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An Unquiet Beast

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Hesero woke every morning with the Emperor’s scar before her eyes, a messy scribble marring dark skin. Sometimes this happened with a jolt as if from a nightmare, the wound seeming at once to be long-healed and yet also dripping scarlet. Other times it was a slow waking, the image resolving out of a mist of dreams. But always it greeted her, and she would turn it over and over in her mind, wondering if familiarity would ever diminish the horror. It took her an age to rise from the bed that was hers alone; longer with every passing week. As spring dawned over the Ethuveraz, as snowmelt chuckled in the gutters and heraldflowers poked up their green noses in windowboxes, she took to lying in bed until midday or past. Invitations to parties and requests for her company had largely ceased; she had lost all appetite for shopping; Setheris departed for his work at ten. There was nothing worth getting up for so early in the day.

On one of those endless, interchangeable spring mornings, the upper housemaid dared to knock at just eleven o’clock. “Osmerrem? There’s an imperial courier at the door. He’s charged with a letter to place into your own hands.”

Hesero heaved over in her blankets, blinking into the dimness of the shuttered room. Imperial couriers were nothing but trouble. She remembered with perfect clarity the one ten years since who had brought a letter bearing Varenechibel IV’s own seal. In a barely-legible scrawl, it had advised that her husband had been relegated that very day to some dank manor in the west along with the unwanted hobgoblin Archduke.

“Osmerrem? He says he can’t go until he’s given it to you.”

Perhaps Setheris had offended an emperor again, although really, what else did he have left to do to the poor boy, who had already showed so magnanimous … ? Every thought of her husband made her stomach curdle. She rolled towards the edge of the bed. “We’re coming,” she said drearily. “You may enter. Fetch one of our receiving gowns.”

Receiving gowns were a species of dressing gown that had become all the rage last year. They were really meant to be worn seductively, alluringly, to throw off the guard of a visiting gentleman. Hesero put one over her nightgown because she couldn’t be bothered with her corset.

The courier was of goblin blood, with ribbons in his hair, and didn’t even widen his eyes at the sight of her naked face and careless attire. He bowed precisely and extended a letter written on paper of such luxurious thickness that it was nearly cloth. “Osmerrem Nelaran, a letter from Dach’osmin Ceredin. We are instructed to wait for a response.”

It was unexpected. Hesero felt a stirring of interest. “The dach’osmin already uses imperial couriers, with the wedding still a fortnight away?”

He returned her gaze impassively.

Well, and so. She split the seal sharply and found herself confronted with the barzhad. This alphabet she had taught herself a long time ago, but it had been many years since she’d seen it. It took a few minutes to pick her way through – it was in cursive, to make things worse – and at the end she looked once more to the courier, and wondered if this was an elaborate prank.

“From whom did you receive this letter? From a friend, perhaps?”

“From the hand of the dach’osmin herself.”

She read the letter again. Perhaps she had misunderstood? No. “We do not think this needs a written response,” she said eventually, folding up the lovely, heavy paper with hands that felt slower than usual. “Please tell Dach’osmin Ceredin that we accept.”

This routine choice of words, combined with the barzhad, quite suddenly made her think of duelling. She was still laughing, in a small dismayed way that had nothing to do with humour, when the door clicked shut behind the courier. The future empress hadn’t mentioned swords or fighting or challenges in her letter, but an invitation to take tea at House Ceredada that afternoon was nearly the same thing.

So. Time to choose her armour. Upstairs she looked through her wardrobe, overwhelmed. She hadn’t bought any new spring fashions this season. There had been no reason to do so. She had spent the last ten years living on the fringes of Court life, so she didn’t know the girl well, but she knew enough. All the Ceredada girls were famously stylish. With a shrug, Hesero picked a silk dress in a rich shade of emerald, adorned with bunches of paler ribbons. Green for spring was always an unexceptionable choice. The dress was lined with cheap linen and the buttons weren’t pearls, but glass and fish-scale. There hadn’t been enough money for a long time now.

The city mansion of the Ceredada showed an excess of money. Not in a vulgar way, of course – such an ancient family could never be vulgar, Hesero thought bitterly, though they decorated their house in the exact same style as a grasping merchant-prince. Chains of gold and pearl hung in swags from the chandeliers. Paintings by Jainé and Azhalek clustered together on the staircase without a good breath between them.

