|On the Fly, Chapter 4|
Lyrio, Maron, Zephra and Aenarii are back in this month's installment of On the Fly. If you missed the first three chapters, read them here.
On the Fly
Share the fear.
Zephra did not look happy. That thought crossed Desonir’s mind first, but he could live with her unhappiness a while longer. And so could she.
His second thought concerned the elf’s robe. Cotton. The postman could obviously sense his malevolence toward the garment and tugged self-consciously at his collar.
"My apologies, Councilor," Lyrio said. He showed more courage than Desonir had expected, especially for a civil servant. Most men in his situation would have been too concerned over his future safety to do more than sputter and bow. "I did not learn of your preferences in clothing before Mary--uh, Maron--brought me at your invitation."
"Your invitation?" Zephra gaped at the pair of them. "His invitation?"
"I appreciate your embarrassment," Desonir said casually. Zephra tried to unobtrusively swipe a lump of fabric off of the floor and hold it out of sight behind her back. Ah, the dress.
He was surprised that Zephra believed that he would not notice her shoddy treatment of his gift. Studying the high color in her cheeks, Desonir reconsidered. She had expected him to notice and assumed his comment had been meant for her. Somehow, that was equally troublesome. "Had I anticipated conscientiousness from you, Postman Bregna, I would have made certain you were advised of my house rules before you arrived."
He eyed Zephra, who returned his stare measure for measure. He could recognize the signs: she was trying to read him--she was calculating--but there was an air of frenetic desperation about her that made him hesitant to look too closely. Damning himself for a coward, he turned to the curious postman.
"I realize that my preferences must appear eccentric to you, Mister Bregna," Desonir continued, "but you must admit a man in my position cannot be too careful."
Lyrio glanced about the carved marble alcove--the intricate detail of the blind arcade honed in relief on the walls, the depressed arches lined in gold leaf and rubies, and the brilliant stained glass shining in the afternoon light. He cleverly dodged his line of sight around Zephra as he examined these palpable displays of wealth then looked at Desonir with hapless earnestness. "I suspect I have no idea how a man in your position feels, sir."
"I don’t suppose you do," Desonir murmured before continuing conversationally, "My sources tell me you are somewhat gifted as a wind wrangler. A natural gift, I gather, from the records of your education."
"You had him investigated?!" Zephra exclaimed hotly.
"Spies for my spies, hmm?" Desonir reminded her. "You had him investigated. I merely decided to share your interests."
"You had me investigated?" the postman asked in amazement, as if he’d just been told he had three arms.
"How else would I find out who you were?" Zephra said. "It is only common sense." Give her a minute, and she’d have the elf believing it was his idea for complete strangers to delve into his private affairs.
"Common sense." Desonir smiled, though he did not suppose they could tell through his mask. "Now that would have made a fine goddess. Perhaps I would be a more devout man today had I been blessed with the divine power of good judgment swaying me away from my brash and callous instincts."
"Please, Des," Zephra said. "Few would dare call you impulsive. I suspect that you are the most deliberate, calculating man I have ever met."
"That is a distinct possibility," he agreed. "Tell me, Lyrio--do you mind if I call you Lyrio?"
The elf appeared bewildered that he might have a vote in the matter. "Go right ahead."
"Tell me, Lyrio. Do you not think self-control is a laudable trait? I would say deliberation--or calculation, as my dear Zephra would call it--is a byproduct of patience and wisdom."
The elf rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I do not know what to say, sir. I have never had the luxury to... deny myself. Frankly, I have always lived constrained by my means."
"Have you? Have you truly?" Desonir did not believe him. Oh, he did not doubt that Lyrio Bregna had lived a meek life, but the postman’s thoughts had obviously wandered beyond his scope a time or two. He had spared a thought toward the uses of his power; the glider service had been the result. Lyrio had to harbor a streak of curiosity, or else Zephra would not have lured him across the threshold of his villa.
Desonir approached the elf. Lyrio worried his lower lip for a moment before straightening his shoulders. It was a perplexing stoicism; Maron had described the postman using endearments akin to "sniveling" and "whelp." Desonir had not taken his butler’s judgment at face value, of course. Maron separated most people into two categories: those he wanted to kill, and those he had killed. Still, Desonir had expected a token level of nervousness on the elf’s part. He had not predicted the forlorn sense of acceptance that emanated from the man, as though he was just ticking away the seconds until the worst was all over. To satisfy Desonir’s intentions, the elf needed to acquire a sharper sense of urgent purpose.
