Dejanira’s banquets were always fatal, and this made Dejanira popular.
The lords and ladies who had befriended her father, who had gone with him on hunts for excitement, had become cloy with Spectacle and Scandal. They were exhausted in their souls by the flaccidness of Thrill—faces rigid, loins gone cold, hearts stirring to beat perhaps once a fortnight.
But these same nobles, thin-boned and cruel-eyed, crossed leagues on the backs of their slaves to guest with Dejanira. For Dejanira offered up their very lives for amusement, and she did amuse magnificently.
She hosted her first doom-elegance on the spring anniversary of her father’s death, the theme one of wilt and denudation. The surprise of the evening came in the form of naked rose stems entwined among the decorations. The thorns were poisoned, and those who went touching and who were pricked and who suffered from weak constitutions died. The rest were left in awe at the quickening in their breasts.
The rumors ran and the clangor climbed, and after a torrent of appeals Dejanira held her second event some months after the first. The ballroom this time was dominated by a platform in its center, upon which posed a bare-chested man of uncertain race. Stretched before him was a long stone table crowded to one side with knives of emaciated edge, to the other with mounds of a violet fish. The scent of brine drifted across the hall as Dejanira introduced the evening’s sole repast: kanket mumai, netted from the waters of arcane shores, death to the diner if not cut with meticulous care.
As the bare-chested stranger set to the fish with swift hands, a train of laced virgins entered the hall from a north-facing door and kissed him upon his body relentlessly. For as long as he worked the maidens engaged their seduction, until he cried out half-mad when the last plate left his table. One thousand guests dined that night. Some forced their slaves to taste first and were spurned. Of the rest, no less than one hundred fell with closed throats.
Dejanira’s later innovation of a ballroom floor stretched over an ancient chasm, laid with false tiles woven of gossamer and vulture down, made her popular with Her Majesty, the Emperor’s mother.
On a later occasion it was the Emperor himself who granted her use of the palace on Mt. Aian during the eleven years’ storm, where she arranged two thousand voluptuous chairs that had, from the backs, copper rods twining up and through the palace roof.
As the years passed Dejanira’s contrivances became more malefic, her invitations less frequent. Yet still the nobles came at her call. They shed their viper-skin boredom simply because they knew not whence the doom would fall, and in not knowing they feared. And in fearing they were, but for moments, pleased to be alive.
On the night of the Winter Solstice in the two-hundred-thirty-second year of the Emperor’s reign, Dejanira hosted what would be her final sublim massaker. The invitations, the first in nearly a decade, were delivered by wing in the clutches of naked eagles—the haughty messengers invading antechambers and startling doormen with magnificent predatory disdain, for what modern household maintained rookeries anymore?
Lord Gama III the Fellh-Meyn, eldest and most surfeited of the dead duke’s old companions, was as ever first to neaten his mortal affairs for the event. He met with his legist to arrange his titles and assets, should Dejanira’s artistry claim his life; madecontracts with the Guild of Child Clothiers, where his suits were fashioned by slim and nimble fingers; and set his stable grooms to gather the strongest slaves from each of his fourteen estates, attiring them in matching leathern halters and manacles of redoubled wolfram.
On the night before the event, he sat in his ancient chair mulling the work of Anticipation upon his veins and discovered it insufficient. The moonlit portraits of his forebears watched as he retired to his chambers with a throttling mask, a boy, and a basket of gnaw-mice, and employed the later evening in pursuit of revived sensation, as new sensation had long escaped his ability. The mask, of the three, proved most effectual.
He woke to break his fast just after noon, the quicksilver cordial tasting of sleek icy nothing, and lay for a time recalling the delicious agony of the mask. The sensation was withered now but had served to speed the turn of Anticipation within his breast, so that here, on The Day, the climax of its work fell upon him.
His heart beat a single beat—a heaving, shuddered deuce of blows against the soft of his ribs—and he clutched his sheets in ecstasy.
Here and gone was the moment, but the valets who came at his bell and dressed him for travel made remark of the animation in their master’s face. And he climbed into his palanquin with a strange tension in his mouth. He thought it another palsy until a delve into his memories revealed it as, possibly, the beginnings of a smile.
“And why not a smile?” he asked of the morning as he lashed his slaves into motion. For east of his manor, east of the river, east for thirty leagues and a mile, east and east and east was Dejanira’s design.