The receiving-room to which she was led, however, was in quite a different style, its colours subtle and its ornaments sparse. She knew instantly that this must be the room used by the daughters of the house in particular, and worry dug its claws deeper into her belly. Life had kicked her hard enough already. Attention from the powerful was not, as she had once thought, a thing to be sought and cherished. Here was the future empress, receiving her in the sanctum of her maidenly power. She must want something. Even if just to sneer …

The girl stood to receive her. Hesero curtsied warily, and unwontedly clumsily: embarrassingly, it came out like child’s bob. “Dach’osmin, we were honoured to receive your invitation,” she murmured, and was disconcerted still further when Dach’osmin Ceredin personally gestured her to a chair near the fire. Now, was that consideration for her elder (bitter thought!); or (more bitter still) patronage towards a social inferior?

There was a tea-set laid on the table. The dach’osmin dismissed the servant who had escorted Hesero upstairs, and poured steaming gold into translucent cups with her own hands.

“We expect you are wondering why we summoned you here today.”

Well. So the girl didn’t mince words. Hesero hesitated, and then gave a little elegant one-shouldered shrug of the kind that had been fashionable in her youth. It signified ignorance; disinterest, too.

“You are cousin to our betrothed, by marriage,” said Dach’osmin Ceredin, and passed Hesero a cup. “Your husband is a villain, according to what we have heard and discovered from both rumour and other sources; but you are not, and for the sake of appearances we have decided to cultivate you.”

Love, in prolonged death throes though it was, almost took control of her tongue. Almost. She compressed down the desire to scream her faith in her husband, and said instead, “In what fashion?”

The girl settled herself opposite Hesero in a flutter of golden skirts. “We do not take your meaning.”

“Your circle is largely youthful and strongly intellectual. We are ageing and we have never been interested in scholarship. All that remains is the connection between our menfolk – ground too tenuous on which to cultivate us, we think. And leaving aside the question of how to bring it about,” and here Hesero paused for a tiny sip of fragrant tea, “we must also ask why.”

The girl pursed her lips and selected another biscuit. Hesero watched the long fingers hovering over the plate, smooth and well-manicured. She curled her own hands into fists, suddenly aware of the shabby state of her own fingernails, the loosening skin that betrayed her age. When was the last time she had used lacquer or cream?

“One of our tasks,” said Dach’osmin Ceredin, “as empress, will be to defend our husband. A nohecharo of sorts, if you will. His First and Second nohecharei guard body and soul. Our task will be to guard his reputation.”

“A wide remit,” said Hesero, around an unexpected lump in her throat. She had been that fierce and enthusiastic and young once too, a long time ago. She’d grown out of it. Hadn’t she?

“The country – the Court, even! - still understands him so little. He’s the stranger, the surprise. Despite all that has happened, some people still think him the villain of his story, not the hero. And people wonder, you know. About his time in relegation. They look at Edrehasivar, they look as Osmer Nelar, and they look at the state of affairs between the two. Your husband is not being showered in glory; he’s spent time in prison - “

“You can’t change the opinion of a country, dach’osmin.”

“Why not?” Dach’osmin Ceredin’s eyes glittered. “Don’t answer. We’re not interested in apathy. We’re interested in seeming to effect a reconciliation between Edrehasivar and his former guardian. Without permitting Osmer Nelar within arrow-shot of the Alcethmeret. You are the perfect channel for this ploy. Besides which, our sources say you were once a leader of fashion, Osmerrem. Won’t you enjoy being part of a favoured circle once more?”

She shrugged once more. “Our time has passed.” She was too old. Too empty.

“Nonsense,” said Dach’osmin Ceredin, with the force of a spring flood. “It is to be regretted that your rank comes from marriage and not birth, but still you have admittance into an older set of women than us, and have been part of the currents of high society for decades. We and our sisters lacked older female relatives when we entered society, and it shaped our path. But as empress we do not think it would be wise to give favour only to our contemporaries.”

Hesero set her cup aside, carefully. It was a very beautiful thing, white as snow with a tracery of gold buds around the rim. “We older women will be dead before long. Why do you care?”

