Delon was restless. It was always so when the snows began to melt but this time was worse than any he could remember. He paced the length of his chambers, an unnamed irritation niggling at him.
“Issgar!!!!” he shouted, the servant appearing silently at his elbow.
“Sire,” the older man answered in his customary neutral tone.
“Where is Syrren?!”
“Your brother is…..detained in the village Sire,” Issgar replied, still betraying no emotion, but the hesitation spoke volumes enough.
“Entertaining one of his harlots, no doubt,” Delon ground out, pacing again.
“Shall I send for him Sire?”
“Don’t bother. He will likely annoy me with his incessant good humor. Have Estt saddle Valloz for me. I need some air.”
“You wish to ride?” Issgar asked, one eyebrow rising to the faintest degree.
“No Issgar I wish to dance! Tell Estt I will be ready within the hour-”
“Aaaahh!!! such a melodious sound can have but one source. Brother, enjoying your usual sunny outlook I see!” a cheerful voice boomed from the doorway. “What has put you in such a black mood this fine morning?”
Syrren strode casually into the room, sprawling into Delon’s favorite armchair and swinging one booted leg over the arm. He was a shade less of everything that was Delon. Where Delon had curls of deep chestnut Syrren had gentle waves of golden brown, where Delon’s eyes were darkest indigo Syrren’s were the clear light blue of a cloudless summer sky. Delon was taller, broader of shoulder and chest, more pronounced in his features and in his temperament than slighter, lighter, happier Syrren. Was he ever not happy? Delon groused inwardly. Handsome Syrren, charming Syrren with never a care in the world and never a frown nor a cross word toward anyone. How could any person be in one long continuous good mood every minute of every blessed day year upon endless year? It was maddening.
“Make yourself comfortable why don’t you?” Delon said drily.
“Thank you, I will do just so,” Syrren answered, smiling still, reaching for the decanter of wine and a goblet at the side table, sloshing a generous helping into his cup.
“That wine came all the way from Yoros, I will thank you not to divest me of it entirely.”
“He’s quite comely when he’s in a snit, wouldn’t you say, Issgar?” Syrren’s smiled broadened to a grin and he had the effrontery to wink at Delon’s own manservant!
“I will leave such judgments to your superior discretion, my lord,” came the deferential response but Delon was certain he saw one corner of Issgar’s mouth tip up ever so slightly.
“Oh that is the way of things is it?” Delon was incredulous now, “If you two fools are done jesting at my expense might I trouble you to send for my horse Issgar, as I have asked twice now.”
“At once Sire.” Issgar straightened further still and rushed to attend the matter of readying Valloz. Delon knew it was foolish to ride now. The snows were still in the meadows and ice still flowed in chunks down the Yoloc River. One couldn’t always avoid riding in winter but to risk a fall on ice for no more than sport was reckless. It made no difference. If Delon didn’t escape these stone walls soon he would lose all reason.
“Riding now?” Syrren asked idly, studying the contents of his cup, “A bit early, I should think,”
“Then I would advise you not to think.”
“May I ask why?”
“Because whenever you think it inevitably follows that you begin to speak and when you speak you usually say something utterly ridiculous.”
Syrren’s laughter rang out across the wide space, annoying Delon further. By the gods, his younger brother didn’t even have sense enough to know when he was being insulted!
“I meant,” Syrren said, composing himself with great effort, “why do you ride so early in the season? Have you a death wish or are you so eager to impress the lovely Yiheda?”
“I neither wish to die nor need to impress Yiheda as she is as bound to this pointless union as I am. No, little brother, I simply have a need for some fresh air after so many days indoors.”
“In that case,” Syrren said, draining his goblet then jumping up and casting it aside with a clatter, “I shall be more than happy to accompany you.” His grin grew wider yet. Delon had thought it impossible.
“Who said you were invited?” Delon snapped.
“Why, I just did big brother? Do you not recognize the sound of my voice?”
Syrren turned and left the room, his laugh bouncing off the cold stones of the family keep and the very ends of Delon’s nerves.
Zerenya was cold. It was ever cold in this bleak land she thought bitterly, remembering warmer days, happier days when the sun did not hoard herself away behind gray clouds for months on end. Were I the sun I too would refuse to shine on Sayulia,she mused to herself, stifling a smile at that. Sayulia, with her bitter snows and bitter people and meager tasteless food, her tendrils reaching out and grasping for everything that belonged to another. Sayulia would be the death of all sooner or later, but Sayulia would also be the death of Sayulia, that thought the only comfort Zerenya could find these days. She struggled to keep her attention on her chores, mired as she was in her discontent. Her hands were raw from scrubbing laundry in the frigid weather, her back ached from hours bent over the washtub and she had grown spindle thin from the bland fare on which Sayulians seemed to thrive.
She missed the warm sands of home. No one in the Kotalena had to live in huge fortresses of stone, or wear many layers of fur and wool. Fruit, if one knew where to look, was abundant and fresh meat and fish available year round. The cool caves of the Eimareni provided all the shelter, shade and water one required. All of this washing and scrubbing of linens, scraping and polishing of stone and chopping wood for fires was such a waste of uncountable days, no matter that people had days enough now. Tossing her thick black braid behind her, Zerenya stretched the kinks from her sore back and hefted a heavy, clothes laden basket on her hip, pulled the door to the laundry open with one foot and headed into the corridor, trying to wipe the sweat from her brow with one shoulder. Gods! Only in this miserable place could a person sweat and freeze all at once!
