Prelude Dear reader, and apology. (I don't say "I apologize". Nothing is less original than actually apology. The way I say: "An apology," however, is far better: you know: an apology, I toss it in your face, pick it if you want or be damned.)
Sorry, sorry, I was just kidding, I swear. I meant: sorry for not having updated this story lately, and by the came occasion, and to the readers of Spider's Heir, I am very, very sorry of not having updated this story too, though I promised I would give you at least three chapters before the next week. Sorry sorry sorry. But I just started my year 10, and my teachers have all deluged me under books and homework that will save me from the terrifying GCSEs (the mere name make my hands tremble and my mind scream for freedom…) anyway, I hope you all forgive me, and I wish you all a very happy new school-year (though how can any new school-year be happy, for anyone else but me, that is?) Anyway: read on. Oh, and…Review.
Chapter the Sixth
Gold had filled the bag with many things. First, it was a thick, elegant bag, and large, in fact too large. The bag was a bottomless bag. Inside, without even being crammed, had been stored: a dozen thick volumes, a great, impossibly elegant fan of painted silk, silver and black, with a bundle of black and white feathers, talismans of silver and carved jet. Then there was a pack of food; bread, fresh fruits, dry salted meat, some light apple cider and a handful of sweets. Then a pack of cards, enchanted ones, a box of writing paper for letters, with a little bottle of ink and three quills. And finally a thick portfolio. Ember opened it, and discovered a whole collection of portraits. As she fingered through them, she realised they had all been made by Gold herself. The beauty of the drawings, all in pencil, was stupefying. The first portraits where of people Ember didn't know, and then, portraits of Opal started: representing only her face, quiet and serene and dreamy, or sad and downcast, or joyous and laughing; then a whole collection of pictures representing Opal dancing unleashed, Opal reading in a sofa, Opal sleeping, Opal dreaming at a window, Opal in different dresses, from simple nightdress to fantastic ball gown.
Then, there were portraits of Gold herself, strangely accurate, but always in the same posture: holding up a child, with her long glossy brown hair streaming down and lightly puffed by a breeze of joy. Ember, looking down carefully, peered at the child's face: it was enlightened by a small smile, and the whole child had an air of feebleness about him, dressed in the short white shirt. Gold herself was always dressed in a pale dress with short, hanging sleeves, and was sitting on a window-sit. The portraits were faithful, and bore a light sadness in them. Ember thought: oh, she never told me about the child.
Then the pictures changed, and it was only after a few pages that Ember realised all of them represented her: quiet and withdrawn, with the hair long and dark down her pale face, merry, with laughers lighting her face like a sweeping light and hair flying back, sleeping sweetly, dancing with grace and vigour, or dreamy and sorrowful. Ember dressed for the ball and entering the ballroom stealthily, Ember leaning against a barrister, Ember reading, Ember riding on Night, Ember speaking animatedly with Opal, Ember embroidering, Ember grave, Ember sad, Ember happy, Ember dreamy, Ember thoughtful, Ember angry, Ember hateful, and always, in every single picture, Ember faithfully represented and infinitely beautiful.
The corner of Ember's lips rose into a smile as she looked at each picture, and she suddenly stopped at one of the last ones: it represented her at a window, her elbows on a stone sill, and her shin in her hands, looking away with eyes filled with such real sadness the picture seemed real. The resemblance of all the pictures were, in fact, striking: better that a mirror.
Ember spent the first half of the journey looking at the pictures, pausing at some for quarters of hour altogether to skip some ten pages, and then go back before. Then she told herself she shouldn't spoil all the interest by examining all the pictures in one day, so she pulled it back in the magic bag, and took out the first volume on which she could put her hand: a treasure of Quelimclaron's poetry.
Ember smiled. Of all the poets she really loved, Quelimclaron was really her favourite.
'Ballad of a lost heir:
She rose away from her dark misery,
This frail child,
With the mere treasure of a faded memory,
Sad and wild.
She lost all she loved, and never wept,
She kept searhing, and never slept,
She rose in the glory,
Of her black misery.
From me my heart,
Ember suddenly stopped reading, and looked up form the tome she held with both hands. Ah, her heart too had been torn away too.
Ember sat back in the soft cushions, letting go of her thoughts, letting them fill her mind. The sadness, she felt, had wearied her feelings, and as she lay in the cushions of velvet, she felt nothing, but the wish to destroy, to take her revenge over the family she hated. She eventually fell asleep.