“Now, now, Osmerrem,” said the dach’osmin softly. Her eyes glittered. “One would think you did not wish for the favour of the Ethuverazhid Zhasan.”

*

She returned home that afternoon a trifle dazzled, suffering perhaps an inner sunblindness: the future empress shone fiercely, and did not shy from showing her light.

The library door was firmly shut: Setheris was home from work. Hesero softened her steps, walking silently through the hall towards the stairs. Old, old habit, as much of the body as of the mind, wanted to dart through the door and unfurl her thoughts and problems for his inspection.

If the world had been right, she thought as she reached her bedchamber, the girl’s offer would have made her delirious with delight.

Then again, in such a world, the offer would never have been made.

She sank onto her bed fully attired, and did not ring for the maid. Evening fell and she did not stir to close the shutters. A maid crept in of her own volition, and lit the fire. When she moved towards the window, Hesero dismissed her with a snap; the child fled, and Hesero continued her study of the darkness. The night was an overcast one, clouds writhing low over the city. Her chamber looked northwards. She could see the pale glow from the Untheileneise Court. It never really slept, an unquiet beast bigger than its small city. Cetho reminded her of a lion-tamer in a circus; the lion could kill him at any moment.

She, like so many others, had ridden that beast for many years. It seemed pointless to try and mount it again after such a terrible fall. There was nothing left for which to hope, or aspire. Yet she could not banish the conversation with the dach’osmin from her mind. She saw herself at the empress’s side, playing a little glittering scene of pride and favour – but what was the point? What part would Setheris play?

*

He had not come to her room once since his release from the Esthoramire; yet that night, when the darkness was most deep, he knocked at her door, and pushed it open with a slow creak. He did not enter, but stood beneath the lintel, face sketched from the shadows by the lamp he bore. A faint scent of metheglin, not entirely unpleasant, preceded him.

“Where didst thou go this afternoon?”

His presence brought a brittle, burning energy into her veins. She jerked away from the bed, and went to her dressing table. “Out,” she replied, poking through the various bottles and jars there.

“A succinct response, upon my word.”

“I hope that’s praise. Thou used to scold me for a chatterbox.” Though in those few glorious weeks after his return, before it all went wrong, he had whispered and kissed his love of her chattering into her skin. Thy letters to Edonomee saved me , he’d claimed. Well, that had been a lie. She found an old skin-cream and took a scoop. Oh, but her knuckles were dry. And perhaps more prominent than once they had been? She concentrated on rubbing the mixture over each bump.

“Didst go to Court?”

“No.”

“Didst - “ He cut off his words, before she did.

“Very wise,” she murmured, and now tilted her head back and forth, studying the wrinkles gathering like a boat’s wake at the edge of her eyes. Even though the only illumination came from the hearth and Setheris’s lamp, the wrinkles were clear.

“Hesero - “

“Setheris.”

“Am I so unforgivable?”

In the mirror her face blurred, smoothed, became for an unreal moment young again. She blinked sharply, and smoothed cream across her cheekbones.

Setheris knocked at the doorframe, three times, partly ceremonious, partly edging towards irritation. “May I enter? Dearest?”

“No.” He’d been almost humble these last few months – a trifle shamed, she thought. Like a child who’d broken a dish. But he’d always been a resilient man, an ambitious man, and right now she could tell his ambitions were resurfacing. He had few worldly prospects left. But he would want to reclaim his wife’s heart.

“Why not?”

“Leave me alone, Setheris.”

“I miss thee.”

And she missed the man she had loved for so long.

At the beginning he’d been a lawyer, handsome, charming, well-born but poor. She’d been plain and charming, less well-born but rich. Financier’s heiress and remote imperial cousin: it was a solid match from a material perspective, and to crown matters she had burned with love. It was a fire that had lasted over twenty years. Well, all fires ran out of fuel in the end.

In silence she watched herself in the mirror, until at last he heaved a sigh and retreated. Then she bowed her head and quietly wept.

*

Dach’osmin Ceredin sent no messenger the next morning. She came herself, and Hesero stumbled downstairs in a receiving gown, glad that Setheris was already gone. “Dach’osmin, an honour,” she murmured.

