Islands in the Sky 6

The wedding was boring, as Cassa had expected, so she ignored everyone and stayed coldly angry at them all. Especially, she ignored her soon-to-be husband, even though that wasn’t entirely fair, since he’d had as little say in this as she had.

She stood at the front of the hall, on a dais, in front of a crowd. She stood there, and ignored her husband, and looked up at the ceiling, bored. No-one mentioned her dress, and no-one mentioned her bare feet. They just made their speeches, and said their words, and formed the contacts between the two families.

While they did, Cassa did her best to look so vacant as to be bereft of her senses, but they married her all the same, which was about what she would have expected.

She had tried to make the day more interesting. She had tried to take two knives with her to the wedding, just in case she changed her mind about murdering her betrothed halfway through. As she had half-expected, though, both had been taken from her before she was anywhere near the ceremony. The visible one, on her hip, a guard had asked for politely, on her grandmother’s instructions the guard had said. The other a maid must have mentioned to someone, because the guard captain knew to look in Cassa’s sleeve.

The guards were well-used to searching Cassa. The matter of her and knives was an old source of concern for her family. Cassa didn’t completely understand why her family was so nervous, but they were forever having her searched. She didn’t understand it, because she valued her wits, and they all knew she did, and so it ought to be obvious that she would try to get her way with wits rather than murder. She wasn’t going to just go around stabbing people who were already doing as she wished. The knives were only if someone tried to kill her, which could actually still happen at any time, or if someone especially upset her and she was in a particularly foul mood.

Her family ought to understand that, but they didn’t seem to. Instead, her knives had been taken away from her before the wedding, and worse, someone had searched her chambers that morning, while she was out, and removed a half-dozen knives and daggers and also a sword of her great-grandfather’s which she kept on a shelf as a memento. The room had been searched, but they hadn’t found all the weapons in it, because Cassa wasn’t completely stupid. She left knives on the table, in plain view, but she had also carefully hidden others about her rooms. The two knives she had taken with her had been inside a cushion on the bed, and stuck to the underside of a drawer in the writing desk in the dayroom, and there were many more still in her chambers, too, in case she needed them later on. There was a knife behind a loose bathroom tile, and another inside a hollowed-out book beside her bed, and more in the seams of about four items of clothing in the wardrobe. And there were two in the public hallway outside her rooms as well, as well, in a vase and beneath a corner of carpeting. Cassa didn’t quite know why she had so many knives around, it simply seemed like a good habit to have. She’d look foolish, and could well end up dead, too, if she ever needed one, and someone had actually managed to find all that she had. So, being cautious, she kept a lot of knives. It was as simple as that.

She should try her grandmother’s trick too, she thought, and keep a blunted dagger in plain sight where anyone who became enraged would see it first, and grab it.

She would start doing that, she decided, even though it was too late to matter now.

It was far too late to matter right now.

The guards had disarmed Cassa, and taken her into the great hall, to her wedding, and she had stood where she was expected to stand, and said the words she was supposed to say, and otherwise had done her best to ignore them all. She wasn’t the first disgruntled bride forced to a ceremony among the great families of the towers. She might not even be the first that year. She was irritated, and made her irritation clear, but no-one seemed to especially care. They held their ceremony, and Cassa did as she was bid. She said the words which sealed the contact between her and her husband, including all the usual empty promises to place his family above her own, and to make heirs with him, neither of which she had any intention of keeping, and neither of which she was expected to keep anyway.

The ceremony was over soon enough. It was quick, only the barest minimum that was needed, because Cassa’s grandmother had probably made certain that it would be. No doubt in order to avoid Cassa becoming bored and making a scene. The ceremony was quick, and when it was done, Cassa’s grandmother and her new husband’s grandmother congratulated one another, and everyone was happy.

Everyone was happy except Cassa, who was adamantly upset.

There was a meal afterwards. There was a feast. There would be drinking and eating all day. Outside, food was being prepared for the people of the city in Cassa’s name as well. Everyone was happy. Everyone was distracted.

Everyone was so distracted that today would be a good day to start a war, Cassa thought to herself. It would be a good day for it, except that someone had already thought of that, probably Konstantin, and guards from both families were present, and not distracted at all.

Cassa sat at her feast, and warmed to the situation enough to smile coolly when people spoke to her.

She still felt annoyed, and didn’t especially want to talk, and she didn’t eat anything either, just in case someone had thought to poison the sauces and assassinate two entire towers in one go. She didn’t think that was actually likely, for the same reason there were sober guards here today. The kitchens were secure, because they were vulnerable and poisoning was easy, but she didn’t eat all the same, because it struck her that it would be funny if that actually happened and she was the only survivor of her own wedding.

