. The first few times Noah goes to call he falls asleep. Her house is too cool, calm, and he hurting from the heat of the outside air. Only after the third visit does he realise the most he does for her is kiss the back of her hand in greeting and farewell. She offers him tea and carries the conversation as his lids droop. His fourth visit he applies himself to diligent discussion and is rewarded by the sparkle of her eye.
She cannot move her legs.
She is slightly older than Noah's mother had been when buried in Badenstee mud. Reiche's husband is much older, and his years of fighting the Vail invaders are lost, confused. He often wanders into the room where they converse over tea, and at Reiche's prompting, walks out again. Once he says to Noah: 'Cameron? What have you done to your hair?' Reiche explains. Cameron was their son, dead in the first Vail invasion.
She is sad. Her teacup stutters on the saucer and spills. Noah stills her hand with his, the butter-suede of her skin, warmth of her veins and the rings against his palm. Reiche. He does not know her family name.
She continues to call the white-haired man, specifically for Noah. Reiche's wit sparkles to match her jewels, and he is compelled to rise for her, in admiration. She does not call him 'boy', only Noah. In his wandering her husband calls her 'Reyanne?' and Reiche explains Reyanne was his first wife; 'Deirdre?' and Reiche says the woman was his longest lasting mistress. Noah thinks, there are worse prisons than his.
Reiche is LaGattan to the bone, her cheekbones sharp under the lines of age, her nose long and straight. She is still very beautiful, and does not try to deny her half century of life. She is proud, and dresses with dignity, a famous actress before her crippling in the prime of her life with a poise enduring. Her charm ensures she is not forgotten by the Highest crowd; LaGatta holds her close, and will never let her go.
Reiche is passionate about many a cause, but often cannot explain why. She has so much passion that must be spent on something. Noah thinks she wastes her money on many an undeserving cause; starving artists and wishful actors. Noah can make this judgment because Reiche, unlike the others, puts him to use only outside the bedroom. Noah guides Reiche's chair about Dodecadam and Highest as she shows him a side of the city yet unseen. He learns the sharpness of a satire, the names of orchestral melodies, the latest genius birthed and unearthed. Under Reiche's directive Noah learns to read LaGattan characters until he can recite to her the latest of plays. The struggle humiliates him, but he is not content with his learning until his recital sparks the suspicious shine of tears in Reiche's eyes.
The first time they make love she is so fragile in his hands. He cannot penetrate her without her pain whatever their preparations. He applies only his fingers and tongue. The day after he is surprised the exposed flesh of her face and hands do not show signs of his love, but her eyes are gentle, her lips quirk. She does not often take him to her bed.
Reiche teaches him to play a twelve-piece strategy game. He plays the grey Auldemon to her white Highest, his wild card against her fortified walls. Noah suspects she for his sake, for he forgets the names of the other twelve pieces though he knows the moves.
He arrives one afternoon to find Reiche ordered her housekeeper to air a guest-chamber. Hesitantly, she tells Noah if he does not wish to return to the lower level for the term of his service, he can stay. She will buy him a freedom to wander Highest without a bit of wood to bind him. Noah's first thought is to refuse. His second thought is to ask why. He does neither, and accepts this as everything other, with his silence.
Reiche paints when they do not wander, often the portraits of visiting families. The most common commission is of young men and their new-made brides, for proud families who want more than the gloss of photography. Noah absents himself then, the method of his habitation not uncommon, but not proper. With no commissions scheduled, he poses nude for her. She tells him he is beautiful. Noah thinks of the stage melodramas Reiche so enjoys watching. He knows her words are a lie. He looks nothing like his mother.
Noah finds no difficulty in holding motionless for so long, and does not ask to view what she paints of him.
Reiche's reasoning behind his residence is more than a matter of displaced passion.
Noah assumes the task of tending Reiche's husband, the old general still fit however his mind wanders, far stronger than Reiche's withered old butler. Day and night, Noah wrestles the old man from his weeping wife, a wandering mind bearing no concern for Reiche's brittle bones.
Noah notes how the man walks, all day, feet wandering as much as his mind. To keep the general entertained and out of the house, Noah shapes the traditional lines of Reiche's LaGattan garden for wandering instead, in great scallops and curves, with many a bench for frequent pauses and ponderings. In the shade of a broad lace umbrella, Reiche waits with tall, ice-filled drinks and watches as Noah digs and plants the sandy soil. For her benefit, Noah works shirtless. He detests the soil griming his hands, reminding him of springs and autumns, of planting and hoping after the wave of plague, of desolate days and a great wood turned tinder-dry. Badenstee soil was barren long before Noah blooded it. Every night he scrubs the earth from his hands until they are raw, red and clean.
