5. In Which There Are Memories
A nagging fear of being followed dragged behind Miria. There was little reason why she should be; as a boy-toy wife the only time anyone in the household would pay any close attention to her was the Hofmeisterin's morning inspection. Once she was put into the correct dress, made up, and fed the wife-medicine, she usually was left alone to drift through the hours, unless an improbable whim struck the Lady Governor to request her use and presence. On most days, Miria felt invisible—and yet today, her eyes kept darting around the palace gardens' budding greenery, as if expecting to see some Mariś or Kaś watching and reporting on her.
But of course, no white splash of mourning livery interrupted the drab brown of leafless trees and barren flowerbeds. Only occasionally would a patrolling soldier in his red jacket pass her by, gravel crunching under the steel-toed boots; but even then, his eyes would be turned away from Miria, scanning the palace fence for signs of a breach or an assault. The sixth wife was no intruder, and was not doing anything untoward: merely taking an opportunity in the end of the last week's incessant drizzles to finally enjoy a morning walk through the winding garden paths. The worst she could be accused of was getting mud on her lacquered boots and the spotless white of her dress' hem. Which, granted, would be a waste: it was a very nice dress.
She paused her stroll, and let her gloved hand wander up the row of silver buttons running all the way up to her neck, coming to a rest at the sardonyx cameo clasped around it. The stone was indisputably still there, remaining as a tangible proof of the Lady Governor's attention that Miria still could not entirely believe in. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, little warning noises rose like tin trumpets, poisoning the pleasure with the cold awareness that if the Lady Governor had decided to reward her with such an unexpected gift—such a welcome promise—then something had to be wrong, had to be headed towards a catastrophe.
It was around that sense of imminent danger that Miria's guilt coiled. It only made sense that she would receive a token of the Lady Governor's want—even if only as an afterthought of a consolation—just as she was getting ready to break with her trust. If she had really been deserving of the stone and the word carved into it, she would be staying in the palace, being as a boy-toy wife should be: an unnoticed, unheard piece of the scenery.
The groundskeeper made himself heard before he could be seen. His voice reached Miria over a thick hedge, not so much in individual words, but rather in a general melody of a frustrated tirade. She followed after it, until it led her to opening in the hedge, and into a small, secluded clearing hiding behind.
Mihasz lived in one of the old king's follies—a rather fanciful recreation of a highland shepherd's hut, built back in that brief period of time when pastoral motifs were the height of fashion. The fad had lasted but a few years, and aristocrats quickly got bored of putting embroidered highlanders' pants and pretending to tend to a handful of confused sheep. A few mutton-laden feasts dispensed with the flock, but the hut itself remained, eventually passing to the groundskeeper to serve as his new home and tool-shed. And now, the old man stood under the garlands of holly carved into the door-frame and jabbed his crooked finger at the overcast sky. A pair of contrite gardeners stood before him, receiving a berating oratory with bent heads.
What the verbal lashing was all about, Miria could scarcely understand. Insults rained from Mihasz's mouth at a rapid-fire pace, delivered in curling, country dialect too thick for the sixth wife to understand. Thankfully, she did not have to wait long. With a furious sweep of his arm, the groundskeeper sent the gardeners away. The moment he noticed Miria lurking at the entrance to his little glade, the furious expression contorting his wrinkled face dissolved immediately into a look of warm delight.
"Oh, what joyful surprise!" he exclaimed.
He swiped the feathered hat from his head, and went into a deep bow, sweeping the ground at his feet. No hint of dialect remained in his voice; he spoke clearly, as if he had been born and raised in a burgher's home.
"To what does the old man owe the pleasure? What can he do for you?"
Tentatively, Miria navigated closer, careful to step between the many puddles where the gravel had grown sparse. By the time she reached the door, Mihasz had already invited her inside, into a dusky chamber lit only by an orange glow from a low-burning stove.
"Please, sit, sit," he implored, dusting off a fireside stool for her.
A heavy smell of burnt resin permeated the air; tongues of smoke curled around bundles of sage, parsley, and wild garlic dangled from every beam. More and stranger herbs slowly infused in rows of glass jars stacked by the chamber's lone window. Mihasz picked one, seemingly at random, and poured a generous serving for his guest, releasing a sharp, alcoholic tang.
