Cala yawned. He had studied too late the day before. Beshelar had been right, as always. In the future he would have to prioritize sleeping, wasteful as it seemed. After all, he did want to be as alert as possible. It was by no means certain that there would be no more conspiracies, that Edrehasivar’s reign would from now on be as uneventful as that of Varenechibel ... well, that would not happen, anyway, but Cala rather hoped the events would be happier ones.
There was a knock at the door, Beshelar went to open it, and was handed a letter.
Strange. Of course Cala knew that the stern Lieutenant did have friends. He did not consider himself part of that exclusive club, but recently, Beshelar had even been invited to an engagement party, and especially asked for leave to go there, so clearly, he had friends whom he was willing to put before duty – within reasonable boundaries, of course.
This day, Cala recalled, Beshelar had asked for shifts to be arranged so that he could attend the wedding.
Beshelar could not have many friends, and Cala would have expected all of them to be at this wedding, so what need was there to write?
Family, then? Bad news, it seemed, judging from Beshelar’s face. “Something happened?”, he asked after the servant had left and Beshelar had read the letter after hastily ripping it open.
“Yes. We would ask you to explain matters to His Serenity if we cannot be back in time.”
Poor Beshelar. A family emergency, right now? “So you won’t be able to attend the wedding?”
“There might be no wedding, but if there is, we will be the bridegroom, which we assume will cost more time.”
“What?!” But a moment later, he remembered. Beshelar had been, well, overjoyed would perhaps be the wrong word, but certainly very flattered to have been invited to the exchange of oath-rings. He had explained that he had been called upon to perform a role that was mostly ceremonial, but would prevent such sad fates as that of Stano Bazhevin, as the bridegroom’s friend or relative would be obliged to marry the bride. Cala had quipped, then, that it was highly unlikely that Beshelar’s friend died in an airship accident. Now he wished he had not. “Something happened to your friend?”
“In the broader sense, perhaps. What happened is that he took an airship to Barizhan this morning, and asked this letter to be delivered only after said airship had departed.”
“What? Why would he – has he committed a crime?” Unthinkable that righteous Beshelar could have friends who had to flee the country for such reasons!
“Only that which we just mentioned.” Beshelar sighed. “In truth, it is our fault. We knew he did not want to marry her, but appealed to his conscience. When he signed the contract, we thought he had decided to do the honourable thing ...”
Was the woman pregnant, or had Beshelar considered the loss of her virtue enough of a reason?
“And now he writes that if you want the honourable thing to be done you have to do it yourself?” Cala felt inexplicable anger. Perhaps he was a bit jealous that such a worthless piece of excrement had managed to win Beshelar’s friendship, while he himself had so far not been able to.
“No, he just apologizes for not being the man we thought he was .... indeed. We have been thoroughly deceived. We have to assume that he has wholly forgotten about the promise we made.”
Of course. As Beshelar had explained it, this tradition was a relict from times when a bridegroom dying in war had been much more likely than it was now. People would likely not expect him to go through with it. Not that such things mattered to Beshelar. Other people’s expectations seemed to have only a very superficial influence on what Beshelar considered right and proper. On the other hand, his views were not based on pure ethics, as Cala’s, but seemed to be somewhat influenced by traditions. Perhaps Beshelar cared only about the opinions of people who had already died? It was a very interesting field of study, and Cala intended to find out more. “We do not suppose you are required, by law, to keep that promise?”
“There are things that are above the law, Athmaza.”
He sounded indignant, as though Cala had implied he should not keep his promise. “We have always thought so, Lieutenant. We are merely surprised that you would. The law seems to inform most of your opinions.”
“Well. Of course we obey the law, as is proper. It is not against the law to keep our promise ... is it? We know of no law that forbids nohecharei to marry, though we also cannot remember it having happened, ever.”
“We know of no such law ourself, and we think we remember some precedent, though that was an Emperor ordering a nohecharis to marry, for some political reason.”
“Thank you. As we said, we prefer to act within the law.Yet in some cases, the law is not sufficient.”
“Indeed.” With regard to working conditions in factories and mines, the law left much to be desired. “So you will now go and ask whether the young lady will accept you as replacement?”
“Yes. We should not tarry; she must be devastated. We rely on you, Athmaza.” Beshelar gave him a curt nod before he left.
Cala felt disproportionally pleased. He was making progress. Another couple of months and Beshelar might even drop the “Athmaza” when talking to him.
First, though, he had to go to Captain Orthema and request that someone trustworthy and of appropriate skill keep himself ready to replace Beshelar.
As he walked through the corridors, feeling almost lonely without Beshelar, Cala pondered whether he ought to pity his partner. It was not a love match, but that was not unusual, Beshelar was in very good company there. The best, in fact. However, it was unusual to get married without first having signed a marriage contract. Though if Cala recalled it correctly, the terms of the contract as written would apply to Beshelar the same as to the original bridegroom.
He had almost reached his destination when it occurred to Cala that he had not even considered the possibility that the bride would choose to not marry at all.
Cala frowned. Had he, perhaps, started to think like those people who thought that a woman ought to accept her lot in life and not have any opinions of her own? No, that was not it.
It was just that ... this was Beshelar.
Thero could not eat anything the night before her wedding day. When, in the morning, the letter from her fiancé came, his oath-ring in it, she was less surprised than she could have been.
She had wanted to believe it, but part of her had known all along. He did not love her, not enough to stay with her, anyway.
In his letter, he spoke of his freedom. Freedom. As if being married to her was like being imprisoned in the Esthoramire.
Thero wept bitterly, grateful that at least her father was still willing to let her cry on his shoulder. He must know, at least suspect, that she was with child; it had been obvious in the haste with which the wedding had been planned.