Desonir raised one hand, steeling himself to touch the flax-weave of the postman’s tunic. Through the supple leather of his glove, he could feel nothing save a faint body heat that prickled the nerves of his fingers. The cotton robe might as well not exist. It was inanimate, he told himself. Benign spun threads, not a weapon. "I have to wonder," Desonir murmured. "I have to wonder what it is like for the Mageborn in the moment that they first realize that they have been gifted with their unnatural power. Terrifying? Exultant?"
"If one can be born with a gift," Lyrio replied, his voice equally soft, "surely that makes its power inherent to nature?"
"A valid point, Lyrio. Under that line of reasoning, it is those of us who chase power beyond their birthright who are unnatural. A most valid... point." Desonir had mistakenly looked at Zephra again. He searched her expression closely this time, taking note of the kohl-smeared eyes and red tinged nose she was doing her best to conceal. It stopped him cold. "Have you been crying?" His grip tightened around the elf’s shoulder. He wasn’t shouting, but maybe he should. "Dammit, Zephra, have you been crying?!"
She wasn’t supposed to do that. Zephra wasn’t supposed to waste tears, hiding them away, the fewer who knew about it the better. Calculating women were meant to cry in the open, plaguing their audience with the guilt they deserved.
Now Zephra looked guilty. She looked caught and careless, and more than a little frightened over what he might do to her postman confidante. "Des," she whispered urgently. "Lyrio is harmless."
"No," Desonir countered. "He is not."
The elf piped up. "Actually, I really am. Couldn’t hurt a-"
Desonir moved his hold to Lyrio’s throat, choking the rest of the postman’s sentence off into a gurgle. Zephra screamed a protest as he tossed the postman effortlessly against the wall. "Couldn’t hurt a fly?" he snarled. Violence surged within Desonir, and he was not particularly pleased over the impulse. The elf, stunned and crumpled, had an ingénue air about him, as if he did not quite understand what was happening.
Like a little lost girl...
He doesn’t know what he is capable of. He doesn’t understand.
Zephra shifted as though she intended to help the elf back onto his feet. Desonir moved to stand between them. "Don’t," she pleaded. "He is nothing to you!"
And if you push him...
"He can control the air. That interests me." Desonir nudged the postman with his boot. "That is correct, isn’t it, Lyrio? You were born a master of the air, weren’t you? They tossed you out of Argoniss because of it."
Be careful. He might push back.
Lyrio pulled himself up so that he sat with his back against the wall, legs humbly crossed. He seemed discomfited to talk about it, shrugging as he said in a low voice, "I am good with kites. I always catch the wind in my sails. I am always cool in the heat of the day. I fly a glider for a modest wage. I beg your pardon, sir, but the only thing I am a master of requires postage."
"If that is true, perhaps I am going do you a disservice, good Lyrio." Desonir flattened his palms together and began to rub them in a brisk circle. "But perhaps... I will enlighten you."
A fireball crackled to life between his fingers, and Desonir casually tossed it into the elf’s lap. His cotton robe burst into flames in an instant.
From the pitch, Des could not tell whether the cry of alarm came from Zephra or the postman. He watched dispassionately as Lyrio flailed and rolled on the floor until Zephra rushed past him with the water cistern. He caught her about the waist, holding her fast as she struggled. "No! Stay back!"
Zephra battled his shouts with her own. "Let me go! Des, you cannot do this! You’ll kill him!"
"Give him a chance! He can help himself if he thinks it through," Desonir hissed in her ear. "How do you put out a fire, Zephra? How? You smother it!"
Lyrio, to his credit, came to this same conclusion in the nick of time. Just as Desonir breathed the words of his salvation, a rush of smoke expanded outward from the elf, causing them to stumble backward from the postman’s prone form. The hungry flames sputtered and hiccupped then disappeared.
Desonir released his hold on Zephra, quickly crossing to where Lyrio curled on his side. The elf’s cheeks were rapidly turning a grayish-blue. Des coughed as he hauled the postman to his feet and pounded the man’s narrow back. "I completely... fail to make my point... if you forget you need to breathe. Breathe, Lyrio!"
The two men lurched like two drunks before dawn, now both gasping for air. "I... did it!" when he found his voice, Lyrio barked his amazement. "I did it!" Laughter began to bubble from his throat as his patted the scorched threads holding the remnants of his tunic together. "I put out the fire! I willed it!"
Desonir clapped his back again, this time with a spirit of camaraderie, and joined in with the elf’s triumphant laughter. "Not so harmless, are you? You nearly strangled yourself!"
Zephra did not join their amusement. Instead, she dumped the contents of the water cistern over their laughing heads before throwing it to the floor and stalking from the room.
Women make strange bedfellows.