"For your constitution," he offered, pressing the stoneware cup into Miria's hands and waiting expectantly.
She drank out of reflex more than desire, and immediately regretted it. A minty coolness spread through her mouth before igniting into a cold firestorm rolling all the way down into her stomach. She coughed, barely holding onto the cup.
"Th-thank you," she managed to mutter, hoping to not sound too insincere.
Mihasz poured for himself, too, just as generously—but where Miria had merely wetted her lips in the liquor, he downed his entire glass in two quick gulps. He wiped his mouth with the flat of his hand and tossed the hat onto a nearby table, but did not sit down himself.
"First time you visit," he noted, "young lady."
There was something in the way he said those words that made Miria's shoulders instinctively pull closer together, though it took her a second to realize why: the old man sounded as if they were both in on a joke. Without wanting to, the sixth wife found herself looking away from him, a sour, familiar feeling building up somewhere from the back of her throat.
"Don't be coy," he continued, holding back a dry chuckle, "and just tell the old man what is that you need. You wives don't come to this geezer for nothing."
In a way, she appreciated his candor. It spared her from having to ask. And yet, when she tried to speak, she found her throat dry, the cameo clamping it down like a vice. There were still so many ways she could pull out of this plan, withdraw back to her room, and validate the gift. What need was for her to play the grand inquisitor, out for the truth, if the entire purpose of her life—the purpose she had begged for—was to be an irrelevant boy-toy wife?
"So…" the man leaned in, "what it is that you need old Mihasz to fix you? Holy books? Poultices? A cutlass or a pistol, maybe? Do you need a love letter delivered? You can trust those wizened hands. They have never broken with a man's trust," he paused to shrug, "or a woman's."
The list sobered her up. Of course, she was not the only wife to betray the Lady Governor like that. She winced at the mention of love letters, and for a moment faces of the third, the fourth, and the fifth danced before her eyes, to the tune of a mean doubt: so which was the unfaithful one? At least her crime would not be out of the errancies of her heart, but rather down to obligations older than her marriage, or her sex. For courage, she took another sip of the icy fire, and found it opening her throat.
"I need to sneak out," she announced, louder than she would have wanted to. "For the night."
"Ah," Mihasz wheezed. "That's simply arranged!"
From a hook by the door, the groundskeeper picked up a cane, and with its crooked end reached into the bundles of herbs, drawing from them a clinking ring of bent and blackened keys. They rang like a series of tin bells as his gnarled fingers picked through them, before finally picking one: a simple, single-bitted chunk of soot-stained iron.
"You know the belcher's cave?"
Miria nodded: he was referring to a pile of pink granite built around a one-armed statue, supposedly of the city's eponymous hero Karsz. With his mouth wide open and sole remaining hand pressed to his belly, he was meant to seem as if uttering a great war-shout, but everyone called him 'the belcher' instead, or more uncouth terms.
"Past it," the groundskeeper explained, "there's that dwarf pine thicket. You make it all the way through it to the fence, and you find a gate. No one remembers it's there anymore. The path outside is overgrown and too steep for an old fart like me, but for a young… lady like you? It'll take you to the town no problem, and with none the wiser."
He extended the key towards her, only to pull it out of her reach the moment she moved to grab it.
"Now, now," he smiled at her, a row of gold teeth at proud display, "young lady, don't be hasty. Don't you have a thaler to spare for old Mihasz?"
Of course. How foolish it had been of Miria to assume that the groundskeeper helped the wives out of the goodness of his heart. She closed herself even further, because in truth, she did not have a single thaler to her name; she was a wife, and all her possessions were the Lady Governor's, and she had never felt the need to ask for purse money.
"The demons, you see, are not like the good old king," Mihasz added, pouring himself another round, "may his soul be hallowed. The old Mihasz may not be going hungry, but would the demons build him a home like that?"
He raised a toast to the rafters to the shepherd's hut.
"It's not out of greed, young lady," he mused, "but a man thinks to himself: you wish to go out into the city. Have some fun with a girl maybe, so what they've done to you stings less? Old Mihasz won't judge, but he teeter's at a tomb's brink, and wouldn't it be just if your fun sweetened his final days too, don't you think?"
