Author Topic: Chapter 38  (Read 145 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 38
« on: April 11, 2022, 11:42:46 PM »
Part 3: Wrath in Righteousness

Chapter 38

“Twins?” Ethelle looked up from her bed, astonished. “Toria, are you sure?”

“Beyond any doubt,” Toria responded with a coy smile, as her hands lingered on the sides of the Lady’s abdomen. She took the gum-rubber amplifier plugs from her bag and carefully put them in Ethelle’s ears. “Hear for yourself.” The metal lines ran from her ears down to the metal plate on her increasingly expansive belly.

It was just the three of us in my lady’s chamber. I watched with surprise as Ethelle listened to the plugs with a strange look on her face. I felt a cold chill run down my spine. We had planned for many things, but the possibility of twins hadn’t been one of them.

Ethelle didn’t seem convinced. “I don’t hear them. Or I don’t think I do.”

“I can feel two heartbeats there, as well as your own,” Toria assured her with confidence.

Ethelle stared off into space for a few moments, absorbing that. “I can scarcely believe it!”

I believed it. Toria was never wrong about these things. Despite her hereditary deafness, Toria’s instincts as a midwife were uncanny. With Ethelle’s permission, I put a hand against her swollen belly and thought I could feel a faint vibration as well. I sat down heavily, my mind spinning with other options. One after another, I dismissed them. She was having twins.

I had been a servant to House Carver my entire life. I’d grown up beside Ethelle, and had known since childhood what love felt like. I loved her, body and soul. The way she held herself, that tilt of her head. How she seemed to have a boundless capacity for optimism, and her gentle, kind way of persuading people. She was perfection to me.

Of course it could never be. I was a servant and she was nobility. Born and bred for a purpose far greater than a worm like me could aspire to. That didn’t stop me from feeling it, though. I was careful to keep it hidden at all times. Even my closest friends thought of it as nothing more than a servant’s devotion to his Lady. Ethelle… she might have had an inkling; I never knew for sure.

The noble Houses had always been vicious and devious in politics, but she had somehow kept the innocence and grace of her past, even after she’d been thrust into that world at fifteen. Her father, Lord Kozau Carver, had died suddenly of heart failure, and her oldest brother had been only eight years old at the time. That had put her in charge. Behind the scenes of course: no woman had ever publicly led any Sustained House.

Somehow, House Carver had not only survived, but had actually gained influence within the Council during that time. When Boshqur had finally been old enough to take the reins, she’d handed him a finely-tuned political powerhouse. I’d loved her all the more for that.

Then she’d been married off to the Fishers, and shipped off to this… gaudy hellhole. It had been only natural that her staff make the trip with her, and I endured our new circumstances with as much grace as I could muster. Eventually, things returned to normal, or as close to normal as could be here in the Lord Ascendant’s manor. Then she’d gotten pregnant.

I’d always known that would happen. That I would end up taking care of not only her, but her children and grandchildren as well. Children and grandchildren who weren’t mine. I admit: it hurt. A lot.

I had thought that would be the end of the story. Like my parents, and cousins, and aunts and uncles, I would be just another servant in this family. An uncommonly well versed one, but a servant nonetheless.

When she had called me in three months ago, and told me of her subversive plan, it had amazed me. I’d had no idea she could be so devious, though in retrospect it should have been obvious. She was the only daughter of a Sustained Lord after all.

I’d tried to talk her out of it at first. It was far too risky! There were so many things that could go wrong, even if she could trust her dwarven partner in this endeavor. Her mind was set though. Nothing would stop her from making sure her child lived a better life. “Stra’tchi parents have to give up their children all the time,” she’d told me patiently. “They only get to see their children a few times a year. This will be no different.” Of course she’d been right. Compared to the stra’tchi, our lives—all our lives—were filled with ease and comfort.

Now though, visions of disaster raced through my head. Such pregnancies were fraught with risk. Not two months ago, Lord Mason’s third wife had given birth to a mutation. A freak child with a grossly misshapen head and limbs. She’d died giving birth, and according to rumor Lord Mason had killed the child and threaded its body. I feared the same thing might end up happening here!

I shook my head, taking the amplifier and putting it back in Toria’s medical bag. This changes everything, my Lady, I signed. The arrangement you made with the Hauld was very specific. He’s expecting one child, not two!

