Ventus – Day 20 of 135


Jordan smoothed the lapels of his vest nervously. He had never worn clothes like this. Their strange fit and discomfort in the oddest places was a constant reminder of his role tonight as apprentice to Calandria May. The stiffness of the fabric and the cut of the shirt and pants made him constantly arch his back, and drew his shoulders up. All the other men stood and walked the same, in an almost exaggerated, prideful posture. He had always assumed that went with their station. The idea that their clothes were made to hold their noses up amazed him. He couldn’t look at them with quite the same awe as he’d used to.

He stood just outside the dining hall in a swirl of young men, who mostly spoke among themselves. He knew the language, but had no idea what they were talking about–rights, obligations, and fine points of the pecking order, it seemed. As far as possible Jordan tried to stay out of any dialogue, only nodding and smiling when it was needed. He knew his accent was guild-class, and although Calandria claimed to be able to fix that, she hadn’t yet. He gave his name when it was required of him, but nothing more.

“Ah, there you are!” boomed a familiar voice. Axel Chan’s hand descended on his shoulder like a vice. “Where’s the lady?”

“Changing,” Jordan said tersely. Axel had spoken so loudly that heads turned all over the chamber. Jordan wanted to shrink into the floor to avoid all those high-class gazes.

“Good. If she’s not about, I’ll borrow you for a moment.” Axel steered him away from the men, past the ladies, who were preening and talking behind their feather fans, and out of the antechamber. He led Jordan halfway down the lower, stone-floored corridor that ran between the antechamber and the stairways, then stopped under a high window. Evening light suffused the corridor, gilding the stones that Axel leaned against. He grinned, slouching, and put his hands in his pockets.

“How are you doing, lad?” he asked.

“I don’t like this,” said Jordan, pulling at his jacket.

“It’s a fine uniform. Red and gold–your choice?” Jordan nodded guardedly. “Very nice. Tasteful. We’ll make an inspector out of you yet.”

“Calandria says she can teach me to talk like them.”

“It’s no trick. You just speak slowly and flap your lips a bit, as if,” he switched into an overdone upper-crust accent, “you could barely care to speak at all.” Despite himself, Jordan grinned at the imitation.

Axel leaned close. “Don’t worry. We’re all pretending; that’s what events like this are all about.”

“Why are we doing it at all?”

“To fit in. Better that we be there to be spoken to than absent to be spoken about.” Axel stood away from the wall and smiled archly as two ladies walked past. They ignored him. He slouched back again and said, “Now, I promised to show you the letter from your sister. Can you read?”

“A bit. I can do figures and architectural terms, and a little more.”

“I’ll read it to you. Your sister dictated it to me.” Axel pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket. He flipped it open and began to read.

“Oh, Jordan, I miss you so much. I wish you were here right now, but Sir Chan says you have to finish a job for him first. Then you’ll be back and bring lots of money.

“I’m sorry I ran away. Mom and Dad are really mad at us, though they won’t say it. They just don’t talk about that night. And they pray for you to come back all the time. I can’t talk to them! I wish you were here so I would have somebody to talk to.

“Sir Chan told me to write something so you would know it was me. Remember that turn on the stairs in the manor, where we found the crack? Remember the note we hid there before Dad mortared it up? I know what the note says–only me and you know. The first word is ‘Boo!’. Remember that?”

Jordan let his tension out with a big breath, and leaned heavily against the wall next to Axel. He smiled at Axel.

“So, it’s really her, is it?” asked Axel.

He nodded. “After Sir Chan found me, he gave me letters of appointment to the king of Ravenon. I can’t believe it–neither could anybody else, but Castor did. And Turcaret–you should have seen his face when Sir Chan showed him the letters. He wanted to kill Chan, I could tell, but he was afraid to. But Castor–he almost smiled, I think. Anyway, he told Turcaret not to argue, and he signed the letters, and Sir Chan lent me money to move in with the Sanglers which is where I am now. Waiting for dispatches from Ravenon, who will come to me before they come to Castor. I’m so proud, and scared at the same time. And lonely. I hope you come home soon. Sir Chan says you are okay and having an adventure. Please write me and tell me all about it.”

“Can I?” Jordan asked.

