Excerpt: Festivities

*** Author’s Note: Just a small reminder that my excerpts are not in chronological order. Some chapters are taking longer to revise and edit than others! ***

Dusk. The party is in full swing; family and close friends are attending the small, lavish gathering and the celebrants are all in high spirits. Lord Yazim, her father, had given a brief speech, and her mother, Lady Zaiher, had presented Sepultur’a with a gift: a leather-bound journal to record the events of her journey.

Sepultur’a’s glum mood of earlier has lifted completely, as she is engrossed in conversation with her brother Ad-hir’s mysterious, last-minute guest – he brought a woman along! He introduced her as Sonja, stating only that he met her in some remote area of a battlefield and had recently asked for her hand in marriage. The family is a bit surprised, as they had all thought that the only son of the family would spend a number of years sowing some wild oats before settling down. Ad-hir is engaged in quiet conversation with Yazim, while Ildris and Zaiher sit close with her and Sonja, laughing and chatting. The table is laden with fare both local and exotic; there are familiar dishes which are favourites of the family, and unfamiliar ones which seem to appeal to Sonja’s palate. Sonja has a hearty appetite and seems to eat a bit of everything. Sepultur’a is in awe of her new sister-to-be and hangs on her every word. The woman’s hair is an interesting shade of deep auburn, braided into long rows which hang down the center of her back. Her head is shaved on the sides in a fashion that Sepultur’a has only seen in books. Her skin is dark, like Sepultur’a and Ildris, but her eyes are a pale blue that is unusual to their people. Her face bears patterned scars, but the scars seem to accentuate her beauty, not detract from it. She is also very tall, and more muscular than the other women in the room – but her figure is noticeably feminine. She wears a form-fitting, stitched top and breeches with an attached “tail” – a skirt that is slit up the front to allow a lady to ride comfortably and modestly.

Sepultur’a excuses herself from the table and moves around the room, chatting with the other guests. She is radiantly beautiful in the dress she wears: red, silken material is gathered at the bodice; clever slits in the fabric reveal white gleaming velvet insets. A black leather corset accentuates her slender figure, and the full skirt flares out and down, just brushing the floors with an elegant ruffle. Her shoulders are bare, but short, puffed sleeves cover her upper arms. She will hate to leave the dress behind, but it won’t be practical on a long trip. It will be a while before she has the time or inclination to wear such finery again, after this day. Tomorrow she will be garbed in her own set of armor and choose two weapons to take with her. She will start out with virtually nothing; just what will fit into the saddle-bags.

She gets her glass of wine refilled, then wanders out onto the veranda. The two moons hang high in the sky, one smaller than the other. She stands there, looking up at them, thinking. Sipping her wine, she walks down a small flight of stairs and follows the narrow path down towards the beach. The harbor is quiet and serene, and she removes her slippers to walk barefoot in the sand. Water laps softly at the docks; she wanders to the end of one of the boat-slips and stands quietly, enjoying a bit of solitude. After a moment, she turns and leaves the harbor, heading back towards the manse. Her footsteps take her past the garden-maze; she pauses for a moment, then enters.

The soft light of lanterns guides her along, although she is so familiar with this route that she could navigate it blindfolded. She soon stands at the fountain with the magnificent statue, and stares at it longingly. “Oh, Mother,” she whispers softly. “I hope that I find a great love the way that you and Father have. To have a man look at me with such devotion…I cannot imagine.” She sits on the edge of the fountain and places her slippers on the stone bench where she and Ildris had sat earlier. Her fingers trace patterns on the surface of the water as she finishes her wine. Setting the empty glass near her slippers, she draws her legs up, carefully tucking the long skirt up so that it doesn’t get wet, then resumes trailing her fingers in the water of the fountain. She gets lost in deep thought and doesn’t hear quiet footsteps approaching.

Endymion, the smith’s apprentice, enters the fountain area. He doesn’t see Sepultur’a sitting in the dark shadow thrown by the fountain. He isn’t forbidden from this area; all who work at the manse are allowed access to most of the grounds, but if the family is present, the help gives them leeway. He is certain that he is alone, as he knows that the family is celebrating the youngest daughter’s birthday. He likes sitting here some evenings, especially when the moons are full, but those times are rare due to his work schedule.

