Zinahs, Book 3
Excitement pulsed through the Great City. In a land that had known great sorrow and little joy, the latest summons from the Palace was a cause for celebration. People stopped to talk in the streets and no shopping transaction could be completed without a word on the subject.
The men in the city, young or old, were discussing the subject, but the women, the women. The light of possibility, of imagination and longing, was alight in every young girl’s eye, for what girl could not help but be fascinated by the prospect of winning the hand of a noble lord?
Several major crossroads boasted copies of the summons. The magnificent parchments with their swirled letters were tacked to boards and propped up near the edge of the street, so as to be out of the way. But their placement did nothing to stop the interruption of traffic, for at each was a perpetual group of ten to fifteen young girls, gathered and giggling.
Literacy was low among the people, so most crossroads were also staffed by a crier. These brave souls had been the first to pour this startling news into the city, and now they bore the brunt of the questions and speculation. Most criers returned to their homes at night with their ears ringing and voices hoarse.
There was one crier, however, who had an easier time. He staffed the lonely proclamation on the road that wound up into the southern foothills. There were no crossroads here, only a shallow shoulder to the dirt road.
The road was a busy one, for much of the city’s farm goods, from corn to cotton, traveled this way. The hardworking farmers each stopped, curiosity forcing them to pause until the crier had recited his summons. If the party was only men they would blink a few times, maybe nod, and continue on their way home, where they would repeat what they’d heard to eager wives and daughters.
If a girl or young woman accompanied the party the crier would be sure to look at her, to let her know the summons applied to all, even a dirt speckled farmer’s daughter. Their cries of delight and ten thousand questions eased the boredom of the crier’s day. When these young women walked away, they were smiling. Hope shone in their eyes as brightly as in those of the girls of the valley floor.
There was one girl who did not smile.
She walked behind a farmer’s cart. The man and boy who walked beside the horse’s head stopped at the crier, but the girl stayed back. She had a thin shawl draped over her head, shielding it from the sun, but the sleeves of her dress were pulled up and tied at the shoulder, revealing brown, well-muscled arms.
“What be this?” the farmer asked, hand stroking the horse’s neck. His son, their family resemblance clear, peered at the summons.
“My good sir,” the crier began, “their majesties have issued a summons, and posted it here so that all the people of the Great City may hear and know it.”
“A summons?” the farmer said, distrust thick in his voice. “What do they think they can take from us?”
The crier blinked in astonishment. The King and Queen had come into power after overthrowing the old King, who had ruled the land with a harsh hand. The rise of the former Priestess and Prima Zinah, each beloved by the people in their own right, to the rank of King and Queen had been a cause for celebration, not resentment.
“They, uh, well,” the crier stumbled. He looked away from the farmer, to the girl. She immediately dropped her head, but not before he saw large green eyes peering out from the shadow of the shawl.
Gathering himself, the crier recited the summons.
Hail and Summons
A joyous new era has descended upon the Great City. King Tamlohn and Queen Cryessa bid all citizens of the Great City heed this summons.
The High Lord Moregon, Minister of Agriculture, former Zinah, beloved of their Majesties and the Goddess, seeks a wife. All eligible maidens and their families are invited to the Palace on the night of the next full moon for a grand ball and feast. Those chosen to continue their bid for Lord Moregon’s heart will be invited to remain at the Palace.
All are welcome.
The crier looked expectantly at the girl. Her head remained bowed.
He looked to the farmer.
“A ball?” the man asked.
“Yes, all are invited. No formal dress is required if that is your concern.”
The farmer snorted. “Don’t have fancy dress. They should know that if they want to go inviting everyone.”
“Er, their majesties are aware of it. That is why there is no formal dress required.”
The farmer snorted again. Awkward silence descended for a moment. The crier wished they would leave—they were quite the most unpleasant people he’d encountered.
“A feast, you say?” the farmer asked.
“Yes, there will be a grand feast.”
“And anyone with a daughter can come?”
“Does it matter if the chit’s ugly?”
The crier’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. He looked to the girl. Her head had dropped even lower, and her shoulders were now hunched forward.
“The, uh, the Lord Moregon seeks a bride based on more than physical beauty.”
“But as long as you bring the girl, you can come to the feast.”
The farmer nodded and turned away. He clicked his tongue at his horse, and the beast started forward. The boy, who’d been silent, waited a few moments before he started peppering his father with questions. They were close enough that the crier heard the high squeak of the boy’s excited voice.
“Papa, are we going to the feast? Can I go? When is it? Can I ride the horse? Can Mama come?”
The girl asked not a single question. Nor did she smile.
She’d never seen so many people. They filled the grounds of the Palace, dancing, laughing, talking. Aketa wondered how there could be any air left in the world at the rate these people were consuming it.