She dreamt of the Blue Ballroom. Opal, all in white, was dancing like an angel upon the blue flagstones, light and sad and merry at the same time. Ember was standing at the door, and looked at her, hugging to her heart something she had to look down to identify. As her eyes met the thing, and that she realised at the same time in her dream and in her conscience, Ember started awake.
Ah, he had stabbed her heart. And then stabbed it again, and then again. And then he had torn it to pieces, and enjoyed it. Ah, he had broken her, like the others, he had added a strike of his own knife into her body.
He had gone, and left her in her misery, alone and sad. Ah, so lonely now. So empty.
Oh, he had made her his, and then had torn both apart. And by doing this he had made her his even more, and he knew it.
They finally reached Earthenstar at dusk. The sun, lowering behind a pale horizon, left theatrically, leaving behind a trail of bright orange, pink, and followed by the triumphant starry azure of night's velvet. The coach pulled to a halt, and the coachman, a silent man from a faraway village, came to open Ember's door.
Her family was standing before the house, waiting anxiously.
Lord Ewan Firestar was tall, and slim, with a long, gaunt face, lit by no colour. His eyes were of a blue monstrously pale, his mouth limp and narrow, his hair lank and grey-blond. He was dressed in pale blue, in a beautiful, elegant suit. Next to him, Lady Ink Firestar was tall, also, and even if slim, she had a slightly fleshy air. Her face, tallowy, possessed the wrecks of an ancient beauty, but her eyes were by far too pale, like her husbands'. Her hair, still dark blond, was plaited in a long braid tied with blue ribbons. Like her husband, she was dressed in pale, blue, in a silk dress that bared her lovely shoulders.
A little bit farther, Ember's sister, Treasure, was standing, straight and noble: her splendid curls of dark blond hair fell in a halo of gold around her beautiful face. Her large, glittery blue eyes were strangely gleaming. She was dressed in a long, dark fuchsia dress that bared her arms and back, and fell in neat folds down her legs. Behind her, her husband was dressed in blue, very elegant, with his dark hair wavy, and his lecherous eyes bored. Their daughter, a girl of eleven, was standing outrageously straight and dignified, all in a pale silky pink, with her blond curls nearly as silky.
Yet further, a few friends of the family, Lady Bluebell Winther, a fat, cheery-cold duchess, Lord Marcus Reptsemi, a tall, serpentine man, with a long of constant hunger on his pale thin face, and some others Ember had forgotten.
Ember, not even looking at any of them, hopped lightly down, and ordered:
'Take my effects to my apartments, and you can retire. Here for your service,' she added, taking from a small cashmere purse in her corset three pieces of gold.
'The Lady Opal already gave me,' said the man, surprised by the excessive generosity.
'Stop talking nonsense,' said Ember.
She had forgotten how hot it was. She unfolded her fan and started whipping it to and fro for some wind. Leaving all her effects in the coach, trusting for the good coachman to take them all to her rooms, she advanced to her family.
Lord Ewan walked a few paces forward. The look on his face was one of total disbelief.
'Welcome back among us, my daughter. I can see you have grown,' he said solemnly.
'Can you?' Ember retorted, still walking, 'how flattering.'
She walked past him, and stopped a few seconds before her mother, the time to say:
'Your warm welcomes touch me to the heart Mother.'
Without letting her time to reply, she walked past, flinging to her sister.
'Close your mouth Treasure. Lest flies come in.'
And she disappeared in the house, leaving her family to follow her, which they did slowly, not recovering from the utter bewilderment.
Ember, each second that passed with her heart-beats, felt hate grow. She hated them, she hated them, she hated them, and felt she would go on hating them even more every minute.
Earthenstar was more of a castle than a mansion: consisting in one main building, and two huge donjons at each side. Made in ancient marble-like grey-blue stones, with its façade pierced by the straight rows of large rectangular windows, spiked with stone chimneys and roofed of antique chalky-blue tiles, Earthenstar had nothing in common with the dark gothic beauty of Tal's glamorous decay. The main corridor was vast, with a clean white floor, and tall opened doors all along the walls, which were decorated with portraits, faithful, yet wan to Ember's eyes, of ancient Firestar family members.
As she walked up this clean, clear corridor she new so well, Ember told herself: it is not my home. It doesn't look like it.
