Fire and Gold
by Sarah Ann Watts
|part 1 of 3|
The pack of Husks was close, gaining on me and I was tiring fast. I ran through the snow, slipping on ice until a root clutched at my foot and I fell sprawling. I pulled myself to my feet, fighting for breath, but it was too late. The lead husk leapt for my throat, baring metal jaws.
I pulled the sword from my stick, threw the stick and yelled, “Fetch!”
As he bounded in pursuit, I sliced off his mate’s head. The creature fell, exposing its mechanism, cogs still whirring even as the blood slowed to a trickle and the light in its eyes went out. I’d be lucky if there were only two. The scent of blood on the trampled snow would bring more. I set my back to the nearest tree, determined to give a good account of myself.
There were eyes all around me, gleaming in the half-light over the snow. High above, the aurora borealis blazed in rainbow hues, stage-lighting my death. It was almost pretty, but I was shivering now, cold and afraid. Not a very glorious end, and I wished that I didn’t have to face the Husks alone.
I should have been grateful to my rescuer. Daniil arrived in a swirl of hooves and swept me up into his saddle with scant ceremony. As if I were some helpless girl incapable of defending herself.
The Husks didn’t give up. They chased us, dogs after bones, but already the clockwork was winding down. It didn’t take long to outrun them and reach the shelter of the town. The settlement had grown in recent years and become a thriving community that existed to serve the king’s palais.
Daniil drew rein at the Fleur de Lys Inn where servants scurried to attend him. I soon learned that he was now styling himself ‘Count’. ‘His lordship’ had taken over the entire accommodation for his party and the escort of imperial dragoons who accompanied him.
‘I never thought to see you again,’ I said.
Words he could take as he chose. The last time I saw him I tried to kill him. He grinned and I wasn’t sure if he would hold that against me or not. Whether I wanted to see him again or occasionally saw his face in my dreams is a secret I don’t mean to share.
Daniil had a secret of his own. It was more than fortuitous when he suddenly appeared in the forest wastes on the edge of this vassal kingdom. With the Husks closing in for a feast, I’d been more than happy to see him. I wondered what new twist in our uncle’s schemes had brought him from the Ancient Empress’ court. The last I heard, he was high in favour and deep in Her Majesty’s confidence.
Daniil could always read my thoughts and he smiled. ‘You used to do better than this, Akil. Ask me the right questions.’
‘You still serve your mistress?’
In answer he lifted his hand and the light glinted on a magnificent emerald ring. ‘She has graciously allowed me leave to visit my family. I think she has a new favourite.’ He yawned. ‘In truth I could do with the respite.’
‘She gave you that?’
‘It’s a farewell gift. She is nothing if not generous.’
‘You must have pleased her well.’ Unnecessary, but the thought of him with the Ancient Empress made my flesh crawl.
‘Is “Dear Uncle” Spyridon still pulling your strings, Akil?’
‘Does the Empress wind your heart, Daniil?’
He smiled. ‘My clockwork heart hasn’t failed me yet. Your warm heart is too sentimental, Akil. With this trinket I can buy my freedom. It should be enough.’ He looked at me then, troubled, and if we hadn’t been rivals I might have comforted him.
‘Who can tell?’
In truth neither of us knew what price Spyridon, who had bought us as children, set on our freedom. Part of his ‘protection’ was never letting us know how accounts stood between us. With the emerald, Daniil was ahead in the game. I felt a shiver of fear, not knowing what I might have to do to level the score again.
He nodded. ‘Our “uncle” has a new assignment for us. Tomorrow, my sweet Akilina, you make your debut at court.’
* * *
The next evening, dressed and perfumed and miserable, I risked my virtue and my life in yet another divertissement.
Fireworks lit up the sky and cast pools of colour on the snow. We took our place in the queue of carriages and waited for our turn to approach the stair and enter the king’s palais.
My ‘uncle’s’ Hephaestian steam carriage always excited comment, gleaming varnish and paint on the outside and luxury and comfort within. People raised languid eyebrows at the team of matched greys that accompanied it, thinking Spyridon feared it might break down. The steam kept it beautifully warm inside.
The coachman, Cedalion, sat on the box, through he held no reins. His furnace burned bright within his brass chest, powering the steam that drove us forward through the snow. There was a whiff of oil about him and his shuttered eyes glowed, revealing slits of flame.
Cedalion had been in the family for generations. Legend told that he was one of us and that was why Spyridon restored him. He met a grisly fate after the ‘shooting accident’ that cleared the way for the Ancient Empress’ accession.
In truth my uncle liked to drive himself. The wider symbolism of the strings he used to control his automated coachman was not lost upon me. The groom, Taras, however was all too real. A descendant of the original coachman, how he felt was never clear. Since he was a serf, no one would ask him, though he’d been permitted to keep his tongue.
I was dressed in satin and frills, mercifully hidden beneath a cloak of sable. Spyridon had taken the family jewels out of the vault, and my powdered hair was piled high and dusted with diamonds. So much glitter, so little gold, but that was always the way with us. To wear a king’s ransom even as we sought to earn it and redeem ourselves.
Taras handed me down and I laid my hand on my uncle’s arm. So I played my role as a nobly born and delicately reared maiden, feeling the dagger between my bodice and my skin, sheathed in silk. There was another in the top of my stocking, and a vial of poison nestled where it would do most good. My reflection sparkled from the looking-glasses as we joined the throng of courtiers, waiting to pay our court to King Milan.
