Читать онлайн «The Elvenbane»
She was glad she hadn’t chosen either the red or the black, she thought, taking care to keep her huge, emerald-green eyes glazed with dreamy lassitude that she in nowise felt. The red would have looked like blood on snow; the black as if she were declaring open war on his Clan. And she was supposed to be from an ally.
The last of the humans patted a final hair into place, and stood away. Alara contemplated the results, analyzing everything Rathekrel would shortly be seeing across the dinner table from him.
Her pale gold hair was now an artfully sculpted tumble of curls, woven with a chain of gold and tiny emeralds, two larger gems winking from her earlobes. At her direction, the slaves had left her face bare of most cosmetics. After all, she was trying to enhance the impression of being an untried maiden. She had only allowed them to darken her lashes, dust her lids with a whisper of malachite, and her cheeks with powdered pearl, making her face paler still.
Around her neck she wore a small fortune in emeralds, and they were not gifts from her host. That alone would make a statement; a direct challenge to Rathekrel’s wealth.
The dress draped sensuously, exactly as she hoped it would, cupping her small, high breasts, flowing over her hips.
The hint of sex, not the promise. A suggestion of innocence.
Ostensibly, she was only a messenger from one of Rathekrel’s allies. She had given Rathekrel every reason to believe, however, that she was, in her own person, a more direct offer of alliance-by-marriage. Why else send a female messenger?
Or so Rathekrel would think.
She rose, and the humans fell back in a well-trained wave, one scampering to open the door for her, the rest already falling to the task of cleaning up the room and the debris of preparation.
The white-and-silver door closed behind her, leaving her in a white hallway lit by silver lanterns in the shape of swans, and paved with the purest white marble Alara had ever seen.
She glided over the cool stone at a sedate walk, the only sound being the hiss of her skirt over the spotless paving, her thin doeskin slippers permitting her to feel that there were no cracks or crevices in the seamless marble.
She kept her pace to a swaying, sedate walk. No well-bred elven maid ever produced so vulgar a sound as a footfall, nor hurried her steps, no matter how urgent the cause.
Poor things, Alara thought pityingly. Unless they had the power, the spirit, and the temper to challenge the customs, they were as much pawns and slaves as their humans.
The elvenkind as a whole respected one thing: power. Those that had the power made the rules apply to everyone but themselves. Those that didn’t, were forced to obey the rules decreed by the others.
Those rules made elven females the property of the males of their Clan – subject entirely to the will and whim of the ruling male, and used as trade-markers in an elaborate dance of matrimonial alliances.
Only when a maiden demonstrated both a powerful gift (of magic, intrigue, a fine mind), and the will to use what she had ruthlessly, then she could escape the destiny her sex decreed for her.
Alara trod the smooth marble and recalled those she knew of who had escaped that destiny. There were female Clan heads; V’jann Ysta er-Lord Daarn, for one, who came to power by defeating the head of V’jann in a mage-duel that had lasted three days. V’lysle Kartaj er-Lord Geyr, who inherited on the death of her brother, and then revealed that it had been she who had masterminded his rise in Council. V’dann Triana er-Lord Falcion, who simply outlived all the other, hedonistic heirs, defeated pretenders in conventional duels, and settled down to shorten her own lifespan by means of every vice that had killed off her relatives. V’meyn Lysha er-Lord Saker, who some suspected of the quiet assassination of the husband she had been sent to wed, as soon as the ink was dry on the marriage vows … though nothing could be proved against her.
As many as a quarter of the Clan heads were female, and treated as absolute equals in power and Council. Alara suspected that many more were content to rule from behind the facade of a male spouse or relative.
But for the rest, their lives were spent close-cloistered until they delivered their virginity to the appropriately selected spouse, cloistered further until the production of a suitable heir. And then they were left to their own devices, to amuse themselves however they could. Lesser members of the Clan tended to trade, production, and the manor. Wives, unless they carved themselves a position, had nothing more to do than look appropriately ornamental and produce one child. More, if they could, but one was enough. After that – some lost themselves in endless games of chance, some in pretense at art or music, others in a never-ending round of costume creation – and no few in the privacy of their quarters, in the arms of carefully selected human slaves.
This was the part Alara was playing: a Clan daughter, attractive, virginal, with enough magic to cast minor glamories, and no ambition.
No ambition in the fields of power, that is; to pique Rathekrel’s interest, she pretended at an ambition in art – or rather, Arte. She had styled herself not an artist, but an Artiste. Rathekrel considered himself something of a connoisseur, and the credentials she had presented had included some of ‘her Work.’