A servant had laid out a morning tea-tray, with sticks of soft sweet bread on the side. Hesero never had an appetite before noon these days, but she replicated her guest’s graciousness from yesterday, and poured with her own hands. “Thank you,” said Dach’osmin Ceredin almost absently, looking Hesero up and down with undisguised attentiveness. “We wonder, is your household short of funds? That garment is a season out of style.”

Hesero was aware of a flush running high on her cheekbones. She sat down by the fire and tucked the folds of the gown more snugly over her nightgown. “We have not gone out much in society of late.”

“So we see.” The girl drank her tea as she strolled around the room, studying its furnishings and paintings with just as much attention as she’d given Hesero’s attire. “Your interior design seems in similar straits. Does Osmer Nelar overspend?”

It was difficult to decide how to react to the girl, Hesero thought, consciously relaxing her fingers from their twisted knot. Was she being actively rude? - favouring Hesero by an intimate honesty? - or arrogant in her position and disregarding convention as inapplicable? “We have sufficient unto our needs, we thank you, dach’osmin.” So many of their resources had been confiscated when Setheris was relegated; there was only enough left of her dowry for security. Security, but not wealth. Not by her standards.

The girl set down her cup and approached a long, low granite-topped table on the north wall, entirely bare but for two shallow salvers, gold covered with red enamel. The left-hand one had handles shaped like scrolls; the right-hand one, shaped like flowers. Dach’osmin Ceredin stuck her hand into the right-hand one. The letters were sifted like the gold-hunters of Ezho sifted river-grit. Square brown letters (bills) were discarded; so too were long white missives marked with two interlocked circles (personal and private); and all sorts of brightly-coloured advertisements the girl simply dropped into the wastepaper basket without asking. Three letters alone were extracted and presented to Hesero. She should have felt violated, she decided, but instead she looked at the three chosen missives and felt only curiosity in what her guest planned. Each letter was stamped with the rivermark, the traditional insignia of a charitable organisation.

Pale eyes looked down at her expectantly. “We have heard you have an interest in philanthropy, Osmerrem.”

Hesero summoned a half-smile. “What better way to secure our high position in society than by marking out our superior position to those below us?” she said lightly, and slit the letters open with a fingernail. “Here: two of these letters relate to charitable missions some weeks ahead, but this very afternoon is to be a monthly meeting of the Society for the Support of Gentlewomen in Decayed Circumstances. What is your interest in this, dach’osmin?”

Csethiro Ceredin’s smile was a gleam of steel. “One of our interests, as we told you, is to find favour among an older set of women … You do not think they will be offended, this Society, if you arrive without warning – and with a guest?”

Hesero thought about it, and was interested to discover a feeling of warm prickly amusement. “This particular guest will make up for the lack of warning.” A fox in the hen-coop, a dog in the water! How funny – how delicious – how satisfying . Gods above, when had been the last time she looked forward to something? She left the girl to a hastily put-together early luncheon and soared upstairs to choose her armour.

*

In a velvet gown which some lights turned to brown and others to a dusky raspberry, Hesero sailed into the house of the Dowager Dach’osmerrem Ibaran – past the surprised stare of the butler, past the open mouths of the philanthropic ladies, to the large becushioned chair where the Dowager was installed. “Dach’osmerrem, may we present to you Dach’osmin Ceredin, who has expressed to us a strong interest in the work of this society?”

Never let an enemy take the first move , said Setheris’s voice from her memory, a memory of decades past gilded with firelight and rumpled bedsheets.

Not that she and the philanthropic ladies were enemies, exactly. She hated most of them, but twenty-five years ago philanthropy had been her route to a kind of acceptance in the more conservative ranks of female society. Her non-aristocratic origins could never be abolished, like a flaw in a crystal; but they could be forgotten, as long as one behaved correctly and paid one’s dues.

“Osmerrem. Dach’osmin,” said Dach’osmerrem Ibaran with slow nods. “This is most unexpected.”

“We could not resist.” The girl’s murmured words were limpid and sweet. “When Osmerrem Nelaran described this charity, we felt a passion for its cause awaken in our heart.”

“Indeed,” said Dach’osmerrem Ibaran. She did not (Hesero was reluctantly impressed) infuse this single word with even a speck of scepticism.