‘Like the moon on the snow.’ Or so some overbred and overdressed noble ‘poet’ was seeking to whisper in my ear. My hands were gloved in kid; I gripped my fan so hard the delicate ivory sticks were close to breaking.
The crush on the stairs was immense: courtiers treading on jewelled heels in their haste to greet the young king. This was his first reception, following the death of his father.
The period of mourning had been somewhat abridged. The new king had little love for his father, as all knew. After months banished to chill estates, society was out in force, all looking for confirmation of past favours or a place in the new regime. Part of me felt sick; and part, a thrill of excitement. It was a night on which histories and fortunes could be lost on the turn of a card.
Heat was rising on the staircase. Already some with over-tightened stays were faint, and the air was live with malice and casual chat. Each dignitary, conscious of sweating peers penned like cattle on the stairs, made his momentary audience with the monarch last as long as he could.
Milan lounged carelessly in his father’s throne. Some artist with an eye for theatre had placed the throne under the dome in the gallery where he commanded the scene. The young courtiers around him were drinking wine chilled in a bucket full of snow, faces delicately flushed and painted like my own.
I was furious that Spyridon had made me dress as a girl. I couldn’t tell what purpose he thought it might serve, unless he didn’t want the king to notice me. I saw that Daniil had lost no time in attaching himself to the royal circle and how his eyes lingered on the ruby the King wore at his throat.
A couple of paces ahead of us a bejewelled matron stood in our way. On the crest of her pomaded curls she wore a tiny steam ship that emitted a thin plume of smoke. I swear I saw things moving in her hair. I prefer a sharp blade and the comfort of a swift poison but there are other devices more deadly. There was something shifting there beneath the surface, the hint of a metal maw opening and tiny pincer-like teeth. She caught her breath and surged forward, while the king gazed into the dilated pupils of his favourite and smiled, unseeing.
My uncle, ever a gentleman of resource, darted to her side. As the steamship belched out flame, he snatched up a handful of snow from the bucket and quenched the fire. The matron stood dripping, make-up sliding down her face, exposing the ruin beneath. She was muttering, clearly distressed, buffeted by a chorus of laughter from the assembly.
I realised who she was: the old king’s mistress, Countess Taisiya. He had expired in her arms, worn out by the cares of state, so ribald rumour said. Had she really meant to harm the new king, or was that my imagination?
Her wig was scorched, cap and greying strands showing through the manufactured curls. She was shaking. My uncle, in a magnificent gesture, swept my sable cloak from me and threw it around her shoulders.
Before the old king’s death her rooms had been thronged with these same courtiers currying favour, begging a word. Now they trod on her train, pushed past her, and she was worse than invisible. I wondered why she was here.
Having an eye for such things, I noted a torn flounce that had been carefully stitched. I guessed that now that her position was gone, she had lost her income and her credit with her dressmaker. I imagined she was desperate to make her peace with the new monarch, or felt she had nothing to lose.
The whispers rose around me, few caring if she heard. I wondered why the King made her endure this humiliation on the stairs, why he commanded her public appearance at court. She was crimson with anger. My uncle kissed her hand, gallantly according her the status she had lost. He led her forward and she sank in a deep curtsey at the young king’s feet.
Spyridon did nothing without a motive. I suspected he was looking to the future, not the past. Was he calculating how generous Milan might be if he took an embarrassment off his hands?
The King barely looked up from his cards but nodded once and gestured to a beautiful youth at his side. He handed a scroll and a bag that clinked with coin. My uncle took it for her, as if he was her serf and then he gave her his arm and said,
‘Madame, might I commend my niece, Akilina, to your kindness?’
Countess Taisiya smiled. Recovering her poise, she took me by the hand to present me to the king. I did little but remember past instruction. Curtsey to the floor, do not rise until the King acknowledges, kick the train out of the way and walk backwards, three careful steps.
Only then could I risk a glance under lowered lashes at His Majesty. He favoured me with an abstracted smile, his attention focussed on the coterie that surrounded him. I would rather have kicked him somewhere where it would hurt, an unladylike thought to be sure.
As Milan waved one graceful hand, permitting me to raise my eyes from the floor, I glanced again at the jewel he wore at his collar, a heart of cluster rubies like grapes. This then was the prize we played for. Not that I had any idea how I might lay hands upon it, but I was already thinking about it.
The presentation ordeal was over. We could move with the favoured throng into the gallery where there was a little more air. Thankfully, servants moved among us carrying drinks. I took a glass of lemonade and tried to pretend I liked it while my new chaperone frowned.
Spyridon was talking earnestly to her and I saw her murmur some entreaty and his swift reassurance. Disgrace is catching at court. No one else wanted to be seen near the old king’s abandoned mistress. We were suddenly out of the crowd and standing very much on our own.
It seemed to me my uncle had made a mistake in befriending Countess Taisiya. It was unlike him to attach allegiance to a doubtful star but in this, as in so much else, I underestimated him.
Spyridon smiled as if well pleased with his company. He drew one of his mechanical contrivances from his pocket and lit a cigar. Shocked eyes followed him as he bowed to me and the Countess.
Just then the King raised his hand and beckoned him over. Instantly the crowd closed in. It was almost comical how swiftly there was a fashionable circle centred on him.
Spyridon walked over to the king, who actually rose to greet him. My uncle offered him a cigar and lit it for him, handing over the device with a flourish. King Milan smiled and a chair was placed for my uncle. I felt shame that ever I had doubted him.
Now Daniil stood behind his chair and he turned to him and said, ‘Tell Cedalion, the carriage, in an hour.’
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Ann Watts