Lyrio came to one conclusion as his teeth began to chatter. A lack of dignity prevailed when one was snickering on the floor of a City Councilor’s salon with a bucket of cold water settling in one’s shorts.
He noticed that Aenarii seemed to take the situation in stride, but then he was the Councilor. Between the mask and the leather, reading the man was a murky prospect at best. Lyrio decided that Aenarii might be amused, or he might very well be making weekend plans for the local executioners’ squad.
Lyrio stifled a small cough, wondering if he should enjoy himself a little less. His lungs still fumbled with raw eagerness to gobble fresh air like a child with a bag of lemon drops. He patted his bare stomach a second time, wincing as his fingers encountered an overcooked patch of skin.
The Councilor had just set him on fire. Yes, perhaps he should laugh a little less loudly.
He noticed Aenarii studying him, and Lyrio wondered how he was supposed to behave under such circumstances. The first families tended to like gestures such as bowing or the tugging of forelocks, but he held a nagging suspicion that Desonir Aenarii might break his nose if he tried to be obsequious at this point. Lyrio settled on a loopy half-smile. It was how he felt, punch-drunk on the excitement of... well, being alive for a start.
The Councilor marked that a few of the scorched spots on his robe had burned cleanly through to his flesh. "I will send a runner. The temple of Oron makes an efficient salve for burns and lesions." Aenarii’s voice sounded faintly inconvenienced as he added, "It was not my goal to harm you."
Lyrio’s chest bubbled as he fought off another round of hysterical giggles. "I was surprised," he admitted tactfully. Immolated before he had nipped a spot of lunch; it was not the type of lark one expected, not when one was a postman. Now, what a story he had to tell!
Assuming he survived to tell it. Lyrio peered at the Councilor, considering the odds. His manner did not seem particularly threatening at the moment, but... "I learned something extraordinary, sir. I thank you for that, but what if I hadn’t come up with the answer in time? A few more seconds, and..." He gulped. The picture in his head was not funny. Rather sobering, actually.
"A few more seconds, and you would have had a very bad day."
Lyrio’s ears began to itch at the Councilor’s candid observation. Well, he had been having a bad day already, hadn’t he? A prick of conscience from the Koru would have been soothing, but he would take what he could get. All things considered, an offer of ointment constituted more of an acknowledgement than the average citizen should expect.
"I daresay Zephra would be more aggravated with me than she is already if you had been harmed beyond repair," Aenarii added conversationally.
The Councilor began to tug at his gloves. Thumb, index finger--whoop!--the leather snaked away and his hand was bare. Lyrio caught himself squinting. Something was not quite right about Aenarii’s hand. He blinked and tried again, closing one eye. The skin looked gnarled, scars twisting from knuckle to wrist like the roots of a tree.
Lyrio looked up slowly. The Councilor watched him gawk at his hands. Lyrio felt his cheeks redden, his mind whirling for an appropriate apology. How did one offer condolences for staring at that?
The Councilor appeared unperturbed. He folded his gloves neatly together and set them aside. "She needs her anger," Desonir said plainly. "Are you hungry?"
Lyrio’s mouth watered. He had missed lunch. "Yes. No!" What was that about Zephra? "Wait, why does Zephra need to be angry?"
Koru Aenarii stood, motioning for Lyrio to follow him. Lyrio did, grimacing as his every step echoed with a squishing sound. The Councilor walked in blissful silence. Lyrio began to feel an overwhelming unfairness of being. Jealous. He was jealous. And yet...
"Zephra needs to want to teach me a lesson." Aenarii pushed open a massive pair of ornate metal doors. "She will never leave me otherwise."
The Councilor brought them to a long, open room. Lyrio noticed there was an alcovewith a hint of steam whispering through the archway. In the distance, he took in a bed roughly twice the size of his rented lodgings.
The Councilor motioned toward a sideboard lined with platters of honeyed duck meat, salted fish, and stranger morsels that he had never seen before. A variety of pickled suckers and claws waved invitingly at him from the mounded dishes, tickling his stomach into grumbling. Then, Aenarii left him with a command to eat. Lyrio obeyed, swallowing a handful of the duck and some goat cheese before prodding inquisitively at jelly-like blob in a half-shell that smelled of the ocean.
Lyrio wasn’t comfortable being brought to the Councilor’s private chambers. Aenarii had gone to extreme lengths to prove Lyrio was not harmless. It seemed an odd way to go about things--proving to a man that he was, in fact, a master of the air, then trusting him enough to invite him back to one’s bedroom for snacks.
The postman wandered aimlessly about the room as he chewed methodically on the hunk of sea-meat. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Aenarii in the alcove. He was changing his clothing, lacing a new pair of breeches. Lyrio tugged at his own garment, the fabric slapping wetly against his thigh in response. He twiddled his fingers, and a warm sirocco updraft materialized out of thin air to lighten the weight of his damp tunic.
