By L.E. Bryce
Book Two of The Water Lovers of the Islands.
Two years ago, Elantho's lover drowned in a terrible accident. Now, still grieving, he is sent south to the island of Tash to recruit Eshandri, son of the local matriarch, to join the Blue House of Lachant. What Elantho finds, however, is a powerful being who does not need instruction, and who offers Elantho the promise of a freedom he has never known...and a love he never thought to experience.
Elantho spent a restless night in a room overlooking the sea. When Kembari stated that there would be no audience until the next day, he spoke truly. Porters brought their baggage up from the harbor, servants showed them the facilities and brought meals, but no word came from the ruling family except instructions to ask for whatever they needed.
What Elantho wanted, no one could provide. No matter what he said, the soothsayer had unnerved him. On the surface, maybe Kembari was right, for surely a native priest had more experience in these matters. Even this, however, failed to allay Elantho’s misgivings. A ghost trails behind you. Dripping wet. White hair, just like yours.
His eyes searched the darkness, probing the shadows for the slightest movement. All was still. Omis was not there.
We have fortune tellers and charlatans in Thevit. They would have said something. In the darkness, the only sound Kembari’s faint snoring in the next room, Elantho punched his pillow and laid his head down once more. It must be a lie, some story to frighten me with. Yes, that must be it: the ruling family had paid a disheveled old man to discourage the newcomers. Seventh won’t end drowned in a fishing net.
Another would have laughed off the incident. Elantho, straining to hear any shuffle or whisper that to tell him he was not alone, did not fall asleep until dawn began to lighten the sky.
The next thing he knew, midmorning sunlight was slanting directly into his eyes, and Kembari was shaking him awake. “I let you sleep in because I know you had a rough time of it last night,” said the priest, “but they’re bringing in water for our bath and you need to eat something before we go. Lady Lirinan’s sent for us. Make sure you put on your best robes and as much jewelry as you can. You’ll want to look gaudy.”
Elantho blinked at the request. Talevé in the Seaward Islands dressed plainly. Not since Sirilon had he been encouraged to put on the silvery brocade and jewels which were out of place in rustic Thevit. Now he pinned the silver moorcat to his lapel, drew wayward strands of his hair back into a mother-of-pearl clasp, and slid onyx and moonstone rings onto his fingers.
Kembari appraised the results. “Eshandri will wear plenty of jewelry, far more than you’d consider tasteful. I have to warn you: his appearance won’t be what you expect.”
“You make it sound as though he has three eyes and a tail.”
“In the southern Islands, talevé are called surani, and they wear tattoos on their faces. Try not to look shocked when you see him.”
That the islanders favored body decoration came as no surprise. In Thevit, Elantho had seen the tattoos sported by the local talevé: the triple-wave Water rune, or the wearer’s ki’iri totem. Now the custom spread to the newcomers from the mainland. Even Dyas wore a rune on his arm and, so it was rumored, a wolf on one buttock. Elantho found the very idea of inking one’s skin vulgar—and yet, when Omis one day pulled off his tunic to reveal a hrill basking across his chest, its body seeming ever so slightly to move whenever Omis flexed his muscles—how strangely beautiful and erotic it seemed.
A steward came to conduct them downstairs. “Lady Lirinan be waiting for you in the chamber,” he said, his thick accent slurring the words. Half a moment later, visibly realizing his error, he repeated the message in fluent Shivarian: “The lady awaits you in the audience room.”
Kembari spoke in Danasi, thanking him. Although he never troubled to learn the native tongue of the Islands, Elantho had absorbed just enough in the past two years to recognize its courtesies.
In his grandfather’s house, great doors of brass-studded, polished oak opened onto a large audience chamber hung with tapestries depicting courtly scenes and furnished with ornately carved chairs and cabinets. Here, more than a thousand miles away from Sirilon, Elantho tried to hide his disapproval as the steward led him and Kembari through plain, flimsy-looking doors into a room much like any other in the Tashite ruler’s house. No dais, no canopy of state. Instead, the woman who was their hostess sat on a curved chair padded with a red cushion that had obviously seen better days.
Lirinan’s only concession to rank showed in her outlandish dress. A white cotton caftan banded in red draped her formidable bulk; its short sleeves allowed her to display gleaming gold and silver bangles. From a silver nose ring, turquoise beads looped across her left cheek to a dangling earring set with yet more jewels—jasper and agate and carnelian.
Courtiers thronged Prince Carancil’s audience chamber, and dogged his steps wherever he went outside his private apartments. Elantho saw no court officials here—unless the ten young people ranged around Lirinan carried out that function.
Introductions began. Kembari spoke in Shivarian, giving his name before gesturing to Elantho. “This is Elantho né Hethigal, grandson of the ruling prince of Sirilon, talevé of the Blue House of Lachant.”
Lirinan frowned under sharply arched brows. “You are very plain for a surano.”
Each of the ten young men and women, ranging in age from twenty-nine to fifteen, were her children. Whoever their father was, Lirinan did not mention him. “This is Batama, my First.” She gestured to a tall man with a neck as thick as a drum, draped with several turquoise and silver necklaces. So it went, until it became clear that the woman’s offspring were numbered rather than named. Elantho also noticed that Lirinan passed over one son, not naming him until the end.
“Eshandri, my Seventh,” she said, “knows how to honor the Lady with his marks of beauty.”