Siri stepped from the carriage. Immediately, dozens of servants in blue and silver swarmed around her, pulling her away. Siri turned, alarmed, looking back toward her soldiers. The men stepped forward, but Treledees held up his hand.
“The Vessel will go alone,” the priest declared.
Siri felt a stab of fear. This was the time. “Return to Idris,” she said to the men.
“But, my lady—” the lead soldier said.
“No,” Siri said. “You can do nothing more for me here. Please, return and tell my father that I arrived safely.”
The lead soldier glanced back at his men, uncertain. Siri didn’t get to see if they obeyed or not, for the servants shuffled her around a corner into a long, black hallway. Siri tried not to show her fear. She’d come to the palace to be wed, and was determined to make a favorable impression on the God King. But she really was just terrified. Why hadn’t she run? Why hadn’t she wiggled out of this somehow? Why couldn’t they have all just let her be?
There was no escape now. As the serving women led her down a corridor into the deep black palace, the last remnants of her former life disappeared behind her.
She was now alone.
Lamps with colored glass lined the walls. Siri was led through several twists and turns in the dark passages. She tried to remember her way back, but was soon hopelessly lost. The servants surrounded her like an honor guard; though all were female, they were of different ages. Each wore a blue cap, hair loose out the back, and they kept their eyes downcast. Their shimmering blue clothing was loose-fitting, even through the bust. Siri blushed at the low-cut fronts. In Idris, women kept even their necks covered.
The black corridor eventually opened into a much larger room. Siri hesitated in the doorway. While the stone walls of this room were black, they had been draped in silks of a deep maroon. In fact, everything in the room was maroon, from the carpeting, to the furniture, to the tubs—surrounded by tile—in the center of the room.
The servants began to pick at her clothing, undressing her. Siri jumped, swatting at a few hands, causing them to pause in surprise. Then they attacked with renewed vigor, and Siri realized that she didn’t have a choice except to grit her teeth and bear the treatment. She raised her arms, letting the servants pull off her dress and underclothing, and felt her hair grow red as she blushed. At least the room was warm.
She shivered anyway. She was forced to stand, naked, as other servants approached, bearing measuring tapes. They poked and prodded, getting various measure ments, including ones around Siri’s waist, bust, shoulders, and hips. When that was finished, the women backed away, and the room fell still. The bath continued to steam in the center of the chamber. Several of the serving women gestured toward it.
Guess I’m allowed to wash myself, Siri thought with relief, walking up the tile steps. She stepped carefully into the massive tub, and was pleased at how warm the water was. She lowered herself into the water, letting herself relax just a fraction.
Soft splashes sounded behind her, and she spun. Several other serving women—these wearing brown—were climbing into the tub, fully clothed, holding washcloths and soap. Siri sighed, yielding herself to their care as they began to scrub vigorously at her body and hair. She closed her eyes, enduring the treatment with as much dignity as she could manage.
That left her time to think, which was not good. It only allowed her to consider just what was happening to her. Her anxiety immediately returned.
The Lifeless weren’t as bad as the stories, she thought, trying to reassure herself. And the city colors are far more pleasant than I expected. Maybe . . . maybe the God King isn’t as terrible as everyone says.
“Ah, good,” a voice said. “We’re right on schedule. Perfect.”
Siri froze. That was a man’s voice. She snapped her eyes open to find an older man in brown robes standing beside the tub, writing something on a ledger. He was balding and had a round, pleasant face. A young boy stood next to him, bearing extra sheets of paper and a small jar of ink for the man to use in dipping his quill.
Siri screamed, startling several of her servants as she moved with a sudden splashing motion, covering herself with her arms.
The man with the ledger hesitated, looking down. “Is something wrong, Vessel?”
“I’m bathing,” she snapped.
“Yes,” the man said. “I believe I can tell that.”
“Well, why are you watching?”
The man cocked his head. “But I’m a royal servant, far beneath your station . . .” he said, then trailed off. “Ah, yes. Idrian sensibilities. I had forgotten. Ladies, please splash around, make some more bubbles in the bath.”