She stopped, whipping around to face her parents.
'Well then,' she said coldly, 'Will someone ever show me to my apartments?'
'Allow me to call for Cotton. She will take you to your rooms, were you will be able to rest and refresh yourself,' said Lord Ewan, awkwardly.
Ember, looking at his lank face, triumphed in her heart. He, who had always been a cold, imperious father, was awkward in front of her. Ah, he obviously couldn't believe that she was his very daughter. This girl, so dignified and cold, with her splendid raven hair and milky skin, walking like a queen of Olden days, had nothing in common with the small, thin young girl he had dumped at the other side of the country as far as he could away from him and his illustrious family.
Cotton, a young maid with silvery-blond hair and the reputation of having for a time warmed the bed for Lord Ewan, trotted in the room, praying Ember to follow her upstairs, where she took her to the very end of the West-wing, to the left tower's blue-painted wooden door.
'The Lord Firestar had recommended that this tower should be to your own, entire disposition for as long as you shall dwell here.'
'I thank you, Cotton. Please send me my effects.'
'Very well, my Lady.'
Cotton retired after giving Ember a heavy iron key, and Ember unlocked the door, stepping in before locking the door behind her. The room in which she had just stepped was a mere circular boudoir, with two small rectangle windows at right and left, and some dusty tapestries. The colour blue, silvery because of the dust, was intensely present in this room, reminding Ember of the Blue Ballroom in which she had spent so many hours with Opal exploring the highs of the perfection of dancing. A few armchairs, of old, dusty blue velvet, scattered with silvery cushions and standing near several small rose wooden table which's reach glossy colour had been slightly erased by the thick velvety dust. A blue china vase, perfect of shape and texture, held a bouquet of long withered flowers. A white bear rug lay on the stone floor, and that was all. Two doors, one at the right of the door from which Ember had just come, one at the left, each next to one of the two small windows, rose in an old, blue-painted wood.
Ember, each of her steps raising small clouds of dust that whirls like tiny snow blizzards, went to the first door, the one at her right, and opened it. The key, heavy and deeply carved, was in the lock, and she turned it with difficulty and many a creaking, opened the heavy blue panel upon a narrow winding staircase plunged into the dark. Climbing up, her feet sinking into a constant and thick carpet of the same rich, ancient velvety dust, she went up, and opened a door, which sung easily on its hinges, revealing a bed-chamber. Circular, like all the rooms, with one large window opening upon a narrow marble-like terrace, the room was furnished in the same blue and ancient way: a canopy bed adorned with rich blue velvet curtains, and covered in a thick white fur that trailed upon the ground and was covered in still the same rich dust as everywhere else up this tower. A small, rose-wooden dressing-table, covered in dusty flacons and vials, was standing opposite the bed, between two tall wardrobes of the same rich wood. An armchair, scattered with deep cushions, was standing next to a small round table supporting a pile of ancient books in front of the narrow and deep fireplace, in which a real heap of dust was gathered. On the floor, the same white-bear rushes were standing, under the thick carpet of luxurious dust.
Ember, after a few moments detailing the room, went to open the large window, and stand on the terrace. The night had already fallen outside, stars glittering like tiny splinters of pure diamond upon the azure satin canopy, and the moon, a pale, gleaming, utterly perfect silver crescent, was climbing in the night. The birds were no longer singing, and a perfect serenity was ruling over the flat plains that surrounded Earthenstar, which shone like a palace of iridescent opal in the darkness.
Ember, after breathing in the fresh air, went back in the dusty chamber, and immediately started to shake the bed's curtains, and then dragged the cover rush at the terrace, balancing it on the trail to expose it to the fresh breeze. Quickly, using a piece of cloth she found in on the drawers of the dressing-table, she started sweeping the dust form the furniture, throwing everything on the floor, deciding to ask Cotton to come to sweep it out on the morrow. When she estimated she had cleaned enough to pass the night there, Ember went back in the lounge, and straight to the second door. It climbed up too, but higher than the first one. The room was a kind of study, with the round walls covered in bookcases filled with chaotic books. A large desk was enthroned in the middle of the room, with a tall leather chair behind it, and covered in stacks of parchment, scattered quills of all sizes and colours, and bottles of ink. The single window was tall but narrow, and the only place where no bookcase filled the void. No fireplace was there, and a fresh, ancient cold reigned in the room. Ember, after opening the window, went back down, deciding she would tidy later, and sat down to wait for Cotton to bring back her effects.