She sat, and was bored, and tried to decide whether to be civil to her husband or not. Until she decided, she didn’t speak to him, and he didn’t try and make her. He seemed to understand how she felt.

She sat, and sulked, and glared at her grandmother and mother across the room. She glared, and they ignored her, probably telling one another they had both been in this situation too and Cassa would learn to make the best of it.

Cassa ignored them. Then, quietly, in the middle of the meal, when she thought no-one was looking, she slipped a knife from the table and into her dress. Then she realized Konstantin was watching her, and had seen her do that. He grinned, and shook his head, and later took the knife away from her.

She let him take it. She didn’t care. She already had another in her other sleeve.

That little act of theft made her happier.

She passed the day. She smiled a little more often, as the afternoon wore on, and eventually she grew hungry, and ate a little, and then sat there watching everyone else be happy.

She wasn’t unhappy. She wasn’t sad. She was simply irritated at the imposition this wedding was.

She still didn’t speak to her husband, though. She wasn’t quite ready for that.

 

*

 

Later that night, finally alone together in her bedchamber, Cassa spoke to Willem Cloudview, her husband, for the first time.

She had ignored him as she walked there, and ignored him as her maids fussed about, leaving bread and wine, and offering to run baths and set charcoal braziers burning and do all the other things maids were supposed to do on wedding nights.

Cassa stood there, and ignored Willem, and said, “Go,” several times to the maids.

They were persistent. Irritatingly persistent, and Cassa was unsettled, so in the end, to her own surprise as much as theirs, she said loudly, angrily, “Leave us. Now.”

The maids all went quiet. They seemed startled, presumably because Cassa never raised her voice. They were startled enough to actually leave, though, to Cassa’s great relief.

She sighed, and closed the door behind them, and then turned her mind to Willem. She supposed she was going to have to deal with him now.

She turned around and considered him and wondered what to do.

Now they were alone, just murdering him was always a possibility. It seemed a little heartless, though, when he hadn’t actually done anything to her.

He was sitting on a chair, beside her desk, near the window, watching her. She was a little irritated that he had just sat down without asking leave, but she would have been equally irritated if he’d remained standing, she supposed, and then would have told herself he was making her feel uncomfortable.

She looked at Willem, thinking.

She was meant to wash his feet now, as a symbol of starting their lives together, to show she was welcoming him into her tower and family, or something of the sort. She wasn’t going to do that.

Instead, she showed him the dining knife she had taken from the wedding banquet table, and said, “If you ever touch me, even once, I’ll murder you.”

Willem just looked at her. He seemed quite calm, and quite placid, which was annoying when Cassa was making such dire threats.

“I mean it,” she said. “I promise I will. Touch me in anger, or touch me in lust, and I’ll murder you where you stand, even if it starts a war with your family that brings mine down.”

“You won’t ever need to,” Willem said.

“Even so, I will. And if you don’t believe that I can, I’ll kill one of your guardsmen right now just to prove I’m able.”

“I’d really rather you didn’t,” Willem said. “It seems a little unkind to the guardsman.”

Cassa looked at him, surprised. She liked him a little better for saying that.

She liked him a little better, so she assumed that was exactly what he had intended.

His compassion made her wary. Any time she was told something which pleased her, she became wary. People were forever scheming and flattering. Someone had probably warned Willem to speak kindly of servants to her, and so Cassa really ought to ignore his words.

She ought to, but part of her wanted to believe him.

She wondered what to do.

It wouldn’t hurt to know him a little better, she decided. She was stuck with him now, after all. It wouldn’t hurt to be sure.

“Do you mean that?” she said.

“Mean what?”

“That it would be a shame to kill some guardsman for no actual reason.”

“It would be,” Willem said, sounding surprised in turn. “Would it not?”

“Well I think so,” Cassa said. “But do you, in truth? Or did someone whisper to you that I am over-kind and soft-hearted and saying that would win my favour?”

Willem looked at her, uncertainly.

“What?” Cassa snapped.

“Forgive me, but you do not seem especially soft-hearted…”

“To the servants,” Cassa said. “Obviously. I am soft-hearted to the servants. Everyone knows that.”

“Oh,” Willem said. “I see. That makes a little more…”

Cassa glared at him.

Willem stopped, and seemed to think.

“I had not heard that about you,” Willem said, after a moment’s hesitation. “That was all I meant. Not about how you treat your servants, at any rate. So no, no-one warned me. And I meant what I said. It would be a shame if you hurt some bystander just to prove your ill-intent towards me. So could we not simply agree on your dislike now, between ourselves, and spare the poor guardsman his murder?”

