A Thousand Glass Flowers … opening chapters.
Thumping woke her and the dog growled from her bed. The bar across the door rattled and underneath her fingers she could feel the hackles on the animal’s spine. ‘Hush, Phaeton,’ she whispered. ‘He can’t hurt me.’
‘Lalita Khatoun.’ The hated voice boomed from the other side of the door. ‘Bestir yourself, my niece. We have much to do before the Grand Vizier graces the premises.’
What would you know, fat Uncle? I despise you. She swung her legs to the floor, the dog arching his back and stretching. Outside she heard Uncle Kurdeesh walk away, the floor trembling with his bulk and bloated ego. For the thousandth time she wished her guardian Uncle and Aunt were here to share the moment to come, not the gross man outside who lurked like an indelible blemish on her life. She grunted in disgust. I can’t believe he emerged from the same womb as my father and Uncle Imran as there’s not a vestige of goodness in the rolls of his body. For a moment she thought on the parents she had never known but who had loved her, and she blessed the memory. Think of me, Mother and Father and pray for me. But then she allowed the mechanics of rising and dressing to focus her mind for the momentous time ahead, strengthening her spirit as she pulled on each garment. A quick glance in the mirror revealed eyes bright with expectation and lips tense with nerves for this was the day that could change her life, a day that could alter her status beyond recognition. She looped a scarf around her neck, and bent to smooth her fingers over Phaeton’s head as if the action would settle her. ‘Come, dog,’ she said as equably as she was able and lifting the heavy iron bar from her door, she walked down the stairs to the small emporium, her thoughts centered only on this day of chances – perhaps the Grand Vizier would commission her.
The Sultan Mohun was to send the gift of a book to the people of Veniche and there was talk this manuscript would be an illustrated copy of One Thousand and One Nights. For a week she had dreamed of how she would lay out the figurative work, the colours she would use, how she would copy the text, and now she scrutinised the shop display, eager it should represent her well. She unlocked the door to the street, pushing the heavy studded panel back. The townsfolk bustled past calling to her, and she answered them with a smile and butterflies in her belly.
Ahmadabad, City of a Thousand Magnificences, glowed in the desert dawn. The pink walls of the Palace and Seraglio dominated the skyline along with onion-domed minarets coated in gold leaf. The bureaucracy of the Raj squatted close by in marble buildings with shady colonnades and in one entire corner of the city, the Academie spread itself under the shade of aged date palms. Water ran from fountain to rill and quiet porticos provided spaces for the men of the province to debate and philosophise. But like the rest of Eirie, it rested on the whims and wherefores of the Other world that laced through the rhythms of life like a heartbeat and Lalita prayed for such spirits to bring her good fortune.
‘Have you written your fingers to the bone yet, Lalita?’ The baker hurried past, tossing her a honeyed pastry.
‘Not yet, Sulieman.’ She grinned as he jogged on the spot. ‘But I shall try.’
He laughed and winked at her and she watched him leave as she nibbled on her pastry.
‘Lalita,’ a voice called out and she swung the other way, wiping away the crumbs from her chin and brushing her clothes.
‘Good morning, Lalita. Are you prepared?’ A young man of her age, studious in his black kurta and trousers, walked toward her.
‘Oh Mahmoud, I have such high hopes but I am merely a woman in a man’s world.’
‘Nonsense. In your heart you know your work is beyond excellent.’ The son of the apothecary, he and Lalita had grown up together, studying flowers and leaves and all manner of things, he for their properties and she for their artistic value. When she needed to examine the famous books in the Academie, it was he who took her as his assistant, for to be a lone woman studying the tomes of men of learning was a difficult thing. ‘Can you remember my father’s delight when you handed him the copy of the Veniche Herbal? Every petal, every leaf and every stamen was detailed so well that you might as well have given him the original. Besides, how often have you said to me that it is the challenge. That you can accomplish this like no other.’
‘That was my ego speaking, Mahmoud, and well you know it. But I understand what you are trying to do and thank you for reminding me of your father. I’ll keep the memory close, if only to believe in myself for just this morning.’
Mahmoud moved toward her, lowering his voice so that she leaned in to hear. ‘Lalita, I have been so worried about you alone with that man . . .’ he tipped his head toward the shop interior. ‘He is strong, you . . . ‘
‘I’m safe, honestly. Your iron bar works admirably on my door and only a djinn could enter my room. Kurdeesh dare not be obvious. Please don’t fret.’
