Csethiro spent the final afternoon of her single life hoping that the wedding would be more enjoyable than the wedding rehearsal. And the marriage more enjoyable than either.
"We thought," she told her father with some sourness, "that you had concluded all negotiations related to this affair. We gather we were naive. Does it really matter that Stepmama is permitted to take precedence over Great-Aunt Arbelan in the bridal procession?"
"Take not that tone with me, young one." The Marquess Ceredel tweaked one of her ears. She flicked it with an irritated tinkle of gold. "Such questions should concern thee. Even once thou art empress, wilt still owe some allegiance to the Ceredada. The family must be displayed to good advantage! Thy stepmother - "
was a terrible choice for a wife, Csethiro thought.
“ - while thy great-aunt, for all that the Emperor recognises her as zhasanai, is hardly - ”
Two families, two allegiances. She would be a bridge-builder just as much as her husband.
"Lord Marquess. Dach'osmin Ceredin." The frighteningly efficient Mer Aisava approached them and bowed, his arms full of paperwork. Csethiro shook off her abstraction. "Everything is ready for the next rehearsal."
“Delightful!” Csethiro gripped her father's arm tightly. They had been waiting at the Untheileian's southern entrance while Maia was freshly arranged on his throne, framed like a painting by his First Nohecharei. She peered at him through the dim light of the hall. Even from a distance he appeared to be in complete desperation. To her eyes, at least. She had made quite a study of him, lately. To the uncaring masses, she was sure he appeared as cool as stone.
“Starting in ten seconds - ” said Mer Aisava, frowning at a paper and running one pale finger down it. “This time slightly slower, Lord Marquess, if you would, to accord with the music ...”
Behind them stood two groups: several Ceredada cousins, looking tired and fractious, and Csethiro's dear sisters in a gossipy huddle – how she wished she could join them. Stepmama and Great-Aunt Arbelan were shoulder-to-shoulder near the cousins: Csethiro hoped that this time her great-aunt didn't actually fall over from a vicious elbow to the ribs ...
A rather junior canon with an overawed expression began to hum the traditional bridal melody. It would be played on flutes tomorrow morning – hopefully more tunefully. Csethiro dragged her father into motion, no longer bothering to try and walk elegantly. The Ceredada trailed after them, like a more disorganised tail of one of Vedero's comets.
Vedero herself was on the dais below the rigid emperor, upright and elegant as a statue with the blank expression that – long experience suggested to Csethiro – meant the archduchess had escaped to a world of orbits and apogees. Oh, the lucky creature: she had to pay no attention at all to anything. Idra and the girls were trying not to fidget, while Csoru had sent some poor dependent dach'osmin to stand in for her part of the rehearsal ...
Csethiro caught Maia's eyes. Definitely desperate. What a ridiculous situation. What a palaver over nothing. This was the tenth walk-through! She moved into position before the dais with a swish of her skirts nearly as pointed as a pass with a sword, and waited while everyone else scurried into their positions. At least Mer Aisava did not yell out to cease and desist. They must have paced themselves correctly to the music.
The Archprelate came in solemnly from the west and ascended the dais. “This is when we will declaim the traditional wedding sermon on the subject of faith,” he began ...
“We are the wife of the marquess, not just a – a cast-off!” Stepmama's hiss exploded up, sudden as a bird taking flight. “We deserve to walk before you!”
“Dear Rimo, you seem a little agitated.” Arbelan Zhasanai's voice was delicate, kind. “Perhaps this is too much exertion, so soon after childbed. We are sure no one would object if you had to excuse yourself from tomorrow's events.”
“Excuse ourself! Why, you - ”
At the first argument of the day Csethiro had been mortified, not to be mention astonished. Ever since Arbelan Zhasanai's recall from Cethoree, the two women had competed to see which could obscure their hatred more perfectly in politeness and solicitude.
By now Csethiro was just tired of it, and rather disappointed in her great-aunt for rising to the bait. She abandoned her position and darted up the steps past a surprised Archprelate, an oblivious best friend, and an inquisitive-looking trio of imperial children. “Serenity,” she said firmly, “we feel dreadfully faint. We yearn for fresh air, lest we swoon. We beg for your escort to the garden.”
There was a tiny snort from the maza nohecharis. Maia blinked, and then his mouth ruffled around the edges. “We care for your health as if it is our own, Dach'osmin Ceredin.” He stood with alacrity and a ripple of jewelery, and offered her his arm.
“But the rehearsal - ” said her father.
Laying her hand on Maia's arm, Csethiro smiled at his nieces. “We think the archduchesses would enjoy taking the place of the Emperor and ourself for half an hour.”
Ino looked a trifle alarmed; Mireän squeaked with joy.
Thus it was arranged, and although Csethiro was sure that absolutely no one believed her ruse, no one dared contradict her. She absconded to the Duchess Pashavel Gardens with her betrothed and his guards, enormously relieved.
They were quiet on the way, not wishing to be overheard by any of the passers-by, but a few looks from the nohecharei emptied the gardens and Csethiro flopped onto a bench with relief. The sun was only spring-warm, but the Untheileian had been colder and she was wearing a cozy coat. “Sit by me,” she instructed, and Maia sank down in ripples of white silk. The maza took up a position a few yards away, by the pond, while the soldier nohecharis stood near the bench. She had become used to their presence more easily than she had feared. It was nice knowing that they would shield her private moments with Maia.
“Art not truly feeling faint, I think.” Maia smiled.
The sweetness of his expression lightened her heart. “No, but I might have been before long. Maia, I'm so sorry about Stepmama. And I don't know why Arbelan Zhasanai should walk with the Ceredada and not be on the dais.”