Lyrio chewed a bit more as he dried off, trying to not act obtrusively, but he was too curious to mind his own business properly. Desonir Aenarii was scarred. The length of the Councilor’s thick arms appeared scaled with old wounds in comparison to his back. Aenarii’s broad shoulders had been ravaged in strips. Lyrio thought of the few times he had witnessed floggings in the council square. The injuries were not the same as slashing; they had the rippled, puckered aspect of Aenarii’s burnt hands, only the area around the man’s spine was unblemished. It was as if whoever had attacked the Councilor had caught him in a vise, then set that vise on fire.
Aenarii turned then, catching him in full-force pry. Mouth agape, Lyrio realized that he had ceased chewing. For the life of him, staring at the carnage that had defiled Desonir Aenarii torso, he could not finish it. What made matters worse--what was even more mortifying--was that the glint in the Councilor’s eyes seemed to say that he understood why.
Aenarii crossed the room, plucked a fingerbowl from the sideboard, and matter-of-factly held it beneath Lyrio’s chin.
Lyrio spat obediently. He wondered dizzily what else he could do. The cozy-blanket life he was familiar with beckoned solidly in his thoughts, while the life he dreamed about darted to and fro like a bedbug gnawing at his rump. But here... he stood in the middle of the life he was now living. It was baffling, it was unexpected, and Lyrio doubted that he could keep his chin up about his confusion anymore.
Nothing in his twenty-odd--and growing odder--years had prepared him for bully butlers, fire-mad Koru or inappropriately dressed courtesans. Especially the courtesans. Lyrio supposed he could try hypothesizing what a normal citizen would do in his situation, but a normal citizen would not be in his situation, which is precisely why they were normal in the first place.
By the Gods and the Emperor as well, he was still gawping.
Aenarii endured it patiently as Lyrio’s gaze darted from the pocked arch of bone where an eyebrow should have rested to the ragged patchwork of his lip and jaw. Lyrio could see two people: the man Desonir Aenarii had been and the man he had become. Lyrio could not decide which face was more terrible to behold.
Still, the Councilor endured his stare. Lyrio had the feeling that he ought to say something, and whatever form that statement took, it had the power to shape the rest of his life. His mind reeled, scrabbling for something meaningful.
No, that would not do at all.
Lyrio wiggled his lips and tentatively gave speech a second try. "If..." An actual coherent word! "If you want Zephra to--uh--leave, why not simply tell her to go? You could... fire her!" Lyrio frowned. Perhaps firing was not a good suggestion given the Councilor’s record. "I mean, you could give Zephra her marching papers. Yes, that’s it! You can do that with consorts, can’t you?"
Desonir smiled. It was a rather nice smile once you looked past the gristle. A weight lifted from Lyrio’s shoulders--he felt forgiven without the Councilor saying a word.
"Most consorts, yes," Desonir confirmed. "I could chuck a typical courtesan out on her ear, toss a few baubles after her, and all would be well. But not Zephra. She’d want to know what the hell I thought I was about."
"Begging your pardon, sir, but she is wondering that already." Lyrio tried to hide that he was equally perplexed from his voice. He focused on being helpful, and, if he was really lucky, wise.
"She would." The Councilor began to pace the floor. "If only Zephra was less inquisitive, less stubborn..." Desonir stopped, shrugging as if the answer was simple. "But if she was different, it would not matter to me what became of her. She would not be Zephra. My folly is that I want her the way that she is."
With every word, Lyrio grew more pensive. The affairs of city officials were beyond his scope, and yet Aenarii persisted in talking to him as if he was a concerned party. Lyrio was concerned, certainly, but his unease centered upon the lingering cloud that it wasn’t really his place to voice an opinion and rather disconcerting of the Councilor to request it.
"Why am I here?" Lyrio said abruptly. He fell into his habit of worrying the fabric of his robe until he felt the frayed edges around one burn mark give, followed by a sharp ripping sound. Lyrio held up his hands and sighed. "Me! Heavens! All magic aside, why would you bring me here?" He pointed emphatically at the floor. "Here!"
Aenarii’s forehead twitched his amusement. "Why not?"
"You are Councilor Aenarii! No one ever sees Councilor Aenarii! No one unimportant, that is. But I am here!" Lyrio flapped his arms about his head like a dyspeptic pigeon. "I am seeing you!" He froze in mid-flap, transfixed by a sudden notion. "Zephra has not seen you like this, has she?"
Desonir’s expression hardened. "What do you think?"
