But the only tune that the fiddle would play
Was oh the wind and rain
The only tune that the fiddle would play
Was oh the dreadful wind and rain
When Telimezh was young, he used to sing with his sisters after dinner. His voice was still high, then, and his chin smooth; he never had the gift of song his sisters did, but he could carry the melody well enough. They ran harmony and a shivering descant over his bare tune, and made it a thing that near chilled the blood. They did it with beautiful songs about home and lovelorn poets’ tunes and even (when their mother wasn’t home) bawdy ballads that made him feel guilty and uncomfortable, but he liked the eerie ones best, the ones about ghosts and girls drowned near the mill and ones about the wind through Calestho’s harsh stones.
The wind outside is dreadful now, as it’s been all winter. It is early and Telimezh is shaving in the mirror. In their living quarters outside the door, Kiru is singing one of the wind songs. She is quiet and a little tuneless, and isn’t trying to impress him- in fact, Telimezh would be surprised if she gave thought to him at all. Kiru sings when she is thinking of her own things, and sometimes forgets there are others in the room.
They have their own rooms, with a small shared living space. Even Kiru’s gender could not fully part them from tradition, though Mer Aisava was careful to find them a place in the Alcethmeret with separate rooms, unlike the ones the First share. Telimezh wishes he could tell the secretary that it wouldn’t matter. Kiru’s got nothing he hasn’t seen before, and she will never carry temptation for him. But he cannot say, for then he would be forced to say far more. The best that could happen would be Aisava assuming he was marnis, and even that carries enough potential disgrace that Telimezh cannot risk it.
He wonders, peering into the mirror with his straight razor at his throat, how his sisters fare. They must all be married and with children by now, a fate he but narrowly dodged. He sighs and tries to dimiss them from his mind; nostalgia is all very well, but he can’t allow it to cloud his judgement enough to consider getting in contact with them. The child they’d known, they must think dead, or perhaps muddled in some worse fate. To find them again would only open old wounds.
Telimezh closes the door on Kiru’s absent-minded singing, though he can hear it faintly anyway. He strips his shirt off to wash the soap from his face, and takes the chance to rework the bindings on his chest. He’ll have few chances to fix them for the rest of the day, so he is careful to do it thoroughly. It is not much different as nohecharis as it was in the military, except that he might actually have more time to himself.
But he is in the public eye, he reminds himself, and if he laxes for a moment, if he considers himself safe and lets his guard and vigilant self-policing down, it will not be only himself punished for it. His Serenity will bear the brunt of his betrayal, and the scathing mockery from the court would, from all Telimezh has seen, be a worse shock to him than learning Telimezh’s secrets.
He has always lived spartanly; once he enlisted, he kept his head down and quietly excelled until he made officer, and rated his own quarters, if tiny ones. He was still young when the Untheileneise Guard took him for training (an honour, and one he lived through in terror it would be taken away), and it was not yet strange that his voice was high and his chin smooth. Most of the Guards his age sent the bulk of their salary home to their families; soon his went to a doctor, for her silence and the shellfish concoction that helped strip away his curves. The change was slow but a blessed, bizarre relief. He no longer only went through the motions of shaving, and his voice cracked and lowered. He graduated quickly; perhaps his tutors began to see him as a man, and not the boy he appeared.
It was utterly terrifying; good and needed and wondrous and carrying with it the ubiquitous certainty that someone would find out. He used only his given name, knowing that if he called himself Razhar that it could be checked; someone would know they had no son Telimezh. They must have all thought him a bastard; the factional ties of nobility that ran through the officers may have kept some from striking up friendship with him as a result, and he thought, It is as good a lie as any, and at least I’ve not got to explain it.
Sharing quarters with Dazhis Athmaza had been the first terrifying trial in a long time. He had feared having to keep his chest bound at all hours in the shared quarters, but Dazhis himself had requested a screen for their room. At the time, Telimezh was merely grateful; now he had to wonder what Dazhis had needed to hide. Did he worry he would speak his secrets while he dreamed? Did he sneak out at night to confer with traitors when Telimezh lay asleep?
It is Telimezh’s fault, of course, that Dazhis betrayed them, betrayed their Emperor. Nohecharei are paired and kept together; if nothing else they should have no chance to think of treason for the excellent example of loyalty their partner would display. Together in all places, over time there would be no secrets between them.
He had kept his own, and the cost had nearly been Edrehasivar’s life.
For hours after he woke, concussion rattling in his skull, he was certain that he, too, must perform the revethvoran. Certainly it was all he deserved. They would find out about him, for the revethvoris (he supposed, would they even call him revethvoro?) could have no secrets. He would die in disgrace and he would die a woman. Perhaps they would even get his family name, and send word to the Razhada of their daughter Telimo’s fate. Runaway, deviant, liar, traitor. Everything done, so quickly undone.
But the revethvoran was not for him, and once a doctor saw him and gave him what he needed to dull the pain in his skull, resignation was the obvious option. He could not stay, surely. He was complicit. He should have seen. Every word of oath that bound him would condemn him and his secret, his deviance, that kept him from the life’s service he had sworn.
