Authors: Jennifer Fallon
Declan shrugged, certain there was only one course of action open to him.
'Then I guess I'm going to Caelum,' he said.
It took Arkady quite a few visits to the royal baths to get used to being naked in front of complete strangers and she was convinced she was never going to be comfortable being touched by them, either. Although the masseurs working in the royal seraglium — blind eunuchs, one and all — were very professional and completely impersonal as they pounded and oiled her body into submission, Arkady came from a culture where nudity was frowned upon and physical contact between men and woman that involved anything more than a handshake or a peck on the cheek held sexual connotations for everyone involved.
In Ramahn, however, bathing was a ritual in its own right. Full-body massages were considered a necessity, rather than an extravagance, and in a climate where more often than not clothing just made you sweat, it was — in the privacy of one's own baths — considered optional.
Arkady found this casual attitude toward the human body more than a little disturbing. Glaebans were much more conservative than Torlenians, she'd discovered, in addition to which, Arkady had plenty of her own reasons to be wary of exposing herself. She thought she'd concealed her discomfort well, until Lady Chintara, who was lying face down on the massage table with her eyes closed, opened them abruptly and fixed her imperious gaze on Arkady.
'You need to learn how to relax, my girl.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'I said you must learn to relax. You flinch every time someone touches you.'
Arkady lifted her head, trying to remember if she had flinched or not. She hadn't done it consciously, but she also knew she was a long way from being able to lounge around wearing nothing but her bare skin and the family jewels in the presence of strangers — even if they
blind. And she certainly didn't want to give this woman any cause for concern. Although this was her tenth visit to the royal seraglium in as many days, Stellan still hadn't been able to get an appointment with the Imperator to discuss the Chelae Islands. As Stellan was keen for Arkady to ask Chintara to intercede on his behalf, she could do nothing that might offend her hostess. 'I wasn't aware of flinching, my lady.'
The Imperator's Consort pushed away the probing hands of the masseur who'd been working on her back and sat up, swinging her legs around so she was sitting on the edge of the table staring at Arkady. 'You don't like to be touched, do you?'
'I don't believe I said anything to indicate —'
'It's not what you say,' Chintara cut in. 'It's the look on your face. You're not relaxing. You look as if you're in pain. Is that ham-fisted fool hurting you?'
'Of course not!' she hurried to assure her hostess, fearful for the man's fate should she complain about his work. 'Your people are very good at their jobs. I was just ...' Arkady's voice trailed off, as she realised there was no excuse she could offer. Better to just be sorry about it and move the discussion onto something less personal. 'I apologise if I have somehow offended you or your generous hospitality, my lady, by giving the impression I don't appreciate the honour you have bestowed on me by —'
'Oh, for the Tide's sake, Arkady, you don't need to apologise. There are plenty of other women in Ramahn I could invite here if I wanted a sycophant.
I'm curious, that's all. Is your aversion to intimate physical contact common to all Glaebans or is it something unique to Arkady Desean?'
Arkady hesitated, not sure how to reply.
'It's not that hard a question is it?'
'I'm not sure I'm in a position to speak for all Glaebans,' Arkady replied, finally. 'Particularly when it comes to where or how they like being touched. That's not something we discuss in polite society.'
Chintara laughed and stood up from the bench. She was a truly extraordinary creature, her physique sculpted like a warrior's rather than an idle woman's body. The consort regularly shaved every hair from her body, with the exception of her eyebrows and her head of stunning blonde hair that cascaded in natural waves to below her waist. She had introduced Arkady to the custom, which seemed both decadent and delightful all at once. Torlenians considered unshaven women little better than Crash, the consort had explained the first time they bathed together and she'd spied Arkady's natural body hair. Chintara had insisted Arkady follow suit, assuring her that unless she wished to become a social pariah among the women of Ramahn, she would be well advised to continue the practice on a regular basis. Arkady — once she got over the strangeness of the notion — discovered she quite liked the smooth feel of her skin after the shaving was done.
Chintara must have mistaken her silence for reticence in the presence of the masseurs. 'Leave us,' she ordered the young men, and then waited until they had departed and the women were alone before fixing her gaze on Arkady. 'You are uncomfortable when undressed in the presence of slaves. I find that odd. You're used to being waited on, are you not?'
'I've become used to it, yes.'
'But your Glaeban slaves do not deal so intimately with their masters as ours, do they?'
Arkady shook her head. 'Not at all. And they're usually Crasii, rather than human, which makes their attention seem much less personal. We are much more ... reserved. In private, at least, although in public we're quite wanton and liberal by Torlenian standards.'
Chintara smiled. 'There was a time we were just as wanton and liberal.'
'What happened to change things?'
'A Tide Lord became jealous that another immortal was lusting after his lover.'
Arkady sat up a little straighter, fascinated to hear Chintara admit such a thing. 'Then it
a religious custom, wearing the shroud?'
'To be a religious custom, belief in the Tide Lords would have to be our religion,' Chintara pointed out.
believe in them.'
'I believe the sun will come up tomorrow, too, but that doesn't mean I worship it, or that it's my religion.'
'But you have monasteries and temples devoted to studying the Tide —'
'We have people who choose a life of seclusion to contemplate the various ways in which the Tide affects us. Others study the teachings of the Lord of Reckoning, who has left us with much to contemplate. That doesn't make it a religion, Arkady.'
'So the Way of the Tide is a way of life, not a creed?' Arkady asked.
Chintara smiled. 'Tides, but you're a pleasant change from the usual ambassadorial trophy wife I have to tolerate, Arkady. Shall we spend the afternoon discussing more of the differences between our religions, or the lack of them? You, who claim your women are better off than ours, but who flinches when a stranger touches her body?'