Endymion stands for a moment, limned in the moonlight, looking appreciatively at the statue. The merchant-master, powerfully depicted in this carving, spared no expense in this declaration of love for his wife, the mother of his daughters. Endymion can fully understand why this particular pose was chosen, and why it is displayed where it is. To see this sculpture in full daylight, where many could see it, would be scandalous and create undue envy amongst the townspeople.

He stretches out on one of the benches and clasps his hands behind his head, looking up at the moons and appreciating how their light plays over the statue. His eyes close as he relaxes, letting the stress of the day’s work ebb from his body. The forge-master had been stern with him after he’d muffed the repair of a sword, and he despaired of mastering working with metal. His uncle had been certain that the family talent of blacksmithing would run in his veins, but after a year of apprenticeship, he could barely craft a decent dagger. He isn’t sure how he can tell his uncle that working a forge isn’t his natural talent. A soft gasp interrupts his train of thought and his eyes open, startled out of his reverie.

The youngest daughter is standing there, staring at him, eyes wide in the darkness. He tries to think of her name as he sits up, resting his arms on his knees as he regards her. She looks beautiful under the moonlight, he thinks, eyeing her bare shoulders and trim form.

She, in turn, is captivated by his stature now that she sees him up close. She has seen him from a distance in the marketplace, or when she has accompanied Yazim or Ad-hir to the forge to get fitted for her own pieces or armor, but seeing him up close has her seeing him as if for the first time. His face is intriguing: intense blue eyes, a sensuous mouth, a fine, straight nose, and strong chin. His head is shaved on the sides; the remaining hair is neatly combed and pulled back in a tight queue. He rises from his supine position, stands, and moves towards her. It takes her a moment to realize that he is speaking to her, and shakes her head to clear it and focus on his words.

“I’m sorry,” he is saying, “I didn’t think that anyone would be here. I can leave if you wish to be alone; I don’t want to intrude.” He bows respectfully, and moves as if to leave, but she shakes her head. “No, please…don’t go,” she says softly. “You may stay. I didn’t know that anyone was here. It was crowded inside, and I just wanted to come out, look at the moons, and catch a breath of air.” She looks up at them, a soft smile curving her lips. “They are full and bright tonight, aren’t they?” He looks up as well, nodding in agreement. “Indeed,” he replies, looking back at her. “I’m not the best with names,” he continues, feeling a bit bold. “If you please, I had a question. What is your name? I don’t know that I could pronounce it.” She laughs lightly “Sepultur’a,” she says, sounding it out slowly and carefully. “…and, you are Endymion, the apprentice to the smith,” she finishes, smiling at his surprise. “You know my name and who I am?” he asks, somewhat flattered. “Why, of course,” she says. “You are hard to miss,” she says, then stops before she says too much. She lowers her gaze, turning to face the fountain again. He cocks an eyebrow at her words. “Hard to miss? How do you mean?” he asks. She turns to face him. “Well, I just meant that…you aren’t from these lands, originally, so you do stand out from the crowds. Not in a bad way, of course…I just happen to notice you when you’re at the forge, when I’m at the market running errands.” Her voice drops to a near-whisper. “I…like watching you work,” she finishes, nervously playing with her hair.

He is silent with surprise. “Oh, I’ve offended you now, I just know it!” she bursts out. “I always talk too much and say the wrong thing at the wrong time…” she trails off, sounding near tears. “Wait – what? No, no, no…no offense taken at all,” he says, standing and stepping closer to her. “I didn’t think that either of the daughters of the wealthiest man in town would take notice of a lowly blacksmith’s apprentice,” he says. “I always figured that you and your sister had been betrothed to some merchant’s son from birth, or something…” he stops speaking, unsure of what to say next. She looks up at him. He is tall and broad-shouldered, with well-muscled arms and large, strong hands from daily work at the forge. He wears a simple, rough tunic and breeches that smell of smoke. He is standing so close…her mind whirls. Perhaps it is the full moons, or the scent of the flowers in the garden that cause her to act so boldly. She reaches out impulsively and touches his face, caressing his cheek for a moment. She starts to pull her hand away, but he reaches up and presses his hand over hers, closing his eyes and savoring her touch…

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