It did not mean he would not disown her. Have to. The damage to her reputation would fall on her whole family if they continued to associate with her.
There was a knock at the door, her mother went to answer it. Another wedding guest who would have to be told there would be no wedding. Thero was glad they had only invited their closest relatives. Allegedly because the money for a large wedding party was not there, but she knew it was because of the suspiciously short time between engagement and wedding.
Still, she had been happy when they had exchanged oath-rings. It had been a small ceremony, but all traditions had been observed. Thero had been surprised to find that her fiancé had brought a friend, as tradition demanded. She had met some of his friends, easygoing men who had called her a silly goose when she had mentioned anything regarding religion.
The one he had brought to the engagement had been different. A stern, forbidding man, not at all charming.
Her mother returned, but the visitor had not gone away.
Suddenly, the door was opened. “Thero, dost remember Mer Beshelar?”
She looked up. Yes, she remembered him. What did he want? Had mother offered him tea because he had come here in this weather, and it would be rude to send him away?
"We have come to do our duty", he said. "If you ..." He hesitated for a moment. "... agree. We know this is a difficult decision. We will wait outside while you consider the matter." He bowed, then turned and left.
Thero had not paid attention. She had been invited to many engagement ceremonies, the words were always the same, it was just what one said.
But of course she knew the words. Yes. He had promised to stand in her fiancé’s place, if anything happened. The words were unspecific. One always thought they referred to being lost in war, or something, things that did not happen so much in recent times.
They could also apply if the fiancé was indisposed due to having boarded an airship to Barizhan.
“Why would he offer?”
Certainly not because of her. When they had been introduced, he had acknowledged her presence in the ways politeness required. There had been no compliments, no calling her fiancé a happy man.
Nothing at all.
“Dost not know who he is? Thero, this is Lieutenant Beshelar. First nohecharis to the Emperor.” Her father squeezed her shoulders. “I should have known! ‘tis not a position they give to a man without honour.“
“The one who saved the Emperor’s life?” She had imagined that man to be grander. More charming, perhaps. Though he had a quiet dignity that seemed to fit, somehow.
“That very man.”
“It would not be very kind of me to agree to marry him, then, would it?” A nohecharis of the Emperor was much too grand for her. And his stern demeanour was, well, perhaps not exactly frightening, but ...
“He is very kind to offer”, her mother said. “And thou wouldst not be kind to thy family in refusing him.”
“Now, now, there is no need to pressure her so, dear.I would not see my only daughter unhappy.”
Thero realized her father would not disown her. Regardless the consequences. “I was only thinking of his happiness. Of course I would be honoured to have him.” Not exactly happy, but it was better than trying to carve out a living for herself and her child somewhere in another city, or worse, bringing ruin to her parents.
“As for his happiness, I do not think he would have married at all; being such a busy man, so he has nothing to lose. I will ask whether it might cost him his position, to marry. If it does not, wilst agree to have him?”
"We have", Deret stated with forced calm. "Come to attend the wedding."
"There will be no wedding", the woman yelled. Her eyes were red from crying. "There is no bridegroom, as you damn well know. Didn't your useless friend tell you he'd bolt?"
"We have been informed that he has, this very morning, boarded an airship to Barizhan and intends to offer his services to the Grand Avar, yes." The letter had contained an apology for this cowardice, but it was of little comfort to Deret. "As you know, we were
named as the bridegroom's witness when the marriage contract was signed. We have come to do what is our duty." The tradition that the bridegroom's witness had to stand in for the bridegroom if said bridegroom could, or would not keep his promise was old, and - fortunately - seldomly needed. Perhaps this family had forgotten about it?
"You ..." Understanding dawned on her face. "Thank you. Please, come inside. We will ask our daughter ..."
Deret nodded. Of course, it remained the bride's decision - she could not have predicted this, and certainly had not paid much attention to him; after all, it was usually more of a ceremonial function, a honour to bestow on a most esteemed friend. He followed Merrem Cainaran inside. Their home was small, even what little furniture they had seemed too much.
The kitchen was dominated by a small table, at which currently Min Cainin was seated, crying at her father's shoulder. Mer Cainar hastily wiped his eyes with his sleeve when Deret entered.
"Thero, dost remember Mer Beshelar?"
He had not introduced himself with his military rank, as he had not wanted to draw attention to himself. A nohecharis would overshadow everything ... well, now it was overshadowed anyway.
The young woman looked up. Her eyes, red from crying, went wide. Deret flinched. He would have preferred to wait outside until the bride had composed herself. It must make her so uncomfortable to be seen in that state.
"We have come to do our duty", he stated bluntly. "If you ..." Require it? No, that sounded like he would be doing her a favour. "... agree. We know this is a difficult decision. We will wait outside while you consider the matter." He bowed, and fled.
Not out of the house, as it was raining and this wedding would be bad enough without the bridegroom looking like a drowned dog. But the family lived in a small apartment in a larger house, and Deret left said apartment to wait on the landing. After some hesitation, he sat down. The house had seen better days, but the stairs were clean.
Not long afterwards, the door was opened. "Lieutenant Beshelar."
He stood and faced the bride's father.
"Our daughter ... agrees. But we know who you are. Are nohecharei even allowed to marry, or would this cost you your position?"
"We consulted an expert this morning." Meaning that he had spoken to Cala, who knew almost everything. "It appears there is no law against it. Most nohecharei do not marry, for obvious reasons. We have no time for a wife." And his salary was not enough to support a family, but he could not say that. The Emperor would not want people to think that his nohecharei weren't paid enough. "We assume your daughter is aware that she would be our wife in name only?"
"She is aware that your duty to the Emperor comes first, of course."
