Who comes from the bridal chamber?
It is Azrael, the angel of death.
sir walter scott
It is November (wah!) and time for another Chatterbox session from Rachel Heffington's blog The Inkpen Authoress. The rules? She comes up with a topic and all who care to participate write up a scene between their characters involving (or discussing) that topic. It's quite a bit of fun once you've dashed your brains against the wall and thought of something... Last month's topic was coffee, and you can read my piece here. This month's topic ischatterbox
and by thunder, it is my stock-and-trade, and by thunder it was hard to come up with something to write. Congratulations, Rachel, you very nearly stumped the Grim Reaper.death
the tarot smile
With rhythmic movement, her hand moving only at the wrist, Akilina Loriermayne spun the slender instrument around the little tea cup, her even breathing filling her nostrils with the heady scent of ginger and the pine-tree tang of olibanum. The metallic report of her spoon against the delicate china was the only sound in the room; the edges of the chamber were darkened, like a room in a dream, but around her low seat and her little work table burned dozens of candles, like a kind of shrine—and she sat like a phoenix in the midst of them, stirring the sheeny brown granules of sugar into the gilt liquid, her breathing even, deep, sleepy. Outside, the world was kneeling down like a horse, tired, bowing under the dark heavens for rest. Within, beneath the soft surge of her regulated breathing, Akilina Loriermayne’s heart was afire with battle heat, and in her mind’s eye the sleeping world outside was like the chunks of golden olibanum which smoked on the heated coals clumped in their concave obsidian bowl: it was beautiful, bright, a mere handful of pretty things that she could cup in her palm…and turn over upon the embers of vengeance until it sent up an aroma to heaven.
The bells upon the veil outside her chamber sang softly, like the passing of a spirit, and she lifted her head slowly, heavy black hair sliding up her shoulders and falling back from her bare arms. Her spoon held still.
It was her butler who came into the entryway, one arm holding back the curtain, the other hand supporting a little plate of silverwork. He hesitated, his eyes in the dark shining out at her. She dropped her chin a fraction and he stepped in, coming forward a pace and kneeling down, pressing his forehead to the carpet.
“My Lady,” he said, “there is a gentleman in the Court who wishes to see you. He has sent his card.”
Akilina removed her spoon from her cup and set it aside among the coals. Putting aside also her steaming cup, which was as yet too hot to drink, she waited as the butler surged to his feet and drew close, extending the platter to her. She had not grown accustomed to the culture which sent slips of paper by way of address, but as her eye fell with dulled criticism on the object in the centre of the silver, her curiosity was piqued to discover it larger than most cards she had seen, rounded at the edges, much worn, and lying on its face so that all she could see of it was a heavily decorated back of ivy-vine in a faded teal colour. She did not touch the card, but she murmured,
“What is this?” Then, to the butler, “Honour, I think.”
“Indeed, my Lady,” the man replied.
She raised her hand and allowed him to place the silver on her work table. An idea of this gentleman’s identity was swift to congeal in her mind. “Put him through. I will speak to him alone.”
The butler did as she bade him without a moment’s hesitation. Presently the bronze bells of the curtain were chiming in the quiet, and Akilina was left kneeling on her large square pillow in the small circle of candlelight, hands upon her knees, staring unblinkingly at the circle of silver before her and the rectangle of worn card directly in the middle of it. The smell of incense was heavy; the soft throb of fighting spirit, like a three-year-old throwing its chest against the bars of the racing gate, drummed in her quenched, quiet body.
So, he has come, she thought to herself and to the deep-heaven spirits. Today we will set a key into the keyhole of our victory.
There was a step at the curtain—a whisper of bells.
She lifted her head.
Today we will prevail.
The Devil stood in the entryway, arm outthrust to hold back the curtain. He was tall, very tall and lean and strong like a horse that has known nothing but war, and he gazed down on Akilina with pale, laughing eyes. All in a moment she took in that, though he was a southlander, he wore the customary clothing of her people, dark-stitched and understated, but elegant, and over the heavy scent of olibanum rushed a salt-smell like the ocean, and a gentle wind lifted the hair from her brow. For a moment she was surprised. She should not have been, she realized, looking up into those almost colourless, mocking eyes which were harsh and bladed like the blade of a knife. She had not expected him to bear all the hallmarks of a man: handsome, experienced, domineering, with a smile that could wrench a woman’s gut. But then she, too, smiled, and knew that the Devil could do these things with ease, and she was no longer surprised.
Akilina extended her hand to a pillow across from her. “You have come to call upon me,” she remarked languidly, “and it is very late.”
The Devil let the curtain drop behind him and came in on bare feet, making no noise as he moved. He thrust one foot under the pillow and levered it directly across from Akilina—though it put his back to the curtain. “I like to see things with my own eyes,” he explained—also with a languid tone, as if he had known Akilina for years. He, too, folded down upon the pillow, hands upon his knees, back straight and his head up, his dog-teeth shining a little through the part in his lips. “It was in my mind, also, that you were waiting for me.”
She lifted one brow. Save for the crisp, handsome body in which he walked, he was much as his reputation proclaimed: feeling between her thumb and forefinger like a wet pebble, ready at the least pressure to slip away, very powerful in the ancient way, and very full of the love of himself. “I called you all. And indeed,” she added lightly, “you all have come.”
He smiled indulgently. “Verily. But when you whistle, and the men come to hear what you have to say, it is I who you really want, for it is I who really matters. Otherwise, my dear,” he lifted his shoulders, “you have a particular taste for one of my neighbours—God pity him—and the rest of us can all go home.”