The girl arrived very soon, carrying the case in one hand and the hand bag in her bag, looking utterly overwhelmed and puffing loudly.
'I am sorry, my Lady, for taking so long. Mistress Porcelain retained me,' she apologized as she thankfully deposed her burden on one of the tables.
'It's all right, Cotton. I shall ask you one last thing before you can retire for the day.'
'My lady is very kind. But the dinner is about to be served, and I will be able to retire only after midnight when all the washing and cleaning will be done,' Cotton said, trying but failing to look brave and not desperate at all.
'Never mind that. Porcelain will be able to do it herself. Go and fetch a broom and some clean water with soap. Wash as much as you can of the dust. Be quick, and if Mistress Porcelain retains you or complains in any way, come and tell. I shall do the necessary. If she threatens you, come also, I shall deal with this personally. Now go and be diligent.'
'Thank you, my lady, thank very much,' said Cotton, surprised by such generosity and kindness in a young girl so cold.
She hastily went off, and was back the time Ember carried her affects up and went back down. She was carrying two string brooms, a full bucket of clean, steaming water, a pack of soap, a brush and a pile of dishcloth. Putting everything down, she curtseyed, and announced:
'My Lady, the dinner is served.'
'Really? Well, clean away, my child, for I would strongly desire that those three rooms would be clean ere I come back.'
'Yes my Lady, I shall do my very best.'
Cotton curtseyed, and stared at Ember as she went off, thinking at how strange such a young girl, such a distant and aloof youthful person, could hide such contrasts in such a small person. She smiled.
Ember, sweeping down corridors, walked fast, her small shoes dry and quick on the stone floor. Around her, servants she met curtseyed or bowed, and all looked positively overwhelmed. Ember didn't pay attention.
When she arrived at the dining room, the whole family was already present, seating, and chatting while waiting for her to come. Lord Ewan, dignified in his blue garment, looked also slightly tense. Next to him, Lady Ink, thoughtful and unnerved, was dreamily playing with a coil of ash-blond hair. Treasure, entirely sure of her beauty, but disturbed by the one, so totally the opposite, the sister she didn't recognised had developed, was chatting with Lady Bluebell, who, totally unconcerned, as cheery-cold as ever in her beautiful blues, queenly in her majestic fatness, was utterly relaxed. Lord Ebony, between his daughter and his wife, looked bored, and was staring with gleaming eyes at a young serving woman, whose buxom body rolled in a halo of gold around his lecherous mind. His daughter, as unconcerned as Lady Bluebell, was sitting straight and silent, her eyes half closed. Lord Reptisemi, next to another guest, was talking in his drawling, hiss-like voice, and was looking cold and feeling-less.
The place reserved for Ember was between Avalanche and Lord Reptisemi. She sat down, cold and frostily polite, and the dinner began. A meal, of delicious roasted potatoes, with a rich fine soup and some exquisite salty meat was served by the buxom serving woman, and Ember had to admit it was all very well. But her heart twisted so hard when she thought this meal she could have spent it with Opal—talking about some very well-known poet or playing chess, in the middle of the cloud of bats and moths, with the casual myriad of impossibly delectable epicure tossed over the massif table—that her whole body retched.
'Are you all right?' asked Lady Ink.
'As well as I could wish,' Ember replied coolly.
Her hand had been grasping the opal pendant so hard the face had printed on her palm. Heaving a shuddering breath, Ember started to eat again.
'Well then,' said Lady Ink, trying to engage the conversation, 'How were those few years in the Grey-Lands?'
'Entertaining, for an exile,' said Ember.
Bluebell, as if she had heard nothing of it, thrust herself:
'Talking of Grey-Land, my dear Ink, I forgot to tell you something that happened to me there long ago. I always intended to ask your advice, but as my mind is always filled with things I need to ask your advice about, it always slip out.