"Good. In that case - have you informed the priest who is to officiate the wedding of the recent developments?"
"We have not. We assume Thero's fiancé did that."
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of steps on the staircase. Deret stepped aside to let the newcomer pass. It was a cleric of Csaivo. "Mer Cainar? We have come to offer our sympathies." He turned to Deret, waiting to be introduced.
Mer Cainar cleared his throat. "Mer Zhesa, this is Mer Beshelar. He was the fiancè's witness when the contract was signed. It appears there will be a wedding, after all."
Deret nodded absent-mindedly. "A pleasure to make your aquaintance."
This was met with a mumbled reply. The circumstances were everything but pleasant, they all knew.
"There is one little problem." It had only just now occurred to him.
"A problem?" There was panic in Mer Cainar's voice.
"We were not given the ring." It would have been proper to enclose the ring in that insufficient letter of apology.
"We have it", Mer Cainar said hastily.
Ah. So it had been enclosed in the wrong letter. Better than not having it at all.
"Excuse us", Mer Zhesa said. "We are not sure ... Mer Beshelar, you are to be the bridegroom?"
"As is our duty." What obstacle could there be? Cala had told him the tradition was not written law, but it had been law when the law had been more influenced by religion, so ... "Is there a problem?"
"Oh, no, not at all. It is just that ... we have never officiated a wedding where ... where the bridegroom was not the original fiancé. But as long as the ring is there, and we have the fiancé's written word that he is not, ah, available, so to speak, there should be no problem."
It was a small wedding; the only guest was an elderly great-aunt of the bride, who lived outside the city and had come by airship to attend the wedding. Someone must have explained to her the sad circumstances, but she had apparently forgotten them immediately afterwards, and congratulated the new Merrem Beshelaran several times on making such a good catch.
Thero was miserable. If not for the strong arm of her bridegroom, she would have collapsed somewhen during the priest’s blessings regarding childbirth. Her cheeks felt hot. Surely, everyone knew what this wedding was about.
Well, except for aunt Ito. Thero had always suspected her of pretending to be more scatterbrained and confused in her old age than she actually was, but when Ito congratulated her, multiple times, on having married such a fine young man, as though this had been her fiancé all along, Thero had her doubts. Surely she would not pretend this?
Of course, her fiancé was – or rather, had been – a member of the imperial guard, too, so perhaps ... perhaps those acquaintances who did not knew much of it would never know how narrowly complete ruin had been averted?
There was no celebration, her husband took his leave immediately after the ceremony, promising to return in the evening.
“Walk with me”, aunt Ito ordered, taking Thero’s arm. “Needst to tell me all about thy husband. We can go to a teahouse, I will invite thee.”
Ito was poorer than even Thero’s family, they had had to send her money for coal last winter.
“It is the least I can do for a wedding gift, girl. My garden looks good this year, I will not starve.”
“If thou dost insist.”
“I do.” So her parents were left to their work while Thero paraded through the streets in her best dress like ... well, like a newly married woman.
Before long, they were seated in a nice teahouse, not an expensive one, but also not the cheapest. Ito patted her hand. “I like thy young man. Much better than that ne’er do well that was at thy engagement ceremony.”
Thero froze. So her aunt had noticed the difference. “I am glad of thine approval.”
“The main thing is that thou wilst be happy. If I had ever married, I would have chosen such a husband, too. Very busy, doesn’t get in the way at home, dost not agree?”
“Yes, I suppose ...” The first nohecharei were on duty at all times that the second nohecharei were not on duty, from which it followed that her husband would be busy twelve hours a day. And he also had to sleep. And he could have night shifts that overlapped with her working hours at the factory, so that she would hardly see him at all.
That was a relief. Perhaps. Part of her remembered how good his strong arm had felt when her legs had threatened to give way under her.
“A bit reserved in public, but thou knowest what they say of still waters, eh?”
“I suppose so?”
“Stiffly conventional. Well, tonight I warrant he’ll be stiff in different ways altogether.” Ito smiled and winked, and Thero, not being the innocent virginal bride she should have been, blushed because she knew exactly what was meant.
Was it true, though?
She would not imagine him being anything but formal and reserved, and in a way, that thought was comforting.
It was almost evening when aunt Ito walked her home, and Thero felt an overwhelming gratitude – she had not even had the time to get nervous about the wedding night.
Her husband was punctual, returning at exactly the time he had promised.
He followed her into her parents’ bedroom – her parents and aunt would sleep in the kitchen – and started to undress.
After some hesitation, Thero started to unlace her dress. It was not as though this would be the first time a man saw her naked. Not even the second, or third.
When she had undressed, she sat on the bed and waited.
Lieutenant Beshelar was still wearing his breeches when he walked to the other side of the bed and laid down.
Thero laid down herself and waited. He put the lamp out.
“Will you not consummate the marriage?”
“We know how ill Ecis has used you.” He replied curtly. “There is no need to consummate this marriage.”
“He told you?” What must he think of her?
“He did. In fact, we are to blame for this. We admonished him to do right by you.”
“Then we thank you. Had you not done so, we would be worse off.” After all, this engagement had resulted in a wedding, and her reputation was as safe as could be, under the circumstances.
“There would have been time to find other solutions. A better husband, perhaps.”
“Better than you?” Stern and forbidding he might be, but he was the Emperor’s first nohecharis. Too good for her already.
“Better than him. We are no husband at all. Our first duty is to the Emperor. All we can do for you is to give you money.” He sounded disappointed at this.
“And preserve our reputation.” Which, after all, was the main reason why she had needed to marry. “We can work. We would not ask you for money.” She suddenly realized she had not counted on Ecis in that regard, ever. He had often managed to spend all his money on drinking and gambling.
