“Surec, will you come down from that tree? Mother says she’d like to speak with you.”
“Leave me to rot.”
“Mother says she needs you.”
“Dempsie, LEAVE ME.”
“Don’t be pathetic, Surec.” When I refused to move, Dempsie produced a jug from behind her back, sloshing it so I could hear that it was full of liquid. “There’s something in it for you.” She said in a sing song voice.
“A moment.” I said, climbing down from my spot. I was careful to keep sure footing all the way down, as too much to drink took the feeling from my extremities.
Dempsie waited patiently, grinning enough to highlight the dimples in her cheeks. My sister took after our mother; she had very dark skin, soft black hair that curled in tight spirals, and dark grey eyes. She was reasonably tall for a woman, and had the same pleasant roundness in places that caught attention as Mother. Attention that made me want to scream in annoyance. Dempsie always interpreted my protective instincts as jealousy that I wasn’t beautiful, yet. Silver hair and eyes in a thin, pale face. A lanky body that never looked graceful and looked foolish in current human fashions and childish in my normal uniform of cape and breeches. Yes, my sister was much closer than I to Peak, the event at which the gods would arrange a marriage between her and another of our kind. After that, we would never travel together again. I tried to banish the thought from my mind as she handed me the jug.
“Mother says you’re not to sleep in the tree anymore. And you have to eat supper.” Dempsie continued to prattle on about all the new complaints Mother had about my behavior as I sipped from the jug of Godspit. We walked slowly through the orchard where we were camped, a good ten miles from the abbey of Prospero. By the time we reached our tent, I had made a noticeable dent in the contents and was having difficulty listening to my sister and walking at the same time. Our father met us at the opening.
“I don’t recall giving you permission to take my good Godspit to your brother, Dempsie.” Our father said, towering over my sister and staring her down. Dempsie smiled deeply, wearing him down as she always did.
“If I could have gotten him out of the tree without it, I would have. But you insisted I go, so I went and took the Godspit. Although, Father, I’m not so sure that I can agree that there is such a thing as good Godspit. It’s a contradiction.” She finished her speech and gazed up at him with her eyes wide and earnest. I rolled my eyes and sat on the ground hard, stretching my legs out. Father had the sort of face that kind people said mine would become, someday. Maybe not just kind, because I never did come across a Death Elf who was ugly. Beauty seemed to find us eventually, although I felt that twenty years was plenty long to wait.
“Surec, Mother wants to speak with you.”
“Speak out here.” I mumbled, staring up at the darkening sky.
Father motioned for Dempsie to go inside, and she shot me an apologetic glance before obeying. “Surec, this is not the only or the last unpleasant work you’ll do. You need to keep your wits about you.”
His voice came from right above me, but my altered state made it seem like it was coming from the abbey itself. Where Clara lay, ignorant of the fate that awaited her. No, it was too much to think about.
Father continued. “You’re hardly the first to develop an attachment to a mortal.”
“Just the worst off for it. There’s what, one who resurrects born every thousand years? No one knows what it is to feel this.” I sighed and closed my eyes.
“We cannot interfere with the will of the gods. If the abbey must die, the abbey must die.”
“Prospero must die. Why should innocent people go with him?” I spat, forgetting that I was lying down. Of course. Father chuckled and knelt beside me, handing me a spare rag from his pocket. When I didn’t take it, he picked up my head to place in his lap and took care of the task himself.
“Sweet son, “He hesitated, alternating glancing between my face and the trees beyond, “I-“
“Surec! Why are you laying in the dirt in your good breeches!” Mother yelled from the opening of the tent, fists firmly pressed into her hips. She shot an angry glance at Father. “And for the love of the gods, why are you encouraging this, Nimat?”
“Oh Rein, let him have his moment. The pressures of immortality are hard on a young man.”
“Nimat, no more.” Mother pointed to the tent. “Inside, both of you, now.”
I straightened up to allow Father to move from his spot. Because I knew it would rile her up further, I kissed Mother’s cheek as I passed her and entered the tent. She winced as the smell of Godspit on my breath hit her nose.