He finished this with an inexplicably ragged edge to his tone. She let the barb pass by, for it was not worth her while to attend, but she suspected her whistle, as he had termed it, had called him from some business which was more palatable to him. That pleased her. The Devil was displeased, and his smiling mouth and mocking eyes were of a piece with the deepest rage of him of which she had heard so much. She decided to touch him to see how he would move.
“If you are all that matters, and the others are mere retainers to you, why have you come into my bower alone? We are deep enemies, you and I.”
But the pebble, it seemed, had been pressed too tight. The pale eye turned down toward the red-hot olibanum, and travelled upward, following the tendrils of smoke. “They are not mere retainers. They have seen much hardship and have endured much, and they know how to bar the house-place door and put their backs into the shield-wall. I have watched them do it—I have watched them do it for myself. I am the head of the dragon, your majesty,” the eyes sprang up to hers, fiercely shining and hot with mingled pride and defiance, “but they are the scales. I would never for the life of me call them mere retainers.”
It did not escape Akilina that in his boast, like the boast of a man used to poetry, the Devil had sketched her a pretty warning. She looked at it to be sure she had got the shape of it memorized, then let it pass from view.
“They are not my concern.” Her tea having cooled sufficiently, she slid a long fine hand around it and raised it to her lips. “I have small thought for the scale of a worm when it has no skull-fire with which to devastate the land.”
There was a small silence. The coals squealed softly, full of heat; one cracked and spread cinders on the obsidian plate.
The Devil put up one hand, chin in his palm, his fingertips set against his cheek. It did not adequately hide his smile. “I see the cards are upon the table. Do you play?” he asked.
Akilina allowed herself a brief frown, hardly more than a passage of thought across her brow. “I enjoy the game,” she admitted, unwilling to expose the truth that she was a masterful player. The fighting desire in her wanted both to lift the flesh from the Devil’s bones and to dare him with a game at cards.
“Then you will know that I hold a high hand, my dear.” He pulled his palm from his face, holding it out indicatively. “Have you seen my hand? I am like to shoot the moon!”
“Again,” said Akilina, “it is of no consequence. For this is not a game of cards.”
“No,” the Devil replied, without a trace of humour, “it is foolhardiness. I know what you want, my dear—cards are upon the table—and while it perplexes me to wonder why you want it, anyone will tell you that to play against the House is imprudent and unwise.”
Akilina tasted ginger and the rattle of drawn steel. She set the cup down with deliberation on the tabletop, hearing as if from a distance the little click it made. “Yours is not the first House to be managed under abysmal spirits. Yours is not the first to be redeemed—as redeemed it must be, from your black alliances and your necromancy. You have been a long time in the dark. It is time you were won back.”
For a moment the Devil watched her as a tiger watches from the edge of the night. Akilina could see his teeth shining. Then he began to laugh, very softly and deeply in his chest; his body shook with his sudden humour, and when he could speak, he broke out, “I never thought I would wish it, but la! how I long to throw my brother at you and listen to the speech you might have had with him. I think you would have got much satisfaction out of the encounter.” Then, in a single fluid motion he was on his feet, standing over her with one foot on the low table and the smoke of the olibanum thick around his figure. With an unprecedented sense of rage she found him thrusting out his hand to her, drawing up her chin with two fingers to look him in the eye. A similar rage beat back at her from him and the life-thing in her chest began to hammer like the call to arms.
“A prince does not lightly give up his principality,” the Devil murmured, “neither will I lightly give up mine. I have already fought one war: I am not squeamish to do it again. So come for me, Queen, if you must. It will be ugly, and it will be bloody, and you will die happy in the bloodshed you have made.”
She allowed him to hold her gaze for the rightness of the thing, for it was like two blades in the hands of duelsmen sliding over each other, then she put up her own two fingers and gently pushed his from her chin. She was done with him. Tomorrow he would taste heaven’s punitive steel, but for tonight she would let him live to walk out of her presence. Now was not the time. The time would come.
“You are dismissed,” she said, as if he were one of her own servants.
The Devil’s mouth jarred awry in angry, noiseless laughter. Was he? his face demanded with scorn. All in a moment Akilina Loriermayne saw what he thought of her, felt the fiery rage of the worm coupled with the crushing heel. His fingers still touched hers: in a movement so dexterous she barely had time to see it he had wrapped her left hand up and flung it wide; with his free hand against her cheek he pushed her face to the side. Her heart exploded with panic and the Devil was crouched beside her, his breath against her neck.
“God help you,” he whispered in her native tongue: “You are greatly deluded.”
Then he was propelling himself onto his feet and backward, releasing her, whirling and plunging soundlessly into the entryway. Akilina knelt, panting, staring at the candlelit emptiness of the chamber, listening to the whisper of the bells as the curtain fell back into the place behind the Devil.
It was several moments before she could move. The closeness of the thing ran alternately hot and cold in her veins, but time wore the edge off the shock—though not off the knowledge that the brute could have done her damage had he chose to—and she was able to recollect her wits, calming the thudding thing in her chest, quieting her breathing, cradled in her dark chamber and her crocus-coloured lights.
Her eye fell on the disk of silver and the Devil’s calling card. She had not touched it and it had not moved. Now, having sat across from him and looked into his colourless eyes, so small a thing could not compare. But it was a piece of him, a taboo article shed like the wing-feathers of a great spirit, and it lay within her grasp. With one hand upon her knee again she reached for it, steady, aware of no real sense of curiosity now but a general’s quieted sense of determination. She turned the thing over on its back, laying it with a little click on the plate, showing it up in the light.
It was the ace of spades.
The Ace of Death.