'As I was crossing the dreary country to see a faraway cousin of mine, some astrologer lady of the north, I travelled with two people, two gentlemen of the strangest sort: one said to be a sorcerer, the other, a snake enchanter. Of course, I did not believe them, but their company was very entertaining. Indeed, I even think that instead of charming snakes, one of our gentlemen charmed my daughter, who dreams of snakes every day since she met him—'
As lady Bluebell went on with her endless cheery story, Ember sank into memories. Ah, those long dinners in the dark room, all those meals form which you could take without blushing or waiting for the host to ask you if you want more, those long conversation, Opal, in her heavy dresses of magical cuts and colours. This had been her world, hers and Opal's, a world so faraway from the other one that it seemed more like a dream, from which Ember was slowly waking in the despair of never again being able to achieve it. But then, it could also be the contrary: a nightmare she had had, until she woke up to find herself in the true world, a world of dark colours and secrets, a world of enchantment and strangeness. And now she was sinking back in the nightmare of the beginning, and she wondered if she would ever get the luck to finish the nightmare once and for all and find herself back at Tal, with the dramas and bizarre, with the mystical and incredible Opal, with the incomprehensible Gold and the ironic crow and cat. She longed for those, she longed for them, those she loved, those who had dug a well in her heart, in the hardest rock of ruby, and had filled the well with a love she would cherish till the end of her life. As she ate and dreamed of Tal, her eyes were lowered towards her hand, were the blue star, this tear a ghost had left her for all farewell, this gift of the trust of the spirits of the dead, this gift form Tal itself, from its very soul, so blue, so alive, proving her that it had never been a dream.
'Your nostalgia is indeed of the most contagious sort. You are making me feel all gloomy and sad just by being yourself so sorrowful. Did you leave a sweetheart behind?'
Ember raised her head. Avalanche was looking at her with the glittery blue eyes, softened in an expression of gentle compassion and delicate curiosity.
'No sweetheart. Only…my soul,' Ember said, hesitant.
Avalanche took her hand.
'What is this?' she asked, touching the blue star with her finger.
'I wish you hadn't asked,' Ember murmured.
'I haven't then. I shall respect your secret.'
Avalanche released her hand, and said:
'Tell me about your soul?'
'Would it pain you if I told you I wished you hadn't ask that either?'
'No. You have the right to protect your secrets. If I were you, that would be what I would do.'
'Tell me then, something you can tell me without breaking any secret you cherish.'
'I wish I weren't here.'
'This is not something new!' protested the girl, 'I can see that, as everyone can see, or rather, saw,' she stopped, and then added: 'Would you wish to be back where you're coming from?'
'Yes. This is true. I wish I would be back there.'
'Are you sure—but answer me only if you want—that you left no beloved behind?'
'I left many beloved, but no gentleman.'
This was a lie. Every second, Ember could feel her heart screaming for Drake, screaming to feel his heart, screaming, craving to have him back, to have him close forever. But then again, she hadn't left him behind. He had left her behind.
Bluebell, as Avalanche and Ember conversed, had finished her story, and the auditory had divided: Avalanche was now talking to her mother about some other young lady she really hated, Lady Ink and Lady Bluebell were exchanging anecdotes, Lord Ewan and Lord Ebony were speaking politics, and Reptisemi was as silent as Ember, who had sank back into her dreams. As she nearly fell asleep, she started up, feeling against her thigh, Reptisemi's. Looking up in his face, she saw the leer in his malicious green eyes, and she froze, but already he'd turned away, and withdrew his thigh. Ember, disgusted, cloyed, sickened to the heart, sat back in her chair. The piece of blueberry pie in her plate brought her heart in her mouth. Silently, she pushed back her plate, and lowered her head, surveying her legs, and her companions'.
Avalanche, having finished with her mother, turned back to Ember:
'Why do you hate them so?'
'Who?' asked Ember, puzzled.
'Your parents. Your sister. Their guests.'
Ember looked down at the pretty, serious clever face, and said, in spite of herself:
'You are beautiful. You are dignified. You are a perfect daughter. Do not think I am saying this to try to divert your attention, or merely playing the hypocrite modest.'
'But, and nether am I trying to flatter you, you are beautiful. You are dignified. You are as straight and magnificent as an Olden queen,' said Avalanche, with deep sincerity.
'You are the first one, and I hope, the last, to tell this to me, but I must tell you that at your age, and even later, up to perhaps seventeen, I was still a freak: I was ugly, my face too pale, and I was awkward. I didn't know anything of the world. Where I was until now, everything changed. I met people who carved me into what I should have been. And I learned to love there. This is why I can see now, all what my family could have done for me, if they had loved me, and this is why I really hate them now.'
