Azmera Berta, off balance at the tense interaction between the Amen-Enkhs, swiftly and awkwardly adorned Hasina with his token, a silver barrette subtly styled in the shape of a violin’s bow. That left Ozier.
The giant’s hand plunged into a pocket big enough to hide a loaf of bread, and emerged dripping, or so it appeared, with tears of bronze.
On each teardrop shape, Esker could discern a rune, one of two; hair-fine rectilinear patterns could also be seen, though likely only by a soldier’s eyes, and only from up close. Ozier brought his other hand up and the tangle of tears somehow became a chain, draped over the his hands with an aperture easily wide enough to admit her head. She did not have to tilt her head for him to adorn her, and so, after a moment to present the gift, he did.
Immediately a hum of sorts filled the tent—not a steady tone but an evolving harmony, moving apprehensively through a progression of tense chords like darting eyes. Fluid steel-grey stars the size of knucklebones sprang into being around Hasina’s head and shoulders, reflecting the soft light under the tent, moving like blowflies. As her eyes widened in comprehension, the stars lost their sharp geometry and gained colors, gold and green, and the sound slowed into a series of contemplative glissandi.
“The draugen Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives sends his regards,” Ozier said, not shouting but nonetheless, Esker could tell, loud enough to be heard at the very rear of the tent, and made rich by glamer.
The hum grew tense again; the stars dulled in color and sharpened in shape. “Fear not, dear bride,” Ozier said, the glamer no less dense in his voice. “I would not disburse his hoard if there were any possibility that he might pursue it. Alas for him, he is permanently indisposed.”
The grey stars turned into red motes, the hum into a steady questioning chord.
“But I’ve interrupted your wedding too much already,” said Ozier. “Please, proceed with the ceremony; we can talk more at the festivities.” With that, he sketched a deep bow, accentuated with the slouch in his hand, and withdrew to his seat, where he had left the alder limb and the woman who, Esker was becoming surer by the minute, must be the Chorister.
“And glad we all are to see Ozier Amen-Enkh back among us,” said the chorister, “though he might have chosen a better venue to announce his return. Interruptions or no, though, the time has come for the final adornment and the adjournment of these happy proceedings. Esker?”
From his own pocket, Esker took a fine silver chain, then looped it around Hasina’s neck. He failed and failed to connect the tiny clasp, his hands shaking—this was an informal ritual of every Jaidari wedding he’d attended, he reminded himself, the groom’s nervous fumbling—and he could see the stars around her head and shoulders go round, pulsing gently in shades of red and yellow, while the hum began to sound like laughter. But he closed his eyes and forced his hands to move slowly, and ultimately the clasp’s hook went through its loop, and when he stepped back, Hasina was marked as his wife.
He did not hear anything else the chorister said, only held her hands in his and kept his mouth firmly bent into a smile.
After the ceremony, the tent quickly transformed into a space for eating and dancing, and there was much of both—though Esker sat out much of the latter, having been absent at the age when he would have learned the traditional forms. Hasina, for her part, was pleased enough to dance with all comers, and her joy could be seen in the lights around her head and shoulders and heard in the hum that surrounded her. Esker was seated before the remnants of his dinner, absorbed in watching her dance with Reshef the grocer—but not so absorbed that his soldier’s eyes failed to notice Ozier moving up behind him.
“Been a while,” he said as Ozier sat down in Hasina’s seat.
“Not so long,” said Ozier, “in the scheme.”
They were silent for a bit. “I suppose you want me to ask you a question,” said Esker. “How you heard about the wedding, what it was like to slay a draugen, why you’ve brought the Chorister with you. Something like that?”
“So you recognized her,” Ozier chuckled. “Well, I suppose that explains how you heard. She keeps an eye on Metu ever since she met you. Hasn’t come around here to leave the place nothing but corpses and burnt timber, though, has she?”
“I suppose you persuaded her to do differently.”
“I couldn’t persuade her to put her left boot on before her right, if she felt she had a reason not to. But she spared Metu for just the reason I told you. She was bluffing. I suppose she’s enough strength to do for the town, at least if she caught it without us and Inber around, but no posse poking around her territory is enough to justify the enmity unto death of the Jaidari marshals, which is what she’d get for firing Metu.”
Esker nodded. “That’s good to hear. Anything else you want to tell me?”
“Anything you want to know.”
Esker gave Ozier a cool, measured look. “Fuck that, brother. You ran away, you came back. I don’t know the why of anything you do; you haven’t given me a place to start. And I’m not disposed to be a pretext for you to tell your big damn story—if you have a big damn story to tell, you can just tell it, and we’ll decide whether we want to keep listening. So why don’t you just say what you’re trying to get me to get you to say?”
