"Do not hold the brush so tightly," Diora murmured, kneeling beside Teyla at the low, lacquered table. It was women's writing they practiced, after all, not the harsh, sharp strokes that marked the language of men. She did not share the comparison aloud. It would have meant nothing to her wife, who had never touched ink and parchment before, whose field-calloused hands had nothing to fear from the smooth, ivory-handled brush. No matter how hard she clenched it, it would leave no marks deeper than those she already bore.
And yet the callouses were fading, thanks to Ramdan's patient care with salves. Thanks to time. Teyla's hands would never be as smooth as Diora's own, but they no longer snagged on the silk of her sari. She was becoming, with each day, more a creature of the high courts. And if she never quite reached the pinnacle of perfection that Serra Teresa would have demanded, that Diora herself had once embodied--well. The rough scar across Diora's palm said she would never return to it either.
She did not know what she would say, now, to another child of the high courts, to a woman who had never seen the world beyond harem walls. Better this wife, with calloused fingers and a faint frown of concentration wrinkling her brow, than any daughter of the Tyrs.
"Firm and gentle, like you would hold Na'diro's hand," Diora said softly. And Teyla took a breath, nodded, and drew the first stroke.
"Forgive me for my late arrival," Valedan said.
There were no serafs present save Ramdan, no cerdan here in the heart of the harem, and so Diora did not flinch to hear Valedan so easily beg pardon of a mere woman, a wife. But it still surprised her. Would, she thought, always do so.
She smiled at him instead, and if the smile was not--quite--the open expression she had learned among the Arkosa, it was true enough. "There is nothing to forgive."
"I have made you wait for your meal," he objected.
Diora shrugged gracefully. She knew just how far to tilt her shoulders to set the silk of her sari rippling with the gesture, had known since she was a child practicing her movements under Ona Teresa's guidance, did it now without conscious thought. But the way Valedan's eyes lingered--that was new. New, and she did not yet know whether she welcomed it or not. The uncertainty made her uneasy, and so she did the first thing that came to mind to distract his attention: she shifted the child from her hip to her arms and held Na'diro out to her husband.
"The waiting was easily enough done for Teyla and myself. As for Na'diro, I am afraid he has less patience and has eaten. Teyla is setting out the food. Would you care to hold your son?"
And oh, she knew she should not encourage this, this bond between Valedan and the child who was his only in name. It was not unheard of for clansmen to take in the children of the woman they married, as Ser Illara had done with Samanta's son, but that was as serafs, as slaves, beneath the notice of any save their wives. To honor them with the title of son was unthinkable.
She should not encourage it, but there was no one to witness the harem moment, and she could not resist the chance to watch Valedan's face soften as he cradled Teyla's child--her child--their child in his arms. It did so too rarely these days, as the weight of ruling settled on his shoulders. Did so only a little, now.
"I was speaking to Jarrani's cerdan," he said, one hand idly stroking Na'diro's wisp-thin hair. "There was trouble on the roads again. Another caravan from Sorgassa lost. To deserters from the First Army, Jarrani's captain claims, and I have no reason to disbelieve him."
They were not harem words, but Na'tey needed time to arrange the table, and so Diora made no effort to shift the conversation to more suitable subjects. She nodded, keeping her expression open. Inviting confidence, but offering nothing. Her husband surprised her often, but surely not even he could expect her to offer advice on matters of combat.
"I've set the Third Army to patrolling the roads, but Sorgassa was never their base, and they don't know the terrain. The bandits melt into the dunes as soon as they give chase--if they find them at all. With archers, we might dissuade them. But Andarro says I cannot train archers. That the army would never deign to study the bow."
"It is a very Northern art," Diora observed.
"And I am already seen as too Northern. Andarro has said. Alina has said. You--have said." If he were not holding Na'diro, Diora thought Valedan might have pressed his head into his palms. "And so I will train no archers, and the deserters will slip through my nets, and the tax caravan will be late once more. And Jarrani will complain that he is being bled dry, when he is asked to send another one."
"Rare is the Tor or Tyr who does not feel, on occasion, that their taxes are beyond what they may be expected to bear."
Valedan laughed, more than her words warranted. In his arms, Na'diro chortled as well.
Diora favored him with another small smile. "Come. Let us see if Teyla is ready for us."