“We want you to stop working when the pregnancy becomes obvious. It shall not be said that we do not provide for our wife and child. And some months after the birth, depending on what the midwife recommends ... we know little of such matters. Our salary should suffice for that, at least.”
Truly, he was kind. “Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it.”
Silence descended, but Thero could not sleep.
“Has Ecis ever loved me?”, she asked, louder than she had intended. Was her husband still awake?
“We think he was fond of you. We like to imagine that he truly meant to marry you, before his cowardice got the better of him.”
The next day was a holiday Thero had planned on spending with her husband, but as things were, he only stayed for breakfast.
She would not see him for quite a while, probably until he saw fit for her to stay at home. Which reminded her. “We are sorry, but ... we will need your permission to continue working after the wedding.”
Her husband frowned. “What?!”
She shrank back from his disapproval.
“The factory where Thero works requires the written permission of a woman’s closest male relative”, her father explained. “Until yesterday, that was us, but now ... they would not employ her without proof that her husband allows it.”
Her husband stared. “We are sorry. We grew up in the countryside and have never heard of such a thing. In truth, we consider it ridiculous. Is this factory such a disreputable one, that there would be reason for us to be against our wife working there?”
“Not at all”, her mother hastened to assure. “The opposite. Only the disreputable ones would employ women or children without such a document. It is the law.”
“We should have known about it”, Mer Beshelar said softly. “We did spend some time in the City Guard. Yet we were never involved in such ...” His voice trailed off.
“Mostly, when a husband states his disagreement, even the disreputable factories oblige”, Thero explained. Everyone knew a woman whose husband was unhappy with her having her own money. “The Guard would not be called over something so petty.”
“Still, it seems insane. Why would anyone not want his wife to work?”
The disbelief on his face made sense, Thero supposed, for one who had grown up in the countryside, where there was nothing to be bought with money that a husband might disapprove of. Such as books. “You did ask us to stop working when the pregnancy becomes obvious”, she replied quietly. Better not tell him about the books until the stack she kept hidden for coworkers was safely elsewhere.
“Well. Yes. But.” He shook his head. “We will have to think about this. Would it suit you if we sent a letter containing said document directly to the factory where you work?”
“It would, thank you very much.”
They finished the meal in silence and her husband took his leave.
As soon as he was out of the door, her mother turned to her. “Will he know that ...?”
“It is unlikely any man would not know that a pregnancy is supposed to last nine months, not just six.” Especially if he had grown up in the countryside. Aunt Ito, for one, was rather well informed on such things; compared to unmarried women in the city. With neighbours who kept livestock, some facts did not escape notice, she supposed.
“He has not touched thee.”
So she had looked at the sheets. “No. He knows there will be ample proof I am not a virgin anymore. I rather think that is why he offered to marry me.” A broken engagement, as such, was a stain on one’s reputation, but a repairable one.
“Perhaps he is marnis”, her mother speculated.
“Yes, perhaps.” Or perhaps he just didn’t find her attractive. Or he had noticed that he frightened her and had been kind?
Of all those explanations, for some reason, she liked the last one best.
When she went to work the next day, she thought of no evil, just got her time card punched and walked toward her place at the assembly line.
The gatekeeper called her back.
“Your new work permit.” He held out a hand.
Heat rose to Thero’s face as she remembered. Her husband had promised to send a letter – had he gotten the address wrong? Had she not pronounced the name clearly enough? Or perhaps he had thought about it and found he did not like the thought of his wife having her own money, after all?
Just as she opened her mouth to defend herself, inbetween the other workers there strode a courier through the factory gates.
He walked up to the gatekeeper. “We have a letter for Merrem Thero Beshelaran.”
Her ears lifted. “That would be us”, she hurried to say. “From our husband? He promised to send our work permit directly here.”
“The letter is sealed, we would not know”, the courier replied with a blank expression. He handed it to her, and she broke the seal. There were several sheets of paper in there.
She took one out and read it.
‘We, Lieutenant Deret Beshelar, hereby acknowledge that our wife, Thero Beshelaran, has the right to take any employment she deems suitable and keep it as long as she sees fit. We also acknowledge the same right for any daughter born to our marriage. This document is to be considered valid from the day of our wedding to the ’ – the words ‘hour of our death’ were crossed out, and the document continued – ‘day when a change in law renders it superfluous, or the law as written renders it invalid.
This document is to be kept in pristine condition and returned to Merrem Thero Beshelaran when she decides to terminate employment.
Signed: Deret Beshelar
Co-Signed: Cala Athmaza
She stared at it. Until his death would mean that even if she were to divorce him – scandalous and almost unheard of, but possible – she would be able to do as she please until she remarried. Until the law rendered it invalid meant the same, but would enable her to use it even as widow, if there was a change in law – a change she knew some widows had petitioned for.
The other sheets read the same, but without the crossed-out words.
She passed one of those to the gatekeeper and put the letter with the other ones carefully in her bodice. As a young girl she had dreamt of love-letters, but this was, in a way, better. A thousand empty promises were nothing compared to this declaration of trust
As he read it, the gatekeeper frowned. “To be returned? He can write a new one if he pleases!”
“Our husband is a very busy man”, Thero replied, trying to sound neutral though she felt exhilaration and glee.
“That he is”, agreed the courier. “As are we. Is everything in order? We know that we have delivered the letter exactly as it was given to us, and you, Merrem Beshelaran, are witness to that, but in case there is anything lacking, we would rather have proof it is not our fault. We would rather not face the anger of a man like Lieutenant Beshelar.”
“It is acceptable”, the gatekeeper admitted.
Thero smiled. “Everything is in order. Thank you.”