Avalanche remained silent, picking up small pieces of the violet fruit and carrying it to her mouth with the tip of her fork. She looked thoughtful, but still, the clever, composed look remained. At ten, Avalanche was far more mature than many girls of fifteen.
When the dinner was finally over, Lord Ewan rose, saying:
'We would much appreciate if Lady Blue bell, Lord Reptisemi, Lord Cerulear and Lady Ember, would join us to the living room,' he said, as the others rose after him.
'I accept with all my heart, said Bluebell in her cheerfully cold voice, 'Nothing is indeed better for the health than a relaxing conversation around of plate of one of this superb Mistress Candy's delicious sweet-cakes.'
'I shall also accept the invitation,' said Lord Cerulear.
'I would decline the invitation, I am afraid,' said Reptisemi in a low voice, 'I must alas pack, for I am going tomorrow.'
'I am obliged for your generosity my Lord,' said Ember, her tone high and clear, 'But the journey has wearied me. I would enjoy resting.'
'So be it, my lady,' said Lord Ewan, too quickly.
He went out, followed by Lady Bluebell, Lady Ink, Treasure, and then Avalanche and Cerulear; Ember, went out by the door opposite form which they had all gone, and Reptisemi followed her.
'May I take you to your apartments, my Lady?' he asked, bending towards her as she walked out and speaking in her neck, so that she could feel his chilling breath against her pale skin.
'You may not,' she replied, coldly.
He was silent, and they separated in the wide corridor, he going one side, she another. She walked slowly up the stairs and corridors that led to her tower. Opening the door, she caught a strong, fresh smell of violet, and when she came in, she had the surprise to find the room surprisingly clean, no trace of dust left, the furniture shining and clean, and the old withered bouquet replaced by knots of white and amethyst violets. The floor was shining, and both windows were open to let in the night air. It was good to breathe something natural, and relieve her of the disagreeable sent of perfume and cigarette smoke.
Both door at right and left were open, so that a strong draught passed in the stars leading to the bedchamber, tearing back the fall of ragged raven hair as she slowly climbed. Up there, the room too had been cleaned surprisingly well, the floor shiny, and several other bouquets of violets scattered in small crystal vases. The fur she had hung at the terrace was now spread smoothly over the bed, no trace of dust anywhere near the room. It smelled fresh. Cotton, obviously, was a maid. Ember told herself to remember to reward her for the remarkable work.
She went to sit on her bed, on which both her case and her bag had been carefully laid. She sat for a few moments, silent and withdrawn, and then stood up to unpack. Her dresses she hung in one of the wardrobes, and her underwear she laid, after having folded them carefully, in the second wardrobe. The jewellery, combs and other small accessories, she stored in the dressing-table's drawers, and the few books Gold had stuffed at the bottom she laid on the bedside table.
Then she went back to fold her case, folded it, and heaved it on the top of one of the wardrobes, before starting to unpack the bag itself. The books she laid with the others on the little bedside table, the fan and writing gear she placed on the dressing-table, the portfolio she quickly slipped under her mattress, the cards she placed in an empty drawer, and finally the bag she folded and placed up with the case.
When she was finished, she undressed quietly, laying her small treasure on the bed, and her clothes on the back of the dressing-table's chair.
She laid down the small smooth silver magic mirror, and kissed its glimmering surface, then the letter, tucked in her corset, which told her of how she had brought serenity to someone. She laid down corset, tunic, skirts, then stockings, and the rose-dagger, at which she once again marvelled, for its fine beauty. When she was only dressed with her chemise, her hair free and loose down her back, the pins, hair brooches and ruby and silver jewellery on the dressing-table, she took in her hands the two necklaces that still hung against her breasts. The opal carving, perfect and loving, so present, warm and nearly alive form the warmth of her own heart, and then the dragon-moon, this ancient silver medallion, with hung heavy over her heart. She sat back down, looking at them; her eyes narrowed, and tears finally running down her pale face. Opal, and Drake. The two she loved the more. One she had been torn away from, the other had torn himself away.
His name, whispered in the night. Ah, it had happened. This tale about the girl who was too coward to admit her love, and then sacrificed both her life and his for her cowardice; she had not believed this tale. And he had taken his revenge. He had done the same thing. During a ball, he had taken her, and then, when he had tested her, she had fled, afraid, miserable, small and foolish. And he had gone.