‘I wish Imran and Soraya were here but as they are not, I wish you had agreed to stay in the women’s quarters at our home.’
‘Mahmoud,’ Lalita laughed in spite of her nerves. ‘Would you entomb me in a seraglio? My dearest friend, you have provided for my immediate safety and Aunt and Uncle will be home tomorrow.’ She gave him a tiny push. ‘Call in this evening when you are finished with your business and I shall tell you my news. Wish me good fortune.’
‘Always, Lalita.’ He touched his forehead and chest and bowed slightly over his hand. Lalita felt the eloquence of his gesture deeply, knowing he had feelings for her and would ask her to be his wife. But she knew also that he understood her well and respected her desire for freedom.
She turned back to the store, endeavouring to survey the emporium with the objective eye of a lordly customer. A simple space but one she had enhanced with the quality of its contents. Light glanced off the pure colours of the illuminations and seductive goldleaf glistened. Pots of inks were shelved with precision, the quills, pens and burnishers lying below them, evenly spaced according to size. Lalita walked to an open book displayed on a polished cedar lectern, the page turned to a workday illustration of some bucolic scene, rich in blues and viridians. Some instinct made her fingers flick the page over and there was the illustration of a room of houries in transparent garb, their skin lustrous and draped with silk organza. The piece had taken her two weeks of painstaking work with a brush that she had plucked, leaving only one or two hairs. She believed the painterly rendering of such sheer fabric might almost be considered the touch of a Master.
Kurdeesh bustled into the shop tying a vast green sash around his middle. His turban gleamed white and he had waxed and trimmed his moustache to fly up in two handles on either side of his face. ‘You’ve done well, my little flower,’ he grunted and reached to touch her, sliding his arm along her shoulder and then down so that his fingers brushed her breast. She stepped away, putting the lectern between herself and the man she abhorred.
‘Uncle, I would like the opportunity to speak to the Grand Vizier myself. I am the scribe and I understand what will be required. It makes sense.’
He glanced at himself in the mirror behind his brother’s counter. ‘Perhaps to you, Lalita. But it’s not the way of men and most definitely not the way of the Court. I shall speak for you and for my brother’s emporium.’
‘No, Lalita.’ Kurdeesh raised his hand and slapped it down hard on a pile of journals and she shrank further behind the lectern as a shadow filled the open door. The street noise faded as the Grand Vizier stepped inside and Kurdeesh licked his lips. ‘Excellent Lord, we welcome you to our humble shop. You do this house much honour by entering the portals. May you be blessed with . . .’
The noble brushed past. ‘Enough, I am here for a purpose as you well know. This is your niece?’
‘Yes, yes.’ Kurdeesh moved to Lalita’s side. ‘This is she. Our little scribe.’ His hand began its vile creep across her shoulder.
‘I am honoured, Lord.’ Lalita shifted away from the impolite grasp and lowered her head.
The Grand Vizier tucked powerful fingers under her chin so that she was forced to look at his face. A strong face with slightly slanted eyes that were as dark and depthless as an oubliette. He was clean-shaven, his head polished to an unworldly shine and when he spoke, Lalita found she could barely stand, her knees as weak as a baby’s.
‘Pretty. Maybe more than pretty.’ The Vizier’s scrutiny burned into Lalita’s skin and her hands twisted together.
‘Ah sir, she is our little flower, a flower just waiting to be plucked by some lucky man.’
Lalita wanted to yell at her uncle. Is it a commission we are selling Uncle, or my body? ‘Lord, please feel free to examine all that you wish.’ She drew the Vizier’s attention away with a sweep of her arm, seeking the confidence that had vanished when the man had entered the emporium.
He stepped away from her, the austerity of his black Raji jodhpurs and kurta arousing an image of some forbidding djinn. He moved with the grace of a panther, examining the odoriferous papers and the tools of her trade, but his eyes lingered longest on the page of houries. He flicked back and forth through the book with slow and careful deliberation, before returning to the page she had marked. ‘How long did this work take?’
‘Not so long, perhaps a week. The transparent fabric on the odalisques required some attention. I can see you appreciate the detail, sir.’