Miria did not notice the moment when her fingers closed around the jewel on her neck, as if to protect it. True enough, his stare locked onto the gem, too, and an encouraging nod followed her gesture. Was he really expecting her to toss it away like a petty bauble? A frustrated exhale left her chest. He knew so little about her, and already she could tell he was assuming much. So many people did. Maybe there was a use in it.
"Groundskeeper," she whispered, gritting her teeth at what she was about to say next. "My father is waiting for his son."
Her voice had never been properly trained; every week, the Hofmeisterin would give her a few lessons to make it more wifely, but the progress she was making felt, at best, torturous. Now, as she spoke, she strove to forget even the few basic principles she had managed to pick up, speaking from the bottom of her chest, in a man's grating grumble.
"But the son can't come. The red-coated soldiers won't let him leave the Overwhelming Grace. And his other child?" she spoke, watching for signs of pity in Mihasz's face. "They put his other child in this…"
Instead of finishing, she let her voice hang, and her hand awkwardly point at her dress. She made sure that the groundskeeper's eyes would follow her gesture towards the bulge between her legs, and all the implications it carried. It made for an unhappy surprise to find out just how easily those lies came to her—and how smoothly they seemed to reel Mihasz in. Biting her lip, she pressed on.
"I'm just a wife," she tried to give the word the same poisonous weight she could recall from when her brother spat it into the air, "but I still want to just be a good…"
The groundskeeper shook his head slowly. He put the key into Miria's hand, and closed her fingers around it.
"Son, yes," he said, without any of his previous cheer. "Bless your heart."
She left his hut not long thereafter, the cool metal of the key digging into her flesh where she hid it under her dress. On her way back to the palace, she could only think of everything others expected her to be, and how much she was disappointing all of them.
Stava's old clothes fit Miria unpleasantly well. The short span of her marriage was not nearly enough to shake the coarse fabric's familiarity from her skin. She hid her dress among the dwarf pines, and unlocked the gate, careful not to let the rusted hinges scream too loudly.
Above, the southern winds were blowing, scattering the clouds to reveal a crescent moon set against a bed of cold, blue stars. Under their dubious light, Miria followed a steep path down the overgrown hillside, through the messy, tangled brush that surrounded the palace. By the time she’d slid all the way down, she had managed to get dark streaks of mud all over her trousers and shirt. And maybe for the better: there was a certain rough-and-tumble look to it, as if she had just returned from a long horse ride. If she could only grow her hair out a bit longer, she could almost play for that fey highwayman's look that the young rakes so cherished.
It was how she once used to fit into the city of Karsz that sprawled ahead of her, dark, but never asleep.
Maybe she could do it again.
Ever since Her Infernal Majesty had demanded the city's walls be demolished—long before she formally put the kingdom of Leshia under the imperial scepter—Karsz had chosen to spill its old bounds, spreading over both banks of the Neuma River into an ever-expanding patchwork of winding streets and eclectic architecture, overlooked by the hilltop palaces and their vast gardens. In the spring, the city's air grew thick with pollen and the scent of flowers. Thus they called it the Orchard of the Lowlands and the Flower of Neuma. Even while Leshia withered, even while surrounding powers devoured it one small bite after another, its capital never ceased to bloom.
Or so they said.
Spring rains had turned the unpaved streets into a swamp, only traversable with the help of rickety wooden walkways, shifting under the weight of many bodies stepping across at once. Already slippery, they were all the more treacherous in the dark; the episcopacy continued to refuse to let hellfire lanterns be installed, and so the only light remained a handful of flickering lanterns hanging from burgher's windows. And yet, the night scarcely seemed to trouble the drivers of collection carts, their vehicle careening through the narrow streets, racing to dump the city's gathered filth foaming into the Neuma.
Someone bumped shoulders with Miria, and she almost lost her footing.
"Don't slip," they called after her, their voice already disappearing into the dark.
"I won't!" she shouted back the traditional hail of Karsz's nightcrawlers.