“We think the plight of gentlewomen who are destitute or without masculine support a very solemn plight indeed.”

And was that meant to be a jab at Hesero? Was she to be cultivated, but also kept at a proper distance? She tried to relax her shoulders.

“Then we welcome you to the Society, Dach’osmin,” said the Dowager calmly. “Dues are required – Osmerrem Nelaran will advise you of these – and then you may, of course, vote.”

“We prefer,” Hesero said curtly, as she guided them towards two chairs placed centrally, but not near the Dowager, “to know our role when you cast a performance.”

“But then you might forget your lines.”

Annoyed, Hesero settled herself without further comment, and took a sheaf of paper offered by a silent old woman who had been the Dowager’s companion these last eight years or more. The monthly report of the Society; handwritten, of course, even though there were nearly two dozen copies. Printing wasn’t for ladies like the Dowager. The woman (some sort of distant, dependent cousin; if not for the generosity of the Dach’osmerrem, doubtless a likely candidate for the Society’s support) held out a little velvet bag and watched with cat-sharp eyes as Hesero and Dach’osmin Ceredin placed money therein. Hesero added back-dues, for the last few missed months, rather reluctantly.

“Someone is turning a profit out of this.” Dach’osmin Ceredin’s voice was sharp, but mercifully quiet. Her eyebrows pinched briefly together as she read the Treasurer’s update in the front of the report, and then looked across at the velvet bag making the rounds of the room.

“Probably the Dowager,” said Hesero. “The Treasurer – Osmin Csurin over there – wouldn’t kill a fly.”

“It doesn’t trouble you?”

“Why should it?”

Whatever argument might have bloomed was nipped in the bud by the Dowager clapping her hands. The last few women on their feet found seats in a hurry. “Welcome to this meeting of the Society for the Support of Gentlewomen in Decayed Circumstances,” said the Dowager. “If you have not yet paid your dues, please raise your hand now. No? Thank you. If there are no questions about the finances, we will progress to the most recent deaths … ” Winter and early spring were always bad times for struggling gentlewomen subsisting on a weekly pension. They’d had eight deaths over the last season. “And we have thirty-two new applicants waiting in the small drawing-room to be heard,” announced the Dowager. “Their applications are in order in your reports. If we are quite ready, the first will be summoned.”

Hesero had never liked to watch the drab figures, usually thin and threadbare, standing on the opulent carpet and stammeringly answering questions about their family and friends, their morals and their money. It was at once painful and dull. So many of the stories were identical. Her presence here was about acquiring social respectability and capital, not charity. She raised her hand to vote “yes” or “no” entirely at random.

Until the thirty-second applicant.

She should really have studied the report in advance, while listening to all those other dull stories.

*

The Ceredada carriage took her home, and she stepped into a residence blazing with lamplight. Setheris sprang across the hall, smile locked in place. “Hesero, my heart’s dearest!”

She froze, like the hare that feels the hawk overhead. He was still older than she thought he should be – for ten years he had lived unchanging in her head – and she wanted to reach out and smooth the lines from his brow, kiss the fullness back into his mouth. He was, in the moment of heart’s leaping, her beloved.

“Why wait thou for me?” she said, ripping her gaze away and looking down at the myriad tiny buttons of her gloves.

“And why should I not wait?”

Even without looking directly, she could feel how he glanced over her shoulder onto the gas-lit, rain-damp streets. “She will not come in again, Setheris,” she said around the sharp ache in her throat. “I will not let her.”

He stiffened, then relaxed. “Hesero … “

She swept past him. At least the servants were in their hall, and there was no one to witness this mortifying performance.

“Hesero!”

She looked at her hands, locked on the bannister. At her feet, one just raised to the first stair. There was a sense of detachment, as if this was not her body. Rage trembled through her core. “Setheris. She wanted me , not thee. Never thee. Not after - ”

“I protest, I sought only to be friendly to thy new friend.”

“And wouldst have done so was she of another house? Tethimada, perhaps – or Rohethada – or Nelada .” Turning, she saw his expression pass through puzzlement, curiosity, wariness. “Speaking of thy distinguished name, Setheris, I know thou hast had little care for your family, but really! Couldst not have spared me the mortification of seeing two Nelada applying for pensions from the Society?”