Gama III passed his journey in primed imagination, reposing in the deep embrace of his couches. “You could die tonight,” he whispered to himself in erotic terror and moaned as his heart beat for the second time in a day.
True to their breed, his slaves devoured the land with their strides. And at last, when the sky ahead had purpled in royal disdain, Gama III watched the four towers of Braugholm Castle come into view. He passed beneath the portcullis and noted lawns made beautiful by a powdering of frost, the glow of tongue-colored lantern light, chimeric sculptures, and giant pearlescent snails that glided to and fro across the stones. Their ghostly scrollwork tracks glimmered and shone in the pale of the broken moon.
The procession of peers was well underway:
Theye XXI the Muut-Vang-Hewg in her slim wheelhouse.
Norcous the Vang-Voord-Roolk-Meyn-Hewg-Schteb dismounting his litter with a flourish of his cape.
Vischer XVIII the Grynck-Fellh standing atop his carriage, bowing in greeting to Rodl V the Hewg-Voord-Roolk-Aynx.
All were of his stature or lower, Gama III having timed his arrival with practiced care. He directed his slaves along the paths, sniffing critically at the incense on the breeze, and ordered a halt beside Witting IX the Fellh-Jarg. The younger man was a blood relative of notable proximity, and his palanquin—perhaps appropriate, perhaps unimaginative—was of a style resembling Gama III’s.
“Health, cousin,” Gama III called.
“Health,” Witting IX returned, and they met between their rows of slaves to greet each other with a kiss.
“The work upon your frame is artistry, cousin,” Witting IX said of Gama III’s palanquin. “The lanterns gave it life as you passed through the gates. And those slaves of yours—Ysbaddaden, yes, judging by their down? As it happens, mine own are Offruum, close tribemates to your Ysbaddaden.” He gestured to one buck who wore a collar of bronze and stood towering, sleek with sweat, shoulders steaming.
Gama III’s slaves saw the Offruum’s great high mane of hair, drifting about him like a feathered headdress, and bent themselves round in meekness. Annoyed, Gama III stirred a musk from his underarms to put a fright in them. This broke their attention and turned them back to upholding their poise. “A fine breed,” he admitted.
“Fine indeed,” crowed Witting IX.
The boast was irksome. But Gama III was eighty years the senior and beyond the need to brag over property. Instead he brandished his recent achievement. He smiled.
Witting IX blinked twice in a frank display of surprise.
“You should be proud,” Gama III said, his smile creeping wide. “But I must admit, my thoughts are full of anticipation for the evening, with little energy to spare for projects so, mm, hobbyistic.”
Witting IX refused to look a second time at Gama III’s mouth. “Of course you are correct,” he said in a tone coldly polite. “My time could be better spent.”
“Spent, yes, but not wasted, for our host has appointed an hour for the start of this affair, and we had best see to our dress if we are to be timely.” Gama III kissed his cousin on the chill of his brow. “We will meet upon the path and make our entrance together.” And with a farewell he climbed to his palanquin, finally relaxing his face lest the ache in his jaw become a vex.
Gama III dressed himself in scarlet, donning his custom turban—burnt-orange at the base and blending imperceptibly to an elegant pointed gold crown. To finish came the hereditary finger cymbals of the Fellh clan. These he fastened to his hand and stepped from his palanquin a living tribute to passions anticipated, a flame against the winter cold.
With his bucks arrayed at his heels he walked the glittering snail arabesque to meet his cousin upon the main path near the doors. They awaited their introductions then entered the circular hall. The space was immense, chandeliers hanging heavy and ornate from chains that seemed infinite, the ceiling itself beyond reach of the light. The walls were decorated in primitive tribal art—the clubs and spears of the slave tribes—and curved away into the distance, the room a great circle with tall doors at four-points. A ring of a table dominated the floor, cleverly without head or foot, with seating for thousands and enough room from the seatbacks to the walls for every noble’s slaves to stand in waiting behind him. Gama III could imagine the hall when full resembling from above a wheel with long spokes. Just now, with many of the guests drifting here and there, greeting each other, gossiping, taking measure, moving on, he guessed it three-quarters full.
He and Witting IX found their places at table before making the social rounds. Gama III’s flamboyant attire proved popular, his smile a positive sensation. He brandished it at every opportunity, doing his ardent best to rouse Anticipation. I have seen what you will see, it told. I have known Thrill.