“You’re just saying that,” Cassa said, wanting to believe Willem even so.

“I promise you, I am not.”

“Which you’d say, if you’d been put up to this.”

Willem looked at her, thinking. “There’s no actual way to prove I’m not being insincere…”

“True,” Cassa said, and thought too. “Very well, I believe you,” she said.

“Now I’m not sure I believe you.”

“I wouldn’t believe me,” Cassa said. “But it is your guardsman who will pay the price.”

“You don’t need to kill anyone,” Willem said, sounding a little desperate. “Please. I understand you never wanted this wedding. I’m not especially happy about it either…”

“How delightful for you.”

“But I have no intention of harming you, so there’s no need to go about murdering people. I beg of you, please don’t.”

“Perhaps I won’t,” Cassa said, deciding she believed him after all. He was pressing her too hard about the imaginary murder not to actually care whether she did it.

Willem sighed. He sounded exasperated. He seemed to sigh the same way she did. Cassa liked that about him too, and almost became suspicious all over again.

“Fine,” Cassa said. “I won’t kill your guardsman, so long as you believe that I could.”

“I believe you,” Willem said. “I have already said I believe you.”

“Well then,” Cassa said. “Why are we still speaking of it?”

“I don’t know,” Willem said,

They looked at each other for a moment.

“May I explain why I’m here?” Willem said, uncertainly.

“To violate me, I assume. To have a daughter of the Middletower.”

Willem sighed again, and seemed as if he was trying not to smile, and Cassa liked that about him as well.

“I was warned of you,” Willem said. “You should know that. I was warned of your fondness for knives, and your skill as well. I was warned you are dangerous, and that you would care not for me, and that both of those together could make my position dangerous.”

“Very, I imagine.”

“Indeed,” Willem said. “And I accepted this marriage anyway, because you seemed like a better choice than any other, despite the risks, because you and I, at least, would be equal in this.”

“Equal how?” Cassa said, actually slightly offended. “I am of Middletower. My family is the greater.”

“Equal in that I care not for you, and you care not for me. Equal because like you, I also want another.”

Cassa took a moment to understand. “Another what?”

“Another person.”

“What are you talking about?” Cassa said.

Willem seemed confused. He looked at Cassa, and began to speak a little too slowly, as if she was a half-wit. “I do not want this wedding,” he said. “You do not either. I do not want this wedding because I would prefer to marry another. I had assumed the same was true of you.”

“I don’t want another,” Cassa snapped. “I simply don’t want you.”

“Oh,” Willem said, still calm. “Then I apologise. As I said, I had assumed.”

He didn’t seem upset. He didn’t seem offended. Cassa stood there, and thought for a moment, and then put the dining knife down. She put it down in plain view, on the side-table beside Willem. In plain sight, and clearly from the set which her family used for formal banquets, so whoever had been supposed to watch her, probably Konstantin, would know of their failure.

She wanted Konstantin to know he had failed. She also wanted Willem not to think himself safe, merely because she had put one blade down.

“I have more knives,” she said, in case Willem thought her defenceless. “I have daggers everywhere in here.”

“I imagine.”

She looked at him for a moment, trying to decide if he sounded disbelieving or not. It was very hard to tell, when he kept talking in such a calm voice. She thought, then walked to a particular vase on a shelf against one wall, and removed a dagger from inside it, which she placed on the shelf. Then she went to a coat in her wardrobe and removed a thin-bladed knife from the sleeve, and put that on the table beside Willem, next to the dining knife. She didn’t show him the knife in the book beside the bed, because she wasn’t a fool. She was beginning to like Willem, and trust him a little, but he might be a liar, and she might still need to fight him off later. She had showed him enough, though, she thought. She had showed him enough he ought to understand.

“I have them everywhere,” she said.

“I believe you.”

“There’s nowhere in this room a weapon is more than three steps away, if I need it.”

“I’m not going to harm you.”

“For the time being,” Cassa said, sceptically.

“Ever.”

“Until it suits you.”

“No,” Willem said. “Ever.”

“So you’re promising me this,” Cassa said, scornfully. “You swear you’ll never harm me, no matter what?”

“If you wish,” Willem said, oddly earnestly, as if he actually meant that.

“Go on then,” Cassa said. “Swear.”

Willem shrugged. “I swear on my honour I will never speak a word against you, or raise a hand to you, or act against you. Nor will I fail you by inaction or silence. Is that sufficient?”