“I know. We’ll just have to make do.”

But we have no way of contacting him anymore, I protested. You know how dwarves can be with details. He may view the change of plans as a breach of our contract!

“Which is why you and Toria will have to convince him otherwise. It may be easier than you think, though. He was eager enough to have one line on House Fisher; now he’ll have two.” She gave a weak smile at her own joke, and at least Toria responded in kind.

I must have still looked less than convinced, because she put a hand on my cheek. “Anath, we both knew this plan was risky, but I will not have my child raised in this backstabbing, vicious life. And I know that I can’t choose one child over the other, so we have no choice but to risk saving them both!”

She was right of course. I felt my cheeks warm in shame, and looked at the floor briefly. “Trust me, Anath. We’re going to make this work.”

As I left my Lady’s chamber, I skidded to a halt just before running into someone else, and quickly lowered my head in deference. It was Berilo Fisher. The Lord Ascendant of the city, Ethelle’s husband, and the father of her children. Next to him was his firstborn son, little Tenlor, looking bored. The Lord Ascendant speared with me a swift glance, almost as if surveying an insect crawling on the floor. “You’re Anathdur’hu, aren’t you? Ethelle’s little deaf pet?”

I nodded, looking down again as soon as I’d read his lips. The Lord Ascendant gave me no further mind and swept past me into the Lady’s chambers. The little brat, however, stayed behind. I hid a grimace. I knew what was coming next.

“Stay put, deaf-mute,” the little monster ordered up at me, and then kicked me in the shin. I didn’t wince or shift my stance at all. It was only a kid kicking at me, but he was wearing iron-tipped shoes. Shoes he’d had made especially for this purpose.

“Why don’t you say something, deaf-mute?” He asked, kicking again and again. “I’ll stop if you say something!”

Stoically, I just kept looking straight ahead as the little boy kept it going. My shins would no doubt be a mess by the time Tenlor gave up; I knew that from experience. And all of this was just because he was bored, and I was the nearest servant to abuse. I was just lucky the spoiled little prince wasn’t old enough to do any real damage. At least once the plan had been carried out, I’d be too far away for the princeling to torture me anymore.

I spent the time as still as a statue, reflecting on how Ethelle’s babies would never end up like this boy, no matter what happened when she gave birth. And reflecting on the unfortunate fact that Tenlor would likely be just as bad an adult as he was a kid. It really wasn’t his fault right now, but it sure would be when he was grown. He’d been taught that he was superior, right from day one. Not just that he was better than the stra’tchi, as all Sustained had been taught, but superior to everyone else as well. Was it any wonder he was turning out to be a bully?

-.-

Half an hour later I limped my way into Toria’s makeshift apothecary, mindful not to jostle her carefully arranged glass vials. They were everywhere, most of them full of exotic concoctions and corked shut. My cousin was the midwife and servant as well, but her alchemical knowledge was impressive.

She clucked her tongue at me, a gesture I’d come to recognize over the years, and helped me sit down on one of her taller stools. “Tenlor again?” She asked, carefully rolling up one of my pantlegs. I nodded, grimacing as she applied ointments to my injuries one after another.

My duties in the Manor were administrative: I decided which servant went where, and what they did when they got there. Since most of the house staff couldn’t understand handtalk, there were a few who translated for me, like Toria herself. In contrast, Toria was the conversationalist. She’d trained herself very carefully to sound ‘normal’ in speech. I’d never really decided if I envied her for being able to express herself, or pitied her for being stuck halfway between deafness and hearing. That very ability of hers had often set her apart among our family gatherings.

Regardless, she bore it with good grace in both cases. Wasting little motion, she finished tending to my legs where the metal tips had dug past the skin, and then gently bound them with clean cloth and tied them off. Somehow she did so without causing much further pain. She’d always had a healer’s touch.

On the bench next to her equipment was a freshly brewed tonic, poured into a small glass vial and corked shut. Is that it? I signed curiously. It didn’t look like much, but it was the key to our plans.

Toria nodded distractedly. “I already gave her some of the potion for tomorrow. I told her not to drink it until the afternoon, after the Lord Ascendant leaves. About half an hour later, perhaps an hour, she’ll go into labor.”

