"None of these costumes is truly scary. No one ever dresses as crippling self-doubt."
henri le chat, "l'haunting"I have said it before - aloud, and probably here on The Penslayer as well - that I am the worst judge of my abilities, be it in writing, in fashion, in society, in whatever. I am always criticizing myself, and not often constructively. I think people know that because they don't often criticize me themselves. I think back to my early endeavours at writing and fashion respectively, and my heart shudders at the things I did. Why on earth did no one say anything? I would not have wanted them to. It would have crushed me probably beyond redemption if they had - but still! the provocation was so severe! It astounds me that no one around me dropped even the slightest hint of disapprobation on my sensitive ears. It is almost too much just to deal with my own destructive self-doubt.
things in heaven and earth: february chatterbox
With an achy groan I eased my battered, stiff body into an arrow-backed chair. The heat from the stove beat against my cheek like an angry falcon’s wings and I revelled in it, softly, quietly, every limb suffering the barrage with happy complaisance. The world outside was raw and black—even where I sat, down a flight of steps and round the back end of the kitchen wing, I could hear the wind rumble in the stones and whistle white-tipped across the battlements. I placed my hands palm-flat on the tabletop and stared at them with good-tempered moodiness. It was good to be within-doors in a chair missing half its back slats, listening to the grumble of my stomach and my companion—for a soldier’s stomach is never full and a soldier’s companion is never silent.
“It is like the great ones to turn us out on a night like this—it is like the great ones to visit us on a night such as!” Emeret folded his darkly-clad body into a chair round the table’s corner from me. “God forbid they should come on a clear day, nor at noon.”
“Nay,” I grumbled pleasantly. Emeret tossed down a tin of tea, a spoon, and a brewing ball with a disharmonious clatter. “They come like Christ, of a sudden an’ in the night.”
He wrenched off the lid and began chiselling at the contents with the spoon. Watching him sleepily, my mind toyed in slow fascination with the scenes of the past two hours. The front rider had come first, tearing through the windy, rainy dark with his sealskin cloak ring-streaked by mud and caramel-colour, his horse foaming at the breast. I had not caught the message, I knew only that within the next five minutes I was plunging up to my shoulders into my clothes-kist and yanking my best cloak from the depths, half-running with Emeret and our swords up the bunk-way passage, stabbing my fingers with my cloak-pin as I went. A scent of delicious urgency coupled in my nostrils with the doggish rebellion against being forced to stand in the elements when it was not my hour to do so.
I had heard the Black Prince’s name flung whisper-like down the ranks.
The heavy north-facing gates had swung outward upon the road, giving a small firefly glimpse of rain-spattered torchlight and the tossing heads of numerous horses. Shoulder to shoulder with Emeret in the lines, I had been able to spare the newcomers only sidelong glances from around the cheek-pieces of my helm. Sodden horse after sodden horse clipped by us along the parade ground, leather squeaking, metal pieces clanking—and somewhere a man barked an order which was not meant for my division.
I had caught a glimpse of the Prince in all of it—a fleeting, uptossed image of helm and horsehair plume, black and glistening in the torchlight, and shot through with a streak of white like lightning against a summer night sky. To me, several rows removed and standing on two feet upon the roughshod cobbles of the parade ground yard, he had seemed to me a world and a heaven away.
Rainwater had run down my neck.
“Still,” remarked Emeret as he toiled over his tea, “the likes of such a man can afford to go from garrison to garrison as it please him, at whatever hour suits his soul.”
I reached back and dragged my palm along the length of my nape. “Aye?” I replied sleepily—then, as I heard his words clearly in my brain, “Aye, I suppose he might. A man to cast weird stories about his shoulders, the Black Prince.”
The ambery face of my companion blinked upward in the lamplight, smiling and curious, coaxing.
I sniffed rhetorically and settled into my seat. “I am told—through third and forth hands and hearsay,” I waved my hand dismissively, “that magic runs in the veins of the whole family—not just the Prince himself. I am also told that ice-water runs in their veins, and that they can be cruel, calculating people, heavy-handed and high-horsed.”
“Verily,” said Emeret soothingly, digging away at his tea-leaves. “There are many tales of the same sort among my folk. I mind my mother—may she rest in peace—telling me some story about the She-wolf and death and something oddly-linked about a dragon. It was great fantasy, to my mind, those old tales she used to spin…” He looked up whimsically at the low ceiling of the room, a pleasant smile on his face.
I interjected a cough and resumed. “Aye, well, stories be stories. Sometimes I think they would as lief trample the wheat fields as watch them grow. When hast a powerhouse of that nature, what is like to come out of it!”
Emeret put down the corners of his mouth and nodded.
“They say the Black Prince,” I continued in full spate, “is the worst of the brood. And small wonder!” I cast about for my words on the tabletop. “When the sire, they say, holds life and death in leash, and legend has it the dam has died and come to life again, is it to be marvelled at that the cub should put his hands into the ether and pull them out again, and not have the flesh blasted from his bones?”