Colors ebbed and swirled through the space, trailing the noise. There were bright banners depicting the far reaches of the Land Between the Seas: a snowy mountaintop, a yellow desert, the bright blue of ocean, hanging from the Palace walls.
The Palace servants were draped in summer-sky blue, with a swirled pattern over the chest. The guests sparkled with as many fine colors as adorned the Palace. Girls with hair from black to pale gold were robed in scarlet and aubergine, evergreen and cobalt.
She stood amid them, lost and alone in a brown dress.
“Kea, Kea, come here.” Her little brother’s voice snapped Aketa from her growing panic. He waved a hand at her. At ten summers he already treated her with impatient contempt.
She nodded in reply and followed him. He led her through the crowd to a space near the wall. There were fewer people here, as most were congregated around the doors or in the center of the courtyard. There were a few other family groups standing away from the crush, mostly farmers, who looked as overwhelmed as Aketa felt.
“So many people,” Dreya, her mother, said, surveying the crowd. Legan, the youngest of them, and the one who’d come to find Aketa, had moved to their mother’s side. She placed her hand on his head, stroking his smooth brown hair.
“What did you find out?” Markum, Aketa’s father, demanded. “When will the feast begin?”
Aketa shook her head. They’d sent her into the crowd seeking information, but Aketa had been so overwhelmed she hadn’t discovered anything.
“Useless,” her father muttered.
Aketa turned away, accustomed, if not immune, to his insults.
Her other brothers, Kelum and Partus, were between herself and Legan in age. They were both tall, Kelum as tall as she. Their glossy brown hair hung around their ears, curled tendrils falling in front of green eyes.
At eighteen and fifteen they were old enough to be considered men, and the way their eyes were moving over the crowd displayed their concerns with this party were those of men. They were as sophisticated as any of the boys from the south foothill farms, but Aketa doubted their charms would compare to the boys from the city.
Two girls in green walked by, one looking at Kelum from under her lashes. Kelum pushed away from the wall, elbowed Partus, and slapped his father on the back. “Papa, we will meet you back here, after the feast.”
“Be sure you get some food,” Markum warned.
Partus rolled his eyes. “There is more here to think on than food, Papa.”
“Free food and drink is the only thing that would make this trip worth the bother.”
“Maybe Aketa will catch the eye of Lord Moregon,” Kelum said, grinning.
Markum burst out laughing, slapping his thigh with his hand. Kelum and Partus took the opportunity to slip away. Kelum shot a look at Aketa over his shoulder, and it might have been an apology. But an apology would be pointless. Deriding Aketa came as naturally to this family as breathing, and was always a sure-fire way to distract their father.
“It is pointless for them to go chasing girls,” Dreya worried. “These girls all hope to win the hand of Lord Moregon; they want no piece of our boys.”
Markum grunted in agreement, his eyes scanning the crowd for a hint of the promised feast.
“Well, then again there is only one of the Lord, and many girls. Perhaps they will find lively conversation and some dance,” her mother went on.
I think they should watch themselves. They might be the most eligible boys in the foothills, but they are nothing and no one to these girls. But they are kind and fun to speak with, so they will find friendly company.
Aketa answered her mother’s queries in her mind, participating in the conversation but only in her own head. She’d long ago learned that her words were not welcome.
Nearly as lonely standing among family as she had been standing among strangers, Aketa turned her attention to the Palace. This was the closest she’d ever been to the massive fortress, and it was as imposing as she’d imagined it would be. There seemed to be millions of different towers, roped and snaked by walkways and pierced by thin-slitted windows.
A figured appeared on a narrow walkway above the great double doors into the Palace. Aketa tilted her head back to look at the figure, one hand on her head to keep the scarf she’d draped over her hair from falling back. His blond hair shone in the light of the setting sun, a true pure gold, like fully ripe wheat.
He leaned forward, hands braced on stone, and his arms were thick and solid. A redheaded man and a blonde woman appeared on either side of him.
* * * *
“L-look at all them,” Moregon stammered.
King Tamlohn smothered a laugh and Queen Cryessa stepped on his toes, laying her hand on Moregon’s shoulder.
“It is a wonderful turn out, Moregon, more than we could hope for.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“You can’t change your mind,” Cryessa said patiently.
“I can’t?” he said, swallowing audibly.
“Don’t be afraid, brother,” Tamlohn said, stepping to the half-wall to look at the sea of people below, “only one in five is a maid, by my count. The rest are families come to celebrate.”
“And eat,” Rohaj said cynically, appearing beside them.
“All these people will be gone tomorrow,” Cryessa soothed, “and only a few of the women will remain.”