His own shoulders ran through that quirk of a shrug she knew so well. Ignorance! Disinterest! The devil-gotten bastard. Quite casually, he turned and slammed the front door closed.

“Thy cousin’s widow and daughter. Merrem Nelaran and Min Nelarin,” she prodded. Though it was clear he’d already guessed. Or knew. “Very pathetic little creatures, like all who come before the Society.”

He crossed his arms, leaning casually against a pilaster. “’Tis the Society’s purpose – to support such.”

“As a last resort, Setheris. Thou told me once hadst made provision for Merrem Nelaran. Thou lied.”

“I did not!” he said, clear and direct as a bell, but she had known and loved him too long.

“Merrem Nelaran recognised me, and was discreet. But still, ‘twas very clear she had sought succour of relatives and been denied. Thou didst not make her a legal dependent as thou promised.”

He was silent. She was aware of wringing her hands together and stilled them with an effort. “I don’t know where Dach’osmerrem Ibaran found them.” Her voice was hoarse. “But I fear the necessities of the past decade had forced them to a standard of living which would, usually, disqualify them from even being permitted to enter her house.”

That, at least, brought a jagged gesture of Setheris’s hand.

“I will speak on. Thou lied to me.”

“Ulis take thee, Hesero. Why should I have bothered to make a settlement upon her, to tie up my finances so irrevocably?”

“Because thou told me thou would.”

A nasty flush burned along his cheekbones. “And why didst thou not start paying her, after I left?” he snapped.

“I assumed all thy financial obligations were taken over by the Court of Wards!”

“My cousin should have left them better provided for. He should not have run into debt.”

There seemed to be tears on her cheeks, and he wasn’t brushing them away with tender fingers …

“So thou wert humiliated by their presence today.” Setheris, turning the point of the blade. “Well, now thou know’st humiliation, too. I assure thee, ‘tis not a killing poison.”

The idiocy of that statement made her speechless for an instant. She was aware of stupidly opening and shutting her mouth, like a frog. “Thou – thou thinkst – that in the last decade - I experienced no humiliation ? With a husband banished and disfavoured, and everyone remembering afresh my own grasping, merchanteering origins? Oh, no, Setheris – art quite right – humiliation is a most foreign taste to me - ”

“Hesero, my love - ”

She fled up the stairs, fast as a girl, and locked her bedroom door. He knocked, of course, and said things, and begged, but she buried her head under the pillows and trembled wildly and remembered every hand in the room voting “no” against a pension for Merrem Nelaran and her daughter. They do not meet the criteria, came the sympathetic comments afterwards. What a shame, Osmerrem Nelaran. How awkward. But perhaps your husband can help.

She’d missed several previous meetings of the Society. No one could have known she’d attend this one. But the humiliation would have been nearly as pointed and bitter even without her presence. With the conservative opposition in a humbled position after the events of the winter, and rumours swirling about the emperor’s past, their womenfolk had decided to put on a deniable display of loyalty to Edrehasivar Zhas that also stabbed at a woman in their midst who would never be quite good enough for them.

And Csethiro Ceredin had voted “no”, too. Csethiro Ceredin had said nothing – then, or afterwards, in the carriage.

*

She awoke with a headache nestled behind her eyes, along with the familiar image of the scar. The maid was tapping at her door. “A letter from Dach’osmin Ceredin, Osmerrem.”

“Via imperial courier?”

“No, a page boy, Osmerrem.”

And so the fall from grace begins again. She squinted in the shadows of the room. The clock on the mantelpiece (really, she should have rid herself of it) said eight o’clock. “Bring me the letter.”

“Your door is locked, Osmerrem.”

“Slide the letter beneath, you fool.”

There was a rustle. But Hesero didn’t rise until the clock chimed half-eight, and then only because natural needs forced her to it.

She should have returned to bed directly afterwards. But some old impulse of curiosity had her bending to retrieve the letter, and from there it was a simple thing to open it.

Once more she was faced with the barzhad. All customary greetings were ignored, and the letter opened directly: We have an elderly cousin in need of a companion. Merrem and Min Nelaran will find their way to her household in Daiano, in time. We think the Society will not punish you again, when they know you continue to attend as a representative of our household, with the splendour of the Empress’s finances at your back.