With the sun down, no room remained on the streets for stately burghers or the black-cassoked episcopal priests; ornamented aristocratic carriages retreated into the carriage houses, and women of good morals tucked themselves to sleep. Instead, a tribe of rowdy youth took the city into possession with their shouts and laughter, and for the time being, Miria was just one of them, again. No one paid any attention to her, offering her an invisibility far greater than just the dark of the night could afford; she moved freely towards the Lesser City Square, yet another errant man in the streets out there to enjoy the spring of his life. Every so often, a keen-eyed prostitute would call after her in a hoarse voice, adding to the nightlife melody of Karsz she knew so well.
And yet, not all was she had remembered; though the melody stayed the same, it had been shifted in pitch. The call-and-response of rakes and harlots came in sharp bursts and barks; nighttime greets were uttered in a hurry, and prayers to the Holy, once unheard past sundown, now cut in between laughs and shouts. There was a new rush on the streets of Karsz, at once hungry and fearful, unfolding under a sign yet inchoate, but already dreadful. She picked up her pace, an uncertain sense of threat driving her to a half-jog.
When the wood under her soles gave way to smoothed stone, Miria knew she had reached her destination. She let herself breathe out, and looked up to see the Lesser City square opening ahead of her, so much more vast in the dark than it would appear under the light of the sun. A bright light burned high above, at the top of the Enduring Virtue's spire, the black outline of the temple looming over the surrounding townhouses. In the past it alone had claimed dominion over the night, but those days were long gone.
A new theater had opened alongside the square's edge, a massive brazier filled with hellfire illuminating its front. Sharp music from drunk violins flooded out of its open doors, spilling into the plaza in an open challenge to high spire. Colourful, unquiet folk congregated in the light, enjoying a break in their festivities, their dress and shouts intoxicatingly foreign. Only a pair of red-jacketed soldiers posted at the door seemed distant from the revelry, instead squinting at the night, and the dangers it may present. Against her better judgement, the boy-toy let herself be lured closer.
She stopped just outside the ring of light, close enough to read the colored letters on the great posters advertising tonight's play: Prince Miko's Desires Unrewarded: A Comedy in Three Acts. The names underneath were decidedly infernal, as were the faces of the two actresses leaning out of the theater's balcony and smoking from their long, wooden pipes. They shimmered in the hellfire's orange-and-red glow, for they wore more gold and silver than cloth. Twisting white tattoos crossed their dark skin, and whenever a sliver of their flesh emerged from under cascading velvets and silks, Miria felt her heart clench. One of them noticed the boy-toy wife lurking in the dark, and with a shrill laugh, blew a circle of smoke her way.
"Leshite brother," she called in an icy voice, "you here to cause trouble?"
Before the soldiers took notice, Miria ran. The infernal theater was a spectacle of flesh, its players little more than objects of the audience's want. She remembered the first time a troupe like that had made its way into Karsz, remembered the fury that seized the respectable people of the city that such things were being allowed, and most of all, remembered the image of a demonic girl in chains, waving to men crowding to behold the display of her humiliation. Even now, years hence, the image was still burned into her mind, stirring a desperate, impossible hunger. She expected the image of the two actresses to join it, and remain with her for days, or maybe forever.
The townhouse her family had moved into was just on the opposite side of the square, hidden behind the bulk of the Enduring Virtue. Lights flickered in its windows; burghers seldom slept early. Still chased by the actress' laugh, Miria found the sculpted door-knocker, and banged it a few times, the sound louder than she would have wanted.
One of her father's apprentices—a tired-eyed youth with a mop of red hair and purple ink-stains under his fingernails—opened for her. He had been at the workshop for years now, and recognized her promptly. Without a word, he led her among the quiet printing presses, and upstairs, to her parent's rooms. Miria felt bad for the boy. Back in the old workshop by the northern riverside, they’d all lived side by side, apprentices sharing the master's home and table. But different rules controlled a townhouse opposite of the Enduring Virtue, large enough to have a cellar where the apprentices could sleep without having to worry about disturbing the master printer and his wife.
Her mother's voice was hoarse and small; Miria startled at the sound, but followed it, entering into a brightly lit drawing room. Gone were the days of counting every candle; now Petrasz Benedek, master printer, was the sole provider of services to the Lady Governor's household, and as such, beyond the need for petty savings.