The serving women did as asked, churning up an abundance of foam in the soapy water.
“There,” the man said, turning back to his ledger. “I can’t see a thing. Now, let us get on with this. It would not do to keep the God King waiting on his wedding day!”
Siri reluctantly allowed the bathing to continue, though she was careful to keep certain bits of anatomy well beneath the water. The women worked furiously, scrubbing so hard that Siri was half-afraid they’d rub her skin right off.
“As you might guess,” the man said, “we’re on a very tight schedule. There’s much to do, and I would like this all to go as smoothly as possible.”
Siri frowned. “And . . . who exactly are you?”
The man glanced at her, causing her to duck down beneath the suds a little more. Her hair was as bright a red as it had ever been.
“My name is Havarseth, but everyone just calls me Bluefingers.” He held up a hand and wiggled the fingers, which were all stained dark with blue ink from writing. “I am head scribe and steward to His Excellent Grace Susebron, God King of Hallandren. In simpler terms, I manage the palace attendants and oversee all servants in the Court of Gods.”
He paused, eyeing her. “I also make certain that everyone stays on schedule and does what they are supposed to.”
Some of the younger girls—wearing brown, like the ones bathing Siri—began bringing pitchers of water to the side of the tub, and the women used these to rinse Siri’s hair. She turned about to let them, though she tried to keep a waterlogged eye on Bluefingers and his serving boy.
“Now,” Bluefingers said. “The palace tailors are working very quickly on your gown. We had a good estimate of your size, but final measure ments were necessary to complete the process. We should have the garment ready for you in a short time.”
The serving women doused Siri’s head again.
“There are some things we need to discuss,” Bluefingers continued, voice distorted by the water in Siri’s ears. “I presume you have been taught the proper method of treating His Immortal Majesty?”
Siri glanced at him, then looked away. She probably had been taught, but she didn’t remember—and either way, she wasn’t in a frame of mind to concentrate.
“Ah,” Bluefingers said, apparently reading her expression. “Well then, this could be . . . interesting. Allow me to give you some suggestions.”
“First, please understand that the God King’s will is law. He needs no reason or justification for what he does. Your life, like all of our lives, is in his hands. Second, please understand that the God King does not speak with people such as you or me. You will not talk to him when you go to him. Do you understand?”
Siri spit out a bit of soapy water. “You mean I’m not even to be able to speak to my husband?”
“I’m afraid not,” Bluefingers said. “None of us can.”
“Then how does he make judgments and rulings?” she asked, wiping her eyes.
“The Council of Gods handles the kingdom’s more mundane needs,” Bluefingers explained. “The God King is above the day-to-day governance. When it is necessary for him to communicate, he gives his judgments to his priests, who then reveal them to the world.”
Great, Siri thought.
“It is unconventional that you are allowed to touch him,” Bluefingers continued. “Fathering a child is a necessary encumbrance for him. It is our job to present you in as pleasing a way as possible, and to avoid—at all costs—irritating him.”
Austre, God of Colors, she thought. What kind of creature is this?
Bluefingers eyed her. “I know something of your temperament, Vessel,” he said. “We have, of course, researched the children of the Idrian monarchy. Allow me to be a little more personal, and perhaps a little more direct, than I would prefer. If you speak directly to the God King, he will order you executed. Unlike your father, he is not a man of patience.
“I cannot stress this point enough. I realize that you are accustomed to being a very important person. Indeed, you still are that important—if not more so. You are far above myself and these others. However, as far as you are above us, the God King is even farther above you.
“His Immortal Majesty is . . . special. The doctrines teach that the earth itself is too base for him. He is one who achieved transcendence before he was even born, but then Returned to bring his people blessings and visions. You are being given a special trust. Please, do not betray it—and please, please do not provoke his anger. Do you understand?”
Siri nodded slowly, feeling her hair bleach back to white. She tried to steel herself, but what courage she could gather felt like a sham. No, she wasn’t going to be able to stomach this creature as easily as the Lifeless or the city colors. His reputation in Idris wasn’t exaggerated. In a short time, he was going to take her body and do with it as he wished. Part of her felt a rage at that—but it was the rage of frustration. The rage that came from knowing that something horrible was coming, and from being unable to do anything at all about it.