Reiche's husband comments on the dry bones turned over in the soil.
'They're not bones.' Noah throws the grey things, twisted, into a pile. 'Nothing more than the roots of long-dead trees.'
The old general follows Noah about the garden as he works. 'It's a lie, that's what it is. It's all false, this city, this soil, a fallacy and a folly. Such effort expended to raise lofty LaGatta to the sky, but we had to carry our land with us. Earth to earth, dust to dust, we're all ash in the end. Did you know LaGatta's no true soil to her name? LaGattans are rootless. LaGattans are thieves. All this soil's been brought here, carted by craft and craftier men, watered with blood until only bones grow. Such brittle bones. Not LaGattan bones. Maybe your brother's bones, boy? I know your type, you Badenson. I fought you once. My son fought beside you, when the Vail came. Have you met my son? They tell me his bones are in foreign soil, so you might dig him up here. He is a contrary lad, I wish he had a brother. Reiche should have borne me many sons. Why do you think she wants to leave me? She is so beautiful. Every man desires her. I must find a way to stop her from leaving me. I cannot let her run. I will stop her, if she tries to run away. This flower will be very beautiful when it blooms. Plant it here, boy, where it will catch the sun and smile at me.'
Noah labors hard to finish soon. He does not enjoy the feel of the stolen earth. Some mornings he slides the metal shaft of the rake through his hands and tests its weight. He whirls it with a speed to make the air hum before he buries the metal edge in dirt. Even a rake reminds him of a spear or a staff when he wields it so. He will not touch a weapon again, for it did no good the last time. He failed as a fighter.
Reiche's husband appears happier after the garden is done. He spends his days walking the green circuit instead of bound in the house, pissing in pot plants and raping his wife. Noah takes Reiche in her chair through a larger circuit than the garden, though the Highest social whirl is just as limited. Always the same people, as though all Highest is a hundred people copied over and again. Noah decides they are all mad, walking the same endless path. Reiche's husband is bound to his garden, approaching every bend as though the first time; Reiche comments every new play she witnesses reminds her of another, perhaps shown in her youth.
Noah cannot remember that he was anything other than this.
Noah wakes and looks about the bedroom in amazement. There is a book he read; a dead flower he picked from the garden; a scarf of Reiche's whose smooth silk reminded him of sleek steel. All of these, room, book, flower, scarf, are gifts. The room can be cleaned of his traces in moments; no photographs on the wall, none of Reiche's paintings.
What was his life before he came here? Who is he? He came to LaGatta when young and the city stole his youth.
Noah is twenty five and he feels seventy.
Noah is twenty seven and feels eighty.
Noah is thirty and feels thrice that.
Noah dreams Reiche's house is a womb, he wails and beats his fists on the imported parquetry floor. He is waiting, ticking, a tensioned spring without enough potential to uncoil. Life is a broken clock, of cogs and wheels grinding out of sync.
Reiche is full of wit and wisdom, but she is old. She often repeats herself, and Noah nods for politeness and comments as though he heard her freshly. She takes him to a play she patronised in his company twice. In the red-draped foyer, amid the babble of the spilled crowd, Reiche comments, it seems as though she has already seen this play.
Noah cannot speak for the sudden bitter bile caught in his throat.
'My beloved lady, I suspect that's because you have seen it before. I recall your lovely presence exiting the matinee three days ago. But for the speed of your attendant I could not catch you for a word.'
There is a hand on Noah's shoulder and it is warm.
'I have so longed to speak to you.'
The young man steps around Noah to direct his attention to Reiche.
He is clad in the crisp black uniform of a graduate of the Imperial Military Association. The stripes across his breast show his honors. The split collar, one side navy and the other white, shows his dual expertise lies in engineering and law. The embroidered silver fins on his right shoulder suggest his seaworthiness. Noah knows all of this because he learned it, long ago in Badenstee at the knee of his LaGattan mother, when he yet believed in a fable of choice.
The heavy ring on the young man's left hand tells his house. The seal on his right hand shows he is the heir. Noah looks at the man's long fingers and does not raise his gaze. Reiche taught him what the rings meant, but Noah does not need such obvious markers to the pure LaGattan nobility in every line of the young man's lean, fit body, a sense of strength and confidence drawn from an ownership of place.
Reiche exclaims, 'Penleigh! Oh, Penleigh, my darling, how you have grown!'