When he left, Diora returned to the writing table, pensive. She laid out paper, but did not reach for the brush. Green and gold vines gleamed against the black lacquerwork of the table; she traced the pattern with her eyes as words ran, just as tangled, through her mind. Conversation had always come easily to her. How could it not, when she could read mood and intention in every word and half-drawn breath, and tailor her own words to match? But a letter, ah, a letter was a more delicate affair.
"Did you wish me to practice again, Serra?" Teyla asked, hesitant, from behind her.
"No, Na'tey," Diora said, stirring at last. "This one I must write myself."
A letter from the Serra Diora en'Leonne to the Serra Celina en'Clemente
4th of Veral, 428 AA
. . . and I thank you, again, for the gift of your samisen. It served me well on the road to Averda, and if, when you next visit the Tor Leonne, you see it is a little worse for the wear, I hope you will understand these are marks of honor, not signs of my carelessness. It has witnessed the battle between two Tyrs, and few among us can say we did so with no scars. Yet its music is as sweet as ever, and reminds me, each time I play, of your generosity and grace.
I hope you will accept, as a token of my gratitude, the Northern lute that accompanies this missive. Its sound is not as suited to our lays--though we know a Northern Bard who would challenge this, and perhaps win--but it is pleasing in its own way, and I hope learning to draw it forth will provide you and your wives with some small joy. As your husband has so aptly demonstrated, there is sometimes much to be gained from studying the arts of our neighbors . . .
"And then turn the brush. But softly, softly, or you will smear--yes. Like so." Diora nodded, pleased, as Teyla's name took shape on her parchment.
Na'diro slept at their side, his cradle in a patch of late afternoon sun cast in from the harem garden through the open screens, and so they both spoke softly. His naps had grown shorter, of late, and more easily disturbed. As much as Diora enjoyed his bright, gurgling laughter, there was something to be said as well for quiet moments between wives, something she treasured.
Kiriel, alas, had never treasured quiet, or faced the daunting task of rocking an infant back to sleep. She came charging into the harem as if she gave chase to a Kinlord, her heavy boots loud against the polished floors. Her hair was wild about her face, and in her eyes there was something dark, something nameless, that spoke of death.
But there was no sword in Kiriel's hand, and so while Teyla jerked to her feet, upending her inkwell as she moved, and Na'diro opened his eyes and wailed, Diora kept her hand from leaping to her dagger, kept her arm from betraying the desire, the instinct to do so. She turned to Kiriel, slow and calm, and smiled.
"Welcome to the harem, Na'kiri."
Kiriel blinked, and some of the wildness left her. Not all. There was still, was always, about her something that made the back of the neck prickle. But her boots scuffed to a halt, and her gaze flicked to Na'diro and back, unsure.
"Na'tey is tending him," Diora said, calmly. Teyla had scooped her son from the cradle to clutch him to her chest, heedless of the ink that stained her hands and arm, and was rocking him back, crooning under her breath. Diora reached over, without looking, and righted the inkwell. "He will be well. What brings you here?"
Kiriel did not look entirely reassured, but then, she was often off-balance in the harem. Its soft drapes and bright jewels were anathema to her, who craved the simple, stark lines of armor and sword. And yet she came, again and again, seeking Diora, seeking song. Seeking--
"Auralis," Kiriel muttered.
Seeking haven. Diora nodded, unsurprised. There was a balance to the push and pull between Kiriel and Auralis, between Valedan's two most unusual, unsuitable, exceptional Tyran. When it tipped too far, the harem was one place Kiriel could go for shelter, the one sanctuary Auralis could never breach.
Diora supposed Auralis had a haven as well. She had never asked where.
"You may stay as long as you like, Na'kiri. We are practicing our letters. Did you wish to join us?"
Kiriel gave the parchment, now awash with ink, a dismissive glance. "I know how to read. I'm not stupid."
"The language of women?" Ashaf had been a wife, after all, however poor her birth and however small the court of her Tor. It was not inconceivable that she knew how to read and write, that she had taught Kiriel. Merely unlikely.
"There's a difference?" Kiriel demanded.
Diora smiled slightly. "Yes, Na'kiri. Men write of war, of alliance, of herds and coin. Women write of harem matters, and a more delicate subject requires a more delicate hand."
Which hand was, perhaps, not Na'kiri's. She rolled her eyes. "I don't have a harem. Or anyone to write to."