Soon the servants began announcing the single-clanned: Dancre the Hewg, Embein X the Schteb, and eldest of all, Anda the Aynx who had consumed years enough in her march through life to outnumber the combined age of any three peers. They were newcomers to the fêtes, like many others. And even in their presence, the likes of Gama III and Witting IX, as veterans, enjoyed a certain prestige. Anda herself aimed a raven-eyed gaze for Gama III’s regard. He dipped his head with precision.
She approached in her immaculate walk. “May I have your ear, young lord?” she asked.
“It is yours,” he said, “of course and always.”
The nearby peers excused themselves with deference, and quickly she and he were in a bubble of privacy. She gave courteous inquiries into land, health, and rumor. Then—
“You have displayed great quality with your achievement,” she declared of his smile. “Indeed, I find you worthy of your reputation.”
“Reputation is a greedy thing and can grow larger than its worth,” said Gama III with care.
“It is told that the lord of Fellh and Meyn is both a gourmet of fashionable pursuits and an instigator of the same. He is capable in extinct tongues. His compositions are eloquent. His dedication to protocol and his study of the Void and its dooms are both known and discussed even in the society of my lands. Further, his physiognomy and mentality have endured in steadfast health since the Third Dynasty of Saffraan II the Voord, a suggestion that the finest blood of both his superlative clans feeds his substance.”
Gama III pressed a finger to his lip in the display of small-to-temperate embarrassment. “I must succumb to humility, lady of Aynx, and protest such a reputation. For what lone soul could play host to this panoply of qualities? None but the very exemplar of magnificence.”
“But an exemplar of magnificence is precisely the man for my purposes.”
“Purposes? Does the lady require some deed of me?”
“The lady wishes a new heir, and an heir, as the dooms which form our realities have declared, requires a sire. Tell me, young lord, how fares your gonad?”
Gama III had heretofore maintained a low-strummed pleasure at Anda’s attentions, the greater part of his focus alert to any shift in atmosphere that would signal the beginning of Dejanira’s plot. Anda now commanded him whole.
He held himself with care in every particle. “I am a twain lord,” he said. “For one of your purity, would our mingling not be, in direct terms, a dilution?”
“Do you know of my sons?” asked Anda. “Grippe, liver slough, dementia of seven sorts, bonebarbs, even a plague of the tissues our clan surgeons have yet to classify. My daughters have fared little better. Two of them, at the least, are yet living, though in such states of decay as to hardly be worth the distinction. Simply, and quite obviously, new blood is required.”
“And so you would produce a three-clanned heir? I apologize, lady of Aynx, but my confusion remains.”
“What matters the seed that sprouts the heir? Purity has always been a matter of record, not of blood. And you would of course be compensated,” said Anda. “First and of greatest immediacy, with my friendship. But furthermore, unfettered access to the Aynx libraries, a seat on the Council of Far Astronomers—at which one of my clan sits ever as chair—and first pick for thirty seasons from the Mellenmuhg Distillery.”
Her breath shifted here to carry an alluring sweetness. “And to accompany the expression of your seed, my thinkers have devised a cunning tonic. It is not well known. In truth I have kept its existence secret. But for your charity I will authorize its use so that your... effort will be accompanied by notable stimulations.”
“What manner of stimulations—” Gama III began.
But at that moment, from each of the four towers, clear and sonorous bells pealed the hour. Anda the Aynx turned her gaze at the sound. “We will continue,” she said. “If we survive.”
Gama III felt his blood gorge and throb. “If we survive,” he replied.
Her nostrils flared erotically. Then she swept away.
On rang the bells, and the guests, as if released from fetters, dispersed to take their seats. And here we are, Gama III thought. The table was full, the moment at hand. Anticipation moved as a wild fondle from seat to seat, bowel to bowel, quivers begetting moans and hoarse whispers, emotion stretching jaws with violence. Gama III felt another heartbeat and clutched his hands as the shudder passed through him, turned to his cousin when he was able, offered congratulations with a touch on the sleeve, for Witting IX stared off into the distance, new color burning in his cheeks.