‘I am impressed with your hand here, the use of the quill and brushes, very elegant. And here, the curve of your capitals and your clever figurative design, it is excellent. The colours you have used too, they are very pure.’
‘I make my own sir, when I require a tint peculiar to my tastes.’
‘You handle linen paper well. Most scribes use parchment.’
Lalita was surprised at the man’s knowledge. ‘Yes, but despite its cost paper is magnificent. The grain, the texture . . .’
He glanced at her again. ‘And the binding, did you do it yourself?’ His long fingers ran back and forth over the indented, burnished leather.
‘I did, Lord.’
‘It is unusual to pursue such work. Surely the work of men.’
‘Indeed, but I found I had an affinity with the pen and with paper and binding.’
‘So I have heard. It seems half the well-to-do women of Ahmadabad want your journals and herbals. Even in the Court. Did you know the Valide Sultan was presented with an illustrated herbal? Ah, I see you are surprised.’ He took the book off the lectern and weighed it in his hands. ‘In Fahsi, the paper and ink makers speak of your skill with an admiration they would normally use for a Master.’
‘I am grateful for their praise, Lord.’ Even though they are men and you believe I exist falsely in a man’s world. She could see it in his eyes as he looked at her.
‘Do you think you could scribe A Thousand and One Nights in a month?’
Lalita’s spirits soared and as quickly plummeted at the fragile chance dangling in front of her. A month!
‘She could do it in two weeks with some urging.’ Kurdeesh’s voice dropped like a stone between Lalita and the official.
The Grand Vizier turned and snapped at him. ‘Khatoun, you are not a scribe, not even close. Let the woman speak. Your chance will come later.’
How so? Lalita stood perplexed, wondering what on earth her uncle could add that would make a commission more likely. ‘Lord, there are many stories . . .’
The noble turned away.
‘But yes.’ She crossed her fingers behind her back. ‘It will be close run but I believe I could do it.’
The Grand Vizier carefully returned the book to the lectern, opening it to the page of houries, his eyes meeting hers. This is how a mouse must feel under the scrutiny of a cat. She could almost see a tail swinging mesmerizingly from side to side. His gaze slipped from her face, skimming over her person, quickly at first and then more slowly, examining every inch of her being until a blush burned its way to her cheeks. She was reminded of the earlier touch of fat fingers and as she glanced at Kurdeesh, she almost choked to see a look of complicity in his eyes. The word trust danced before her as surely as if she had picked up a reed pen, dipped it in ink and written it on a piece of blank parchment.
‘Lalita,’ Kurdeesh ordered as if he were the Sultan himself and she jumped. ‘Go to the inn and purchase the best wine available. His Excellency and I have business to discuss. And we shall do it over a repast.’
Don’t, Kurdeesh, you will lose this commission. She scowled at her uncle but he turned away and fingered some of the blank sheets she had piled up and suddenly she wanted to walk out and keep walking because intuition began to whisper. But she chided herself. Don’t be ridiculous. There can be nothing but good business at stake, that’s all. Please Aine, let it be the Sultan’s commission, nothing less.
‘Lalita, this is your big day, is it not?’ The innkeeper’s mouth twitched at her, his eyes as lascivious as any she had seen this day.
‘It is.’ She passed over some gelt and his fingers caressed it off the counter.
‘Kurdeesh told us how he inveigled the interest of the Royal Court. He did well. Imran should have done the same but he hasn’t got the drive. I’ve always said Kurdeesh has what it takes; he is the wilier of the brothers.’
‘Uncle Imran runs a remarkable business with a valuable reputation. He has refined knowledge that Uncle Kurdeesh does not. I imagine that is what brings the Grand Vizier to the emporium, nothing else.’
‘You think?’ The innkeeper wiped his hands over the oil in his hair. ‘Pity he’s away then.’
‘A shop does not stock itself and in any case he and Aunt will be back tomorrow.’ She picked up the wine and headed for the beaded curtain at the entrance.
‘And they’ll have missed all the fun. Such a shame.’