The courier thanked her and left, Thero went and took her place.
Even though it was forbidden to talk in the assembly line, the woman next to her whispered:
“Oh, you sly fox! You gave us a fake name, did you not? And you never mentioned his rank! The first nohecharis!”
Thero blushed, glad that she only had to nod, as the foreman already glared at them.
During work, she had some time to think of an answer to the inevitable question of “How?”. She could have met Lieutenant Beshelar the same way she had met Ecis, she decided. Of course, Lieutenant Beshelar would likely not talk to strange girls at fairs, but her coworkers didn’t know that, after all.
They might wonder how plain little Thero had managed to attract the attention of not only a Lieutenant but also the Emperor’s first nohecharis, but, well, let them wonder. There was no accounting for tastes, after all, and the general opinion would settle on that.
Her husband had not yet been a nohecharis when she had first met Ecis, as Varenechibel had still been alive, then. So that was not an issue. He might have been on duty that day, but no one in the factory would know. Fortunately, none of them had been there the day she had met Ecis, and later meetings had been set up so that they would meet no acquaintances of hers.
Perhaps he had not wanted her friends to warn her, she realized belatedly. The fact Ecis had shown her off to his friends had reassured her he was serious about planning to marry her. But then ... Lieutenant Beshelar had never been among those friends, and they had not been invited to the wedding – Ecis had had some excuses as to why not, which now all seemed flimsy. Perhaps they had not been friends so much as drinking and gambling companions, who would not care a whit if he presented a different fianceé next month.
An older woman might have seen through this – her mother had warned her about Ecis, but Thero had foolishly thought it was just that her mother did not want her to leave. And aunt Ito had, well, not said anything, but Thero remembered having been a bit disappointed that Ito did not seem at all enamoured with Ecis.
But that was the past, and it did not matter anymore .Thero was a married woman now, and she could not have wished for a better husband. She tried not to think of the fact that her husband could have wished for a much better wife.
The break was somewhat short for both eating lunch and going to the toilet. Thero had opted for the toilet. It cost a small fee to use it, but squatting somewhere in a back alley and hoping that no man walked by while her skirts were lifted was really not an alternative. Even if she had wanted to, her husband would surely not have approved.
When she joined the others outside, she had to eat very fast, as inbetween bites, she was expected to answer all sorts of questions on her husband.
First they wanted to know if he was really Lieutenant Beshelar, who by now everybody had heard was first nohecharis. That was easily answered.
But then, almost everyone seemed to expect that he had done something heroic in her presence, and Thero did not know what to say. So she stalled time by eating, and then settled on claiming that his presence alone deterred all but the most determined evildoers – which might even be true – and she had therefore not seen him fight any.
“What is his opinion on women who read?”, she was asked by one of the acquaintances she kept books for.
“I have not outright asked”, she admitted. “But, there is this.” And she handed over one of the many copies of the document that had come by courier.
Now, that bought her some time for eating. With the utmost care, it was circled among the workers.
There were many oh’s and ah’s and more than one woman mentioned that it had been a hassle to get her husband to sign such a document, and she would make quite sure to tell him that the Emperor’s first nohecharis was not so petty-minded.
In the end, the document returned to her, none the worse for wear.
Fortunately, right after someone had remembered that Lieutenant Beshelar had thwarted an attempt to assassinate the Emperor, and wanted her own retelling of that story, the bell rung and the break was over.
Maia felt a bit uneasy. Not that he didn’t want Beshelar to have fun, not at all. But something about this wedding invitation seemed not right. Cala had said that they had tried to arrange shifts around the wedding and it had only shortly before turned out this would not work. The second nohecharei had confirmed this. He trusted them, of course he did.
And still ... it just was not like Beshelar to change plans at such short notice.
When Beshelar was back for his next shift, safe and unharmed, Maia felt more relief than this should have warranted.
Yet soon afterwards, the feeling that something was not quite right returned. This time, he did not feel as uneasy, but still. Something was wrong. He looked at Beshelar. Not a hair out of place, as always. Clothes perfectly ironed. Boots, normal, too. But ... hands. There was something different there. “Beshelar, we did not know you were married.” And he could have sworn he had not seen the ring before.
“We, ah, only married yesterday, Serenity.”
“This was your own wedding?” Beshelar was a very reserved man, but he was also honest. It just did not seem like him. “Why did you not tell us?”
“Serenity.” Beshelar’s ears drooped. “We ... you remember Osmin Bazhevin and the problems arose because she was engaged but not yet married?”
“There is a tradition, observed only by the, ah, more religious, where a friend or relative of the bridegroom witnesses the signing of the contract and makes his own promise, which is to replace the bridegroom if anything should happen.”
“This seems very sensible.” He quite liked the idea of preventing such a thing as happened to Osmin Bazhevin from happening.
“It is, Serenity.”
Only then did the facts catch up with him. “Beshelar ... we are sorry for your loss.”
“Serenity, there is no need to be. The man we believed to be our friend is safe and in good health, for all we know. We have lost a friend, yes, but not in the way you think. He will have arrived in Barizhan by now.”
“Oh.” So the friend had just run away?
“How could you make such a promise without asking His Serenity beforehand?” Csevet sounded furious.
“Serenity, we truly did not expect this to happen.”
“Of course not.” Maia looked Csevet in the eyes and shook his head ever so slightly. Surely, Beshelar was ashamed enough without such accusations. “Why did it happen?”
“Why did your friend run away? Was it an arranged marriage?” There must be some explanation.
“Arranged only in that we begged him to do right by her. He confessed to us that he had promised marriage, yet wanted to keep his ‘freedom’, whatever he meant by that. We thought our appeals to his conscience had changed his mind. Alas ... we have been foolish, Serenity, and we can only beg your forgiveness.” Beshelar bowed his head. “If you wish it, we will resign.”