You’re sure it won’t hurt the babies?

She gave me a sardonic look. “I don’t tell you how to do your job. Don’t tell me how to do mine. Yes, I’m sure.”

I bowed apologetically. Yes, ma’am.

“We’ll have to be careful to time it just right,” she continued, tightening my bandages—a little too hard, I felt. “The Masons and the Tanners are still holding their initial peace talks tomorrow, and there’s no way our Lord Ascendant would miss being there himself.”

In retrospect, I had to admit the genius of my lady’s plan. With constant bickering between the Houses, her husband was always being called off here or there to put out brushfires. If she went into labor while he was enforcing delicate peace talks, word wouldn’t reach him until it was too late for him to get back.

She’d made a point of swimming in the Waters at the same time each day of her pregnancy, as a part of her routine. No one would question her heading down there with just Toria and me in tow. Toria and I had prepared a sort of… cave nearby, just east of the Waters. We made sure it had everything we would need when the time came. There, out of sight and earshot from anyone in the Manor, she would give birth, hand the babies off to us, and then swim downstream towards the threads.

There was a reason pregnant women were forbidden from entering the threads. Navigating while carrying a child within was risky: often causing the child to come forth early; possibly even killing it in the womb.

And that’s exactly what she hoped to tell everyone. She’d fainted during her daily swim, and floated downstream into the threads. She’d woken up just as she’d entered the threads, and quickly exited them again, but it had been too late. Her baby was dead and gone, and she was understandably distraught. Toria and I, as devoted servants to her House, were equally devastated at our failures, and took our own lives in a similar fashion. Fortunately for us—though not quite for our ancestors—that was a relatively common practice.

It wasn’t a foolproof plan, but it was pretty close. It had a lot of moving parts, but I was confident my lady could sell it to her husband when he got home. Two babies… shouldn’t change things that much.

-.-

As a senior steward to House Carver, I had my own quarters on the manor grounds. When my Lady had moved here to Sevvas patch my authority had been undercut a little by the Fisher servants, but not enough to deny me my own room. With a sigh, I removed my coat and kicked off my shoes. In public, I had to be neat and orderly. In private, it was my own business.

I lit a few candles and closed the door, thinking of the day. What would become of us when she came to term? My life would change drastically, that much was clear. For one thing, I would be living among the dwarves. And I would be a parent, Aquun help me!

Hanging on the wall in the small kitchen was a plaque with the words I’d written so long ago in old Patali. Words that had been a creed to my family, since almost the Threading itself. Ouna tsao qilgys. Family above all.

What did those words mean to me, after all this time? My Lady wasn’t family. And her children were certainly not. Doing this would mean betraying that creed—betraying my family! Most of them wouldn’t see it that way, if the truth ever got out. We’d been linked to House Carver, almost down to our souls, for so long that many would view my actions as heroic. But could I see it that way?

Striking a tinder twig, I lit the kitchen fireplace and filled the old pot with the Waters before situating it above the flame. The irony of this was that back before the Threading, my Lady’s ancestors hadn’t even been nobility, much less linked to the Imperial court! Her ancestors had been servants. The name, Carver, had come from her ancestor Jutos Carver, son of a cook in the old Royal Quarter of Vasiriah. A cook who happened to be in service to Inedias’hu. My great-great-something grandfather.

I’d heard the stories about my forebears. Inedias’hu had been an important man in the Empire. A general for the Imperial armies, and a shrewd tactician. What they hadn’t lauded about him was his cruelty. His… mutilation of his servants.

Even back then, my family had suffered deafness. And because of the strict policies concerning marrying outsiders, that family weakness had only become more pronounced over time. Inedias’hu had insisted on cutting out the tongues of our family’s servants, and piercing their eardrums. If he couldn’t understand what they were saying, he felt that no one should be able to.

Perhaps my ancestors had deserved to be overthrown and made into servants themselves. Aquun’s grace and justice touched all, after all. Yet that phrase kept rattling around in my head. Ouna tsao qilgys.

I stirred the soup ingredients restlessly. Toria certainly didn’t think of such things. Her service to House Carver had been just as diligent as mine, and when we talked of such things her dedication and surety were quite obvious. Was I selfish to think otherwise?