“And then you’ll marry one.” Rohaj said.
Moregon nearly passed out.
“You are not helping,” Cryessa hissed at Rohaj as Tamlohn slung Moregon’s arm over his shoulders.
The little party turned into the Palace. The King propped Moregon on a bench and moved away, leaving Moregon with elbows braced on knees, head in his hands.
What was he doing?
Moregon had asked himself the question a thousand times over, but no answer ever came. His few protests had been met with well thought-out counter arguments, and he’d allowed himself to be carried along in this insane plan. Now the day was here, now there were all these people down there, waiting for him. He wished he’d protested more fervently.
But he could not go on the way he was. The kingdom was moving on, growing, under the reign of Tamlohn and Cryessa. He alone seemed unable to give up pieces of his old life. He looked to the King and Queen, both dearer to him then family of birth, and vowed that he would go through with this mad scheme, if only for them.
Sesah appeared beside Moregon, melting out of the shadows. Moregon was already jumpy, and on pure reflex he leapt up, grabbed Sesah by the throat and pinned him against the wall, the shorter man’s feet dangling.
Sesah dug his fingers into a pressure point in Moregon’s wrist, forcing his fingers open. Moregon yelped, dropping Sesah to his feet, and shook out his arm. Sesah coughed and rubbed his throat.
“Sorry,” Moregon mumbled.
Sesah regarded him with black eyes. “Do not kill any of the girls.”
“Uh, no, no, that would be bad,” Moregon agreed.
Sesah moved away, and Moregon sank down onto the bench. It was just as well Anleeh, the self-appointed dresser of their little band, had confiscated all his weapons, declaring they didn’t go with his outfit.
Moregon was dressed for the occasion in fitted brown pants worn tucked in to knee-high, ornamented boots. He wore a shirt of midnight blue velvet with long sleeves and a short standing collar. A vest, made of the same brown and black leather as his pants and boots, covered his chest and stomach. It fastened on the left side, and the upper section fell back, revealing the silk lining. The fastenings were polished brass in the shape of leaves.
Moregon personally thought he looked ridiculous, but both Cryessa, and Anleeh’s beloved, Siara, had made approving noises when he emerged from his chamber.
Cryessa slipped her arm through his, smiling up at him. “They are about to serve the feast.”
“Must I eat out there, in front of all of them?”
“That is the point of this.”
“Nae,” Tamlohn said, coming up to them. “Think a moment agaraha, the point is that Moregon see them.” He turned to Moregon. “If you throw a cloak on no one will know you. They will settle once there is food to eat.”
“I would like that,” Moregon said.
“Brilliant idea, beloved,” Cryessa said, smiling at her husband. “We will wait until the food is out, then we will go out and eat among them. Anleeh, find Moregon a cloak of no distinction. Sesah, please let the staff know there is no need to reserve a table for us.”
The room mobilized, each person off to fulfill their duty, secure in their place in this new world.
Moregon was left standing alone, without place.
“Here it comes! The food!” Legan shouted.
Teams of servants carried long tables out into the crowd. Each table was laden with bread, cheese, and two types of meat. They pushed through the people, setting the tables down and then retreating. Tentative stillness hung over the crowd for a moment, no one willing to be the first to pounce.
No one, save her father. Markum grabbed his wife by the hand and walked right up to the closest table. He riffled through a basket of bread, pulled out the biggest loaf, and ripped it in half down the middle, handing one half to Dreya. He started loading his bread up with food.
Other people stepped towards the tables, and soon there was a crush around each. They retreated to spots on the hard-packed dirt of the Palace grounds, sitting in family clusters.
Dreya and Markum sat with their backs against the wall, Legan seated cross-legged before them, chattering non-stop despite his mouthful of food. Aketa waited for the furor around the tables to die down, which took long enough that her stomach was rumbling and her mouthwatering from the ubiquitous scent of roasted meat.
Pulling her scarf forward so it cast a deep shadow over her face, Aketa tucked the ends firmly into the bodice of her dress, covering flesh that would otherwise be exposed.
There was no bread left, and only the lean cuts of meat, all the fat and gristle having been snatched up. But there were bowls of boiled potatoes and some cheese rind left, so she piled what she could into the rind.
She would not be welcome with her family, but they were the only people she knew in this sea of humanity. Aketa took a seat on a slightly muddy bit of ground not far from them, the only place she could find. She grimaced as mud soaked into her skirt, but soon forgot the discomfort with the ease of long practice. Munching contently on small bits of meat she ripped up with her fingers, Aketa let her mind wander. She thought about the fields, wondered how much longer it would take for the grain to fully ripen. It had already been threshed by this time last year, and she puzzled on the why of that, comparing this year with last in her mind, looking for the thing which set them apart.