Gama III was swollen with feelings, and driven by those feelings he began to chant. Silver met crystal as he chimed his finger cymbals—thumb to leechfinger, the universal tone of admiration—and he cried out a single word: daufryd. His peers heard, and they too gave voice. Daufryd was repeated from this pair of blue lips then that, daufryd from a hand of voices, a score, a century. Daufryd, called Gama III, called Witting IX, called the single-clanned and the thirteened, called their echoes from the pale marble floor, the far walls, the rafters lost in shadow. It was a word left to them from Old High Istvael, a word whose meaning was beyond any one phrase in any of the eleven modern tongues. Daufryd, daufryd—at its most intense the mélange of terror, anticipation, and pride when regarding a noble death; but also a moment of abrupt awe for fate; or the ambivalence of mortality; or the ache between uncertainty and prescience; or perhaps simply the tension of the in-between. Here tonight, thrumming along the castle’s inner bones, it meant “we are ready.” Stun us, thrill us, slay us, please us—we are ready. Daufryd, daufryd, daufryd.
As noble blood stirred to life, thousands of chilled scentless breaths grew hot. The dining hall warmed like the atmosphere upon an autumn dawn and chased the cold from Gama III’s skin. Perspiration sprouted in its wake, the humors of his very flesh. His nose took hold of the metallic tang. His fingers traced against the slick. He rose to his feet. He rang his cymbals. He called daufryd! in a voice grown thick.
On and on he goaded the chant as he and his peers gazed left and right, looking for Dejanira. He was not alone in standing. He was not alone in searching. Smiles were in abundance as the welcome for their host reached its crescendo, for now would come her entrance, the artist sweeping into the midst of her art as she had so many times before, in memory, in legend, in rumor, her father’s nobility bequeathed to the poise of her spine, her own genius seething in her violet stare. All knew what came next.
So wild was Anticipation that they chanted until the bells rang again. And in the echo of the new hour, the hall fell silent. The hall grew cold. Some who were standing reclaimed their seats, chairs barking against the marble. Others drifted into councils to decide the graveness of this slight upon dignity. Where was Dejanira? asked the rising murmur. Where was the repast? Where was the theater? Where was Thrill, whose caress they’d traveled the lands to feel hot upon their organs, when Discontent had for so long, and now on this very occasion, made its seat within their breasts? The hour stretched on without reply.
“Disgraceful noise and furor,” declared Arfest VIII the Roolk-Vang. The ancient lord sat to Gama III’s left, half his visage sagging pendulously in the slack of a decades-old palsy. “Better an oblivion than such embarrassment.”
“We are delayed,” replied Gama III, “nothing more, certainly. Perhaps of a part with our host’s design.”
And though the clay-faced decrepit spoke beyond his standing, he had scraped bare a truth. About the hall, many a noble eye had taken the cant of irritation, lids down hooded, gazes aimless in disdain. And though the lords and ladies had gathered in their coteries, notably alone were Pellawurt XII, Witting IX, and Baliz—the veterans, the survivors, those who had spread the tales, had stirred Anticipation, had roused the gathering to folly. And Gama III realized there was no better word. Folly. For only in the throes of a beautiful threat had the raising of voices and the flushing of jaws become acceptable. And for an hour, without peril of any sort, they had excited themselves like fools. Fools! Someone must suffer.
Gama III spied Anda standing aloof. She turned her back to him.
He had to take action. With the barest of salutes to Arfest VIII, he pushed from the table then strode the curve of the great wooden ring.
Between the east-pointing door and the south was a pair of wide chitin screens. Beyond was a passageway that curved a short span and terminated at the kitchens. Here Gama III found the servants surrounded by platters of tonics, beaks, and other fare.
“What is this?” he demanded. “Why do you sit here quivering like pustules when your masters hunger? You, report. Why have you not served this food? Have you no ears astride that unkempt skull? Have you not heard your masters suffering without refreshment?”
The female peasant knelt on legs of animal thickness and begged thrice for leniency. She groaned that the great mistress had ordered the servants to wait, ordered that they were to serve nothing until the lords came searching.
Gama III made the peasant repeat herself, a sensation growing as if a dagger slid the back of his throat—what he judged, from memory, as disquiet—then he strode from that rank place.
Gama III found Witting IX near their seats.
“We are being plied,” Gama III confided in a low voice. He told his cousin of what he’d discovered.
“Servants awaiting the effort of lords,” said Witting IX. “It defies sense.”
“Except where an effect is desired, perhaps the stimulation of a certain mood.”
“You believe this an intrigue of Dejanira. But you must know, cousin, that madness or even spite could be the motivation just as well.”
“If we are forced to wager our reputations, and trust when I say we are doing exactly that, beside which possibility should we pile our lots? Upon the ruin of admitting this was all folly? Or upon the glory of participating in the plot? Risking, we ought risk for glory and set defeat at our heels.”