Had she not been so lost in thought she may have heard the voices before she saw the men to whom they belonged. Had she not been shifting her load to take the weight off the hip she had bruised the day before after a tumble on the stairs, she might have been looking ahead of her instead of to the side. As it was, Zerenya turned a corner and walked straight into a wall. A wall whose arms reached out to grab her before she could fall hard upon the flagstones, her basket tumbling away and scattering Lady Risendra’s newly cleaned shifts all over the floor. Zerenya looked up and was horrified to find herself staring into the sky blue eyes of Lord Syrren, second son of the keep’s Lord Kaleon. She had seen Lord Syrren from afar many times, watched the other housemaids make spectacles of themselves any time he was near but she had never chanced to see him close up. Certainly not this close up. It was true then, his hair did indeed have a hint of gold overlaying soft brown waves, his neatly trimmed beard did nothing to hide the dimple in his right cheek and his smile, though tinged with apology, did seem fairly permanent. Say something!Zerenya chided herself He is a lord! Speak! Apologize! The words didn’t come. She would be beaten now, it was a certainty. Already too much time had passed and still she stood, tongue tied and muddle headed and utterly mute.
“I am sorry my lady,” the golden god before her spoke and she scarcely noticed the taller, darker man behind him rolling his eyes, “I should have paid more attention to the road ahead than the nuisance behind.” He inclined his head over his shoulder at the bigger man, who was looking much aggrieved now.
“I-I am no lady” Zerenya stuttered and knew at once she might as well cast herself off the North Tower now as it was likely the only way to avoid the severe punishment the steward would order for contradicting the lord in his own home.
“No?” Syrren asked, feigning confusion “Do no doubt it. I have been admiring ladies for a very long time. I might say I am particularly skilled at spotting fine ladies, wouldn’t you agree Delon?”
Lord Delon???!!!!! Zerenya’s eyes came into focus past Syrren’s shoulder and she nearly fainted. Not only had she collided with, failed to apologize to and contradicted the second son of the house, she had yet to even acknowledge the first son! She wondered vaguely if death by drowning herself in the partly frozen Yoloc would be preferable to a fall from North Tower. For his part, Lord Delon was not amused in the slightest, although his ire thankfully seemed directed at his brother and not at her. He was handsome too Zerenya supposed, but in an imposing way, brooding and impatient, his features guarded and severe. The lords were dressed to ride, yet it seemed early for such sport, but what did Zerenya know? She was merely an Eimareni house slave, she knew little of the pursuits of the wealthy, except that they dirtied a fair amount of linens in the process. Before she could move or speak again, Syrren shocked her once more by leaning down and scooping up the clothes that had dropped and placing them in her basket before handing it to her.
“There you are,” he said, his smile intact, “With not a speck of dirt to be seen, Mother will be none the wiser, I promise.”
Syrren saw the relief followed by a moment of confusion in the girl’s wide hazel eyes. She was Eimareni, he would bet his family ring on it, she had the tiny build and delicate features of her people and the black, black hair that shone in the sun. The top of her head came no higher than his chest, her tiny nose was dusted with freckles and she was much too frail. Even so, Syrren had never seen anyone so mesmerizing. She did not shrink and bow as the other slaves did, something that annoyed Syrren to no end. No, this girl looked him straight in the eye, shocked by his presence of course but undaunted still.
She had the look of someone with many stories to tell, stories of a life so different from his own it had to be more interesting. This was not a lady of the court who was consumed with details of fashion and gossip and all manner of trivial nonsense. This was a woman who had seen something of the trials of life and still had enough mettle in her not to weep after bumping into a lord or dropping clean laundry. Enough to contradict him without flinching, though he could see the regret on her face once it was done.
“What is your name?” he asked softly.
“Zerenya” came the reply without “sire” or “my lord” trailing after. She knew her mistake at once but made no move to correct herself. Submission was an effort for her, it was not ingrained. Syrren liked that. He liked her accent and the way she tilted her head to one side to look up at him. He liked her.
“Well Zerenya,” Syrren said, his voice still low, “The Lord Delon and I will say nothing of this to the Lady Risendra,will we Delon?”
“I have better things to do than carry tales of tossed laundry to our mother,” Delon grumbled.
“I think he likes you Zerenya,” Syrren said, and his grin was unabashed.
Then Zerenya did something she hadn’t done since she had been captured and brought to Sayulia as a slave. She laughed. It was out before the hand she clapped across her mouth could stop it but Syrren’s eyes were twinkling now. With a quick bow he breathed “my lady” and stepped around her to continue his journey, his scowling brother following behind. When Zerenya turned to watch them go, she saw Syrren turn back to watch her, both turning quickly away when their eyes met again. Perhaps, Zerenya thought as she hurried to Lady Risendra’s chambers, the sun did shine a very little bit in Sayulia after all.