The tent was not a true tent, but rather what Easterners would call a yurt. It was supported by poles everywhere and was quite spacious. Mother and Father slept in this one, which was also our common room of sorts, while Dempsie and I slept in a smaller one half a mile away. The middle of the room had a large short table in the center, surrounded by cushions and blankets. The majority of our belongings were stacked in one corner, although it wasn’t much- a few human outfits, a moderate amount of cookware, and Olympian paper used to correspond with the gods. Dempsie sat on her knees at the table drinking warm aged nectar in one hand and holding a hunk of dark bread in the other. She had had a bad habit of eating this way since we were children. The fact that she refused to give it up was half of the reason that I was sent to spy on Prospero and his companions. Her manners, perfect for our kind, were poor for theirs. I sank to my knees across from her, holding out my hand for a piece of her bread.
“Surec, it’s time.” Mother said, making her way to the table, Father trailing behind her.
“Another week won’t-“
“The gods have spoken. Tomorrow. This has gone on long enough.” Mother spoke with the sort of finality that I had been dreading for the last three weeks. Three weeks of near-nightly meetings with Clara.
She was so beautiful, even though she also wasn’t. Her chin was pointy, her dark eyes too far apart, her mouth too large and too red for the smallness of that chin and the paleness of her face. No, all of the beauty came out in her voice. Even when she was nervous, or annoyed, or had a bit too much champagne or Godspit, her voice was elegant, musical and controlled. The way she said my name made me want to do things that could cause problems between her and her mother.
I had spent evenings dancing with Clara in the orange room, attracting the attention of many a person. I had spent evenings on a sofa in the green room, laughing and talking about the other companions of Prospero (and sometimes Prospero himself). In a fit of boldness, we had even ventured into the room that few ever wandered into; the black room with the scarlet windows. I admired how the lighting in this room toned down so much of the oddness of Clara’s coloring, and how it made her usual black dress look almost erotic.
Clara told me about her father, how he was always ill and died before the plague made its way through the kingdom. She told me how I reminded her of him, somewhat, because he also had silver eyes. I shrugged this off, understanding that humans have a truly poor perception of color. I told her about Dempsie, a bit. She was interested to hear more, always, but it seemed pointless. So pointless.
“If we go in tomorrow, I spend tonight at the abbey.” I said, chewing and swallowing the bread Dempsie gave me.
Mother and Father exchanged glances. Eventually, Father sighed. “Surec, you really should get some rest. You have a big task ahead of you.”
“I’ll rest after. You should know better, Father. Elves always play before they work.”
Mother narrowed her eyes at me. “Surec, you had better not be planning anything improper with that lady.”
I widened my eyes in mock surprise. “That you could suggest such a thing, wounds me. I would of course let the maiden die with her dignity about her.”
Mother’s scrutiny intensified. Dempsie glanced between the two of us, watching to see who would put their foot down first.
“Go, Surec. Be back by midday. Never mind that it means your sister is stuck with your share of the packing.”
Dempsie gave a mock growl and stuck out her tongue. She let her eyes sparkle to tell me that this was purely for Mother’s benefit. I hurried to my feet and left before she could change her mind.
“Who is the gentleman that you have been spending so much time with, Clara?” Mary asked in a rare fit of motherly concern. She was sitting at her dressing table, trying to choose which earrings to wear with the red dress. She was caught between emeralds and diamonds, and moving her head from side to side to examine the effects in the mirror. Clara, who had already been dressed for well over an hour but needed an escort to enter the imperial suite, was beyond impatient.
“His name is Surec.” Clara noticed the way her insides fluttered when she said his name. She hoped it wasn’t obvious to her mother, who felt that Clara was still a moment too young for marriage.
“Surec? What an unusual name; I don’t believe I’ve heard of any Surecs around court. That is his family name, isn’t it?”
Clara paused. She had never asked, but she got the impression that it was his given name. “No, his first I believe.”
“Well what is his family name?” Mary asked impatiently, ripping the emerald earring from her left ear and replacing it with the diamond mate.
“I haven’t asked. It’s hardly important for my purposes.” Clara’s answer had the effect of telling Mary all she needed to know, and she smiled placidly.
