“Do you like to ride, Miss Meredithe?” Lucius asked.
“Oh, I love riding whenever I can.”
“Then you must come out to our estate sometime, because it’s truly spectacular territory.”
I agreed that this would be a simply wonderful thing. The conversation continued; amiably discussing horses, hounds, tack and terrain. It was a pretty safe topic. I pretended to know less than I did and listened raptly to Bel and Lucius discuss the finer points of choosing a saddle horse. They were ideal young gentlemen; polite, charming, and funny. I wondered if Khattmali had picked them for these qualities or if there were other reasons. Other young men joined us, a Bekren Derren, Touli Hasreda, and a few others whose names I quickly forgot. Someone handed me a plate of food which I gratefully ate. I was aware of being entirely surrounded by young lords, and receiving some arch looks from the ladies and older men in attendance. That, at least, was something genuine in this farce of a luncheon. I would have enjoyed the attention if I didn’t know I was notorious and this crowd was Khattmali’s doing. I was just finished eating when Khattmali clapped her hands and drew everyone’s attention to her, “Friends, it’s time for the afternoon’s entertainment, please adjourn to the music room.”
Her suite had a music room?
Bel stood and offered me a hand up, which I accepted. To my surprise he then tucked my hand in the crook of his elbow and guided me with the rest of the crowd through a set of double doors with fantastic molding, into a large room with a stone floor and vaulted ceilings. The other young men of my entourage scattered into the crowd. The room was dim, the windows were covered with heavy drapes and the only light came from a glittering chandelier above a dais at the far end. There were alcoves down either side, and semi circles of comfortable chairs throughout, all pointed to the dais.
This had been a shrine.
Once the open space had been full of long benches—the windows were probably full of intricate patterns and scenes in colored glass, and the front had once had a small altar for burning incense to Eloi. The alcoves had been for prayer and meditation.
The crowd had swelled to fifty or more, and people started looking for places to sit in small groups. Some pairing off into couples and snuggling down on the heavily cushioned seating. Bel headed for one of the alcoves toward the middle.
I was relieved that Lucius came with us. The alcoves had been well equipped with cushions that invited lounging. Lucius sprawled out across half the cushions on the other side, I tried to sit as upright as possible as Bel languidly arranged himself across far more space than he needed. “Have you heard Vivianne Deroliedes sing, Miss Meredithe?”
I shook my head, “No.”
He smiled. “Then you are in for a delight.”
A servant appeared at the entrance to the alcove and set up a little table with wine. The servant filled three wine glasses and presented them to each of us before leaving the open bottle of wine behind on the table.
The musicians had set themselves up on the dais and started to play again. A soft, ethereal tune that built strength as people settled into seats and talking ceased. A large, black haired woman in a shimmering dress of gold silk stepped onto the dais. She folded her hands in front of her, swept her gaze around the room, and opened her mouth to sing. Her voice…I gasped as if punched, the beauty was so startling. She sang with the accent of the mountain cities, and the resonance was haunting, the sounded laced with an achingly lovely mourning. The song was about merchant sailor and the lover left behind—a fitting story for the city that controlled the commerce between the bay and the mountains—but I felt as if the music reached inside me and pulled out my own griefs, making the song about them instead.
When the song ended I flinched as Bel touched my cheek. It was wet with tears. He smiled, his own eyes brighter than usual. I quickly wiped my cheeks with my hand, giving him a quick, embarrassed smile. He handed me a handkerchief. “Thank you,” I patted my cheeks dry just as the music started again, a lighter tune this time. Mercifully.
Maybe mingling with the nobility wouldn’t be so bad, if it came with music. I sipped at my wine, focusing again on the enchanting nightingale on the dais. Her hands were poised in the air now, floating on the rivers of music, dancing on the sound of strings as her voice filled the old shrine and reverberated off the stone floor. I thought Eloi wouldn’t mind his shrine being a music room…even if it had been made so out of spite. I watched Vivianne Deroliedes, enraptured, allowing the music to carry me far away, till the darkened shrine fell away, swallowed in the golden dress. The golden dress became the sun over the blue green sea and I felt myself rocked by the kindly waves.
I was vaguely aware of the music ending, but I couldn’t come back. The sea and the sun faded to blackness and I felt my fingers release the wine glass. It fell.
Damn wine was poisoned.