She knew not whether to weep or to laugh. Our household? And what exactly would that mean?

It seemed the cultivation of Hesero Nelaran was to continue – if she accepted it. It was as unexpected as the beginning of the thing had been.

Were the potential results worth it? Hesero cast the letter upon her dressing table and took up the familiar contemplation of her face. It showed no sign of love’s corpse within, that seemed, in its rotting, to be poisoning her soul.

“Hesero?”

By the ladies of the heaven, he was at her door again. “Begone!”

“I will not. What was that letter? Does the girl come here?”

“No. Go to thy work.”

“Work!” His exclamation reeked of scorn. “A sinecure with the city’s Justiciary! Am I not worthy of more?”

She went to her door, unlocked it, opened it. His face was a breath from her’s, yet she smelled no metheglin. “Certainly art capable of more,” she said, with a lawyer’s precision. “But not worthy.”

“Because I didn’t encumber myself with a tedious financial burden all those years ago?” he said shortly. “Why, two decades or more it must be! I thought thou woulds’t be glad I didn’t squander thy dowry so easily.”

“No, thou took years to spend it. I did not protest, ‘twas in pursuit of thy ambitions – mine, too. But there’s a difference between honourable obligations and squandering.”

“Little sophist.”

She passed a hand across her brow. “Setheris, what dost thou want me to say?”

He blinked. “What thou wish’st to say, of course. I have been asking thee the same question these past months. Hesero, wilt not tell me why I have fallen so greatly in thy love?” His voice lowered. “Is’t the passing of time? But thou welcomed me back so warmly, at first. Dost believe the rumours that I am a traitor?” Pain twitched across his face. “Dost not know me better than that?”

He didn’t understand. He’d always been so quick-minded, finding comprehension in a flash. It was one of his greatest attractions, that wide, darting brilliance. But turning such a lens upon oneself was harder. She turned from him, and went to bed. The floorboards breathed up a spring chill that spoke of a household that had to mind its fuel costs. She tucked her feet under the blankets. “Oh, come in, Setheris,” she said dully.

He entered with cautious steps, twitching at the lace cuffs of his suit. There was a hopeful cast to his face, though someone less familiar with him might not have seen it.

“I don’t think thee a traitor,” she said. “Not to the Ethuveraz. But it might be accurate to say that I find thee a traitor to thyself, and to me.”

“I am as I have ever been.” His chin was up.

“Apparently so.” She worked to keep her voice even. “Love dies slowly, I have discovered … Even in these past months, I discover I have tried to cling to the hope that it was only Edonomee that had so altered thee. But the rot was there before, as the affair of poor Merrem Nelaran shows. There was darkness always there in thee. And I did not see it. I find I cannot reconcile to it. I always thought you soared above the baseness of other men.”

He sat down beside her, his weight dipping the mattress. She thought he moved a little more stiffly than once he had. Thoughts of flannel underclothes and hot-water bottles filled her head.

“Darkness is an exaggeration, my love, is’t not? Perhaps I did not behave with the rectitude of a prelate towards my cousin’s widow, but if we were all prelates the world should be a strange place. Our ambitions reached high in those days. I did not want weights.”

“A scant weight, in the scales against my dowry. Yes, I was ambitious too. But it is painful to discover I had more sense of right than thee.”

Perhaps his lawyer’s instinct decided to cede ground. She watched his face move a little until he settled into his next channel of attack. “And is this the only charge thou lay’st at my door?”

The river of her anger had, for now, run dry; it would fill again but for now she was left with a dry bed of sadness. She found that at last she could speak of her deepest, most closely nurtured horror. “Setheris, when I saw that scar, I thought … When I saw it, I thought ... I am so glad, after all, that he chose not to have children with me. What if he had hurt our child so?

His fingers gripped the edge of the bed, white as his cuffs, skeletal in their sudden tension. She looked at them and imagined them formed into a fist, or a casual slap, hurling a dark boy into -

“Thou wert not there.” His voice was low. “I was isolated. I was unhappy.”

“I can barely imagine how wretched thou must have been,” she said. “Living through the end of all ambition. But he was a boy in your charge. I cannot forgive. I cannot forget.”