They kiss each other lightly on the lips, young man and old woman. Noah flames, gut to surface.
'La, Penlight, why haven't you come to see me since your return? So busy gadding about with your young crew that you can't come and greet a poor housebound old lady?'
'Hold me not liable for my tardiness, madam, I've come past yours four times since my return and each time you've been out entertaining. Your socialising far outstrips mine.' He laughs, and it is a sad sound. 'All my old friends have up and married on me.'
'I treasured your letters.' Reiche clears her throat, pointed. 'Few as they have been.'
Penleigh cannot stand still, near a-tremble with bound energy. Noah will not raise his eyes, and watches Penleigh's shifting feet.
'I must apologise, my studies have been consuming. Pending these last practical months of my internship, there's a gap in the Ministry I'm to fill. Hastily, with the two Princes readying for departure.'
'Bringing war to the Vail, this time.' Reiche is sorrowful. 'An endless parade.'
'In the shaping for the role I haven't much room left for social nicety.'
Reiche tuts. 'And you so socially nice. A vast shame. I never stop lamenting that your father sent you away to the Association. If I were your mother—' Penleigh flinches, and Reiche scarcely pauses to shift, '—it's been a whole year since you last had leave, Penleigh! We have so missed your company at the court parties.'
'You both attend? I have not had the privilege of meeting your muse before.'
'Silly boy,' Reiche laughs, '"we" being myself and my lord husband. Noah does not attend formal occasions, naturally.'
'Naturally.' Penleigh presents his hand.
The gesture is not one of LaGattan nobility, nor even of couth LaGatta. It is a distinctly military greeting.
Noah must lift his gaze to take those fingers in his own.
Penleigh's hair is soldier-short about the ears and neck, of a richness hinting at midnight in the depths. Noah sees the stubble of skin still plagued by adolescence, dark eyes long-lashed like a girl's, an asymmetrical smile.
The smile is the only asymmetry Noah can find. He clings to the evidence of flaw, of mortality.
'Penleigh Kerse, and I won't bore you with my family name. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Noah.' Penleigh's palm is calloused, belying the cultured tone of his voice, the remnant acne. To the lady Penleigh says: 'It distresses me that following the Empress's death, the Emperor's court is so careless of your needs to limit their invitation to you and your husband. Will you attend my homecoming this coming Friday, do say yes? And as a proper host, I insist Noah attends also, to see to your comfort as he obviously knows best.'
Reiche will refuse, and should. She pats Noah's hand where it rests on the handle of her chair, warmth and scratchy lace. Reiche thanks Penleigh when she accepts on the behalf of them both.
The young man's smile is chased by unexpected embarrassment: by the door a cluster of girls call his name, fidgeting with feathers and beads worn in excess while out of patience and manners. Penleigh excuses himself with a faultless bow and hastens over.
He says something to the girls. They all look at Noah. Penleigh's colour is high. The girls laugh.
'Oh, my, Penleigh.' Reiche watches him go. Noah cannot look. 'You have grown so beautifully tall!'
Noah never saw Badenstee's final fall. He lay bound in a mud-stinking storeroom, his weapons and will gone. He wept into the dirt until his face grimed with mud; his arms could not break nor twist free of the bonds. There were LaGattans outside the door and in the LaGattan they never thought he spoke, they discussed what they would do with him, to him, and how slowly they would kill him after. He was an insurgent and worthless except as entertainment, left in his own waste for days before they would find use for him, to leave him again in filth of their own. He forgot he controlled limbs, for he could not move them.
Another day and he would have accepted the stinking storeroom as his life. He had never lived any other way. When the door opened, he was afraid of the remembered potential for difference, for more than these walls, terrified of what the world out there would make of him. Flooding light showed the shit colour of the floor and walls, the smoke in the air from the brazier always kept smouldering at his heels. There were spider's nests in the rafters, denied from catching the sparkle of dawn, soot staining the strands black.
Noah turned his head to see who walked in. 'The Emperor Aured Rel issued a decree.' The LaGattan spoke slowly and with effort in Badenstongue. 'All prisoners of war are to be released. You are free to go.'
The words meant so little to a parched mind, a starved stomach. The words meant everything. Noah spoke, and tasted filth, smoke, Badenstee mud. 'Free to go where?'
'Anywhere you want.'
What he felt then, Noah feels now. He returns Reiche home with too brisk a step.
She laughs, gaily, forgives the muss of her hair, and seems a little bit sad.
Continue to Chapter 5 →
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