“Surely stories be stories, and yet they make for good hearing.”
Both Emeret and I turned at the newcomer’s voice in the doorway. He wore a battered sword and the red weals of a soldier who has just laid aside his accoutrements, and in his dark hair lingered spatterings of the rain. There was a cool, sleepy interest in his eyes as he took us in—somewhere back of the icy blue I saw the unmistakeable look of a man who is bone-weary.
“Well, an’ sure,” I replied casually. I got up from my chair, not sure of the rank of him.
He put out one hand with a dismissive flutter and turned his head away, cat-like. I hesitated halfway out of my chair and did not know what to say. But then, having turned, he seemed to see what Emeret was doing, and I saw a little light of interest bloom in his face. He came off the doorframe and slipped noiselessly into the room. As Emeret’s hands left the tea-tin one of his came forward, outstretched, fingers fine and decorated beneath one knuckle with a battered charm of iron-work set with a flawed blue gem. He seemed to coax the tin into his hands and lifted it to his nostrils. He sniffed—I saw Emeret’s head turn and peer quizzically up at him over the curve of the soldier’s elbow.
“A very long ride?” he asked conversationally.
The soldier turned his head a fraction, languidly, and perused Emeret with an askance brow. Then he snuffed softly, horsewise, with a little feathering of humour, and a shy smile struck up at the corners of his mouth. “Aye.” He reached for the spoon and stepped round the end of the table. “A longish ride.”
As he passed me I caught the scent of pepper and musk. “Have you far to go in the Black Prince’s train?”
He reached the stove and suddenly spun back upon me, his head up, eyelids widening a moment and his mouth slashed with harsh laughter. “Aye, that also.”
I glanced aside at Emeret; he, too, had looked at me, and as the soldier had dropped his gaze to the tea again, my companion flickered his fingers promptingly at me. Achy, warm, and as ready to drink tea made by Emeret as by a complete stranger, I crashed sidelong back into my chair and cast back into its rough embrace, kinked round to smile crookedly at the newcome soldier.
“I hear he crisscrosses the landscape. Does he drag you about much, sirrah?” I asked laughingly.
The expressive brows lifted. “Rather! I hardly sit down but he is off again, hauling me along with him.”
“And dost thou know him well?” asked Emeret.
But the soldier shook his head. “I would not say so, no. But then,” he added, drawing his gaze up from the tea-tin, “I never found him an easy man to know.”
I brought my palm down soundlessly on the tabletop. “It is what I was saying to my friend Emeret. The Black Prince and his like are high and mighty—like the pagan gods.”
“Betimes,” added Emeret, “I am overcome with the notion that they fancy themselves deities.”
The soldier pried open the little oddments cupboard and began to make himself acquainted with its contents. “Many a man often will, in his mind.”
I chuffed. “When the wide world is your hunting ground, a pebble kicked is a powerful thing.”
The lean, tall figure backed up from the cupboard and straightened; with another of his little light spins he rounded to the table and began to set down his newfound accoutrements. To the tea-tin and the warped spoon he had added Emeret’s precious teapot, jade-coloured and free of blemish, and two round handle-less cups such as we use commonly on the frontier. His long hands moved with effortless grace—and so swiftly! it was like being enchanted to watch them. He cupped the brewing ball in one hand and passed his other palm over it: like a flower it blossomed open. But before he began spooning the tea into the ball, he picked his own pockets and withdrew a small packet of coarse powder that hit the nostrils like a peppercorn between the horse-teeth. With smooth deliberation he measured out a portion of his own mixture and added it to the flat black leaves of Emeret’s tin.
My companion fluttered his fingers indicatively at me. “When thou stood in the doorway like Charon, didst overhear Angelyst mark to me that it is not to be marvelled at that the Black Prince—it is spoken—can play with the ether as washing-women play with the waters of the Ghir?”
The soldier began to measure his new blend into the ball. “Surely that is to insult the washing-women.”
Emeret kicked back his head into his soundless golden laugh.
The soldier turned to the stove and flung back the latch of the door, opening it to emit a fulgurant glow and a breath of heat. From where I sat, it seemed to me that the fire kicked up like a dancing girl at his approach. “I don’t suppose it is to be marvelled, when you put it the way Angelyst put it.” He twisted his profile over one shoulder and nodded at me—by way of greeting, I supposed: a little baffled, I nodded back.
Emeret laboured out of his chair and threaded his way through the small, cluttered room to the pipe-head. As he ran the water, I conjured up the sense to ask,
“From what you have seen of him, what do you make of the man?”
“Ah, thank you...” The soldier took the water from Emeret and began to heat it over the stove. He put his lean backside against the edge of the table, shoving his feet against the dented toe-kick of the stove, and folded his arms, settling in with the sleepiness of a cat. A little fireglow and lamplight played on his face. Emeret propped himself, also, against the table where he could see the soldier’s profile.