Lalita deigned not to answer. The innkeeper was part of Kurdeesh’s coterie and it could only tarnish a day that had potential. Back in the emporium, she took a tray and made an arrangement of pleasant things for the Grand Vizier and her uncle to nibble on, her hands shaking as she assembled the dates and fine nougats, the wafers and pastes and the decanter of wine. Carrying it in to the two men who had seated themselves on coffers between a selection of her bound journals, she wished she was covered in a burqua from neck to knee because she sensed their eyes upon her – every move she made, every gesture. She felt as naked as one of her illustrated houries and chafed that she hadn’t left the book open to a more commonplace illustration.
She removed herself to the back patio where she sat hugging Phaeton, taking deep sustaining breaths. To be sure the Grand Vizier had surveyed her work in detail and his questions had been knowledgeable and pointed but his gaze had been bold and suggestive. Phaeton licked her chin as she went to bury her face in his velvet-smooth neck and he turned and pushed against her hand, anchoring her with his comfort so that she found she could think beyond the odd exchanges of the day. She remembered the copy of A Thousand and One Nights in the Academie Library and she knew, as sure as a dust storm preceded the Symmer wind, that she could do it so much better. A tingle fizzed through her – nerves, excitement, fingers twitching. She wanted to hold a pen to frame the first word. Allow the sharpened end of the reed to sweep up and down; creating, shaping, to then fill the hollow parts of the capital with gold leaf and rich tint – ruby red, lapis blue, verdigris green. The pinnacle of achievement for any scribe.
She sat for a minute, allowing the humming of the bees in the oleander flowers to fill the peace of the arbor. But the insidious touch of Kurdeesh’s hand crept from behind the cover of her anticipation and she collapsed against her dog, sucking in a sigh and soughing it out through gritted teeth ‘My chances will spoil through his covetousness,’ she muttered to her dog. ‘And if they do, I swear I shall make him suffer. I will, Phaeton. I swear.’
The doves cooed on the roof and the sun dropped golden coins between the shadows of the grapevine as Kurdeesh called her. At that moment every single thing engraved itself upon her mind. Kurdeesh was tucking a vast wad of gelt into his sash as she entered the shop and when his eyes met Lalita’s they were as cold as a storm on Mt.Goti. ‘Lalita Khatoun’ he said. ‘Pack your equipment and anything personal. The Grand Vizier will escort you back to the Seraglio.’
‘Of course, but I need nothing personal, only my pens and inks and if I miss anything I can take it back tomorrow.’
‘No, Lalita Khatoun,’ the Grand Vizier spoke from where he was again looking at the page of houries. ‘Once you are in the Seraglio, you stay. If you need anything it will be sent for.’
An unbelievable notion began to fill her head, dismembering her sense of achievement but she pushed it away. ‘How long am I to be employed within the Seraglio?’
The Grand Vizier gave a glimmer of a smile, an oily lift of a mouth that would brook no disagreement. ‘You are not employed to work at the Seraglio, woman,’ the words dripped on her from a lofty height. ‘You are to be one of the harem. Your uncle here has sold you.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Her knees began to buckle and she held onto Phaeton’s collar.
‘It is fortunate you are talented enough to take up the commission of A Thousand and One Nights as it will bring you to the notice of the Sultan that much earlier and we shall all benefit.’ The Grand Vizier flipped a flywhisk against his thigh with impatient fingers. Tap tap, tap tap, the sound punctuating his words. ‘Get your things, the guard waits.’
No, you can’t. But she knew he could and asked only one desperate question. ‘My dog?’
‘Bring him. The Seraglio has dogs. Five minutes please.’ The Grand Vizier walked out of the door, taking her life with him.
Kurdeesh bustled around bowing and scraping and thanking the highborn visitor. Lalita wanted to stab her uncle with the paper knife that winked on the counter but she was numb, as rigid as a block of ice. She unfroze her limbs and with dignity she knew was only skin-deep, she packed a satchel, called Phaeton and left.
‘What is it?’ Finnian of the Færan’s hand closed around the chamois bag.
‘Yew bark and leaves, it’ll kill any living thing. You must want to kill someone pretty bad to use this stuff. Be kinder to garotte ‘em.’
The dealer’s features were blurred in the dark of the alley. The man was short but even so, gusts of his breath wafted upward – sour, smacking of rotting teeth, stale food and ale. He had been sentenced to hang in Veniche as a trader of poisons but escaped to Castello’s iniquitous surroundings and Finnian thanked Aine for it.