“The better to trip upon,” muttered Witting IX. But he thought in silence for short moments then exhaled a scent of determination, his violet tongue flicking across his lip. “I bow to your wisdom, cousin. How do we profit from this snarl?”
Gama III made his way to the center of the hall, posed his limbs, rang his tallfinger cymbal thrice, the peals keening above the murmur of conversation.
“Friends,” he pronounced into the spreading quiet, his diction drawn in the rhythm of oration, “I am Gama III the Fellh, the Meyn, lord of Rungblatt and its fourteen estates, serving term as master of Alfellein Harbor with all attendant honors and responsibility.”
He paused, turning to give regard to the entire circumference of the hall, to its judgment of faces. Among them all, the gaze of Anda the Aynx was as striking as a pearl of wax on clean parchment.
“We are vexed,” he declared, pitching a long hiss. “Our host is delayed, perhaps for good reason, perhaps for poor. But we are the peers of the Hohstuol. We are masters of principalities, of lives countless, of lands unending. Let us be masters of this night. I have roused the servants to deliver our meal. And to bide the time, I propose a diversion. My noble friends, I propose gant’lope.”
Immediately there rose approving nods.
Witting IX showed excellent timing and raised his voice. “I submit my own Offruum buck for first run,” he declared.
Kurchen LX suggested instead of the usual crops and lashes they collect from the primitive weaponry decorating the walls, and the irony was pleasing to many. Gama III held himself aloof while the eldest among them took first choices of position in the columns then invited others in turn of rank.
Not all went smoothly: many of the bitterest—Arfest VIII for one, in his contemptible flesh—took no part. The decorative slave bludgeons and spears proved too heavy to wield with any grace and so were returned to their fastenings on the walls. And there was the characteristic delay as wagers were announced, challenged, reiterated, and accepted.
The honor to call start was afforded to Gama III. He lifted his hand, rang a tone, and upon the blow of Witting IX’s breath the naked Offruum charged between the two rows of noble thrashers.
The lashes reared high, contorted, snapped, and the sound of falling strokes made a rhythm in the air, a chorus of sharp climaxes as of thick ice suddenly thawed as the blows landed upon the the slave buck’s shoulders and thighs and his upthrust arms. The buck pressed through in mighty oblivion to the pain until Thurva I the Wern, who had wagered against at three-to-one odds, aimed her blow for the ankle. The lick drew blood. The slave buck stumbled. Later blows down the line twisted him and sent him sprawling to the marble floor, well short of the finish. But all agreed it was Thurva who had achieved the felling, and it was to her that the chimes of esteem were rung.
The climate was improved dramatically by the game, and that improvement continued at the appearance of the meal. But Anticipation was in no wise recovered, and Thrill was far away. And many, especially those eldest and most august, had not forgiven him for the embarrassment of the chant.
Gama III did not go straight to her. He shared a tonic with one peer, listened to the complaints of another, watched as Kurchen LX’s slave buck ran the gant’lope to the finish. He finally approached her as she dined upon long morsels of wren beak, each sliver passing between her lips as delicately as a physic needle through a pore.
“May I join you?” he asked.
Strong acidic musks came pouring from the vented seams of her jacket. “That is undecided,” she said.
Gama III took this blow with a nod. In the scalding embarrassment of their silly impotent chant, she was dangerous, for one of her status would be vicious when saving face. “I had thought the lady of Aynx might care to continue our conversation.”
“That is undecided,” she said, and her breath added odors of enormous strength and threat.
Gama III felt his eyes drying in the onslaught. He gathered the last of his courage. “Has the Lord of Fellh and Meyn, then, become disqualified for the lady’s purposes?” He asked this with his breath full of every particle of sincerity he could summon.
She had not to that moment taken her eyes from her meal, and the look she gave now could never be confused for inviting. But she did look, and she did lessen the bite of her musks. “Sit,” she said.
And Gama III would have sat. He would have gladly taken that enormous step toward greater fortune, toward true pleasure, toward the hurtle of esteem that might only come once in a lifetime.
But for the second time in the night, the conversation was thwarted. For he saw then a high chair, mammoth in design, suddenly resting outside of the table ring where before there had been no chair.
Upon it sat Dejanira.
She posed with no evidence of motion, her limbs draping the chair’s angles as if they’d done so for many languid hours.
A rush of gasps began and ended in equal suddenness as the hall of thousands took notice. The silence that followed was aching.