Diora inclined her head. The ink was spilled, in any case, and Teyla's arms still occupied with Na'diro. And with Kiriel in the room, she thought Teyla would have difficulty loosening her grip to the flexibility their work demanded. Teyla liked the younger woman; she would, when Na'diro was otherwise occupied, speak with her about the Green Valley that had been Teyla and Ashaf's home. Kiriel had grown used to having Ashaf's memories always close. With the Heart of Havalla returned to Yollana, she feared them fading, could not remember, sometimes, whether the small white flower that Ashaf had so loved bore five petals or six. Teyla soothed her fears. But she never quite relaxed when Kiriel was near her. Few did.
"Then let me call Ramdan to clear the table, Na'kiri, and while he works, perhaps you and Na'diro would both lend your ears to my practice. Ona Teresa has sent me music from the North with her latest letter, and I wish to try my hand at transposing it for the samisen."
Na'diro was still awake when Kiriel left, but he had quieted, lulled into calm by Diora's voice and Teyla's gentle, stroking hands. His cradle was shadowed, now; dusk had fallen, and the screens to the garden let in a gentle breeze but little light. The serafs had passed through, silently, to light the lamps while Diora sang. Their flickering illumination turned the wooden floors a burnished gold.
"Serra," Teyla began, and fell silent. She busied herself shifting Na'diro from one shoulder to the other.
"What Kiriel said--who will I write to, Serra? I will learn this, if you wish." She smiled shyly. "I am glad to learn this. But I do not understand why."
"To anyone you wish, Na'tey." But she understood what lay beneath the question. It would take years of practice before Teyla might be trusted with the delicate, layered letters in which Serras played the game of diplomacy beneath a veil of more trivial matters. Diora herself was scarcely skilled at the art. She thought fleetingly of her letter to Serra Celina and wondered if its message would be understood. There were few others she could write to, if it failed. She had been Serra Illara's wife for less than a year; little time to cultivate the acquaintance of the wives of other Tyrs and Tors, to build the delicate connections that bound the Dominion together like a spider's web: thin, delicate, beneath the notice of men.
Teresa had had such connections. Diora wished, often, that she were here. Very little of her life had been spent far enough from her aunt that she could not hear her whispered advice.
Teyla, too, must have family that she missed, siblings and cousins to whom she might wish to send words that were merely words, not coded thrusts and parries. But they were field serafs. They would read no letter she sent them, whether in women's language or men's.
But if Teyla's family could not read, others might read to them. And the seal of the clan Leonne was a powerful mark.
"Come, Na'tey," Diora said, turning to the table Ramdan had cleaned, to the fresh piece of parchment he had laid in its center. "Let us write a letter to Serra Nora en'Valente, sharing our best wishes for the rebuilding of the Green Valley. I will lend my hand, and you your voice. And perhaps, when she writes us, she will send news of your family."
It might be seen as unwise to encourage Teyla in this. Better for her origins as a field seraf to pass into obscurity; better to let those who did not know otherwise believe that Valedan's second wife was of the high courts, and suited to her rank. But they were safe within the harem, with the Lord's time fading to the Lady's, and wisdom was not always the highest virtue.
Diora's father had been one of the wise, and that, in the end, had cost him everything.
A letter from the Serra Diora en'Leonne to the Serra Nora en'Valente
22nd of Veral, 428 AA
. . . My heart grieves with yours for your lands, which were made to flower in peace, not bear the tread of armies. I hope spring brings healing, as the serafs plow the scars away and the Green Valley turns its namesake hue once more. Na'tey tells me your home is never more lovely than now, when the rains have just passed and brought with them the first blooms of starflowers, which she assures me nearly rival the lilies of the Tor Leonne in the pure white of their petals. I only wish I might have seen them, and not war . . .
The letter was flattery, of course. Nothing outshone the lilies of the Tor Leonne. Even taken from the waters and half-wilted, they had given Diora comfort during her time as a prisoner in her father's harem. In their natural setting, with each drop of water set ablaze by the Lord's light, they were as beautiful in their own way as any dress Jevri el'Sol had sewn for her.
Diora walked the edge of the lake slowly, her footsteps shadowed by Tyran: Fiara and Andarro di'Corsarro, a mismatched pair. But Kiriel was elsewhere this morning--with Auralis, Diora thought, as part of their endless, circling game--and in any case took care to stay far from the waters of the lake when she could.
