Tausi sat listening to her aunts, who crowded in a circle at the far end of the room. Their dresses were a kaleidoscope of greens, reds, blues, and yellows, each worked with repeating patterns that shifted with the eye. Huddled like that they seemed to her one polychromatic beast with seven heads and fourteen limbs. None of them made an effort to whisper as they planned her life.
Hidden by the feathers of the Peacock Throne, Jahanara watched the Frenchmen’s heads appear at the top of the steps. Diwan-i-Khas, the hall of so-called private audience, would loom before them now. Morning light caught on its outer pillars and scalloped arches, setting the whole aglow: marble embers sparking with pearl and silver inlay in creeper patterns wound around gearwork. Light slanted through the hall, danced on silk and dust and metal, and threw the delegates’ shadows in before them unannounced.
It hadn’t come down since great-grandparent days, but as its last descent had left no stone on stone—nor man, woman, child alive—anywhere people had once dwelled aboveground on the continent, the hero would go up before it came down again, and kill the kaiju maximus. They would go too: the hero’s weakness, and her strength.
War is a dinner party. My ladies and I have spent the dregs of summer making ready. We have hung garlands of pennyroyal and snowberries in the snug, familiar halls of Laburnum Castle, strained cheese as pure as ice for weeks in the caves and the kitchens, covered any gloomy stone with tapestries or stags’ heads with mistletoe braided through their antlers. We sent away south to the great markets of Mother-of-Millions for new silks and velvets and furs.
Mother, I have seen such marvels. Like the ocean aglow at night with a cold green fire and a fish with a child’s face and two fleshy whiskers. (No man would eat it. We blessed the creature and tossed it back.) I’ve seen a corpse with golden hair in a boat set adrift; his eyes were the slits on a newly born kitten.
The air was full of storms, but they refused to break. In the wicker rocking chair on the front verandah, Beatrice flexed her bare feet against the wooden slat floor, rocking slowly back and forth.
Once upon a time, in a land near and far away, there was a girl whose mother died when she was young.
The night Miss Carstairs first saw the merman, there was a great storm along the Massachusetts coast. Down in the harbor town, old men sat in taverns drinking hot rum and cocking their ears at the wind whining and whistling in the chimneys.
The morning after she lost her art, Felicity sat at her speckled mirror, inspecting the glossy, gray-white feathers covering her cheeks and forehead.
“Dragon-slaying is an honorable death, and generally quick, from my understanding; and will legally clear your debts. Unless you would prefer to commit suicide?” he inquired.