‘I have no wish to be kind.’ Far from it. ‘And I don’t like the garotte. How do I use this?’ He rattled the bag, the ingredients hissing like a basilisk as they slid around inside the leather.
‘Grind them to a powder then mix the dust in red wine. With some honey if you want. Warm it and it will be so much the quicker.’
‘Two days at most and it won’t be nice. There’ll be fast breath, probably a galloping heart like they’d run for their life. And if you give ‘em a second dose, the heart’ll slow right down. There’ll be vomiting, body cramps and a violent and bloody flux. Eventually there’ll be convulsions and death.’
The gelt jingled as Finnian passed it over.
‘The body’ll empty of everything, you know. An ugly sight if ever there was and there will be a stinking mess.’
A mess is nothing but just desserts. How many times had he soiled himself in fear as a child and then been beaten for it? Beaten, always beaten, for that and so much else besides.
The dealer turned to fade away into the sea mist crawling up the alley and Finnian mesmered. The need was great and his fingers tightened in excitement as he wafted his hand through the air as if he wiped moisture off a windowpane. The shadowy man froze and he squeezed past. The dealer wouldn’t remember him nor would he remember the transaction and his pocket would be filled merely with twigs.
Within his grandmother’s fortress, Finnian pulverised the yew with a mortar and pestle, his heart jumping as he thought of what he must do. He placed an empty goblet by the fire to warm as the old woman, Isolde, sat hunkered at the table. ‘Pour me a wine. I am in need.’ She rarely looked him in the face.
He took the goblet, tipping in the red Raji wine and the dust, stirring it with his stiletto. The plan was audacious. She asks me to outwit her . . . ‘Do you want honey?’
Isolde of the Færan bent over one of her small aged grimoires, her knotted finger tracing the text. ‘Of course I want honey. I always have honey.’ Her voice still had the capacity to flay inches off his back as her whipping had done when he was a child. His hand shook as he added a scoop of the sweetener, the liquid falling into the goblet. He watched the thick gilded drop as it fell, seeing a lifetime of opportunities reflected, watching a lifetime of brutality dissolve. Isolde reached for the wine. ‘A good vintage,’ she muttered as she drained the goblet and held it out for more.
As the meal progressed he watched her covertly, sweating over every change in expression, every movement of a hand that eventually reached to rub a distended stomach.
‘By Aine, my belly! Get the maid, I need to go to my chamber.’ She stood and leaned against her chair, her goblet dropping to the floor. ‘It’s tainted. Tell the factor. There may be . . . oh,’ she held onto the maid, her hand white with effort. ‘I’m so dizzy. The room spins.’
Finnian watched her lurch on the maid’s arm out the door, heard her vomit as she went to climb the stairs and was happy. He poured his own wine, another decanter, his grandmother’s tipped through the window casement, and remembered other escape plans – so many.
As a boy – midnight, creeping down a cold stone stairwell in bare feet, heart thumping in a startled rhythm learned at birth. Out kitchen doors, through front entrances, across rooves high above rocks that would shred and ganch him to a pulp should he fall.
Always she would be waiting.
But he persisted. As an adolescent, cannier – daytime, hiding amongst the wine casks on a galliot, the smell of tannin and oak filling his nose. Or amongst a crowd, disguised with burnois amongst the camels, mingling, bending, tucking in a strap, smoothing the animal’s course hair with fingers that shook in expectation. Hoisting himself into the creaking saddle of a prone beast, heart singing a song of freedom. But on the camel’s other side she would wait and the song would cease abruptly.
‘Outwit me boy,’ she laughed before the beatings began again.
And despite her enchantments, despite her immortality, it seemed he had at last succeeded, by using the poisons of mortal men.
He sat alone in the dining hall next morning. Outside, the searing Raji sun fried the dust off Castello’s walls. The factor came in with a tray, breathless and disgruntled. ‘We’re a bit pushed this morning, sir. Lady Isolde’s very ill, there’s a filthy mess upstairs and we’re drawing straws to clean.’
Finnian contemplated the strange world he inhabited: a fortress town ensconced in the mortal Raj but filled with the seedy and disgusting, both mortal and eldritch. The inhabitants drifted in and out of each other’s lives, as they did in the rest of Eirie, but here it was a potent brew of the worst kind. His grandmother deserved this; she had created the place, she must die here.