"I think you care a far sight more about what Zephra thinks than some militia postman your butler scooped off the street. She should be standing here." Lyrio nodded solemnly to himself, deciding it was a fine idea. "Yes, she should. I should go home and darn my tunic."
Desonir stayed him with a whistle, the type that made Narimiri goathounds heel in the middle of a wandering herd. Lyrio rubbed the side of his head with an envious fist. A master of air he was, but he’d never managed a whistle like that.
The Koru’s voice was smooth and authoritative. "You are here in order to learn why Zephra will never be happy or safe if she remains in Mal Nassrin."
Lyrio pursed his lips. He felt prim saying it, but it needed to be said. "You don’t know that is true."
"But I do."
"If you are afraid of how she will react-"
"I am not afraid of that," Desonir interrupted sharply. "The inevitable revulsion would only help me inspire her to leave of her own accord."
"Then why haven’t you tried it?"
Aenarii answered slowly. "I cannot risk her pity. Make no mistake, I believe in Zephra’s streak of self-interest. I applaud her for it--it provides what little instinct for self-preservation that she has--but..."
"But there is more to her core. A streak of... softness. She tries to hide it, but she is not as mercenary as she likes to think." Desonir sourly began to tick infractions off by his fingers. "She still corresponds with her parents. She thinks of them fondly. As much as she enjoys the city, I believe she misses her home. Not to stay, mind you, but to visit. She likes her parents enough to care about their well-being."
"Maron tends a butterfly garden in an alcove off the lower vestibule here," Aenarii continued, drilling his index finger into his palm. "She mocks his hobby while he is around, but when he is absent, she sneaks in for a visit. Her parents are flower sellers--for the love of Riyashal--and I have no love for Lahan Riyashal. Zephra spent her childhood picking lilies and larkspur by the river outside of town, and every time she spots so much as a petunia out the window she longs to return."
Desonir snapped his fingers, each item sounding less like a complaint and more like a nomination for public office. "She wants to run. She wants to sing. She wants to wrap her arms around the world and laugh. She is wild. Having Zephra living here is like locking her in a hothouse when she is meant to grow free."
Aenarii had said a great deal, yet it still made little sense to Lyrio. "Then set her free. Why is that impossible?"
"It is not impossible," the Councilor said, his tone forbidding, "but she cannot stay in Mal Nassrin. I have rivals, enemies... Vengeance. That is why I have trapped her here. She is a target for the sake of my interest."
Lyrio sat with a hard thump on one of the stone benches. "Is there a... limit at which your interest becomes deadly, sir?" he asked nervously. "Perhaps you should let me toddle home, yes?"
Desonir read his expression and gave him a hope-raising smile. He filled a gold goblet with cool water, handed it over, and ruined any illusion of sympathy by saying: "Relax, postman. I trust you loose on the streets for the same reason I trust Maron. You are lethal."
"Oh." Lyrio gulped. "Oh my."
The Councilor continued to pontificate his grand ideas. "Zephra thinks quickly, but she is not a killer. She has no instinct to fight for her survival. She cajoles it, softly. Faced with true menace, she would never stand a chance."
"Now, hold on a minute!" Lyrio hopped off the bench, sloshing water from his goblet. "I am not a killer, either! I am a... a mild abrader."
"No, no. I am sorry, Koru Aenarii, but it must be said! I do not have the ruthless drive required to fight off assassins and ne’er-do-wells that you accuse me of! I dare say that Zephra’s better off--she at least could distract the fiends with buckles. Me, I am halfway to becoming a piece of burnt toast before I realize that I am in mortal danger!" Lyrio belatedly thought better of that comment, tucked his head, and took a docile sip of his water. "No offense meant by the analogy, sir."
"None taken." When Lyrio hazarded to look again, there was a knowing, determined gleam in Desonir’s eyes. It was as if the Councilor had read his thoughts, then decided to toss them in the chamber pot and start over. "Consider what I know to be true, Lyrio," he said. "I had a friend once. One of the few that I kept after my injuries. Voleta Palmyrna... she knew what had happened to me. She knew why. She knew what I was, and in a gross aberration of all Voleta held dear--namely gossip and rumor--she kept my secrets. Years passed, and I started to believe that we were safe, but the girl..."
The multitude of nouns had started to confuse Lyrio beyond bearing. "What girl?"