“We do not wish it.”
“You should have asked your Emperor’s permission before you got married!” Csevet was not done, it appeared. “You cannot just ... just ...”
“Surely nohecharei are not forbidden from marrying?” Their lack of anything resembling a private life made him uneasy enough as was.
“Not technically”, Csevet admitted. “But ... what if she is a spy?”
Beshelar lowered his head even more. “Serenity, we are truly sorry, we did not even think of such a thing. We have known this friend many years and we trusted him. Moreover, we cannot fathom what a spy might hope to find out from questioning us. We assure you, we would never, ever -“
“We believe you. Csevet, we are sure you can find out whether Merrem Beshelaran is a spy.” The idea seemed utterly paranoid to him, but then, had someone told him his own sister would betray him, he would not have believed it, either.
“We will try to, Serenity.”
“And if she is not, then we have no objections. That is ... Beshelar, will you be happy?”
“Serenity. We regret that we cannot be a better husband, but our duty to you must come first. She knew that when she accepted us.”
Typical for Beshelar, to think of his wife instead of himself. Would she not be glad that her husband had little time for her, considering that she did not even know him? Why would Beshelar worry ... oh. “Can you support a wife with your salary?”
“A wife, yes, Serenity. A child ... we are not sure, Serenity.” Beshelar's ears lowered.
A child. So that was why it had been of such importance that there be a wedding. “Csevet, can we raise his salary?”
“We think it unwise to show favoritism, Serenity.”
“Serenity, we would not consider it favoritism, and we are sure Kiru and Lieutenant Telimezh would agree.” Cala said agreeably. “We have everything that we need; and Lieutenant Beshelar did not end up in this situation voluntarily.”
“Yes, yes, but the money has to be accounted for”, Csevet replied. “People would know. Raising both soldier nohecharei’s salary might be possible, seeing as they are not bound by a vow of poverty, but that would be seen as you spending more money on your own household, Serenity.”
“Thank you, Cala. Csevet, is there any way we could help Beshelar without it looking bad?”
“Serenity, perhaps a gift ... Winternight is the anniversary of the assassination attempt, and Lieutenant Beshelar did get injured in protecting you ... it is not unheard of for Emperors to show their appreciation for loyalty with gifts. Though money should be accompanied by something more meaningful.”
Perfect. One could always rely on Csevet to find a solution. “Thank you. We are sure we will be able to think of something appropriate. Beshelar, would Winternight be ...?”
“Yes, Serenity. Thank you, Serenity.” Beshelar looked like he wanted the earth to swallow him.
Maia attempted a smile. “It is the least we can do.”
It was only a couple of days later that, upon returning from her shift at the factory, Thero met her husband on the way home.
He smiled awkwardly and offered her a bunch of flowers.
She stared at them. They were early spring flowers, so small they looked tiny in his large hand. “For me?!”
“We, ah, do not know what kind of flower you like, or whether you consider cut flowers a frivolity, but ...” He shrugged. “It was the last bunch the flower girl had in her vendor’s tray, and we thought she would be glad if she could end her work day. You would do us a favour by accepting them.”
“They are lovely!” She took them, gingerly, careful not to touch his hand too much. It would have felt like taking advantage of his kindness. “Thank you very much. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“If it is no inconvenience, yes, thank you.”
She led him inside, put the flowers into an old cup full of water and started to make tea. “We are glad you visit so soon. Our coworkers saw the courier and know who you are and have asked questions. We fear we need some lesser known details on your victory over Dach’osmer Tethimar to satisfy their curiosity.”
“For one, it was not our victory. It was Cala Athmaza who disposed of him.”
“Ah, yes, we know, but you did work together with Cala Athmaza. And you did protect the Emperor. Everyone knows that, and they also say the blade hit your arm, but there must have been more to it than that.” She pulled a chair for her husband, as he had not sat down while she had put the tea water on the fire, then sat down herself.
“There was not – not really.” He frowned. “Well, there was the fact that we fell on the Emperor, which we are not at all proud of, but His Serenity was very generous about that.”
“You fell on the Emperor?” Thero watched the tea kettle.
“We had to act fast. So we threw ourself in front of the Emperor without a second thought, and the impact of the attack pushed us onto the throne.”
“You ended up in the Emperor’s lap?” What an image!
“Ah ... yes. To our eternal shame.”
A cursory glance at her husband revealed that he had blushed and his ears lowered. He was truly embarrassed about this?
“Did the Emperor tell you to be ashamed?” She felt a wave of hot anger on behalf of her husband, and a strange desire to go and tell the Emperor off.
His ears flicked in surprise. “No, not at all. As we said, His Serenity was very generous and rebuked us for apologizing.”
Thero relaxed. “We are pleased. We quite agree with His Serenity. There was no need to apologize for this heroic deed, surely.”
“Not for that. But for ... inconveniencing His Serenity thus.”
This, Thero had no answer for, she could only shake her head.
“We suppose this detail is embarrassing enough so that no one will doubt its authenticity, and we see no harm in it becoming common knowledge. Perhaps this would satisfy your coworkers’ curiosity?”
She felt warmth in her chest at the realisation that he would embarrass himself in order to spare her the shame of someone discovering the true nature of their marriage. “If you do not mind too much? We can tell them that it is to be kept a secret.” It would probably still be spread. “And we are sure, no one will think it even half as embarrassing as you do. You have been very brave.”
He avoided her gaze. “We do not mind. And we just did our duty.”
The tea water was boiling, now, and Thero went to prepare the tea. Repeating the compliment would be seen as flirtatious, would it? She could not do that.