Gama III’s heart had lurched with a vertigo that left him sick. His wrists fell cold, his face hot. A fumbling uncertainty took his mind, and he moved to regain his place at table. Arfest VIII was sitting tensed as if ready to leap. Witting IX returned agog.
Dejanira remained silent, casting her gaze this way and that, violet eyes roving in a stony face.
The others were correcting their self-possession, herding their slaves, regaining their places with some taut deviant of Anticipation, and it was not until the great wheel was nearly remade that Gama III was overcome by two realizations. The first: he had rudely and perhaps damningly abandoned Anda the Aynx with nary a word of courtesy. He wished to pull his gaze from Dejanira and find Anda, to judge by her manner what damage his slight had wrought. But his gaze remained fixed, for his second realization swept all other thoughts aside.
Behind Dejanira came striding a slave, taller than any Gama III had ever seen and whose broad naked chest was not the leathery pallor of standard bucks but the gleam of noble flesh. And rising in wisps from the great male’s scalp was a mane of legend. If in the Ysbaddaden’s ink-and-paper histories their god-sire wore hair that stood like a flame, this male’s plumage was an inferno. Gama III’s shock at seeing such a specimen beside Dejanira, the infamous recluse, was immediately made small by the horror that this male, this half-naked magnificence, was the very person of his Lofty Highness the Emperor Roff III the Vang.
The Emperor planted his feet wide before the chair and raised his hand to silence the rumbles of stupefaction. Had His Highness ever been so thick of the arms? Certainly never had his hair stretched so far. Gama III glanced about. The slaves in their rows were kneeling low, all around the hall, every buck of every tribe and sort.
“Dh’ainm chim nobroy,” declared Highness Roff, his familiar voice wrapped around foreign words. “Sláinte agus dobry.” He pitched his tones expertly so that Gama III felt the reverberation in his bones. But of the words’ meaning he grasped nothing. This was slave language—or languages, he could not be certain. He passed a look with Witting IX. Behind them the slaves were shuddering, some weeping.
It was long minutes later that the Emperor ceased in his strange proclamations. Dejanira then raised a scroll from her lap.
“Health,” she said, the word born from a pique of her lip. “Hear the command of Emperor Roff III the Vang, declaring thus: every creature now within hearing of this voice, heretofore bound by the shackles of slavery, shall hence and forever be deemed free by the laws of the Hohstuol. Souls of noble blood likewise present are commanded to loose all restraints applied to these formerly in bondage.
“His Highness the Emperor Roff III the Vang further commands that in the spirit of celebration, and to mark the commencement of these new lives, all laws, edicts, and penalties are, within the confines of this estate, hereby suspended.
“His Highness the Emperor Roff III the Vang finally commands that all doors and passages allowing egress from this property be sealed until the dawn, when ends the solstice night and begins the lengthening of days.”
Dejanira folded the pronouncement and fell as still as if she’d never stirred.
The Emperor lifted his hands. Was there surprise in his face? Amusement? “Such is my word,” he declared. By those syllables was the pronouncement made law.
And Gama III saw the design. Unshackling their slaves, and who among them would refuse? Who but the very purest clanned would defy the Emperor to his face? And who among that few would submit to Fear, would choose Boredom when all had come to prove that each of these was beneath their soles? No, the party guests would every one breach manacle and shackle, and proudly.
This was why he’d come. This sickly spurting flush, this heaving of his ribs, this was what he remembered from Dejanira’s art, what he’d spend his nights weaving into dream. With his lips pulling themselves in a mask that was not a smile, Gama III rose to the task. The bucks were waiting, heads still bowed but each with his hands outstretched. Gama III summoned the precise combination of acids into his saliva, touched finger to tongue then stroked his mark upon the first pair of manacles. The lock smoked and popped and they fell away in a heavy clangor. Finger to tongue to metal, and the second buck was free, then the third, and on until the thirty-nine males were wreathed in the astringence of their liberty.
Long minutes of clattering noise throughout the hall and it was done. The noble peers waited as their bucks, who were no longer slaves, paced or shook or stared or wept.
Witting IX’s prize specimen, the Offruum, was the first to reach for the weapons upon the walls.
The Emperor was once more styling slave tongues. The odors on his breath, centuries-trained, came flowing on his voice, his voice filling the hall with pressure demanding action. Action and now. Now. Gama III tasted the scent from the emperor’s breath and knew it yet felt nothing from it. It was not mixed to stir his blood.