Axel nodded. “But you can’t talk about what we’re doing, or say anything about Armiger.” He looked over Jordan’s shoulder at something, and smiled. “And speaking of ladies, here she is! You’re a vision, my dear.”

“Than you, Axel,” Calandria said, smiling. She wore a long, emerald-green skirt, a bodice worked with beads of gold, and a white loose-sleeved blouse. Her hair was piled up and held in place with pearl-tipped pins. A gold necklace completed the ensemble. Her face glowed with an inhuman perfection that Jordan had guessed at but which had hitherto been hidden under a layer of grime and disarrayed hair. Surely she wore makeup, but he could see no sign of it. Despite all that she’d done to him, in that moment Jordan thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

He stammered something, and blushed. Calandria lowered long lashes and made a near-smile. “You look the proper gentleman, Jordan. Shall we join the dinner party?” She cocked her elbows; Axel immediately stepped out to take one of her arms, and Jordan hurried to place himself on the other. He felt a burst of pride as they entered the antechamber and conversations died left and right. Calandria’s smile grew even more subtle, and Axel’s face had hardened into an imperious mask. Jordan had no idea what he himself looked like, but strongly suspected he was ruining the effect. He tried to draw himself up as Axel had done and don a suitable air of contempt.

The hall was brightly lit by gas lamps. Jordan could see all the way to the blond stone groin vaults of the ceiling a good fifteen meters overhead. The hall was as wide as it was high, and twice as long. Tapestries hung between the narrow buttresses, depicting scenes from the long, industrious history of the Boros inspector generals: collection and taxation figured prominently, but instead of glorious victories, as true nobility would boast, the few battle scenes showed Boros’ militia sweeping away mobs of rioting citizens. A huge fireplace roared at one end of the hall, silhouetting the raised chairs and table of Yuri Boros and his family and filling the room with the smell of woodsmoke. Long tables had been laid out down the sides of the hall, each length overhung by wrought-iron arches holding a lamp and trailing flowers. People were seating themselves now with the aid of black-coated servants, who paced up and down in the clear runway that stretched from the main doors at the foot of the room to the raised table and fireplace at the head. A low murmur of voices lofted up and echoed down from the arches.

When Jordan was very young, he had once watched a gathering like this through a crack in the kitchen doors at Castor’s hall. He remembered none of the logic of the occasion, only the brightness and laughter, and the amazing variety of food that was carried past him. All adults had been like gods to him, the controllers and inspectors more so. He longed to find some door to hide behind, some safe vantage from which to watch the tables. At the same time, he wanted to be here, seated with his betters as if he had the right–for at least tonight, Calandria’s aura protected him. So, as they took their seats at an obscure table at the back of the room, Jordan sat at his place in wonder and delight, and wished fervently he could also be peering through the crack in the kitchen door, his Self there pulling the strings of his Self here.

He glanced at Calandria’s perfect face, and had a flash of insight: were she and Axel standing somewhere aloof from themselves at moments like this, pulling the strings of their public faces?

His contemplative spell was broken by the bray of a horn. Everyone was seated now; Axel and Calandria had put themselves to either side of Jordan, effectively isolating him from conversation, which was fine with him. It came to him just where he was, and he had one of those moments that is later permanently impressed on memory; his finger traced the edge of a blue-china plate such as he had seen but never touched back home, and the sleeve of his arm was red and beautiful in the white light which flashed off the knife and forks by the plate. He looked up, and as he did the main doors to his right opened, and a procession entered.

They had done this at Castor’s too, he remembered, and the familiarity mixed with strangeness sent a shiver down his back. Servants dressed as highborn men and women entered the hall, walking sedately in pairs. Each wore a finely crafted mask–the death masks of the Boros ancestors. These masks probably resided in a room of their own, somewhere near the front of the manor. The ones at Castor’s manor were racked on the wall in pairs, with lines painted on the wall between the hooks, plainly showing the family tree.

At festival occasions they were taken out and worn, as now. The Boros ancestors had come to visit their descendents.

The horn sounded again. Everyone stood. The masked procession proceeded up the hall within the space between the tables, and each figure bowed or curtsied politely to the head table before it turned to walk back. Polite guests were expected to have already learned the names and histories behind these masks; Jordan had never thought to do so, but then, he had never been any highborn person’s guest before. He resolved to visit the mask room and learn the Boros pedigree as soon as he could.

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