“This is not merely a courtesy visit”, her husband said as she put the cup of tea in front of him.
“Oh?” What else could it be? Did he need something? She would be very glad to be of assistance, but how?
“We have brought some money.” He put a pouch of coins on the table.
Thero blinked. She carefully set down her own cup of tea, as to not spill it. “It is early, yet.”
He shrugged. “Kiru Athmaza tells us there is no general rule as to when pregnancy might cause a woman to not be able to work anymore. We thought it safest to give you some money now. Especially as you should go looking for an apartment of your own, soon. Is this space not small enough if you only share it with your parents?”
Thero smiled. “Many families larger than ours live in smaller apartments. We hope you will not be offended if we want to stay here? We feel safer, closer to our parents.” It was small, yes, and there was a lack of privacy. She knew very well, by now, why her parents went on long evening walks together as soon as the weather got warmer. But she slept on the kitchen bench, and the baby could sleep there with her, so that perhaps the crying would not wake her parents.
Her husband nodded slowly. “We understand why you would not want to live on your own. Still ... do you think it might be possible to rent another apartment in this house?”
A whole apartment for herself?
“We can ask the landlady whether anyone wants to move out in the next months. But do you really think this is ... affordable?” She certainly could not afford it on her earnings.
“We do think so. We do not have many expenses.” He gestured towards the pouch of money. “This should be enough for one advance payment on rent – we will give you more, but thought you might not want to have so much money in the house.”
Thero nodded. “Thank you very much. You are right, we would not feel comfortable with too much money.” Not exactly because of burglars, but because she felt he should not give her much money, if any at all, but it mattered little.
“Yes. We know there is rarely a problem with theft in this part of the city, but we suspect that it is mostly a matter of all neighbours earning more or less the same, so no one is tempted.” His ears flicked. “Ah. Would you feel safe sleeping alone? We do think a married woman with child should have her own apartment, but then, other women would also have their husbands there ...”
“Oh. Well ...” Thero smiled. Ecis would not have wasted a thought on this. She was such a lucky woman. “Any potential attacker would not know when our husband might visit. We would feel safe enough.”
“Ah, yes. Good. About that. Which time of the day would suit you best for our visits? We fear we have, ah, imposed on you at a rather inconvenient time.” As if to underline his point, he took a sip of tea.
“Not at all. We like to have a cup of tea before warming up dinner.” She sipped on her own cup of tea.
“Good, then we will keep to this time. And, ah, do not feel you need to play host. We are your husband, after all. That is. We cannot give you much money because most of our pay is that our food is prepared and our clothes are laundered by the palace staff. So it is only fair that you would not do those things for us. But we, ah, also do not expect to be treated as guest.” His ears lowered just a bit before he forced them up again.
“We will only offer you tea when we intend to make some for ourself, anyway, then. Does that suit you?”
He smiled, relieved. “Yes. That is exactly what we meant.”
As Thero had predicted, her request that her husband’s story about having accidentally fallen on the Emperor be kept secret, made her coworkers even more excited about it. And they all envied her.
Moreso when she mentioned the flowers. No one would ever have suspected that he had been forced to marry her – forced by his own sense of duty, but forced, regardless.
Her continuing to work as the pregnancy progressed did not draw any attention; everyone did it, and, after all, those who liked her would never have implied that she had been pregnant already before the wedding.
Her husband had cautiously suggested that she might want to talk to a midwife before the birth, and because Thero could not deny him anything, she had done so.
Following his implied wishes, she had also not chosen the cheapest one.
Merrem Minaran was a grumpy, middle aged woman, who openly hated Thero for having gotten pregnant out of wedlock.
It was Thero’s own fault, of course, for telling the midwife the date of her marriage instead of the date of conception. A midwife could tell how far along the pregnancy was.
Still, unkind as she was, she seemed to know her trade. She tested Thero’s urine, for, as she reluctantly explained, markers of some deadly illness that could occur during pregnancy, and asked questions about all kinds of symptoms.
Merrem Minaran also had recommendations on what kind of tea to drink, what ointment to put on the belly so that there would not be any more unsightly stretch marks, and what ointment to put on the private parts so that there would be no tearing.
Thero would have been quite happy and grateful, if there had not been all those snide remarks – never anything explicit that she could have contradicted, just comments on how lucky Thero was, and how deserving of pity her husband, and so on and so forth.
When she came home from one such visit, wanting nothing more than to cry herself to sleep, Thero saw her husband sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea that her parents must have provided.
Immediately, he stood and gestured for her to sit on his chair; the other one being occupied by her mother.
After that, he gazed at her for a long time. “We would like for you to stay home from now on. It can be not much more than three months until the birth, now.”
“We can still work”, Thero protested, weakly.
“We never said you could not. But – please?” His voice was gentle. “We are worried for your health.”
“We are well. The midwife said so. There is no reason to worry.” And yet, it felt so good, being able to sit down. “And you would not shirk duty if you were just somewhat tired, would you?”
His eyes widened in surprise. “We would stand beside our Emperor as long as we would be able to stand”, he said quietly. “But that is different. His Serenity would order us to sit if he saw that we could not stand, and have a doctor called the moment we looked seriously unwell. It is not that we do not trust you to do what is best for you, Merrem. It is just that we do not trust the foreman at the factory. You told us you are not allowed any breaks but the midday one.”
“He is right”, her mother said before Thero could answer. “Thou didst complain about the lack of breaks only yesterday.”
Thero felt her face heat and her ears lower. A good thing her mother hand not also mentioned that she had complained about needing to go to the toilet, and not being able to more than once during the workday.