She stopped in the Pavilion of Restful Repose, where the late morning sun was shadowed by broad trees whose buds had only just begun to open to the warmth of spring. It was not the buds she stopped for, however, but the woman who knelt within the bower, gazing at the lake. Her sari was as fine as Diora's, celadon to match the budding trees and embroidered from hem to waist with a trellis-work of blue and silver threads, but her posture was a shade too rigid, her skin shockingly dark against the pale silk. The Serra Alina di'Lamberto would never rival Diora for the title of Flower of the Dominion; would never, Diora thought, have wished to.
But then, she would never have wished for her current notoriety, and she had little enough say in that.
There had been a distance between the two woman since they had met, though Diora strove to bridge it. Serena had taught her the importance of knowing every facet of one's husband, and the Serra Alina was as close as she might come to a harem mother of Valedan's. As close save for the mother of Valedan's birth, in any case, and while Diora did not object to Marlena's company, the woman was too lost in her own imaginings to have any observations of value to share.
Besides, her husband--unprecedentedly, impoliticly--valued the Serra Alina's advice, and Diora was beginning to understand that nothing her husband valued was without merit.
There were two cerdan at the steps of the pavilion, guarding the Serra Alina's privacy. Diora knelt, quite properly, before them, the stones of the path cold against her forehead as she waited for the cerdan's footsteps to pass away and return, for Alina's beckoning voice. When it came, cool but civil, Diora joined her in the pavilion.
"I have seen the lake in every season, and none are quite so beautiful as the spring," Diora said, when Alina made no move to go beyond greetings.
"It is a very fine cage," the Serra Alina agreed.
The words were sharp; the pain beneath them, sharper. Diora did not do anything so uncouth as to turn, or even flinch. She kept her eyes on the lake and let the words--and what they carried--flow through her. Ona Teresa would have advised her to ignore Alina's sally, to treat its bitterness as beneath her. To be the perfect Serra.
And she could be. She could sit silent, could ignore words, could ignore screams. But she had learned, in the past year, that she could also be something more.
"They are all cages," Diora said sweetly, her voice nothing but a soft and pleasant murmur to the cerdans' distant ears. "Every home and dwelling, every city and farm. Every duty." Even the Tor Arkosa was a cage of sorts, she thought, one Margret might leave but would be drawn back to again and again. "In the end, we must choose one. It matters only how we make it ours."
"So your claws were not clipped, after Russo." Alina's surface tone was calm, but Diora could hear, beneath it, the faint echo of surprise. "You spend so much time in the harem, it is sometimes difficult to remember you can do more than sing."
"Should I not?" Diora asked. And then, more softly, "There is business to attend to in the harem, as you well know."
Silence, then, except for the faint rustle of spring-green leaves in the morning breeze. "It has been many years since I dwelled within a harem." There was apology, there, if one knew how to look.
"Do you miss it?"
"No." Honesty, there, but also lie. "I miss . . . other things. But it is lonely, at times, as a woman alone in a world of men. The Tyr does not understand this." She offered no judgment, and Diora bowed her head, seeing no need to defend her husband. It was true.
"I was surprised when your brother allowed such a thing."
"To disallow it," the Serra Alina said wryly, "he would need to acknowledge the request. He respects the Tyr, in his own way. He cannot respect this. And so there is no word, yea or nay, from my brother, and I remain here."
"I am grateful," Diora said quietly. "I, and my husband. But would you wish otherwise?"
"I would wish," the Serra Alina said, after a long pause, "that my brother would speak to me. I do not wish to return to the harem of my childhood. I have spent too long in the North. But I wish its walls were not closed to me. Valedan was not the only child I helped raise. I would see my daughters, as well."
"Can you not tell your brother that?"
The Serra Alina shrugged, and if there was a sharpness in it there was grace as well. "Some things cannot be forgiven. I rode to war."
"So," said the Serra Diora, "did I."
Ona Teresa had been well-acquainted with the Serra Donna en'Lamberto. They had met often, in Amar, had traded letters when the Serra Teresa was elsewhere. Diora had been presented to Serra Donna perhaps twice as a child; she remembered the border of the woman's sari, resplendent with gold thread, because it had been level with her eyes. She did not remember her face, had not recognized it when they met again, briefly, at Valedan's corronation.
It was a tenuous connection. But all connections were, to begin with; all characters started with a single stroke.
While Teyla fed Na'diro, Diora knelt alone at the writing table. She did not see the vines that tangled about its surface, this time, only the blank page spread atop it. She lifted her brush, and each stroke fell clean and sure as she began to write.