Aenarii, ruthless potentate that he was, ignored the question. "The girl came one night and strangled Voleta at home. She used a vase of roses that Voleta had carelessly allowed inside her bedchamber. Voleta should have known better, but she was always more fond of form over function. She loved funerals, but she never gave much thought to death, especially her own. Shortsighted, you could say, and too vain to wear spectacles." The Councilor shook his head harshly, his voice acquiring a dark edge. "The Oronites that prepared her body told me that the thorns were embedded so deeply into her flesh, they could not strip them without the risk of cleaving her head from her neck. She was buried in a high collar--very unfashionable. Voleta would have been so disappointed."
Lyrio lifted one hand, instinctively stroking the air twice before him in an old gesture meant to ward off vengeance.
Desonir laughed, a frighteningly hollow sound. "That won’t help you."
Lyrio did not see the humor in it. He suspected Aenarii had told him too much, yet woefully too little. "Who was the girl?"
"She is of no concern to you. What is important is that I will not deliver Zephra to the same fate as Voleta. She must be protected, and to do that, she must leave Mal Nassrin. You will take her, and you will guard her with your life."
"Me?" Lyrio looked doubtful.
"It is why she picked you from the crowd in the first place. I will not let her roam the streets, so she imagines flying over them and far away from my selfish clutches. You are her rebellion, you see. You, Lyrio, will be Zephra’s rescuer."
Lyrio considered the Councilor’s words quite seriously. He’d never been anyone’s rescuer before, much less pretended to be. Where heroics were concerned, Lyrio considered himself about even with a leaky bucket. He had great potential, but that included potential for failure, didn’t it?
But the Councilor would not suffer a fool gladly.
The idea of confidence made Lyrio’s lips squirm against his teeth. "Hmm."
He steepled his hands, tapping his fingers together. Lyrio spent a hard look upon his spindly wrists, straightened his wiry shoulders, then scratched his pointed chin with growing consternation.
"Sir..." Lyrio felt the burden of his new responsibility. Truly, he did. "Would you happen to know how much the mistress weighs?"
Truth does not boast the kindest messenger.
Maron had to be careful where he pointed his elbows. Tolmirans had a saying that involved giant squids and a glass shop. Whenever he worked in the garden, Maron felt doubly like that. He would lift a dropper over each plate and wait for the pervasive echo of clinking surfaces caused by his arm displacing space. Then he would pray that nothing broke.
More often than not, something would break, and Maron would pull his hair in despair--usually toppling something else in passing--then he would let loose a maelstrom of profanity the likes of which had yet to be documented by the intrepid linguists of the Grand Nassrin Wordsmiths’ Guild in its natural setting.
Thus great hobbies were born.
Maron maintained a butterfly garden because he found it relaxing. He insisted this when asked, or when people stood too close and he decided he would like to talk about how relaxed he was while the glass shattered. Maron could not claim he had made a conscious decision to herd butterflies. It had just been one of those changes that happen. He had marched home after a day of pounding protection taxes from the middle class, only to find a struggling orange emperor clinging to a bit of dried blood and chipped tooth that had crusted on his cuirass.
Maron had clocked a great deal of damage that day. He then looked at the insect’s fluttering wings and decided that he hadn’t the spite left to crush it, not even to cripple it a little. The butler had taken this as a challenge, instead. He precariously lifted the fragile legs one by one from its nest of carnage without damaging the creature, and then he watched proudly as the butterfly took flight, bobbing into the air until it decided to roost on the mosaic wall in the cloakroom.
As time went on, Maron grew more aware seeing butterflies as he fought and finagled his way through the city. They became ubiquitous: one found flitting in a desolate corner of Dust Street; another perched on the steps of the council building. It made no difference whether the class or quarter, they maintained their colorful presence in Mal Nassrin. Maron fancied that the butterflies were looking out for him, thus he decided that he would look out for them in return; he’d even written a poem about it (not that he would ever show the lyric to anyone).
For this reason, Maron thought of his time alone with his butterflies as special, so when Zephra strolled into the cloakroom-now-garden like she owned the place, he gnashed his teeth and broke a plate on purpose.
Zephra glanced at the floor and halted, gingerly testing the debris caking the tiles before taking another step. "Do you ever sweep in here?"
"If your mother saw this mess, she would string you up..."
"I am giving it serious thought." Zephra lifted a cup of nectar from Maron’s worktable and joined him in his feeding duties--no doubt to spite him--dabbing the mixture of honey and water along the glass discs that made for a swaying archipelago hung from the ceiling. After a minute, she set the vessel down again with an impatient clatter.
"Hey!" Maron growled. "Gently!"
Zephra’s voice assaulted his ears. It was not rare for the strumpet to have a sense of urgency about her--everything was now with Zephra. What was odd was the gravity in her tone. "Mary, why did he invite Lyrio here?"
"Let’s see, ducky. A man pays good money for the attentions of a professional consort, only to learn the postman’s dropped by for a bit of buckle-my-shoe on the side. You tell me why the Master invited him here, Zephra."