Maybe this was just jitters. I was about to be a father, after all. Or the next best thing. Two enormously important young lives would depend on me for everything. Toria would help of course, but it was my education—my knowledge that they’d need growing up. They would see their mother as well, but only in carefully timed and planned visits. My Lady would only be able to watch them grow up from a distance.

That settled it. I was being selfish. She was giving them up to make sure they had a better life! What was my small sacrifice compared to that? And yet my sleep that night was still restless.

-.-

I remember being prodded awake. Toria’s concerned face swam into focus above me. “Wake up, Anathdur’hu!”

One look out the window told me that I’d only been asleep a few hours. The New Day’s moon hadn’t even set yet, and the sun was still hours away. What is it? I asked, and then rubbed my eyes to clear them.

“One of the maids just told me! Lady Ethelle has gone into labor!”

I was on my feet in an instant. Has word gotten out?

“It’s all over the manor! That little brat Tenlor got wind of it and ran through the halls shouting about it!”

We made our way to the manor grounds, and I turned the situation over and over in my head. What could we do? The Lord Ascendant had most assuredly been told as well. There was no way we could simply pass this off as an accident by now! All I could do was just be there for her. It seemed the guards outside the manor knew as well; they waved us through without any of the usual rigmarole.

Can you give her something to delay the birth? I signed at my cousin as we hurried through the halls. Even a few hours might be enough.

She shook her head. “I have a potion back in my chambers that could do it, but I think it’s too late now. It would risk one or both of the babies.”

Apparently she was right, as we soon discovered. Even Toria seemed taken aback when she saw the state of my lady’s chambers. My lady was gripping both posts above her bed as if for dear life. Blood had already seeped its way through the bedframe itself, and my lady’s face was ashen and fearful. Before I knew it I was next to her, clasping her hand in mine. I’m here, my lady, I mouthed to her and she nodded, clenching her jaw as another contraction hit.

At least it was just the three of us—my lady insisted that only Toria and I be there for the birth. The Lord Ascendant had, if only reluctantly, allowed it. Toria got to work immediately, giving her a tonic to dull the pain a little—just about the only painkiller that could make a dent on labor pains, before peeling away the bloodstained cloth to get a better look.

I’d been witness to the birthing process once before, years earlier when Lady Ethelle’s youngest brother had been born. As a young man I’d found it… deeply disturbing. Sustained guards, House soldiers, even the Ascendants themselves often brag about what they do in battle. Chopping heads off, burying swords and axes in bodies, shooting men dead from over a hundred spans away—that sort of thing.

We men have nothing on a woman giving birth.

Granted, most births aren’t an obscenely bloody business, but each one could be. At least in battle we can hone our skills; increase our odds slightly, but a mother in childbirth has no control over her fate! What is risk in battle compared to that?

Those hours in her bedchamber seemed to last years. Not even the Lord Ascendant dared enter—I can only assume because of the screams she was making. Toria herself winced repeatedly, and she was partially deaf!

Time and again I wished it was over, if only for my Lady’s sake. Something was obviously wrong—I knew Toria’s face well enough to know that for sure, even if she did an admirable job of putting on a brave show. Perhaps the first baby had turned over. I’d heard of such things happening and forcing drastic measures to preserve both child and mother.

“Push, my lady!” Toria urged her once more. “I can see the head!”

For a slender woman, Ethelle had always had a firm grip. I felt the bones in my hand grind against each other as she crushed my fingers together. Merely seconds later though, it was over. Toria leaned back, a tiny squirming body in her hands.

We’d been over all of this many times. I had clean cloth ready and wrapped the infant up as soon as it was handed to me. Or she, rather. Toria poured boiling water on the edges of a sharp knife, and cut the baby girl’s cord with one sure stroke.

Weakly, my Lady reached up to the child. She stroked the baby’s crying face, and then pulled away, I assumed to get ready for the next. I turned away from the bed and carried the baby over to a basin to wash her. All newborns looked this way—as if dealing with some terrible internal struggle within their flesh. Skin blotchy and red, eyes clenched shut, and mouth open in angry protest.

I didn't know what it was that warned me. I just felt that something was… wrong, and turned around again. My lady had indeed relaxed, but too much. She lay back on the bed, eyes staring sightlessly up to the ceiling. Her arm dangled off the edge of the bed.