"Has something happened?"
Evidence of new wealth surrounded Miria on all sides. The paintings of western masters lined the walls, the stately eyes of burghers from the Marine Republics all turned towards the center of the room. Miria liked to imagine that they disapproved of the expensive furniture, of those gilded oak chairs and tables cluttered around, imported from workshops as far east as Drinzo, where snakes hold court. Or perhaps instead they did not scowl, but rather admired, however pensively, the collection of porcelain tiles in the cupboards around, blue paint on white shell depicting ships at full sail and grain-heavy fields. Some of the specimens Miria's mother had brought from the west were no less valuable than the oils above.
"Is it about Ambros?"
She had to look at her parents eventually; they were the reason why she came. Still, she delayed, taking in the decor, letting her eyes linger and catch on each and every proof of fresh success. When she was little, her father taught her modesty above all, a good burgher's frugality and distaste for aristocratic ostentatiousness. She balked at those lessons then, her dreams reveling instead in the cautionary tales of infernal splendour and the seductive flames of Dis. It was bittersweet to find out, finally and beyond dispute, that she had not been the only one hungering for more.
"Yes, mother," she replied, finally forcing herself to face the center of the room. "It's about Ambros."
Her parents had changed less than their home did. For all of Petrasz's need to prove, before the world and himself, that he had made it, he continued to wear solely black and white, the fashion of the portraits he adorned the walls with. Old severity became him. Even now, she struggled to see his face for anything but the look of concern and disapproval. And how could she blame him for it? Death awaited his son; loss plagued his family.
And then, there was her mother, eyes glazed over with tears. She sat by her husband's side, hands clasped tightly together, as if for prayer. A book of litanies lay open on the table before her, one that the sixth wife knew intimately. She had been read from it often as a child, receiving from her mother's lips a plea after plea that the Holy would bring consolation, reprieve, and absolution. Then as now, it struck her how much her mother made herself look as one of those doleful old ladies, whose wooden sculptures adorned the wings of episcopal temples, polychromy peeling away year after year, leaving behind a harsh and bare face of petrified wood.
"Please tell me she'll have mercy," the older woman sobbed, bloodshot eyes drilling straight through Miria. "Please tell me you'll make her!"
Careful not to make too much noise, Miria pulled back a chair and sat down, trying to decide whether folding her hands on her lap would not be seen as too feminine for the circumstances.
"I will try," she said. "But he—"
"He did nothing," her father cut in, fingers snapping against the table. "Ambros is a victim."
The usually quiescent part of Miria, the one she had spent years restraining and burying, jolted at those words, and reminded the sixth wife of the body under the pristine white shroud. But Visza's murder was not the matter of contention here, if it mattered for her father at all. She tried to shake the thought away, but it resisted, persisting as a small pinprick of anger somewhere under the layers of old guilt.
"I believe you," she lied. "But the Lady Governor is…" she hesitated on the choice of the next word; none that came to her mind seemed to fit what her father wanted to hear. "She is furious. She will ignore sanctuary, if she needs to."
The book of litanies snapped shut, the sound ringing off like a musket-shot.
"She wouldn't!" her mother whispered, pale on the face. "Even she wouldn't dare."
Petrasz's hand clasped over his wife's wrist.
"Marina," he said, "you should rest. Let the men talk this over."
Miria avoided looking at the older woman as she nodded and left. She had never been the one to offer her mother consolation, and especially not in her wedding's wake. But it was not just the guilt that made her eyes turn away; she did not want to see just how heavy the look of expectation was in Marina's face as she put all her hopes again on her child's shoulders.
"Tell me how bad it is," Petrasz asked when the bedroom doors closed.
She obliged, leaving out only the part where she had been forbidden from leaving the palace grounds. It was better that he did not know she’d disobeyed her wife to be here; he had enough worries already without having to add to them the risks his child was taking.
Somewhere towards the end of her explanation, as she moved from the facts of the matter to her own suspicions, he rang for a servant, and spoke again only after a pair of steaming mint infusions landed on the table between them. The sharp smell drilled into Miria's nostrils with the strength of a hundred half-entombed memories.