"He is not going to hurt him, Mary," she said stubbornly. "At least, I don’t think so."
Maron had to scoff at that. Zephra could be far too optimistic at times. "What do you think he’s going to do? Feed the puppy oysters and sympathy?"
Zephra shook her head, looking disconcerted. "I was frightened at what he might do. Des singed Lyrio a little, but I think he was trying to make a point about power, magic... something, but they were getting along thick as thieves when I left."
At that, Maron had to set down his tools. "The Master burned him, and the elf survived? I don’t believe you."
"Why would I lie?"
"Because the Master doesn’t wield fire for his health." Maron ground his teeth for patience, holding out one club-like hand. A swallowtail with translucent blue wings fluttered over his palm, landing in a twitter of black legs. "Not since... Look, you nosy bauble, he only takes a light out on someone when he’s in a temper, and when the Master is in a right temper, people get thoroughly hurt." Maron ever-so-faintly budged his finger so that it traced the line of the butterfly’s right wing. "This is why we get along well. Not so different, the Master and I."
Maron expected some sarcastic rejoinder, some crushing declaration that he was as similar to Councilor Aenarii as a puddle of muck was similar to the River Nassrin--not that it would hurt his feelings, mind you--but none was forthcoming. Instead, Zephra repeated, "Not since..." Her gaze narrowed. "You are saying that he was burned. That is why he wears the mask."
"Not too bright of you to just now get around to guessing that."
"Of course I guessed it. I simply never had confirmation. Gossip cannot be trusted to reveal anything based in reality, you know that, and Des has not exactly been the confiding sort." She shook her head with renewed frustration. "But it still makes no sense. He hates wood, plants--it cannot be because he is afraid of fire, else why would he ever toy with it?"
Here lay another lesson Maron had learned from his Mother at a young, tongue-salted age: it was never too late to stop talking. No one had survived longer in the Master’s service than he, specifically because he understood the proper distribution of bellowed nonsense versus unimpeachable silence.
Maron muttered to the butterfly roosted on his hand. "You never talk, do you? Smart bug."
"Why?" Zephra repeated, though Maron did not see how an echo would get her anywhere. The First Principle of Butlering was to never repeat a query unless one hit something for punctuation. Until Zephra started smashing plates over his skull, this bandying barely counted as a discussion.
Maron knew the answer to her question, of course. He simply didn’t see how it was any of her business. Zephra fretted prettily as she did everything prettily; that didn’t mean he had to be impressed. He considered chasing her off with a stick but decided that might be a bit rough. If he abandoned talking, confiding, chatting, or any other forms of wordy nonsense that Zephra liked, the result should be sufficient.
An emerald green Rumiri featherwing bobbed in front of Zephra’s nose then landed upon an abalone tile that sparkled in the wall. She studied it dejectedly, her expression growing increasingly forlorn. "You’ve lured these poor things in here with a few brightly colored stones and the promise of nectar, and now they are trapped. I do not see why you are so satisfied with yourself, Mary. It is a reprehensible garden."
If Maron harbored a nature that ever conceded blame, her accusation might have given him pause. Instead, he issued a snort that would earn most creatures a spot in the roasting pit with an apple in its mouth. "These mites flew into this house all on their own, you sappy siren. If they want to snuffle pollen amongst the daisies and bumblebees, they can bloody well hie their flighty insect hides out the way they came." He leaned over his swallowtail and clucked, "But you wouldn’t do that, would you, Scruffy? You like it here. You know a sweet setup when you smell it--not like some people."
"Oh, for the love of Uulix, Mary! The butterflies are lovely, but you honestly cannot want to name the things as if you hold them in some kind of affection!"
Maron set Scruffy upon a feeding disk with exquisite care. "You make a sensible point, and who would know better than a hired lady? It’s your job to be a lovely bit of company, but no Master would ever dream of feeling affection for you. That’s not in their nature."
He watched Zephra’s reaction to his words out of the corner of his eye, smirking as she stumbled backwards in dismay until he heard the discordant clatter of clinking glass. "Hey! Gently!"
Zephra, lost in her thoughts, didn’t seem to be paying attention to him anymore. She backed into the opposite wall, resulting in a flurry of wings, and she nearly asphyxiated his Dainty Plumtip in her hair. Maron took Zephra firmly by the waist and set her roughly on a low pedestal coated in glass dust. He carefully extracted the besieged insect tangled in her locks, cursing Zephra first under his breath, then more loudly with diverse and colorful invectives featuring livestock, family trees and something very uncomfortable involving a broom handle.