As usual, Toria didn’t waste any time. Quickly moving to my lady’s side, she leaned down over her face. “She isn’t breathing, and her heart’s stopped!”

I could only stare. Toria placed her hands together against my lady’s chest and began rhythmically pressing down, hard. Few people in the city knew how to start a heart beating again, but Toria was one. My whole world seemed to shrink down around me, and it was just us there in the room—alone in the universe. And now that universe could get even smaller.

Again and again, Toria tried breathing life back into her. Seconds stretched into minutes and before I knew it, we weren’t alone anymore. The Lord Ascendant had entered, along with Tenlor at his knee and a few attendants. She hadn’t screamed in a while. It made sense that they would finally come and see what was happening for themselves.

As they watched Toria leaned back again, this time because of death and not life. “She’s gone, my liege.”

One of the attendant ladies took the little girl from my arms and I barely even noticed. I just stared down at Ethelle, wishing and willing her to start moving again. The Lord Ascendant was saying something, but I didn’t care. We had failed her, both of us. I’d promised her that we would make this work, and I’d let her down.

It took a few minutes for them to file out of the room and Toria, following the baby, was the last to leave. She caught my eye—ever the practical one she was—and nodded at the body. She knew what I had to do next, and if anyone could guarantee me the privacy I needed, it was her.

I still don’t know what lies she told out there in the hall. Perhaps she told them the truth about my love for Ethelle; I don’t know for sure. But whatever she said, it worked. I had the necessary time. Brandishing the knife, I started cutting.

It took maybe five bloody minutes, but I was finally able to remove the other baby from… my beloved’s body. A boy this time. He didn’t cry much at first, but I bundled him up quickly to hide what little noise he could make. I hid what I’d done as best I could, trusting Toria to prepare the body for the ceremony.

Scooping up the baby, I left through the servant’s door into the east wing. Even now people were mostly absent—celebrating the birth of the Lord Ascendant’s daughter, and condoling the loss of his wife. I knew most of the patrol routes from memory, and avoided them easily enough.

Dawn greeted us just after I made it off the manor grounds. The baby’s tiny face looked up at the brightening sky with wonder. A miracle that itself compared to the miracle of his survival. There, at the edge of the threads, we waited for the dwarven navigator to see us… and for our new life to begin.

-Disgusted, Durhu crumpled up that last page and threw it into the fire. Little Arico (named for one of Durhu’s great-grandparents) was barely crawling, but when he was grown he’d need a better explanation than that.

Durhu scanned over his confession, and then decided to start the tale over again from the girl’s birth. Toria had made contact last week, actually. She had stayed close, in order to keep an eye on the girl. Naturally they kept a servant like her at a distance from the baby they’d named Hazra. At least she was healthy, though. Thank Aquun for small favors.

Raising Arico alone had been, well, difficult at first. Durhu had never been told just how much work caring for a baby could be! Durhu had spent the first few weeks in a near-constant state of exhaustion. The dwarves had always been on hand to ease that burden, but Durhu had been suspicious of their help so far. He couldn’t tell if their assistance was because of genuine hospitality, or a desire to keep Arico safe and happy so that they could use him later on. The Hauld had been ubiquitous in that regard.

They’d even given him a dog, specially trained to come and get him if Arico was crying. They must have trained it to work with other parents who’d been deaf. Ultimately it didn’t matter. In a few years the two of them would move again, this time to become stra’tchi. If they were both still alive, anyway. That’s why he was writing this now. If something happened to him, at least Arico would have some answers about where he came from. Answers that came from a trustworthy source and not the dwarves, at least.

Durhu wrote out the series of events again, still feeling nauseated. In the second version, Ethelle didn’t die until after Arico was born. She had time to say goodbye to both her children before her heart stopped, and viciously cutting into her flesh hadn’t been necessary at all. Durhu’s hands still shook when he thought about that. A comforting lie, but a lie all the same.

Speaking of lies, even now he was still getting used to his new name. A lie was always easier to tell if it had a grain of truth, but he’d been known as Anathdur’hu his entire life. Taking the second half had been necessary. Almost an homage, really, to the woman who’d called him Anath. And to the girl who’d sacrificed everything—even though she may never know it—for her brother to live a good, happy life.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 12:38:55 AM by Daen »