The serving women backed away from her, leaving her half-floating in the soapy water. One of the servants looked to Bluefingers and nodded her head in respect.
“Ah, finished are we?” he asked. “Excellent. You and your ladies are efficient, as always, Jlan. Let us proceed, then.”
“Can’t they speak?” Siri asked quietly.
“Of course they can,” Bluefingers said. “But they are dedicated servants of His Immortal Majesty. During their hours of ser vice, their duty is to be as useful as possible without being distracting. Now, if you’ll continue . . .”
Siri stayed in the water, even when the silent women tried to pull her out. Bluefingers turned around with a sigh, putting his back to her. He reached over and turned the serving boy around as well.
Siri finally allowed herself to be led out of the bath. The wet women left her, walking into a side room—probably to change—and several others led Siri toward a smaller tub for rinsing. She stepped down into the water, which was much colder than the other bath, and gasped. The women motioned for her to dunk, and she cringed, but did so, cleaning off most of the soap. After that, there was a final, third tub. As Siri approached, shivering, she could smell strong floral scents coming from it.
“What’s this?” Siri asked.
“Perfumed bath,” Bluefingers said, still turned away. “If you prefer, you may have one of the palace masseuses rub perfume onto your body instead. I advise against that, however, considering time restraints. . . .”
Siri blushed, imagining anyone—male or female—rubbing her body with perfume. “This will be fine,” she said, climbing down into the water. It was lukewarm, and the floral scents were so strong that she had to breathe through her mouth.
The women motioned downward, and—sighing—Siri dunked beneath the scented water. After that, she climbed out, and several women finally approached with fluffy towels. They began to pat Siri down, their touch as delicate and soft as the previous scrubbing had been hard. This took away some of the strong scent, for which Siri was glad. Other women approached with a deep blue robe, and she extended her arms, allowing them to put it on her, then tie it shut. “You may turn around,” she told the steward.
“Excellent,” Bluefingers said, doing so. He strode toward a door at the side of the room, waving for her. “Quickly, now. We still have much to do.”
Siri and the serving women followed, leaving the maroon room for one that was decorated in bright yellows. It held a lot more furniture, no bath, and a large plush chair in the center of the room.
“His Majesty is associated with no single hue,” Bluefingers said, waving to the bright colors of the room as the women led Siri to the plush chair. “He represents all colors and each of the Iridescent Tones. Therefore, each room is decorated with a different shade.”
Siri sat, and the women began to work on her nails. Another tried to brush out the snarls that had come from the hearty washing. Siri frowned. “Just cut it off,” she said.
They hesitated. “Vessel?” one asked.
“Cut off the hair,” she said.
Bluefingers gave them permission, and a few snips later, her hair was in a bunch on the floor. Then Siri closed her eyes and focused.
She wasn’t certain how she did it. The Royal Locks had always been part of her life; altering them was like moving any other muscle to her, if more difficult. In a few moments, she was able to get the hair to grow.
Several women gasped softly as the hair sprouted from Siri’s head and moved down to her shoulders. Growing it made her feel hungry and tired, but it was better than letting the women fight snarls. Finished, she opened her eyes.
Bluefingers was watching her with an inquisitive expression, his ledger held loosely in his fingers. “That is . . . fascinating,” he said. “The Royal Locks. We have waited quite some time for them to grace the palace again, Vessel. You can change the color at will?”
“Yes,” Siri said. Some of the time, at least. “Is it too long?”
“Long hair is seen as a sign of beauty in Hallandren, my lady,” Bluefingers said. “I know you keep it bound up in Idris, but here, flowing hair is favored by many of the women—particularly the goddesses.”
Part of her wanted to keep the hair short just out of spite, but she was beginning to realize that such an attitude could get her killed in Hallandren. Instead, she closed her eyes and focused again. The hair had been shoulder length, but she extended it for several minutes, making it grow until it would reach all the way down her back once she stood.