As she reached the end of the hall, another set of silver-inlaid, white-lacquered doors swung open before she could touch them, and she stepped forward and paused on the lintel of the cavernous dining hall. The hall had not been behind those doors the last time Alara had passed them; that was a measure of Rathekrel’s strength in magic. Special corridors such as the one she had just used opened onto whatever Rathekrel chose; they were, in fact, tiny Gates that could be reset at his whim.
Alara had read something of this in the minds of the humans that had served her, though thanks to the inhibiting collars they wore, she could get only fleeting glimpses, and then only when they actually touched her. The humans were terrified of these corridors and would never use them. As they came and went from her guest suite, Alara had made note of every ‘normal’ passage built for their use, and where each one went. She was going to need that information for the second part of her plan.
The dining hall was another place that terrified the humans, and with good reason.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness beyond the double doors. She waited on the threshold once she was able to see –
That was odd. She thought it smelled like – a storm. And a sea-wind –
She blinked in surprise at what lay below her.
My, my, she thought. Lord Rathekrel was certainly out to impress the child …
Hundreds of yards beneath her feet, breakers foamed and roared over savage rocks, while above her a clear night sky held more stars than ever appeared over this world. Three moons sailed serenely overhead, flooding the sea below with pure silver light. Spray flumed up, creating gossamer veils of sparkling droplets surrounding her, but never quite touching her. And although it appeared that there was a gale-force wind blowing, the gentle zephyr stirring her hair was not enough to disarrange a single strand.
She raised her eyes from the crashing breakers beneath her, and gazed out over the seeming ocean. There was one spot of soft light in the midst of the wind-tossed waves; in the middle distance, an island rose above the churning foam, its top planed level, and illuminated by floating balls of silver. On that island stood a great white-draped table, and two silver chairs. One of those chairs was already occupied.
She wondered what he planned to do for an encore.
Alara stepped out onto the open air confidently, as if she walked every day upon thin air, above fanglike rocks and surging seas. This particular type of illusion was a common one for the powerful elven lords, who changed the appearance of their ‘public’ rooms to suit their mood, sometimes many times a day. This dining hall could just as easily have been the setting for a sylvan glade, or a mountaintop, or a marketplace in some exotic city.
And indeed, her feet told her that she walked upon some cool, smooth surface – probably another white marble floor – even as her eyes said she trod only upon air. From the door, it seemed as if the island was a far enough walk that a gently reared girl would be quite tired by the time she reached it, but the apparent distance to the table was deceptive; another illusion, as Alara had suspected. She took her time, placing each step carefully, and still attained her goal in less than a hundred paces. As she reached the ‘island,’ set her feet again on solid, nonillusory ground, and bent in a deep curtsy, she hid a smile. Rathekrel had kept to his white-and-silver motif here, at least. After the black water, the midnight-dark of the sky, and the wind-whipped waters, the table and its environs made a study in contrast, of quiet and peace.
Rathekrel was going to extremes to court his guest; the kind of illusion he had chosen was an expensive one to maintain, and displayed his power to advantage. Yet he had made it clear that it was only an illusion; he had controlled his effects with absolute precision, permitting only enough breeze to refresh her, and not enough to tousle his guest’s careful coiffure, nor to disarrange her gown. And while he had created the voices of the ocean’s roar and the howling of the wind, it had only been enough to give an air of reality – not enough to interfere in any way with normal conversation.
This was the first time she had seen her host face-to-face. In her form of a human slave, of course, she seldom saw the Lord, and would have risked his wrath if she had dared to look at him directly. He was handsome enough, by elven standards; his hair was more silver than gold – a characteristic of several of the Clans, his included. He wore it long, and pulled back in a tail at the nape of his neck, held there by an elaborate silver clasp that matched the silver headband he sported. His forehead was broad, his eyes deep-set beneath craggy browridges. His cheekbones were even more prominent than Alara/Yssandra’s. His aquiline nose and long jaw gave him a haughty air, and his thin lips did not auger for generosity.
But when had elves ever been generous?
She wore emeralds, priceless – and useless. He wore beryls, the elf-stones, set in his silver headband, in the torque around his neck, in the rings on four of his fingers. Common stones, common enough to be set into every slave-collar – and unlike their sparkling cousins, capable of enhancing an elven’s mage’s power, or holding the spells he set into them. The more beryls a mage wore, the more power he controlled.