“Should I ask Csevet to solve the matter?” The smile faded, was replaced by worry. “I gather there have been as many negotiations about wedding and marriage both as might be needed to end a war, but I know little of them.”
She shook her head. “I think it's too late. Besides, in front of all the wedding guests Stepmama will forced onto her best behaviour. She's treating thee as one of the family already, letting thee see her temper...”
“One of the family.” Maia could often be unnervingly still, but his ears flickered some uneasy pattern. She reached for him, fighting a surge of shyness, and took hold of one long, cool hand. It lay still in hers. Contact was easy when they danced, governed by rules and patterns: impromptu contact was still a little strange, and would be all the stranger tomorrow night.
She took in a few breaths of air scented with fresh green things. The flowerbeds here were designed to reach full glory in the summer, but there were still attractive borders of white jonquils and violas, and budding shrubbery.
His fingers curled, returning her grip. A sudden bravery. She smiled to herself, although she felt a little sad, too. Perhaps no one had held his hand since the death of his mother. Judging by the relegation of Setheris Nelar to an obscure position on the fringes of government, he had not been a guardian to secure the respect of his charge …
“Is that a cat?”
Csethiro's eyes had been drifting shut, as she was lulled by the peace and spring scents. Now she blinked. “Where? Oh, I see.” An orange cat had sprung onto the stone edging of the ornamental pond, and was looking into the water intently. The palace servants must have restocked it with fish, now the warmer weather had arrived.
“My mother had a cat,” said Maia. “White, with a black tail ... He was called Palalad, which I think is the name of a hero from a goblin story.”
He spoke too little of his past. She almost held her breath, afraid of shattering the unfurling moment.
“I know not what became of him, afterwards.”
She swallowed against an aching throat. “Cala Athmaza!” she said. The maza looked at her enquiringly. “Please bring that cat to us.”
She would have gone herself, if she had been willing to let go of Maia's hand. Happily, the maza was obliging, and placed a wriggling, mewing, rather scrawny bundle of fur and whiskers in her lap. “It's a girl,” he commented as he did so. Csethiro began instantly to stroke her: she froze for a few moments in haughty consideration, and then sprawled down bonelessly. No doubt the coral-pink silk of Csethiro's skirts would end up covered in tufts of fiery fur. A purr began to rise like smoke. No doubt it helped that Csethiro was facing west, and there was a generous dose of sunshine in her lap.
“To whom does she belong?” asked Maia, peering into Csethiro's lap. “She is quite thin.”
“There are many feral palace cats, Serenity.” Lieutenant Beshelar stared at the cat with a mask of disapproval on his face. “Be careful that it does not scratch you.”
“Feral palace cats are hardly like wild country cats.” Csethiro rubbed behind the little pointed ears. “They are accustomed to being petted, even if they live by their wits … wilt thou not stroke her, Maia?”
His dark fingers landed cautiously on the cat's round head and then, lightly, ran down the neck. The purrs grew monstrous and she shut her eyes.
“She likes thee! What wilt thou call her?”
“The Little Avar,” he said, and then froze, appalled.
Csethiro hooted with surprised laughter: the cat panicked away from her lap in a rip of silk from untrimmed claws. Maza and lieutenant lunged after her so fast they knocked heads, yet caught her all the same. “Oh, well done!” Csethiro gurgled, taking the cat back and beginning to pet her into tranquillity.
“I shouldn't have - ” said Maia, mortified. “It was a silly fancy, because of her colour. Like my grandfather's eyes.”
“Thou need'st make no explanation.” Csethiro swallowed a fresh giggle. She had not yet released his hand, and squeezed it comfortingly. “It is an excellent name. And after all, like all cats, she has the bearing of a monarch. Unfortunately, I do not think it is a diplomatic name. What if the Ambassador heard thou calling one day, Little Avar, Little Avar?”
Somewhat hesitatingly, the embarrassment faded from his face and amusement crept in. “I think he would laugh, but truly, not all goblins would.” He began to stroke the cat again – Csethiro was obscurely delighted that she had not had to encourage him to it a second time. His face softened in absorbed abstraction as he ran his hand from head to tail, gently, over and over again. Once more the purring grew. Csethiro glanced up at the nohecharei. They were watching Maia in nearly the same way as he watched the cat.
“I shall call her Sunshine,” he said abruptly. And: “ - is that a suitable name?”
Csethiro let go of his hand, but only to gently transfer Sunshine to his lap. The cat propped open one eye briefly, but shut it once stroking resumed. “A very good name,” said Csethiro. “Lieutenant Beshelar, once we reach the Untheileian again, please inform Mer Aisava to advise the servants of the Alcethmeret to prepare a cat-basket, milk, fish, a bath, and a visit from some expert at trimming claws … ”
“Can I truly keep her?”
“Thou art emperor. Canst have whatever thou wish'st.”
“Ino and Mireän will like her,” said Maia, as if finding excuses for doing something that gave him pleasure. “And she has no other owner, thou art sure?”
“If she did, she would wear a collar, Serenity,” offered Cala Athmaza helpfully. “That is the custom in Court.”
The pleasure on Maia's face was overwhelming. It was just as well there were no strangers around, for Csethiro did something that would have been shocking in public even if they had already been married. She kissed his cheek. Then she laid her head on his astonished shoulder, and leaned into his side.
Soon they would have to return to the Untheileian (she half-imagined she could hear Stepmama screeching even from this distance), and the apparatus of responsibility would lock around them once more. But for now, they had a few more minutes of peace and happiness to themselves.
Very, very shyly, lightly as a feather, his arm came around her waist. She smiled, and snuggled closer.
She felt like purring herself.