The Offruum came from the wall with club and spear. Still limping from the lash at his ankle he moved through the staring company, his eyes ever on His Highness. The slave, the former slave, roamed as if intoxicated and at last came face-to-face with Kurchen LX. He raised the thickness of his club, hesitated, sweat streaming down his naked back, shook himself, leaned close to lay the weapon against Kurchen LX’s shoulder. He pushed.
Kurchen LX, though wet with gray perspiration of his own, showed nothing of the shock he surely felt. He kept his countenance. He regained his posture and blew a warding breath, thick with disgust and aggression, full in the hulking male’s face.
The Offruum only flinched when he should have collapsed. He raised the weapon and jabbed Kurchen in the chest. This time the lord fell back, clutching the bruise. The Offruum shoved again. Then he stalked forward, raising the club, and brought the long blunted weight of it down on the lord’s skull. Kurchen made no sound. It was the Offruum who sang out, sang one long howling note and stamped his foot in the violet pool.
From this the slaughter began.
The murderer’s cry was echoed from dozens of heavy chests. Brute fists rose. Feet stamped. Swiftly came the rush and clatter of pale creatures snatching weapons from Braugholm’s eternal gray walls. Bare hands were enough for some, lord flesh and lady’s torn like low meat. The slaves of Norcous and Theye and Klonza stood guard by their masters, threw blows for their masters, spat words in combat against their species.
Gama had reached for his cousin and found only an empty seat. He was still searching when his own thirty-nine came at him in a phalanx, shields and spears, one stab and a second and a third. Gama was cut. Grinding fire keened along his breast, and he threw himself backward, bleeding and screaming, and he fled into the press, for the torrent that had burst now swirled in crazy froth. Those bucks bent upon their freedom pressed at the hall’s four doors. Those bucks filled with rage circled, killing, slicking the floor in gray-violet.
The greater part of the nobles had collapsed into the center space behind a screen of loyal slaves—former slaves!—the lords breathing, musking, spitting every caustic ward known.
Gama was rushing for that garrison when he was seized with force at the elbow.
“Cousin!” cried Witting. “Haste, cousin. Come.”
Gama followed, the pair of them flinching and shying, darting a wild path across the hall. Witting grasped arms and cried out to others on his flight through the violence so that their party swelled from two to five to seven, but to what point Gama knew not until by the narrowest of timing Witting led them through a gap in the table, toward and past the chitin screens, and with a last frantic effort into the harbor of the servants passageway.
The servants were nowhere to be found. With great difficulty Gama and Witting and the rest dragged clumsy tables and chairs and cooking items from the kitchens to stack as a barricade.
They had obstructed the entry by more than half when there came screams just on the other side.
“Pull me through!” cried Anda. Her hair was torn and her face bloody but the voice, even in its mania, was ancient.
Gama was breathing with alarming difficulty. His limbs lay at his sides as heavy as leaden saps. “We can’t!” he cried. He looked Witting in his eye. “We can’t help her!”
Witting nodded and nodded and nodded, faster and faster, as if to agree. But he suddenly screeched and scrambled flailing over the barricades. He tripped, stumbled, bruising himself with the sound of terrible thuds, and reaching Anda he grasped her by the arm and dragged her inside with desperate heaves. No sooner did he pull her to freedom than a great pale arm lunged through the gap and seized Witting by his leg. He screamed and spat venoms but the grip would not loose, not until Anda leapt to his aid and stabbed at the arm with a stake. The two fell into safety embracing each other, sobbing.
“Thank you,” said Witting.
“Thank you,” said Anda.
Thank you thank you thank you and their lips met sloppily.
Gama and the others finished the barricade only moments later, pressing a table to the final gap. Shuddering and hot, Gama crouched in the passageway on the stones. They were eight, hiding here in silence, passing the long night among the echoes of massacre.
Gama had dozed. He came to himself now to a castle in quiet. And by instinct he knew dawn had broken. He rose to his feet stiff in every joint, his wounds crusted and tight.
The others still slept, Witting and Anda there pressed close in a huddle. Gama woke them.
“It is finished,” he said.
Witting lifted his head, studying the silence carefully. Anda studied Gama much the same. Their color was returned, both of them, to the polish of good nobility. And for true, Gama III himself felt sound in sanity.