A letter from the Serra Diora en'Leonne to the Serra Donna en'Lamberto
5th of Fabril, 428 AA
. . . Each day, more lilies bloom on the lake, and by the Festival of the Sun it will be covered from shore to shore. I know it is not your way to travel, but I hope, this one year, you may make an exception to see their beauty for yourself. Further, I have but little experience in the decoration of festivals, while with my aunt you have made Amar a marvel to be reckoned with year after year.
If you do make the journey, I wonder if perhaps your harem might travel with you. For it is time and past that I began choosing wives for the Tyr, and I have heard much of your daughters . . .
"Ar-un-ah," Teyla sounded out, laboring over the syllables of the Serra Nora en'Valente's letter. "That is my cousin," she whispered, and moved eagerly to the next set of characters, to see whether the news was good or ill.
Diora knelt by her side, making no sound but quiet encouragement, save for when Teyla fell into the silence of confusion. It was less often than she had feared. Teyla's hands were still unsteady with the brush, too used to rough work to adapt easily to a Serra's gentle arts, but her mind was quick, and she knew, already, more syllables than not.
As she read the letter, she paused now and again to brush fingers across the pressed blossoms that accompanied the parchment in the tube. Thin waxed paper protected their surface, while letting each line of every petal show through.
When she finished, she smiled shyly at Diora, and Diora was reminded, in a flash of feeling, of Deirdre. Deirdre, who had smiled just so, with her child at her feet.
Then Teyla stood, in her own strange, coltish mix of natural efficiency and newly learned grace, and the moment passed. Teyla was not Deirdre, would never be Deirdre, but Diora thought she might learn to love her, given time.
"Serra," Teyla said, "I will--may I take the flowers to Kiriel?" Kiriel, who frightened her. Kiriel, to whom she wished to do a kindness.
Diora admitted, in the most private part of her heart, where the Lord of Day could not see, that perhaps she loved Na'tey already.
"Of course, Na'tey. I will watch Na'diro."
That was how Diora came to be alone in the harem when Valedan came to her, or alone as she could ever be said to be, surrounded by serafs and cerdan and with her beloved child.
"A letter came for you," Valedan said, looking more boyish than she had seen him in weeks. The weight of the Dominion still rested on his shoulders, but his eyes were less shadowed, his steps light. He held the tube lightly in his hand, aware, perhaps a moment later than he should have been, that she could not take it.
"I welcome you as always, my husband, in whatever guise you come. But courier is a strange choice, for a Tyr'agar. It is merely a woman's words you carry."
"I do not think," Valedan said gravely, "that there is anything mere about your words, Serra."
Her words had bound a crown to the Sun Sword, had halted the slaughter in Essla, had saved her father's life. But that was her gift, her voice. Written words were different, subtler.
"And what of the words you carry?"
He blinked, once. "I don't know what the letter says. I only know it came from the Serra Celina en'Clemente, and it came escorted by a force of twenty archers sent to me by her husband, the Ser Alessandro, who hopes my armies can find a place for his men to be of whatever small use they may."
Subtler, but no less powerful.
"A generous tribute," Diora observed.
"Diora--" Valedan set the tube on the writing table, unopened. "You said, and Andarro said, that I could train no archers of my own."
"It would mark you," she agreed, "as a man of the North."
"But these men?"
"These men are of the South. Ser Alessandro en'Clemente," she added, "is a broad-minded man. Or so I observed when I traveled in his domain."
Valente closed his eyes a moment, opened them. For once, even Na'diro held no distraction for him. His gaze caught Diora's and held it.
"Thank you, Serra."
"They were only words," she murmured, and he laughed.
A letter from Teresa of Senniel to the Serra Diora en'Leonne
1st of Morel, 428 AA
. . . The Serra Donna en'Lamberto writes to me to tell me you have enlisted her aid in planning the Festival of the Sun. I must tell you in turn that while her sense of beauty and aesthetics are unmatched, and she can be trusted to bring your gardens to new heights of elegance, she lacks the understanding of numbers and time that is essential for preparing an event on such a scale. Fortunately, she is aware of the limits of her own abilities. The Northerners often send Bards South for the festival, and the Serra Donna knows one who she hopes may assist.
Yes, Na'dio, I am coming to the Festival. Your letters, I notice, come less frequently of late, and you call on my advice less often, but I hope in this one matter I may still have something to offer. More, I hope you have been studying the scores I have sent South. I would like to sing them together.