“If you have not met him,” the man said at length, still smiling his little shy smile at the stone flags underfoot, “I must say the rumours paint a candid picture of him: hard, unpleasant, and reserved. He is a harsh taskmaster, and I have not known him often to speak his mind.”
“And so he is hard to know,” mused Emeret.
The soldier nodded. “And so he is hard to know.”
Candid or not, there was something about the blunt way in which the soldier depicted the Prince which brushed the hair on my neck wrong. I was good-tempered by nature: it was one thing to idly repeat rumours as I had heard them, but hypocritical as I admitted it was, I disliked hearing a man cut down behind his back. I twisted my lips stubbornly and struck out blindly—God knows why—in an effort to be charitable.
“So he is tight-lipped and unsociable. So!” I flung up one hand. “Is that also to be wondered at? They lay about them hard on the power scene, these folk, and they carry the weight of more things in heaven and earth than I can imagine upon their shoulders. I do not think it adverse to a man’s character if he be careful of his council and not too quick to make friends.”
The soldier yanked a harsh smile round at me: his dog-teeth glinted sharp in the light. “Do you think so? Perhaps I misjudged the man.”
Emeret flung out his hand at me. “It is in my mind that Angelyst composes a valid point. In a position such as the Prince’s, it would not do for him to be lax or too open-handed.”
The water began to boil. Again, as if his body weighed no more than a leaf, and made as much noise as a puff of kitten’s fur, the soldier pushed off the table and folded the water, like so much silvered paper, into the teapot. Steam feathered the air around his hands.
“You do not think that way merely because he is a great man, and you sit in a broom cupboard on the windy edge of the steppes?”
“Huh!” I grunted, indignant. The rich scent of scalded tea and pepper hit me in the nose. “Not like! Great statesman or belly-crawling low, a man is a man, and ought to fill his station as best he can. I think,” I held up my hand rhetorically, “that, from what hearsay has come my way, it seems likely that the young man holds his position in high regard and himself in careful check.”
With two exquisitely long fingers slipped through the bent bamboo handle of the pot, poised in midair, the soldier dropped his gaze upon me from what felt like a very great height. For a moment he stood perfectly motionless, unblinking—only the steam moved against the rain-streaked darkness of his doublet.
Fiends of hell! how pale his eyes were!
“It seems to me that they see themselves as gods,” he remarked softly.
Shaken a little by that chilling stare which I could not wholly fathom, I responded in strong defence. “Nay, that is a thing we said—and perhaps we were speaking at random and out of turn. Soldiers are fools, and likely to do such.”
The man broke off his gaze and smiled his shy little smile at the teapot as he coaxed its contents into the two cups. “Perhaps statesmen are fools also, and the Prince is mindful of that.”
“Upon that point, if it be true, it seems to me likely that he should come across to thee with reservation,” Emeret put in gently. “Be not quick to judge him harshly. It is God’s place to judge, in the end.”
With upflung head and gentle smile, the soldier handed to us the several cups. I took mine in large, chapped hands: my fingers momentarily brushed his and felt the kid-skin softness of the backs, the incongruous harshness of the tips. As I stared into the swirling black depths of the pepper-laced tea—which was a stiffer, better tea than I had drunk in months—I heard him say,
“It is a good thing to remember. I will try, in the future, to be a little gentler in my opinion of the man.”
A moth-wing quiet dropped over us, stiffened with a sudden inexplicable shyness which I felt the soldier did not himself share—then a sound of hobnails crashed on the steps outside and we were jerking our gaze round to see the doorway graced by a curious, lithe figure, a girl of not more than eighteen with a harsh jawline and ferocious eyes.
I noticed the eyes. They were icy blue.
“Uncle!” said the girl, half withering, half laughing. “I followed you to the scent of tea. Do you come?”
The soldier put down the teapot with the gentleness of one tucking a fledging into its nest. “Aye, Filly. I come.”
She yanked an odd-shaped, shining thing from underneath her jewelled cloak and hurled it underhand at him. It came whirling, whispering and shining in the uncertain light, and the soldier caught it deftly by a strap in one hand.
It was a helm, plumed in black horsehair and streaked at the fore with white.
The sound of my blood in my own ears was loud in the interminable time that followed. I felt the man’s tread on the stone flags; felt his hand drop, heavy, upon my shoulder as he passed. The tea burned my palms through the pottery. The girl turned in the doorway and flashed a swift, familiar smile at the man’s face. Emeret looked whiter to me than he should have.
But then the man turned in the doorway, having pushed the girl on before him, and that soft smile of his with which he was so deft came to me across the rainy dark and lamplight like a touch—very kind and oddly grateful.
A feathering of smile and lightning horsehair.
The Black Prince was gone.