Broken down all over again, she collapsed on her bed, her face in the pillows. All she had ever loved, all had been taken away. She was doomed, she would never be free. She would never live with happiness as she should have. She would never keep what she loved. She wept in her pillows, and wept and wept, her sobs racking her body, and the low screams of protest that her aching heart sent up her throat catching in the tender cloth.
She sat up, tears streaming down her pale face. Slowly, she went to depose the dagger and the letter, with the mirror, in the empty drawer of the cards. She closed and locked the drawer, stuffed the key in the folds of her cushions, and went to put on, instead of her chemise, a long nightdress of black silk. Then she slipped in the blankets, and burying her head in the pillows again, and holding both pendants, dragon and opal, tight in each hand, as if to print the relief of each in each of her palms, again, she collapsed in tears. It seemed, as she wept, thinking of all she loved, that she would go on crying forever. Opal, Gold, Drake, the crow and the cat, which both had not say farewell. She wept new, thinking of those two; she had been frightened of them at the beginning, and had learned to love them in spite of everything. And now they were lost to her, and the last thing she had told them was to go away. She went on crying, growing tired of crying, but too tired and sorrowful to stop.
'If you damage my beloved face with all those tears, I swear I am going to rip you to shreds with my very own claws,' came the drawling, jeering voice.
'Her face is not yours,' replied the second voice, reproving and nasal, from behind.
'She belongs to me, so does her face, logically,' retorted the first voice.
Ember raised herself, not quite able to be sure she wasn't dreaming. But the cat, real, sitting straight and majestic, blacker than the black of the night, with its splendid goldengreen eyes glittering like coins of gold fallen in a pool of sludge; and the crow, red eyes like rubies, and standing reproving on the hardboard.
'Oh my loves! Oh my loves!'
Stretching out her arms to receive those two animals she loved to insanity and eternal tears, she cried the words:
'Oh my loves! Oh my loves!'
The cat, supple like a slender shadow, leapt to her, and she caught him, hugging the small warm body to her chest, and crying, wiping her tears against his jet-black fur.
'Told you she was mine,' the cat tossed to the crow.
'Yours, oh yes! Always yours! Oh my love! Oh my love!'
She raised her head, and called:
'Come, crow, I cannot release this small frame I love, but I want your feathers against my cheeks.'
'If you want me to wipe your tears, ask it straightaway. You're as lazy as you are a wheedling little chit.'
But he came down nonetheless. Pressing his small ragged head to her jaw, he murmured in her skin:
'I wouldn't let you go. But I couldn't retain you. I came. Losing you would have been like loosing life all over again.'
'Don't talk nonsense,' purred the cat, burying his wet-nosed head between the folds of Ember's nightdress's neck, and biting the white flesh, 'We don't care about her. She is a pest.'
'I love you,' whispered Ember, hugging the cat to her breast, and the crow to her cheek, 'Don't go. I would die if you went.'
'I now you would. You are mine. I told crow so. He wouldn't believe me. But I expect you to believe me now that you have the proof, eh, crow?'
'She doesn't belong to you,' said the crow, his voice muffled by the luxurious hair in which he had buried his head, 'You belong to her.'
'Probably both,' said Ember, laying back on her side, the two animals pressed to her.
'She belongs to me fully, without any doubt,' the cat said, lying down, and purring roaringly, 'She would rather kill herself than have me go away, wouldn't you?'
'Don't give her bad ideas,' the crow said sharply.
'I'll give her whatever I want,' the cat replied.
Ember, sleepily, added:
'As long as both of you stay with me forever.'
'Hmm. You'll have to give me lots of salty meat,' the cat said, his voice too starting to sound sleepy.
'As long as you kiss me every morning, I'll stay,' the crow said, nestling at the back of her head.
'Trust you to always try to sound nobler than me,' the cat replied, sounding like someone who knows the battle is finished, but still wants to go on.
'That's not so difficult to do,' the crow retorted wittily.
'I expect so. When one cheats, one expects everything to be easy.'
At the sound of their voice, nasal and purry, Ember had finally fallen asleep. The cat, raising his head to peer at her peaceful face, said suddenly:
'You know what? She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld. Including myself.'
'You mean, including me,' the crow replied.
'I think I love her.'
'I am sure we both do,' the crow replied.
It was his last reply before both sank into silence. The cat considered the pale face a long time before closing his eyes, and when he did, he thought:
'I love her.'
Requiem: must go, see you all.