“Oh,” Cassa said, utterly surprised. “Yes, that’s sufficient.”

“Are you satisfied?”

Cassa nodded. “But I’m not swearing anything back.”

“So I assumed,” Willem said. “It would make it rather tricky to kill me later on, wouldn’t it?”

“Not if I’m a liar and break my promises.”

“Are you?”

Cassa looked at him, and didn’t answer for a long, thoughtful moment. She was beginning to find him irritatingly clever, with his odd little innocent-seeming questions.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said in the end. “I’m not swearing any oath back.”

Willem grinned. “And I haven’t asked you to.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“As you said.”

“Stop smirking,” Cassa snapped.

“I’m not.”

“Stop smirking at me. I don’t know what you’re doing, but I don’t like it at all.”

Willem stopped grinning, and then bowed slightly.

Cassa glared at him, and tried to work out this act of his was for, if it was even an act. She couldn’t, so decided she would say what was on her mind instead, while she considered the matter.

“It is not your right to have me,” she said. “Some say so, but that isn’t my family’s way.”

“It was explained to me,” Willem said.

“It is only your right to have me if you can have me,” Cassa said, wanting to be clear.

It was an old, horrible law. A law from long ago, when inheritance had always been through the oldest daughter and sometimes those daughters had needed convincing to make an heir. Now, Cassa’s family was more flexible, and the best of several cousins inherited, and so the actual bloodlines mattered less. Even so, the old, cruel custom was still there.

“That was explained as well,” Willem said.

“You’ll never be able to have me,” Cassa said. “Even in my sleep. Even when I am ill. Never. Not unless you are far better with a dagger than any give you credit for.”

“I know that. I understand.”

“Are you?” Cassa said deliberately, watching his face. “Far better than any know?”

“Not at all. I doubt your family would have let us marry, if I were.”

Cassa was a little surprised by that idea. She was equally surprised by what the Cloudviews, as outsiders, apparently thought of her family’s inner workings. She nodded though, agreeably, and said, “I doubt it too.”

Lying as she smiled at him politely.

Willem drew a breath. He looked around at her chambers. “That is a pleasant desk,” he said. “Is that ancient?”

“I believe so.”

“And that tapestry,” he said. He was being strangely polite, all of a sudden. “Is that a relic of the ancients?”

“As far as I know. Why does it matter?”

“It doesn’t at all.”

“So why ask?”

Willem shrugged. “Why not?”

“So why?”

Willem hesitated. Cassa looked at him, glared at him, until he seemed to decide to actually answer. “I am nervous, I suppose,” he said.

“Because of me?”

“Because of meeting my wife? Who loathes me. To share our wedding night? Why would I be nervous?”

“I have no idea,” Cassa said. “I am an innocent. I cannot imagine of what you speak.”

“Of course,” Willem said, almost by rote. “I apologize.”

Cassa looked at him, puzzled. She had been teasing, but he hadn’t noticed. And his oddly distracted politeness was still there, too. She wondered what was wrong, what was causing his anxiety. She almost felt sympathetic. She was beginning to like Willem more than she had ever wanted to, and that complicated things. She ought not entirely trust herself, now that she’d realized she actually liked him.

She liked him, and she was also stuck with him. She decided she should try and help.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You may as well tell me.”

“Nothing is wrong.”

“Something is, so speak of it.”

Willem sighed, and looked at her. “In truth, there is,” he said. “I would like to come to some understanding with you. But I am unsure whether I should ask, and risk your anger.”

Cassa wondered if she truly seemed that short-tempered. She supposed she might, from what he had seen of her today.

“Understanding about what?” she said, carefully polite.

“Of how we live together. Of what we each need from the other to be content.”

“Oh,” Cassa said. It seemed an entirely reasonable idea. “We can if you wish to.”

Willem seemed relieved. “Thank you.”

Cassa shrugged slightly. “It is no trouble to listen. What did you have in mind?”

“We each tell the other how we would prefer that this marriage work. We discuss those matters, and each agree to what we can.”

Cassa nodded. It seemed sensible. “Go on then. What do you want from me?”

“No,” Willem said. “You first. Please. What do you require of me?”

Cassa wondered for a moment if that was some elaborate negotiating ruse. If she was being asked to give away her position too soon. Then she decided she was being a little suspicious. Willem was right. This marriage was for the rest of their lives, and they ought to try and find some middle ground where they could both be content.

She thought, and decided there was a great deal she needed from him, so much so that the order she told him in didn’t especially matter. Accordingly, she said the first thing that came into her head. “I won’t undress before you. Ever.”

