The Branch That Beareth Not, Part V

Monday February 23, 2004 @ 06:41 PM (UTC)

←Part IV

At the base of the great stair, one of the dessicated guards held up a hand to halt the Dancer, and they spoke in a tongue strange to Anthea. The Dancer turned and smiled ruefully. “You shall have to wait to meet the Mask of Winters, Anthea. He is entertaining an embassy from a mortal city, and will be closeted with them for several hours.” Seeing her charge’s crestfallen look, she raised a cold finger to gently lift the girl’s chin. “Do not be sorrowful. This only means that we shall have time to array you in keeping with your new state, before you see your destined lord.”

Anthea glanced at her blue silk gown, which had seemed very fine indeed when she left… wherever it was… and now seemed not only wrinkled, but faded and plain. She nodded and eagerly followed the chiming sylph along the hall. They passed door after door of black ash, and one that broke the symmetry of the hall by echoing the shape of the others in black steel. She passed it without great curiosity, though, and was drawn through one of the ash doors. The halls beyond were vaulted, of pale quartzite, and hung with tapestries of midnight blue in whose darkness shapes could almost be seen. The corridors were very like, one to the other. No furnishings save the tapestries that swayed restlessly without wind, and a series of closed doors at even intervals. They turned from one corridor into another, and passed through a door only to find a hallway exactly like that they had left. At last, they opened a door onto a suite of chambers panelled with black ash and elegantly furnished. The wardrobe and tables appeared to be inset with ivory, and a faint smell of incense sweetened the chilly air.

The Dancer picked up a small bell that lay on a console by an ample bowl of fruit, and rang it – the note had not yet died when the air was full of servants, conjured from the very walls to tend them. They stripped the blue dress from Anthea, and when she shivered in her shift, lit a pale fire with a gesture, and swathed her in a dressing gown. How strange it was to have one’s servants pass through you like a shiver to grab an ivory brush on a nearby table – and then to become flesh, or like it, once more to brush the knots from your hair. The fingers of the dead were cold on her scalp, but nimble, and her hair was put up in a grand coiffure in a trice. Other servants touched her arms with oil of myrrh, and others still brought coffers of jewelry, or delicately washed her face. The Dancer stood by, remarked, and smiled, and she and Anthea laughed as girls do.

The servants opened the wardrobe, and brought forth robe after robe, each more opulent than the last. Some were masses of black velvet, others layers of white chiffon so thin they looked like cobwebs. Anthea looked at the Dancer imploringly, unable either to make up her mind or to guess what might best please the Mask of Winters.

“In the land of the living,” the Dancer said, as if remembering, “did not brides wear red?”

“Oh yes,” cried Anthea, “it is our tradition.” The Dancer nodded to the servants, and they brought out a dress of deepest scarlet silk, high at the throat, with a full, loose skirt. They pulled it up Anthea’s arms and clasped it down the front, and it fitted perfectly, tailored tight to her shoulders and arms, and spreading at the waist. She fingered it and admired the scrolls of scarlet embroidery disappearing down the skirt. The swooping spirits buttoned soft leather boots to her small feet. The Dancer herself fit earrings of onyx and rings of carved bone onto her friend, and clapped for the servants to bring forward one particular chest, as Anthea reached hungrily for a bunch of grapes in the fruit bowl before her.

“Your dowry,” she said, and opened the lid with a touch. She lifted out a veil in sheer black, dotted with beads glistening like black eyes. It was marvelously embroidered, and fixed to a beautiful silver comb, which the Dancer worked into Anthea’s piled black hair. “Your mother has an artist’s hands,” she offered, and stepped back to let Anthea see herself in the great glass.

She was beautiful. Her olive skin, in this pale light, was as smooth as ivory, and her eyes glittered with the bewitching velvet of the night sky behind the somber veil. Her lips were as scarlet as the rich dress she wore, and her girlish form seemed for the first time womanly and regal as she stood in the mansion of the dead. She stood and stared at herself, and saw the Bride in Radiant Mourning, eldritch and lovely, a serenade to Death.

The grape fell untasted from her fingers, and even as a servant bent to catch at it, she turned away from the mirror and faced the Dancer of the Silent Grotto with terror in her heart.

“Are you all right, my dear?” said the Deathknight smoothly, and Anthea smiled weakly, searching for words.

“I have travelled long,” she faltered, “and I do not remember how long, or whether, I slept on the way. If… my lord is not at leisure, perhaps I could rest on this couch a while and meet him thus refreshed.”

The golden eyes of the Dancer met Anthea’s, seeking to pierce the dusky veil. Anthea stared back at her, hoping her horror did not reveal itself as she stared at the inhumanly beautiful face. She saw that a dark trickle of blood had crept from behind the soulsteel diadem, and the Deathknight had not wiped it away. Then the eyes blinked, and the Dancer nodded, “Of course you may rest, dear Anthea. I will return for you in an hour.” She swept away with a sighing melody. The host of shades dispersed as eerily as they had come, and the light of the lamps faded behind them.

Anthea dropped with a gasping breath to the settee, and ripped the veil from her head with such energy that her hair fell back into loose curls around her. She pulled off the bone rings with revulsion, and showered the jewelry to the cold marble floor. She almost cried, but here, in the palace of the damned, her voice choked within her. She must escape, somehow, or be given to the Deathlord like some sacrificial ewe. A letterknife caught her eye on the writing desk, and she caught it up, trying to push down the stiff satin cuffs of her grand dress. But no! What good could come of taking her life in this place? What freedom could await her soul, if, liberated from her body, it battered against the walls of this citadel? How could she play death false by running to it? Death had never been her path, and she let the knife fall to the floor.

The doorknob turned, and Anthea threw herself on the settee, her face to the wall. “The Dancer of the Silent Grotto bid me bring you this draught,” a hollow female voice echoed in the room, and Anthea heard a tray settle against a table. There was a breath of sound, almost a whisper, as the spectral ladies’ maids had made when they moved around her. Anthea turned her head a bit, to see if the shade was gone, and saw in the half-light the pale shape of a girl, hesitating by her couch.

“It is you,” the dead girl whispered, and Anthea did cry this time, as if she had driven the letter-knife into her heart.


Part VI →


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