Sheltered in her thoughts Aketa felt no loneliness, no pain. She was as at home here, amid the mass of people, as she was alone in the fields. It was a lonely home, without walls or hearth, but it was a home of her own.
She finished her meat and began breaking chunks off the potatoes, popping the pieces in her mouth and licking her fingers. Her idle gaze was moving over the crowd, looking without seeing, until he walked towards her.
He towered above the others, surely a least a head taller than herself. Draped in rough cloak that did nothing to disguise the breadth of his shoulders, he walked with calm steps. He was big and strong, with a handsome face and blue, blue eyes.
Drawn to him, Aketa made to rise. As she pushed herself up her foot slipped in the mud. She fell hard to one knee and hand, the scarf falling from her head to cowl around her neck.
Warm hands cupped her waist. “Are you hurt?”
His voice was a low rumble, thick and rich as loamy earth.
No, I am fine. My name is Aketa, I live in the Southern Foothills. What is your name? You are very tall, and strong. Are you a farmer too?
Aketa shook her head.
“Let me help you stand.” The hands at her waist tightened, and then she was standing. He’d lifted her easily, setting her on her feet. Aketa quickly ducked her head in a deep bow, turning it to the side so her face was hidden. His hands fell away from her waist.
No, don’t let go. Would you like to sit with me?
“Are you hurt?” he asked again.
Aketa shook her head.
“Ah, well,” he stepped away.
“Oh wait, your hand,” he said.
Aketa looked down to see that her hand was dripping with mud.
He lifted her dirty hand and began cleaning it with the corner of his cloak. “There is wash water, if you want it. Go to the kitchens and they will get you water and a cloth to clean with.”
Aketa looked down at his big hand cradling hers. His was dark from the sun, much as hers was, and there were calluses on his fingertips to match hers. Surely he was a farmer, same as she.
When her hand was freed of the worst of the mud he let her go, and her hand fell to her side like a weight.
“Are you certain you are not hurt?” he asked.
No, I am fine, but I would not refuse your company.
“Would you like me to escort you to your family?”
For a brief moment Aketa considered letting him. Perhaps the escort of this man would, if only for a moment, make her worth something in her father’s eyes. But she’d known the company of a boy before, and it had ended with her the fool.
She shook her head. Silence stretched between them.
“Er,” the discomfort was clear in his voice.
Aketa finger’s trembled with anxiety. Why didn’t she just say something, anything?
“I bid you good night.”
Aketa stared at the hem of his mud-stained cloak as he turned away.
Wait, come back, I’m sorry! I did not mean to cause you discomfort, or to pain you, but there is no one to talk to and I forgot the way. Plus you are a man, and handsome, and that makes you dangerous, so dangerous. Do not think me overbold, but when I lie in the fields and gaze at the stars and imagine what it is to not be alone I imagine a man tall and fine of face, with strong arms, holding me. I imagine a man like you and how I wish, oh how I wish, I had the courage to say it.
The words tumbled and rolled in her mind, a mess of emotion more than clear thoughts. But still she said nothing.
Aketa looked up, prepared to see the back of his head as he walked away.
Instead she looked into a pair of sky blue eyes. He looked at her, looked into her eyes, and was the first person to do so in years.
She turned, heart beating so fast she could hear the rush of blood in her ears. She fumbled with her scarf, pulling it into place with shaking fingers, as she skittered away, terrified of what he might have seen.
Aketa wound between the seated people, breath growing harsh as tears knotted deep in her chest. She did not cry, but the tears were there, pressing against her throat and burning her lungs.
When she reached the outbuildings of the Palace, she followed her nose to the kitchen. Holding out her dirty hand in explanation, Aketa waited near the door as a kitchen maid fetched her a wet cloth.
She was foolish. Bitter experience should have taught her to keep all people away. Somehow she had not learned, had not been hurt enough by her past, to completely murder the longing for a man’s arms around her. She’d known that once. Known what it was to smell a man’s skin, to feel his arms around her, strong and sure, holding her close.
Known what it was to anticipate each day, look forward to a future.
She’d known love, but it had been an illusion.
Hating herself for being so weak as to continue to desire something she would never have, Aketa cleaned off her hand and swiped at her skirt. Luckily the already drying mud barely showed against the fabric, which itself had once been a wooly-white, but was now brown with use.
After handing the cloth back with a nod of thanks, she made her way to her family. She’d held no great desire to attend this feast, having barely thought on the summons once they’d heard the crier’s words, but now her ambiguity was gone. She wanted to leave. She did not want to be in this place anymore, knowing there was blue-eyed man here who sparked her desire.
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