He was so still and silent, like a bowstring before release. She wanted so much to embrace him, and wondered if that desire would ever leave her. She seemed to see him as a multitude in one, ghosts of his past self overlaying his current figure; the eager young man who had stolen her heart, the rising lawyer who had always returned home at day’s end to adore his wife, the maturing man of letters marked for a political future. Ladies of the heaven, would she ever cease loving and hating him?

There came a knock at the door. “Osmerrem? Er – Osmer?” the maid quavered. “There is Dach’osmin Ceredin at the door for you, Osmerrem … “

Setheris’s head came up, like a greyhound catching the scent. “No,” begged Hesero, but he was already in motion. She hurried out of bed after him, clad only in her nightgown, hair hanging in sleep-tousled clumps at her shoulders. The maid leapt back, eyes wide, as they came out into the corridor. “Close your mouth and go to the kitchen,” snapped Hesero, hurrying after her husband on cold bare feet. He was taking the stairs down, two or three at a time. Why had the girl come so early? She must know Setheris would not have left for work.

And there she was, a young fierce thing in the hall, head up and still as she watched the stairs, the door open behind her letting in a misty draft of spring light. “Welcome to our home!” called Setheris, using the plural with what Hesero felt was a pointed snap. “Tis an honour indeed, Dach’osmin Ceredin.”

“Osmer Nelar,” said the girl softly, and Hesero saw too late that this, too, had been part of the plan. Avert scandal; cultivate wider feminine connections; humiliate Setheris Nelar. Nohecharo indeed.

There was a tiny vicious lilt to the girl’s mouth. “We are not here for thee.”

“We - “

“We would duel thee, an it would not cause a scandal, Osmer. We are not here for thee .”

Hesero stumbled to a pause beside her husband, feeling a broken frump of a figure, but she still could lift her head and pretend a pride like unto this girl’s. “Good morning, Dach’osmin.”

“Good morning, Osmerrem Nelaran. Are you not yet ready?”

“Your letter is barely an hour old.”

“A lady-in-waiting needs to learn when to be expeditious.”

Setheris stiffened. “What?” he said.

“So you really meant it,” said Hesero. “You really wish us to join your household.”

“We do. We don’t like you, and don’t know if we ever will, but we find your company interesting and you will be of undoubted utility.”

“And what of us? What of us ?” Setheris said raggedly.

The girl said nothing, and simply looked at Hesero. Waiting.

Once that had been the pinnacle of her ambition. She had thought all aspirations lost with Setheris’s fall. But it seemed as if husband and wife’s fate could be separated after all. Gods above – to be free of this tomb of a home, free from the fear of encountering him if she rose too early, to build herself a new place high in the world. The great beast of the Court might yet destroy her again, but what of it? The Hesero of last year rose up and gripped the new Hesero by the heart. What did it matter if this endeavour failed? What matter if the beast cast her off? She was going to die one day all the same, and no worldly failure could follow her into death.

Setheris stepped in close to her. She saw fear in his eyes, and found herself hearing his words with an unexpected mix of sadness and tranquillity. “I’ll divorce thee, Hesero. Thy reputation can’t survive that; she’ll cast thee out.”

“I think her husband would make sure the divorce case wasn’t heard,” she said. “And shalt do no such thing. Thy sinecure doesn’t pay enough to support thee. Thou need’st my money.”

He squeezed his eyes briefly closed, and turned away with a jerk.

Besides which, she would never submit to the humiliation of divorce. A woman who had lost her man was a pitiful thing.

She thought she might always love him, in this dying way full of hatred. But love needn’t rule her life. She was going to live at the side of the Empress of the Ethuveraz, in the centre of the world, and drink her fill of glory for as long as she could. It would be enough.

“We will come to you as soon as we are dressed, dach’osmin,” she said quietly.

“Then we will await you in our carriage.” Dach’osmin Ceredin left without a backwards glance, skirts swishing.

Hesero cast about for some final words to say to her husband. Something that would be sufficient. Something that would be kind. But there were no words to encompass what lay between them. He stood still as a statue, and her thoughts flashed to Merrem Nelaran and then to the Emperor. They survived, Setheris , she thought; and then, darkly, they survived Setheris. He would survive this, too.

She turned away, and went to dress.