Siri opened her eyes.
“Beautiful,” one of the younger serving women whispered, then flushed, immediately returning to her work on Siri’s toenails.
“Very nice,” Bluefingers agreed. “I will leave you here—I have a few things to deal with—but will return shortly.”
Siri nodded as he left, and several women moved in and began to apply makeup. Siri suffered it pensively, others still working on her nails and hair. This wasn’t how she had imagined her wedding day. Marriage had always seemed distant to her, something that would only happen after spouses had been chosen for her siblings. When she’d been very young, in fact, she’d always said that she intended to raise horses instead of getting married.
She’d grown out of that, but a part of her felt a longing for such simple times. She didn’twant to be married. Not yet. She still felt like a child, even if her body had become that of a woman. She wanted to play in the hills and pick flowers and tease her father. She wanted time to experience more of life before she was forced into the responsibilities of childbearing.
Fate had taken that opportunity away from her. Now she was faced by the imminent prospect of going to a man’s bed. A man who wouldn’t speak to her, and who wouldn’t care who she was or what she wanted. She knew the physical requirements of what would be involved—she could thank Mab the cook for some candid discussions on that point—but emotionally, she just felt petrified. She wanted to run, hide, flee as far as she could.
Did all women feel this way, or was it only those who were being washed, primped, and sent to please a deity with the power to destroy nations?
Bluefingers eventually returned. Another person entered behind him, an elderly man in the blue and silver clothing Siri was beginning to associate with those who served the God King.
But . . . Bluefingers wears brown, Siri thought, frowning. Why is that?
“Ah, I see that my timing is perfect,” Bluefingers said as the women finished. They retreated to the sides of the room, heads bowed.
Bluefingers nodded to the elderly man. “Vessel, this is one of the palace healers. Before you are taken to the God King, you will need to be inspected to determine if you are a maiden and to ensure that you don’t have certain diseases. It’s really just a formality, but one that I’m afraid I must insist upon. In consideration of your bashfulness, I did not bring the young healer I had originally assigned to the job. I assume an older healer will make you more comfortable?”
Siri sighed, but nodded. Bluefingers gestured toward a padded table on the side of the room; then he and his serving boy turned around. Siri undid her robe and went to the table, lying down to continue what was proving to be the most embarrassing day of her life.
It will only get worse, she thought as the doctor did his examination.
Susebron, the God King. Awesome, terrible, holy, majestic. He had been stillborn, but had Returned. What did that do to a man? Would he even be human, or would he be some monster, terrible to behold? He was said to be eternal, but obviously his reign would end eventually, otherwise he wouldn’t need an heir.
She shivered, wishing it could just be over with, but also grateful for anything that delayed matters for just a little longer, even something as humiliating as the doctor’s prodding. That was soon done, however, and Siri quickly did up her robe again, standing.
“She is quite healthy,” the healer said to Bluefingers. “And most likely still a maiden. She also has a very strong Breath.”
Siri froze. How could he tell . . .
And then she saw it. She had to look very closely, but the yellow floor around the surgeon looked a tad too bright. She felt herself pale, though the nervousness had already made her hair as white as it went.
The doctor is an Awakener, she thought. There is an Awakener here, in this room. And he touched me.
She cringed, skin writhing. It was wrong to take the Breath from another person. It was the ultimate in arrogance, the complete opposite of Idrian philosophy. Others in Hallandren simply wore bright colors to draw attention to themselves, but Awakeners . . . they stole the life from human beings, and used that to make themselves stand out.
The perverted use of Breath was one of the main reasons that the Royal line had moved to the highlands in the first place. Modern-day Hallandren existed on the basis of extorting the Breath of its people. Siri felt more naked now than she had when actually unclothed. What could this Awakener tell about her, because of his unnatural life force? Was he tempted to steal Siri’s BioChroma? She tried to breathe as shallowly as possible, just in case.
Eventually, Bluefingers and the terrible doctor left the room. The women approached to undo her robe once again, some bearing undergarments.