“That’s exactly correct. Maybe in a year this will be a different conversation.” Mary rose and gestured to Clara to do the same. Clara hid her excitement with small, ladylike steps.
Although it was quite late at night, it was quite early in the party. It was larger than normal, with at least half of the 1,000 companions present. Clara fretted, for she knew that it could take her ages to find Surec in such a crowd. She wandered to the blue room, which was the least crowded of the apartments with the exception of the so-called “blood room”. It turned out that her thinking was correct, as she noticed Surec walking towards her with two glasses of champagne. He was wearing his usual attire, including the masque, which Clara had grown quite used to. She accepted hers eagerly.
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Of course. Have any interesting tales to share?” Surec asked, lowering his voice and examining the others in the room. Clara knew that he never left his apartments during the day, and relied on her information to know what was going on.
“Lady Rigby had a fit over breakfast. Something about one of the tumblers making advances on her daughter.” Clara had never liked gossip much, but she enjoyed sharing it with Surec now, the way his eyes lit up and his mouth twisted with amusement.
“Her daughter should be so lucky. I’ve never met a meaner, more charmless person in all my life.”
Clara nodded in agreement. “She stole my pen when we were children and stabbed me with it. I still have a scar.”
Surec stopped, and leaned in closer. “Where?”
Clara flushed deeply and shook her head, unable to respond. She took a deeper drink of her champagne, and waited for him to speak again. Instead of continuing, Surec straightened his back and gazed off into the distance, towards the purple room.
“Surec? Is something the matter?
“Would you marry me?”
Clara leapt back with a start. “Surec?”
“Come with me.” He said, holding out his hand.
“Surec, you’re acting quite strange. Are you sure everything is all right?”
Surec nodded. “Quite all right.” He gave a small smile, moving his hand to suggest again that Clara take it. She did, flushing deeper with his mood that was contagious.
Surec led Clara through the door of the blue apartment, which led to a hallway that she was quite familiar with. He was so tall, and was taking such great strides that she nearly had to run to keep up with him. Since Surec clasped tightly to one hand, her glass in the other, she could not hold her skirts, and took strange but many steps to avoid tripping on them. Partygoers passing them gave her strange looks, and she was sure that someone would make mention of it to Mary. She dreaded coming up with an explanation, but also felt excitement welling up inside when he made a turn into an unfamiliar part of the abbey.
Surec stopped at the bottom of a flight of stairs tucked into a corner, which Clara recognized from her mother’s stories then as leading to Prospero’s private chapel. He paused then, looking at Clara from behind the masque she had grown so used to. There was a window with a deep ledge, and it was there that he set down his glass after draining it. Without speaking, he motioned for her to do the same. Clara shook her head but placed her glass next to his, still half full. She felt her hands grow ice cold as she clasped them together behind her back.
“Clara, I told you when we first met that you could trust me. Do you believe me.”
Without hesitating, Clara answered. “Yes, Surec. I do, more than anyone else alive.”
“Then hear me, Clara.” Surec gently grabbed her arms at the elbows, forcing her to remove them from her back. “Prospero has brought doom to this abbey. All inside will perish at the strike of twelve tomorrow. I am sorry. I have no choice.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s the will of the gods. Prospero, and his companions, must die.”
“And how would you know this?”
“Because I am…” Surec drifted off and stared away from Clara to the window. “A servant of the gods. I cannot help it.”
“I don’t understand what you mean Surec,” Clara said, gently placing her fingertips on his chin to turn his gaze back to her, “But I have known from the moment I met you that you were no ordinary man. At times it frightened me, I’ll admit. But I believe you. I knew when this plan was announced that we would be punished for this.”
“Then why did you come? Why?” Surec asked, ashamed at the way his voice rose with the question.
Clara gave a small shrug. “Oh, what choice did I have?” She gazed up into Surec’s face, allowing the moonlight to bring out all of the beauty in his features. She sighed and leaned back into the wall behind her. “If I hadn’t come, would I ever have met you?”
At this, Surec smiled even as he felt tears on his cheeks. “My lady, you still haven’t met me, quite yet.” He held out his hand and nodded towards the stairs. As Clara climbed them, she felt as though she was ascending to heaven itself.
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