Arkady was quite sure there was nothing down that road she wanted to discuss with the Imperator's Consort. 'I think, my lady, it's not a matter of
one is touched, but by
Chintara seemed amused by her reply. 'A fair comment, albeit an evasive one.'
'I'm curious as to why you refer to Torlenian customs and the Way of the Tide as your own,' she asked, hoping to move the topic away from herself and the reasons for her own particular inhibitions. 'Torlenia is clearly not the country of your birth. Have you embraced their way of life so completely because of your husband, or because it appeals to you personally?'
'You see, that's why I like you, Arkady,' Chintara announced, slipping a light silken robe over her statuesque body and then shaking her magnificent hair free from the knot that had been holding it clear of the oil. 'Nobody else in Torlenia would dare ask me a question like that. Come to think of it, few of them would have the wit to think of it in the first place. Why don't you stop sitting there clutching that wretched sheet like your virginity's at stake and put a robe on? We'll have some lunch.'
A little embarrassed at how transparent her inhibitions were to this perceptive woman, Arkady hopped off the bench and slipped on the silken bathrobe left for her by the slaves, tying it closed with relief. Chintara watched her dressing, a wry smile on her face.
'You can't help it, can you?'
'Can't help what, my lady?'
'Acting as if you have something no other woman has ever seen. Do you not bathe communally in Glaeba?'
'Tides no!' Arkady exclaimed. 'At least not in any decent establishment.'
'It's all the fault of the weather,' Chintara concluded, as Arkady fell into step beside her. The women padded barefoot across the tiled floor of the anteroom to the main chamber where the slaves had already laid out lunch. 'Once you start having to cover
your body to stop yourself from freezing to death, you're doomed.'
'I'm not sure I follow your reasoning, my lady.'
Chintara. shrugged, as if the answer was self-evident, and indicated that Arkady should take a seat. 'After a while, people forget
they're dressed from head to toe in furs. The clothes take on other purposes. They become less and less about protection from the elements and more about assuming false identities, boasting of rank, displaying wealth ... or any number of other human foibles. Once you conceal it, flesh becomes a currency, Arkady, remember that. We should make everyone on Amyrantha move to the equatorial zones where clothing is an adornment, rather than a crutch.'
'Even if such a thing were possible, my lady,' Arkady said, taking a seat opposite the consort on the couches facing the low table where lunch awaited them, 'your argument is flawed. Despite the temperature, your women cover their bodies from head to toe here in Torlenia, with a shroud that is mandated by law.'
'In public, yes,' the consort conceded, helping herself to a platter which she began to pile with sliced fruit. 'But we don't have the same constraints in the privacy of our own homes. And if you think about it, the shroud serves the same purpose as being naked.'
Arkady shook her head. There was a piece of logic begging an explanation if ever she'd heard one. 'I would have said the two were diametrically opposed.'
'They equalise us, Arkady,' Chintara replied. 'Under the shroud, all women are beautiful; all women carry the promise of something exquisite. Stripped of clothing, in the eyes of men, we are the same, too, believe it or not. It is not our appearance that attracts men. If men only cared about physical perfection, the handful of perfect women in this world would have all the men chasing them and the rest of womankind would be ignored.'
Arkady smiled. 'According to my father, that's the main function of alcohol.
Everyone is beautiful through the bottom of a glass,
he used to say.'
Chintara laughed. 'Perhaps he has a point, but I fear you're missing mine. It is the promise of the pleasure we offer them, that makes a man foolish over the butcher's fat daughter as easily as someone as lovely as you. The lure of immortality is more than most men can resist.'
Chintara nodded, apparently seeing nothing peculiar in the reference. 'Since the Immortal Prince extinguished the Eternal Flame, Arkady, the only hope for any man on this world to achieve immortality is to do it the old-fashioned way — through his descendants.'
the story of how the Immortal Prince extinguished the Eternal Flame?' Arkady asked, fascinated to realise here was an opportunity to hear the legend from someone who believed in the Tide Lords as real beings, rather than mythical figures on a painted set of Tarot cards.
And to hear something other than Cayal's version of events.
'Of course. I'm surprised you know anything of it, though. I thought you Glaebans considered anything to do with the Tide Lords to be superstitious nonsense.'
'I have a ... friend,' she replied. 'She is something of an expert on the Tarot. She used to tell fortunes at our dinner parties.'
'And what did your friend tell you about the destruction of the Eternal Flame?'
'That Cayal ... the Immortal Prince ... was so angered by the death of his daughter, he emptied the Great Inland Sea of Torlenia, making it rain down on Glaeba in an effort to douse the Eternal Flame, creating the Great Lakes in the process.'
'Ah yes,' Chintara agreed, picking through the fruit bowl until she found a small bunch of grapes she considered pleasing. 'The Tears of the Immortal Prince. I've heard that version.'
'Is there another?'
'I've not heard of them.'
'That's hardly surprising, given you're a Glaeban sceptic'
'Will you tell me about them?'
Chintara studied Arkady for a moment, her expression intrigued. 'I'm surprised you want to know.'
'I'm a historian, my lady. I collect legends the way others collect shells or porcelain figurines.'
That answer seemed to satisfy the consort. She leaned forward and picked up her glass. 'Well, everyone agrees the Immortal Prince was driven by rage when he destroyed the Flame,' she said, taking a sip of chilled wine. 'But not all of us share the Tarot's romantic notion of his motives. In fact, there are many who believe it was his anger at Diala and Arryl for thwarting his plans, not his grief over a child — who may or not have been his — that drove Cayal to destroy Amyrantha's climate so comprehensively it took the world the better part of a millennium to recover from it.'