He was dressed formally: high-collared, open-necked shirt of sherris-silk, stiff with silver embroidery at the cuffs and neck-band; white velvet, square-necked tunic banded with silver bullion at hem and neck, skintight sherris-silk leggings and equally tight silver-encrusted boots to display his fine legs to best advantage.
The overall impression was of an elegant, frost-fair hunter; deadly, unpredictable, and quite fascinating. And Alara had no doubt that he was enhancing his real charms with set-spell glamories. He wanted this child, and he was taking no chances.
If she were a real elven maid, she doubted she could resist him at that point. It was a good thing glamories didn’t work on the Kin.
She rose from her curtsy and approached the table. As she neared, the empty silver chair moved silently away from the table for her. As soon as she had seated herself, it moved back, smoothly.
This was yet another display of power: no human slaves to perform these tasks. She suspected then that he would probably materialize the dishes of the dinner by magic, and whisk them away by the same means.
He did. She played the attentive and admiring maiden – V’Heven Myen Lord Lainner, from whose household she had supposedly come, was not a powerful mage; his strength and influence came from astute trading, and from rich deposits of copper and silver on his lands. The kind of child she was impersonating would not have seen this kind of profligate use of magic more than once or twice in her lifetime.
The meal progressed as she had expected; the courses whisking in from nowhere, serving themselves, and whisking out again. The delicate food was, of course, exquisite; cold dishes frosty, hot dishes at a perfect temperature, and no exotic viands to startle an inexperienced girl. The Lord exerted himself to be charming, telling her that she needed his ‘artistic support’ in all things, and extolling her (marginal) talent.
So the bait is taken, she thought.
This was really no great surprise to Alara, as she had chosen her victim with care; Lord Rathekrel’s last five wives had perished in childbirth, and there were very few elven lords these days willing to risk their own precious offspring to whatever lethality Rathekrel carried in his seed. Alara had heard rumors that he was considering seeking a bride among the hangers-on and subordinates of his estate.
With the dessert came the proposal, in the form of a white sugar swan that flew to her plate and proffered something it held hidden in its beak. She looked up at Rathekrel inquisitively.
‘Take it, my dear,’ he said, sure now of his reception. ‘Take it. It is not my heart, but let it stand as a fitting substitute.’
Did he really say that? she thought, astonished, Would even a fool like me fall for something that patently fatuous?
Oh well, she supposed she would.
She held her palm out to the sparkling sugar bird, and it inclined its neck and dropped a silver marriage band in her outstretched hand.
She accepted the band, placed it carefully on the index finger of her right hand to indicate that the proposal had been accepted with the ring, and calmly ate the swan.
That concluded the meal. Lord Rathekrel bid her good night with carefully restrained glee, and she made her solitary way back over the calming sea to the light of the open corridor door.
The humans descended upon her again and she permitted them to undress her, envelop her in a silken sleeping robe, braid up her hair, and conduct her to her bed. The fact that the white-and-silver walls and furnishings were no longer stark, but held a delicate undertone of warm pink, did not escape her notice, nor that the subtly uncomfortable chair and bed were now mysteriously soft and welcoming. The humans vanished, the last one pausing just long enough to murmur an unheard congratulation speech, and the lights extinguished themselves.
She waited for the sounds of the house to settle, and when she was certain she could hear nothing, shifted her form and made her escape, using the same door the humans had taken when they left her.
Draconic memory was precise, and as vivid as the first-time reality. The look on Rathekrel’s face when he discovered that his bride-to-be had vanished had been well worth all the trouble and the year-long setup. Alara laughed silently to herself – one thing she still could do as a rock.
He thought he had protected himself in every way possible. He had warded his rooms against elven magic and even against another of elvenkind crossing the threshold, but not against a human servant moving about; and, she reflected smugly, he had never thought for a moment about checking among the humans afterwards, except in a very cursory fashion, to see if his ‘bride’ was hiding among the slaves.
The slaves were practically invisible, so long as there wasn’t one or more fewer, absences that couldn’t be accounted for. Who looked for one more human slave in the slave quarters? There were always empty beds somewhere, she thought ruefully, given the rate those lords used up their servants, and empty stools at the table. If another slave appeared who wasn’t on the roster, it was always assumed someone else ordered him bought or brought in from elsewhere on the property.
She knew Rathekrel never counted noses, and he never would have put together the fact of one extra slave and the fact that the Lord’s bride-to-be had evaporated without a trace from a mage-guarded room. But that wasn’t the cream of the jest …
Alara stood quietly, behind the Lord’s desk, one ordinary, dusky human boy among the other white-and-silver-clad servants. There was nothing to link her with the vanished Yssandra, not even sex.
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