"You were right to be suspicious about the security," he sighed, waving off a puff of fragrant steam. "They've been paid off."
The story her father proceeded to tell was familiar in places, and entirely new in others. It started in the weeks after Miria's marriage, when Ambros, distraught over his brother being peddled like a demon's whore, started to turn his back on the family, and instead sought new company. He found it among young, pious men who called themselves the Veznian Sodality, after the third king of Leshia, Vezna the Saintly, famed for fighting his way out of a devil's den with nothing but a broken spear and a prayer on his lips. There was scarcely a young boy to be found in the lowlands who had not, at some point, fancied himself a future Vezna. Most grew out of it; as it turned out, Ambros did not.
"This nonsense," Petrasz exhaled, drained and disappointed, "reeled him in. Thoroughly."
In the end, Miria's brother barely made appearances at their parents' home, and when he did, he was even worse. He clad himself in zealotry, denouncing all who dealt with demons, who trampled over the legacy of the faith and kingdom. Eventually, they only saw him across the pews, during the weekly services at the Enduring Virtue—until, one fateful afternoon, he failed to make an appearance there, too.
Before Petrasz could get properly worried about his son's absence, the city's bells exploded in alarm, soon followed by the bloody news. The first thing Miria's father did after hearing of the events at the Overwhelming Grace was to send a runner for the man responsible for Visza's protection. He was not hard to find; while the Veznian Sodality massacred the Lady Governor's wife, he and his comrades celebrated their new payout with drinks and music, laughing uproariously at how easy their work had become.
"Do you know who bribed them?" Miria asked into the quiet that followed.
"How would I?" her father shrugged. "I haven't had a chance to ask, or find out. But…"
He made this almost apologetic face that Miria immediately recognized as a sign of him being about to add to her burdens. She leaned into her chair, as if by making herself smaller she could avoid whatever idea he was about to propose.
"I'm told they're still there, partying at the Three Crowns."
It was the coffeehouse of choice for thugs with coats of arms, and their countless followers. In the sour stench of wine and tobacco, they made a house there for themselves, those men who would rather live loud than long. It was a place for shouts and broken bones, for music which went right under your skin until a stray pistol-shot interrupted it, for air that always tasted of gunpowder and liquor you should not be able to afford. Miria could not say she was familiar with the place, but it would be a lie to claim she did not know it at all.
"Your old sword is in the chest," Petrasz indicated a carved box under one of the display cabinets. "If that's what you are thinking about."
She was thinking about it, yes. For all the months of the wife-medicine, for all the training that the Hofmeisterin imposed, some things were the dress she wore, and others had long set into bone. The cheap spade slipped easily into its place at her belt, the weight another memory she had not expected to be revisiting tonight. There was no need for a mirror to know the way she looked: the tall riding boots, the mud-stained trousers, the spade and unruly hair. There was no sense in denying that she would fit her old haunt well.
"They are dangerous people, no doubt," her father added, nodding slowly. "But so is your infernal wife. And if this is what Ambros' life hangs on…"
Old habits guided the motions of the body, and Miria found her hand closed lazily on the pommel, hip bent slightly with a hint of the rake's swagger her friends had once tried to coach her in. Her father's unstated plan made sense; she could easily pass among lowlands men. The image of the two girls at the theater's balcony returned, their faces twisted into a cruel leer. They needed not to call for guards to convey to Miria what she already knew: no, she would never belong among their kind. Hers was the Three Crowns crowd, the harsh stench of booze and sweat, the life she was born to, not the one she tried to escape into.
"It's worth it, isn't it?"
"Yes, father," she admitted, bowing her head in deference. "It absolutely is."
Her father finished his mint, and rang for the servant again to clean the room for the night. It was the time for Miria to go.
"I used to think you would never grow up," Petrasz mused, walking her to the door, "but you keep showing me how wrong I was. I'm proud of you, Mirion."
She rushed downstairs, through the workshop, and into Karsz's unquiet night. The dark enveloped her with its usual kindness, paying no attention to her long stride, or the banging of her heavy boots on the rain-slick pavement.
5. In Which There Are Memories