His dedication now can not truly be explained. He woke the day after Dazhis’ death with a curious tranquility. That his Emperor should so clearly need him- want him- by his side… he was unable to ignore it or dismiss it. The Untheileneise Guard was not the Athmaz’are, their supply of candidates limited to those who shared the talent. There must be many soldiers who would die for their Emperor; he could be replaced with ease. But His Serenity all but begged him to stay, and after a point pretended to forget Telimezh had ever asked to leave. He did not deserve a fraction of the Emperor’s kindness and pity, but he could never have refused it.
He sighs, for his thoughts are darker than he’d prefer. Kiru knocks on the door, and he realizes she has stopped singing; how many minutes has he spent suspended in thought?
“Lieutenant,” she says, voice still warm, if muffled, “if you wish it, we may help you.”
He freezes, but Kiru continues gently, as if talking to a child or a man looking to leap into the Istandaärtha. “We hear it is not easy to bind comfortably, but we have some experience, if you wish our assistance.”
It is a shock that starts in his stomach and spreads. She knows He nearly vomits. Whom has she told? But he steadies himself and opens the door. He is a soldier, and not a coward, and he will face his doom when it comes and not hide from it. He does not bother to put his shirt back on; there is no point now. He opens the door to Kiru in her faded robes wearing only his trousers and bindings, the end hastily tucked in. Kiru looks… at least she looks mild, unsurprised. She meets his eyes and does not smile, ears carefully neutral.
“Will you permit us?” she asks, and Telimezh hesitates, but nods.
Kiru’s hands are efficient; doctor’s hands, he remembers. She stands just behind him and undoes the binding a ways, fixing it simply and quickly. “We had a friend once,” she says, still very gentle, “a cleric as we are, who bound as you do. She worked in dangerous places, where even a cleric might be assaulted if she walked alone at night, so she dressed as a man for safety’s sake. That is what she told us, though we always suspected she might bind anyway. She told us her ribs ached from it, and we worked to find a way that would hurt her less.”
And it is true; Kiru’s bindings loop a different way than the ones Telimezh usually applies, but the pressure he always feels on ribs and shoulders lightens as she works. She pins the bandage expertly, as if she had only wrapped a sprained ankle. Telimezh tries to think of what to say, and manages only to croak, “There are others?”
Kiru does not move from his back. “Tell me if you wish me to stop,” she says, and Telimezh feels her hands, warm, on on his shoulders. Her fingers begin digging into the wire-tight muscles, and warmth spreads where she touches. It is unnaturally quick and uniform, Telimezh thinks- she is using some secret of mazeise or divine origin he knows not. She drops her personal formality as she goes. “And yes. I’ve seen a few. Prostitutes, often,” she says, nearly apologetic, “but not always. There are always those who live far from home. Difficult life. Veranei, I’ve heard them called.”
Telimezh mouths the term, stunned.
“So you’d be veranis, if I wanted to be polite about it,” Kiru continues. Her use of the masculine is gratifying. “Think once the term gets out more, there’ll be some debate over which side’s which. At least, by decent folk. There, how does that feel?”
Telimezh blinks, clearing his head of the confusing swell of information, to find his shoulders loose and comfortable for the first time in... well, he cannot remember. He feels as though he can breathe. “Well, our th- my thanks, Kiru.” He wants to stop there, but he forces himself to continue. “You had no need to… to comfort me as you have. I am in your debt.”
Kiru moves around to sit in the living space, and Telimezh follows her. “Nonsense,” she says, when she settles. She switches to the intimate, and it feels as though the walls close in to shroud them. “Thou’rt my partner,” she says, “and even if it were not the right thing to do, I’d do well to protect thee. It’s not likely I’ll find someone who’ll understand and accept me so swiftly as thou hast. What if I revealed thee, only to get another Beshelar in thy place?” Her words are laced with wry humour. Though Telimezh idolizes Lieutenant Beshelar, he cannot help but think of the atmosphere in the small apartment if the man had been forced to live with a mazo, even a celibate one.
He nods. It is difficult to speak. “My thanks, all the same.”
Kiru smiles and continues, brusque and businesslike. “Now, thou must get me the recipe for whatever forsaken tincture thou takest, and I’ll do the mixing of it for thee. I’ll not charge thee for the work, nor to keep my mouth shut, and wilt have some extra coin at the end of the day.” She has a few other suggestions, too, down to the kind of fabric Telimezh uses to bind with, and he feels rather as though the gods have interceded directly.
There is one more thing, though. “I think His Serenity should be told,” Kiru says as gently as she can, though the idea strikes fear into Telimezh’s heart all the same. “I think he’d accept thee, and something tells me he’d tell no-one. Hast no need to, but thou mayest wish to, someday. Thy secret will have less power to harm thee, should His Serenity already know and consent to thy service. Consider it, Lieutenant,” she finishes.
And that is it, for Kiru leaves in her abrupt way and begins cooking a few yams before their shifts (more than she’d eat alone, Telimezh notes), and returns to her singing as if she’d nothing more on her mind. The wind howls past their window, and Telimezh goes to get his uniform laid out, but he finds himself singing along under his breath. His voice is low and hoarse and he has not used it like this in many years, but he remembers the harmony well enough, and he lays it over Kiru’s thoughtless melody.
It has none of the chill purity of his sisters’ version, but Telimezh thinks he’d rather listen to this anyhow. At least it blocks out the godsforsaken wind.