It was unfortunate, the work of removing the barricade. The servants were yet nowhere to be found, and so it fell to the cadre of peers to sully themselves with the clumsiness. When at last they pushed into the great hall, they were met with the climax of Dejanira’s game.
The hall stank of broken organs, the floor near impassable for the bodies. The walls were bare of the savages’ weapons. The table was smashed, here in splinters, here a piece braced as a failed barricade—the great wheel broken. And on every surface, pulsing from a torn neck in lilac, stagnant in a puddle of old black, splashed in every geometry possible, was noble blood.
Besides the eight of Witting IX and Gama III and company, there were scant few others there surveying the work. Every slave was gone. Briefly Gama III wondered how he would travel home.
But more he was taken with the arithmetic of a fast census. He took measure of the dead and of the living, and by estimation nine of every ten nobles was slain. The emperor walked the carnage with the rest, arms swinging, stride long, seeming a man much pleased with extra space.
And of course, there upon her chair, sat Dejanira, cold and lovely and nobly poised.
It was Anda the Aynx who first began ringing her finger cymbals. Then it was Witting IX, and Arfest VIII who had somehow survived. Gama III joined in and so did the rest, and soon the applause was ringing loudly across the hall. The Emperor only stood smiling his satisfaction. The cymbals rose higher and higher in their noise as the experiences of the night came flooding back again. There came cries of “splendid!”, “grand!”, “superb!”, and soon every throat was raised in celebration of this woman the artist.
Dejanira swept the hall with her gaze, locking eyes with every surviving soul. Her mask of calm then broke suddenly, and there flashed across her face an explosion of emotion. Hatred, Witting IX would swear later. Rapture, would claim Anda the Aynx. It would forever remain a mystery, for Dejanira then began to wail in powerful laughter, her every fiber shuddering until abruptly the eruption ceased. She went still, her eyes staring at the far wall. The applause completed its great length and fell to silence, and it was the Emperor who at last approached the chair. He reached his hand, then turned to announce to the survivors that Dejanira, their host, was dead.
Out in the light of the new year, where the winter sun had risen and rewritten the night’s frosts and the broken moon floated in its scattered pattern, a pale ghost of its nighttime gleam, the survivors paced the yard of masterless palanquins and carriages, each facing the terrible quiet.
Already the Dread and Thrill of the night were vaporized into nothing, so far out of reach as to exist only as the information in Gama III’s thoughts, and he was facing that hollowness with no hope of reprieve. The artist was dead. Never would her like be seen again.
He looked out beyond the castle gate, to the road where it wound through a field of white grasses that rippled to the horizon; tall enough, perhaps, to hide the hulks of the freedmen who had fled the castle and who could be watching with their pale eyes, like hunters, unseen. And he could summon nothing to his blood. Not now, when the relaxed jargon of his peers was too real, the threat too uncertain. He could not stir himself. Not here.
In his desolation he studied his peers, eager to catch any emotion to spark his own , and by chance he witnessed Witting the IX and Anda the Aynx pass one another, shoulder to shoulder, with no flicker of feeling between them.
And Gama III had a vision.
He saw the survivors, the castle, the Emperor and the lands, old nobles and young and esteemed and reviled, all encased and immobilized inside a crystalline gem. They were, every one, as bubbles caught behind the facets, beautiful and eternal. The sameness of safe. The safety of same.
Gama removed his chimes. The music of them rang out briefly, and the gaze of every survivor turned by habit. With the chimes in hand Gama took a step and felt a pressure in his breast. A second and felt a beat. A third and the beating broke loose. Witting saw him coming and began a bow, then saw his demeanor and froze.
Gama extended the chimes in unsteady hands, in sweating, prickling hands. “For you, cousin,” he said.
Witting only stared, so Gama laid the chimes at his feet.
“I should feel jealousy,” said Gama out loud, and the beating became a thunder. “I do,” he said. “I am jealous. I would have liked to kiss you,” he said to Anda. There were gasps across the yard. His blood roared in his ears.
Reeling, Gama turned his back to them and walked. Whose land was this? Where was his home? What direction was he going? He could remember none of it. He could hear the survivors muttering some ways behind him. Would any follow? Would any understand? But he gave no more mind to them. His only mind was for the aching in his breast, which he followed like a lode—under the gate and along the road then off the road into the wild white grass.
To his bliss or to his death, unknowning if the twain were one.
He only went out.
Only knowing his heart.
Excruciated by his heart.
The hungry crushing of his heart.