He will be worse, she realized. The king. He’s not just an Awakener, he’s Returned. He needs to suck the Breath from people in order to survive.
Would he take away her Breath?
No, that won’t happen, she told herself firmly. He needs me to provide him with an heir of the royal line. He won’t risk the child’s safety. He’ll leave me my Breath, if only until then.
But . . . what would happen to her when she was no longer needed?
Her attention was drawn away from such thoughts as several serving women approached with a large bundle of cloth. A dress. No, a gown—a gorgeous gown of blue and silver. Focusing on it seemed better than thinking about what the God King would do with her once she bore him a son.
Siri waited quietly as the women put it on her. The fabric was amazingly soft on her skin, the velvet smooth as petals from a highland flower. As the women adjusted it on her, she noticed that—oddly—it laced up the side instead of the back. It had an extremely long train and sleeves that were so long that if she put her arms down at the sides, the cuffs hung a good foot below her hands. It took several minutes for the women to get the ties done up right, the folds situated correctly, and the train even behind her. All this so that it can be taken off again in a few minutes, Siri thought with a detached sense of cold irony as a woman approached with a mirror.
Where had all that color come from? The delicately red cheeks, the mysteriously dark eyes, the blue on the top of her eyelids? The deep red lips, the almost glowing skin? The gown shone silver upon blue, bulky yet beautiful, with ripples of deep, velvet cloth.
It was like nothing she’d seen in Idris. It was more amazing, even, than the colors she’d seen on the people in the city. Staring at herself in the mirror, Siri was almost able to forget her worries. “Thank you,” she whispered.
That must have been the right response, for the serving women smiled, glancing at each other. Two took her hands, moving much more respectfully now than when they’d first rushed her from the carriage. Siri strode with them, train rustling behind her, and the other women stayed behind. Siri turned, and the women curtsied to her one at a time, heads bowed.
The last two—the ones leading her—opened a door, then gently pushed her out into the hallway beyond. They closed the door, leaving her.
The hallway was of the deepest black. She’d almost forgotten how dark the stone walls of the palace were. The hallway was empty, save for Bluefingers, who stood waiting for her with his ledger. He smiled, bowing his head in respect. “The God King will be pleased, Vessel,” he said. “We are exactly on time—the sun only just set.”
Siri turned from Bluefingers. Directly across from her was a large, imposing door. It was plated entirely with gold. Four wall lamps shone without colored glass, and they reflected light off the gilded portal. She had no question as to who lay beyond such an impressive entrance.
“This is the God King’s sleeping chambers,” Bluefingers said. “Rather, one of his sleeping chambers. Now, my lady, you must hear this again. Do nothing to offend the king. You are here at his sufferance, and are here to see to his needs. Not mine, not your own, and not even that of our kingdom.”
“I understand,” she said quietly, heart beating faster and faster.
“Thank you,” Bluefingers said. “It is time to present yourself. Enter the room, then remove your dress and underclothing. Bow yourself to the ground before the king’s bed, touching your head to the floor. When he wishes for you to approach, he will knock on the side post, and you may look up. He will then wave you forward.”
“Just . . . try not to touch him too much.”
Siri frowned, clenching and unclenching her increasingly nervoushands. “How exactly am I going to manage that? We’re going to have sex, aren’t we?”
Bluefingers flushed. “Yes, I guess you are. This is new ground for me too, my lady. The God King . . . well, only a group of specially dedicated servants are supposed to touch him. My suggestion would be to avoid kissing him, caressing him, or doing anything else that might offend him. Simply let him do to you what he wishes, and you should be safe.”
Siri took a deep breath, nodding.
“When you are finished,” Bluefingers said, “the king will withdraw. Take the bed linens and burn them in the hearth. As the Vessel, you are the only one allowed to handle such things. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Siri said, growing increasingly anxious.
“Very well then,” Bluefingers said, looking almost as nervous as she was. “Good luck.” With that, he reached forward and pushed the door open.
Oh, Austre, God of Colors, she thought, heart pounding, hands sweating, growing numb.
Bluefingers pushed her lightly on the back, and she stepped into the room.