She could do something about that, of course. The napkins for the baby were already bought. In theory ... but no, that was undignified, and if her husband ever found out, he’d be almost as mortified as she.
“I would not know what to do with myself all day”, she replied.
“Nonsense”, her mother said decidedly. “There’s this coworker of thine thou saidst had a little boy she had to take to the factory with her. Couldst offer to look after him. She will owe thee a favour, and thou wilst know what to do.”
Thero opened her mouth to object, but closed it immediately after. This was work, true enough. She would not be paid anything close to the usual rates, as her coworker could not afford that, but what her mother had said about a favour owed was true enough. And her husband did not care whether she earned money, anyway.
“It is thy decision”, her father said calmly. “But I, too, think thou lookst rather tired. Think of thy husband’s reputation.”
She sighed. “Very well. Yes.” She looked up at her husband, who had remained standing. “No one shall say that a first nohecharis does not provide for his wife. We shall do as our mother says.”
“We thank you.”
As though she had done him a favour, instead of the other way round.
Caring for a baby boy meant having to carry him to the factory for the break, so that he could be breastfed, but Thero did not only not mind that, she greatly enjoyed being able to meet her friends.
She got up early in the mornings, went to work as always, only that she didn’t walk through the gates, but just took the child and went right back home, where she could prepare a meal every day, instead of eating leftovers every other day.
Thero had almost given up on getting an apartment of her own, so she was surprised when, about a month before her baby was due, the landlady knocked at the door and informed her that there was a vacancy.
“If you want, that is.”
It turned out the family who lived there had inherited a nice sum of money, and would find somewhere with more space – they wanted to move out immediately, and if Thero wanted to move in, they would not have to pay the rent for two more months.
This clearly benefitted everyone, so Thero only hesitated a moment before answering in the affirmative.
Her husband had made it clear he wanted her to have her own place, and he had given her more money than she would have thought after he had told her he did not have much.
They had, it seemed, rather differing ideas of what was, or was not, a lot of money.
It was impossible to tell when the baby would be born, so Deret did not even try to get time off to be with his wife. He merely asked to be informed and took some precautions to make sure this happened.
As luck would have it, he was not on duty when the time came. Rather, he had just slept about four hours when there was a knock at the door.
Fortunately, Cala was a heavier sleeper than he. He let his partner sleep and tiptoed to the door.
The courier was one Mer Aisava especially trusted, otherwise he would never have gotten permission to enter the Alcethmeret at this hour.
“Is she well?”
“There was no talk of complications when we left”, the courier said. “Of course, we left immediately after the midwife had confirmed it, so we cannot tell.”
Deret just hoped the birth would not take so long that he had to leave before it was over.
When he arrived at the small apartment, everyone seemed a bit worried. Not distraught, though – perhaps there was a complication, but only a minor one? “How is Merrem Beshelaran?”
“Reasonably well”, her mother said. “Just ... the baby is a girl.”
Why were they worried, then? “We have no need of a male heir. A daughter is perfectly acceptable.” More than that, actually. If they were lucky, she would resemble her mother, and no one would question her parentage.
Even if not, there would be less of an expectation that a daughter resemble the father.
“May we see our wife, now?”
Reluctantly he was admitted to the bedroom. Merrem Beshelaran looked tired, but happy. The baby, being bathed by the midwife, made noises of protest.
He walked up to the bed, and reluctantly took his wife’s hand. The midwife did not know the circumstances of their marriage, some gesture of affection was expected, surely. “How are you?” He could not bring himself to talk in the familiar as His Serenity did with family, but his own parents had always used the formal in public, so it would not seem strange. At least he hoped that.
“We are well, thank you.”
He nodded. “Good.” The wailing of the baby started to hurt in his ears. He walked up to the midwife. “Merrem, would it be possible for us to hold our daughter? We are afraid we do not have much time before we have to return to the palace.”
“A very big and healthy baby”, the midwife commented as she swaddled the child in linen.
“Is she? We admit we have no experience with such things. She seems tiny.”
“For a child born at six months; she is very big indeed.”
If there was anything he did not need right now, it was a midwife who felt a need to make sarcastic comments. “We have heard this is rather common for children born to impatient parents.” He met the midwife’s gaze. “Is it not considerate of her to arrive so early?”
Finally, he was handed his daughter. Having asked Kiru Athmaza for some details before, he knew how to hold a baby. At least he hoped so, and his daughter seemed to agree, as she stopped wailing and looked at him with big eyes.
“What is her name?” He asked as he handed the baby to his wife.
“We would like to call her Ito, after our aunt, if you will allow it?”
“Yes. A good name.” He bowed to kiss his daughter’s forehead, then took his wife’s hand and lifted it to his lips, not quite touching it. “We should leave now, so we can get some more sleep before our shift starts. We will visit again soon.”
When he woke in the morning, Cala stood next to his bed. “Is it a girl or a boy?”
“How do you know?”
“You are usually up before we even wake.The fact that you are not so today suggest something has happened in the night. That you seem to have slept well hints that whatever happened was not very bad.”
“Truly, you are a most astute man, Athmaza. We have a daughter, called Ito. ”
“Will you tell His Serenity?”
“We would not be so unkind to force you to keep it secret.” And his Serenity had been so kind about the whole affair that it would have been most ungrateful not to inform him immediately.
The Emperor was delighted at the news.
However, in the following weeks, Deret found out that not only the Emperor was delighted.
Men who had only ever been acquaintances, and whom he had not spoken to in months suddenly felt the need to pat him on the shoulder and congratulate him.
Many comments were made on the unusual short pregnancy, oft accompanied by the claim that he had “finally loosened up” or was “not so proper after all.”
Deret found it hard to conceal his embarrassment.