He wondered at his own feather lightness of heart, whether he should care at all, maybe even a small measure of disgust at his own obscene actions. But he could dredge up nothing except satisfaction, his palm slapping the table with a whack.
He headed for the front entrance but a worn voice called him back. Isolde’s physician, a fallen man like the rest, stared at him with bloodshot eyes and pouches of loose skin beneath. ‘She’s dying,’ he growled. ‘She’s got blood in her shit and she’s shaking as if she’s got the deadly ague and her heart beats so light it’d barely keep a babe alive. She’ll be toes up by moonrise I reckon. But then I can’t see that you care. Not sure I do either really.’ He dragged a cheroot out and lit it. ‘Never liked being a mortal mixing with you Others. Seems odd. Your grandmother could click her fingers and I’d be dead. When she’s gone I’m leaving. This place with its sordid mix of Them and us, it’s unhealthy.’ He began to make the sign of the horns but coughed on the cheroot smoke and ground the stub under his booted heel. ‘You should get out, despite being of the Færan. This place’ll be a madhouse when she dies.’
It’s been a madhouse all my life and I am getting out.
He disguised himself in a longshoreman’s dirty clothes and leaped aboard a galliot, piling gelt into the bosun’s hands, affecting the persona of a mortal. ‘I’ll double it if we leave now, triple it for speed and every oarsman will be the richer for their loyalty and silence.’ He would have dived in off the gunwhales with the line in his teeth and towed the vessel if it would make it go any faster.
He didn’t bother to look back. Relief rolled through his body in waves. Oh she wouldn’t say as much, but Isolde of the Færan his grandmother, had somehow fettered him by a mesmer as strong as links of forged iron and he’d done what he had to do.
The bosun called commands, the starboard oars feathering as the port oars pulled the vessel around the seawall and south toward Bressay. The sea stretched like mottled silk, the journey promising to be smooth and Finnian chafed for the vessel to fly so he could escape his memories.
The evening delivered a safe anchorage in one of the shoal of islands dotting the Pymm Archipelago. A massive hook of dolomite, its leeward waters gave shelter to smaller craft and the bosun ordered the anchor lowered close in. The crew hopped across a causeway of rocks to the shore, broached a keg of rum and lit a fire with driftwood and dried dulse from amongst the tumbled boulders. Bawdy songs drifted out to the roanes sitting on the furthest edge of the causeway and Finnian laughed when their iridescent tails slapped the water in disgust.
‘Here, you want some?’ A sailor held out a tankard.
‘As much as you want to give me.’ He grabbed the mug of rum and tossed it back, then held it up for more.
The sailor grinned and splashed in another tot. ‘Now here’s a man, fellas, didn’t even wince as he downed the stuff.’ Heads turned in Finnian’s direction. ‘When folk drink like that, they’re usually running away from summat.’
Finnian tossed the next one back and the crew applauded. ‘You’ve seen Castello, anyone’d run from that,’ he said.
‘My oath,’ chipped in a voice. ‘It’s like Hades, all them Others driftin’ around with suspicious mortals . . .’
‘Take a look at yerself, Jack. You’d be as bad as the rest.’
‘Aye but there’s something sick in that place. And deadly.’
Finnian sipped at the third mugful and felt the edges of his panic blur. ‘Sick and deadly don’t cover it.’
‘Tell us what yer seen, mate. Cos we all got some bad stories o’ that place. I tell yer, if the bosun hadn’t left when he did, I would’ve swum away mesself.’
Finnian surveyed the crinkled and tanned leather faces. ‘It’s full of murderers.’ As if I care.
There was a stretched silence and then the night exploded with a roar of laughter.
‘Well yeah, we’re all murderers. Every one of us, we all killed someone, it’s why we stayed away in that place fer so long. But just lately it’s got worse,’ one sailor said.
‘Yeah,’ said another. ‘The old woman, that Isolde, she’s after summat. No one knows what, but she’s been haulin’ in people from Veniche and quizzin’ em and if they don’t answer her questions she tortures em by enchantment and it’s been frightful. She mesmered a man’s leg off the other day, they say. Split another’s head in half with a sweep of her hand. Left ’im looking at his brains on the floor.’