“I think you’re going to be good at marriage,” Ozier said. “You’re starting to get that ring of authority. All right, you want to know what I want to tell you? I ran with the Chorister’s gang and learned the rudiments of slinging the [[ket]] rune, which is [[lightning]], since I know you don’t know. While I did that, I started a joint-venture with the Epseris gang, and we all bundled up and raided the lair of Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives under the ice in Ostn. In consequence of which success, I’ve got a store of eld Art that makes me fuck-you rich, a tiny fraction of which I’ve gifted your wife on the occasion of your nuptials. I figure, you’re such a damn clod with women, you need all the help you can get.” He paused a moment, weighing his next words. “Clod actually is what I’d call an understatement, only I’m trying to take this marriage of yours at face value. You really want to go with a woman?”
Esker closed his eyes and sank his head into one hand. “I don’t know, Ozier,” he said. “What does your friend Madeleine tell you?”
“Well, this is what I don’t get. She says the girls like my friend Mehur well enough—she knows exactly what happens when he comes, since they seem to run their mouth off about the whole proceedings whenever he visits. You want to know what that makes me think?”
“No,” said Esker, “only it beats guessing.”
“I think you’re trying to trick yourself into thinking women are men. I think that’s why you didn’t go to the clean girls two stops up the line—”
“Forget it, Ozier,” said Esker. “I was wrong. I wish you’d kept me guessing.”
“This is a real thing, then?” said Ozier. “You’re marrying this girl out of pure love and sex? You plan on plying your husband’s privilege, perhaps more often than you need to whelp?”
“I plan on not taking any more questions on the reality of my marriage,” said Esker. “The Eight and the whole of Metu village saw me take my wife. Three hours into the marriage, that’s all you need to know.”
There was more talk, and more dancing, and more wine, and at last, footsore and throatsore and more than a little unsteady on their feet, they fumbled with the key to the little house behind the sheriff’s office until it slipped in at last with a satisfying rasp. The motes around Hasina were gold and fluid, clustered in pairs and triads, every so often merging, splitting, de- and recoupling. The hum of the eld Art chain was expectant, impatient.
And then they were in the doorways. The house was small, a common room with a few chairs, a table and a stove, and a single bedroom beyond it, where both of them stumbled like pebbles rolling down a hill. It was dark, but the streetlight outside cast a dim light on the bed, scattered with wildflowers and sage, which filled the room with a sweet and earthy scent. [] He looked toward the bed, then toward her, uncertain; but she moved inside his arms, all the gracelessness of drink burned away, and her hands found the gaps in his clothing as swiftly as if she’d spotted and memorized them long before.
In the light, watching her hands flit through the forms of words, it was easy to forget the silence; in the dark, her hands otherwise occupied, it stifled him like a soaked blanket—even as more of his skin was touched by the open air, or by Hasina’s, his hands moving automatically to undress her, to communicate that all was well, to buy time. She was intent, which lent her movements the smoothness of confidence, but it was clear enough that this was not something she had done often or at all; there was a level of strangeness she would tolerate. But, inexperienced or not, she would have seen a steer and a bull, or a dog and a bitch; she would know he could not complete the act unless he were hard. And he was not. She was too small, too smooth, to be Ras, too sweet-smelling and soft-limbed to be one of Madeleine’s girls, and when she drew his head down and put her mouth awkwardly on his, his tongue reached for hers and found nothing.
She pulled her head back and looked at him with what his soldier’s eyes told him was concern. She was naked, now, but for Esker’s gift and Ozier’s; the shapes about her head were orchid-like, rose streaked with red or vice versa, the chord emanating from the chain exultant. Her moon-painted body was as perfect as only the reductions of art can be—flaws in proportion and blemishes of complexion hidden by the light and dark. As beautiful as a statue, as erotic as silent stone.
He lunged for her mouth and picked her up, grinding lips and penis against her as he bore her to the bed, hoping to kindle with velocity what he could not with contemplation, to make true lust from feigned. The stimulation made him half-erect, but the weight of her silence soon crushed even that half-response. He thought of what she might say, but he had no voice for her. She would not use the words of a Rook whore, nor the manner of speech; she could certainly not take Ras’ voice. He even tried the Chorister’s unnatural voice, but to no avail.
When she pulled away from him next, he saw that the pink-and-red orchids had turned to leaf-like shapes, green and blue. In their light, she signed. Too much to drink?
“I fear so,” Esker said.
In the morning, then, Hasina signed. Or tomorrow night. No need to exhaust ourselves now. We have our whole lives together, after all.
“Of course,” said Esker, a knot of something hard and black forming in his stomach.
Esker heard the thump on the door that night but paid it no mind. In the morning, though, the door was strangely heavy when he opened it. He went outside to see what had happened. Sunk into the door at about his stomach’s height was his old swordspear, runes winking at him from the blade and haft.