Zephra did not seem to be listening. Maron snapped the fingers of his free hand in front of her face, but she made no acknowledgement. He gave a long-suffering sigh and thought of his mother. Life would be simpler and more enjoyable if every woman was patient and sturdy like his mother, but no. Women were shifty, noisy things, a brawl of moods, inescapably smart-mouthed and most of them smelled too nice to be remotely trustworthy. A girl who smelled like a goat--now that’s the kind of solid lass you could count on to remain faithful and get things done.
Maron moved to set the butterfly on a safe nesting spot, but Zephra snaked out an arm, hooking her fingers in the laces of one of his bracers to tug his attention her way again. "Say it isn’t true."
"I am not just a bit of company," she said fiercely. "I can be anything. Anything is possible: a companion, a friend... love-"
"Love doesn’t have anything to do with a woman being paid to sit where she’s told, speak when she’s told, and leave when she’s told." Maron did not say these things to be cruel, though her expression made it look like that was what he’d accomplished. He was stating facts. Zephra needed to quit being stubborn and own up to them. More than that, she needed to stop trying to make him feel guilty about the direction the wind blew. The guilting had started to splinter its way under the hard nail that was his conscience. "Just leave, will you?"
"I don’t have to!"
When Zephra became obstinate like that, indignant as if she deserved something in life that other people were not entitled to, Maron found her the most infuriating. It reminded him of the few short tantrums he’d pitched for his mother’s benefit as a boy: his complaints that he had no father, his rage over having to work at such a young age, and once--just once--his crying because none of the other children were allowed near the lonely Feyborn bastard. His mother had always been a practical witness to his fits of temper. She would often share frank wisdom such as, "Tears won’t plug my bucket," or "If you want to hit something, find someone who’ll pay you for it." The most important gem his mother had imparted went along the lines of "If you can’t be proud of who or what you are, be a love and keep your mouth shut about it. People have troubles enough without you sharing sour milk."
Zephra had never gone hungry so her child could eat, nor scrubbed washing in lye until her knuckles were raw to put a roof over his head. Zephra had accepted an offer to live in a veritable palace, with all the luxuries inherent and nothing more to do than sit around and say nothing out of turn, and then she had the gall to act as if she had been cheated of her due. It made Maron see red. It disgusted him more than whining lapdog elves and bureaucratic desk herders, and it made Maron decide with distinction that he desired Zephra as much as a case of the Dust pox. Less.
"You’re not the damn lady of the house," he spat. "That’s why you don’t get to go where you want. Hired help like me, I wander about my business--indoors and out I have a purpose--but you don’t merit that either." Maron gestured to the butterfly that rested on his palm, still wings and twitching antennae. "Hell, you don’t even count as much as this butterfly. You’re less than that. You’re like a chair or a picture. You just get moved around the house to mark the time of day and make sure you look nice in the lighting."
Maron half-expected Zephra to cry at that, one of those weepy performances that women who did not understand hardship thought were the answer to every disappointment or unkind word. Part of him wanted her to tear and warble, just so he could yell at her for being an infant brat. Instead, Zephra acquired a stony demeanor, her voice snuffed of any heat. "But... Mary?"
Maron scratched his head. She said his name like it was a question, but there wasn’t an answer for it. "Yeah?" he said gruffly.
"Why would he want another chair?" Zephra said softly. "Why would he not want more? He has more to give, doesn’t he?"
"No. You shoo that thought right out of your dim head, because if there’s one thing I know, the first families don’t give anything extra to the likes of us. You work hard; you make a living. If you’re lucky, they let you die of old age. Don’t ask for more. Never ask for more."
"But... what if I was in love with him?"
Yes, Maron’s mother had taught him many an important lesson that had helped him make his way through life relatively unscathed. The Master had taught him one key lesson as well. Nearly twelve years before, on a dry, unforgiving night at an estate not so far away in Mal Nassrin, Maron had witnessed Desonir Aenarii battle for his life. The man-boy Maron had been, the one who came at the Councilor’s call for a torch while the others could only cower in fear of death and power, that youth had watched the grueling agony as Desonir Aenarii set himself on fire so that he might survive. Maron had thrown the water. Maron had wrapped the body of the Master when the man could no longer stand or remain conscious from the pain. Maron had carried him to the temple for healing, and he had served him every day thereafter, never questioning the rightness of what he had done.
Desonir Aenarii had taught Maron that there times when it became necessary to make sacrifices in order for life to persevere.
The butterfly rested innocently in his hand. Maron crushed it before Zephra’s eyes, shredding its wings like the petal of a flower. "Then you run for your hide, you silly whore."
Continue with Chapter 5...