‘I poisoned her.’ Finnian reached the bottom of the third mug.
‘Yer did yer say.’ A huge brawny arm went round his shoulder as a communal breath was sucked in. Finnian looked up into the pig eyes of a giant who could strangle with one hand whilst scratching his groin with the other. ‘Who are yer?’ the fellow said.
A sense of power swept over Finnian on the crest of a rum-soaked wave, power he’d never felt when Isolde had dominated him. ’I’m Finnian, the crone’s grandson. I poisoned her with yew and she was dying as I left. She’s lying in a pile of vomit and shit as we speak.’
Another silence developed as the sailors stared at him. Fingers twitched as if the sign of the horns would be invoked but there was grudging respect as well. Finally the bosun spoke. ‘I heard she was terrible ill. Why’d yer do it?’
‘She brutalized me all my life. You want to see?’ He stood and ripped off the stolen coat and smelly shirt. Turning, he allowed them to look, a communal breath sucking in.
‘Looks like a bloody keel-hauling.’
‘Like a flogging afore the mast I reckon.’
‘Why’d she do that to yer?’ The giant leaned close and the rum went the rounds again.
He shrugged his shoulders, loath to talk more. He drank the rum but this time felt none of its comfort and a curious sense of dislocation settled over him. He was hardly sure of where he was or whom he was with.
‘And yer poisoned her, yer say.’
The silence descended a third time before the crew finally applauded with gusto, slapping his scarred back and emptying the rum barrel. As the night deepened, one after the other of the sailors fell into a deep sleep, leaving Finnian feeling nauseous until the rum poured itself back up his gullet and into the rockpools. Some faint vestige of sense saw his hand sweep in a mesmer to erase all his talk from the sailors’ minds. No one should know of him, it suited him best. He wove away from the men to find a pool out of sight and deeper than the rest and plunged in his head as if the water would wash away his previous life. He came up gasping as a voice as soft as a seductress sighed by his ear. A water-wight with a pretty face and trailing locks of silver stood watching. ‘She’ll find you, Færan.’
‘Then she’ll be a shade with little power and it matters not,’ snarled Finnian, head throbbing, bile burning his throat. ‘Bain as.’
The woman smoothed her sea green robes and sat by him, her mouth in a moue of displeasure. ‘But I would talk with you. Come sit.’
He had no desire to talk but collapsed on a boulder anyway.
‘Tell me, Isolde’s Finnian, why do you think your grandmother is like this?’
‘Was. Was, I tell you. Anyway, what do you mean by ‘this’? Brutal? Insane? Aine, she was all that. She hated my father. My mother died in childbirth. Maybe that was enough. Why else would she steal me from my twin’s side? Surely that implies madness. And for what?’ He swore, muttering, ‘She knew how to vent better than the Ice Winds.’
‘You know, Isolde’s Finnian, we wonder why you did not escape earlier, mesmer yourself away.’
‘It wasn’t possible. She always knew. Every time . . .’ his voice dropped as he remembered.
‘A sick soul. Lost in her madness, her obsessions, ah yes, we know that much.’
‘Obsessions,’ Finnian sneered. ‘Do you know she fancied she could dominate Eirie, mortal and eldritch and her a feeble old woman? A bloody delusion.’
‘That’s no delusion, Isolde’s boy. If she lays her hands on the Cantrips of Unlife, she will do exactly that.’
‘Aine woman, why do you speak as if she lives? When I left she was breathing her last.’ He bent over the stilled pool, as brightly reflective as a mirror in the moonlight. He flicked up a face-full of water and blinked as the drips fell, the water rippling then settling. ‘And besides those Cantrips are gone.’ He knew that was what Isolde had tortured and murdered for and looked up at the water-wight, his head thundering with a wretched ache.
The story of the fateful enchantments ran like a litany through the days of his life. They were created by a Færan Master and were intended to subdue an entire world – those in the air, water and earth when Eirie had been a vortex of chaos. Subsequently the Cantrips were hidden in a secret abyss because the charm master had created enchantments that were above destruction. History said they were lost for the greater good but according to Isolde, apparently not and he tired of hearing about it.
‘Many seek,’ the wight answered, ‘but there are whispers Isolde is closer than most.’ The woman’s lips slid back, her lovely countenance spoiling in an instant as she revealed teeth sharpened to a stake point. ‘And you ask why I speak as if she lives? She does, Isolde’s boy, she does. Weak to be sure, but patently your poison was not her bane. Have no doubt, as soon as she is strong she will find you. And what do you imagine she will do by way of punishment?’
Finnian’s heart collapsed. Instantly he was a little boy, desperate for a family that cared for him, running, hiding, fear racketing like a mob of horses through every inch of his child’s body. I gave her enough to stop a herd of oxen. ‘It’s impossible. She had the bloody flux when I left. Her physician said she was passing blood as if someone had pulled a cork.’
‘She lives. Cannot you feel her eyes upon you even now? Just like before?’ The water-wight whipped around him, disorienting him so that he leaned back. She whispered close by his ear, her breath ice-cold. ‘Aren’t you disappointed you weren’t successful? What would it take do you think, to kill Isolde?”
The woman smiled at him, a deathly grin. Isolde’s grin, the wight’s, it was all of a piece. He pushed himself away from the rock and stared down at the sea-nymph. He could barely think. His audacious plan: rotten, useless.
The sea-wight laughed. ‘Finnian, Isolde’s grandson, you are scared. Ah well, you should be. They say Isolde describes your death in livid detail from her convalescent bed. That she plans to find you and kill you and then secure the charms. Even now she mesmers herself well with every spell in her rotten grimoires. Does that not create the tiniest measure of panic in you, brother of Liam?’ She turned her back on him and flowed like a stream of chilled water into the sea.
Breath eluded him, his chest tightened and he looked at his hands as they knotted themselves on the edges of the rocks. The moonlit pool lay still before him and he looked into it as if the answer would spell itself out. What can kill her? Some mesmer, some charm? Desperation clawed at the back of his throat and he retched, the sour taste of rum filling his mouth. Some charm, some irredeemable charm?
The answer when it came, was bold in its simplicity. He almost laughed as relief snapped at the heels of his fear.
The Cantrips of Unlife.
He would find them. He would beat her in the race to recover them and then he would use the Earth Charm. He would kill the woman who had blighted his life like some stinking, maiming disease. He wiped his face and the sense of throttling panic began to recede as he slid down the rockface and sat with his legs pulled up to his chest, thinking on the water-wight’s words.
Liam. Brother of Liam. He had never known what his twin had been called. He repeated the name as he tried not to care that Isolde lived. He mouthed it now in the dark of night, surrounded by a chorus of inebriated snores from further down the shore. He could have known the man Liam, they could have shared a real life, family life, instead of an imagined one, if it hadn’t been for the sick machinations of a raving old woman. But it was too late now because Liam was dead. Long since. He brushed impatiently at the hair that was cut into his nape, as if the action could smooth away uneasy thoughts, and then rubbed his hands back and forth over the black stubble covering his chin. He could have done with a woman, it was what he craved after a drunken bout and when tension was high. In the taverns, he would glance their way and they’d fall at his feet for he knew he attracted them; it was a bright spot in an otherwise dark and drear life. But there was no seduction to be had in this cove and instead he reached for a square of parchment from within his coat. He unfolded it, smoothing the creases that marred the surface. The night-breeze lifted a corner and played with it for a moment but he shifted his body to protect it.
Raised with the idea that he was tainted offspring, the bleak emptiness had only ever been leavened by the solace of Isolde’s library, filled with shadows in which he could hide. Hours of his life had been spent lying on the floor, books spread out, as he talked to an unknown, imagined brother – sharing the cruel and the indifferent. The illuminations of the many manuscripts coloured the greyness of his growth and one in particular aroused his interest.
He stared at it now, the page he had torn out and carried forever like a talisman. The moonlight brightened and a beam shone down upon the fragment. It showed a woman at a table with a reed pen in her fingers, her hand curved eloquently over a sheet of white paper. Her black hair draped in a skein across her shoulders and he allowed her beauty and tranquility to cosset him as if she were his love, removing the fear of Isolde that hovered forever like a foetid fog. He ran a finger along the text that he knew by heart:
‘I saw her stare
on old dry writing in a learned tongue . . .
(and) move a hand as if that
were some dear cheek.’
The breath of the dying breeze drifted down over his face and as he slipped into sleep, he wished it were the woman’s finger.