“I would prefer you didn’t. The one I love might disapprove.”

“Of course,” Cassa said. “The lover.”

Willem looked at her, and seemed to be thinking. “Is speaking of that…?”

“Not at all.”

Willem nodded. “It is no insult to you…”

“I understand. Entirely.”

“Good. I am glad.”

“Well then,” Cassa said. “Do you have a condition of your own?”

“Please continue with yours.”

“You ought to take a turn.”

“No, please.”

Cassa shrugged. “Very well. I don’t want you sleeping here all the time, either.”

“Again, I would prefer not to.”

Cassa nodded. That made sense. The broad terms of the wedding had already been agreed between the families. She had been told a week ago, and knew the terms loosely, although not the detail. The couple would sleep in Cassa’s family tower when they wished to share a bed, but Willem would keep his chambers in the Cloudview tower as well. It was a common arrangement, and not unusual. It allowed either spouse to discreetly stray if they wished. It allowed Willem to still attend to his family’s business, and Cassa’s family to keep a closer sight on her, and protect her and her children, so they didn’t lose track of any heir of theirs she might one day bear.

“Since we are speaking of our sleeping arrangements,” Willem said. “And such matters. There is something you should know. Something important.”

“Go on.”

“I can never lie with you,” Willem said. “I have made a promise to another.”

Cassa nodded.

“And I will never love you either,” Willem said. “I am sorry, but I cannot. I love another.”

Cassa shrugged. “I love no-one, but I still won’t love you. Ever.”

Willem seemed surprised.

“Not when I have been forced into this wedding,” Cassa said.

“I understand,” Willem said.

There was a silence. Willem seemed to be thinking.

“Speak your mind,” Cassa said.

“Another of our terms,” he said. “I will always take my family’s side over yours.”

“Of course. I also.” Cassa thought. “I will not give you a child. Ever.”

“That is fine. We shall adopt if we need an heir.”

“If we do, and that child is not of my family, that child will never inherit this tower.”

“Of course,” Willem said. “But who says either of us will inherit our family towers?”

“I do,” Cassa said, grimly. “At least, I shall inherit mine.” She suddenly felt a greater determination to do so, after everything that had happened today.

They looked at each other.

“We should attend formal occasions for the other,” Willem said. “Weddings and the like.”

“Of course. And I will keep my daggers. And my daily practice with them. In fact, I will keep all my own affairs entirely. You cannot expect me to be a wife as some wives are, trapped in the tower and never going outside.”

“I would have it no other way. I had assumed. And speaking of affairs…”

“Keep your lover, of course,” Cassa said.

“And if you ever take one…”

“I never will.”

“But if you do, it is no slight to me.”

Cassa nodded. “How could it be, when you already have yours…?”

Willem smiled.

There was a silence. They both seemed to be thinking.

“Is that all?” Willem said.

“It is for now. I imagine we shall think of many more details.”

“But for now, that is all?”

“I think so.”

“And we can both live with this as an arrangement?”

Cassa nodded slowly.

“Good,” Willem said. “Then let us agree.”

“I agree,” Cassa said.

“I too.”

They looked at each other. That seemed to be that.

They had reached an agreement, so Cassa turned her mind to what ought to come next. She needed to decide where she wanted Willem to sleep. She looked around the room. She had a bed, and chairs, but no couch or floor mats, and that suddenly seemed like an omission. And as well, the bed was very large, in truth probably in anticipation of this day, and its size would make it extremely pointed if she did not at least offer.

It was an antique, too, she suddenly thought, which Willem would probably start noticing at any moment.

Cassa tried to decide how willing she was to let Willem sleep in her bed. She didn’t trust him, but she also wasn’t afraid of him either. She knew her own abilities, and she was fairly sure she knew his. There was very little Willem would be able to manage to do to her, even in her sleep, before she awoke and cut his throat.

“You may sleep in the bed,” she said. “But I am not undressing.”

Willem nodded. “Thank you.”

Cassa shrugged. “The floor is hard. It would be cruel not to let you join me.”

“Still, I am grateful.”

“The bathroom is there,” Cassa said, and pointed. “Touch nothing of mine without asking me first. Ever.”

“Of course.”

“And when I said I wasn’t undressing, I meant that you are not either.”

Willem looked at the bed, uncertainly. Then he looked at himself. “I am still in the dirt of the street.”

Cassa glanced at him. He wasn’t that dirty, although she knew what he meant. Anew-Hame was a fairly dusty, muddy place at times, and he had probably walked here from the Cloudview tower.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.

“I will make a mess.”

“And I have maids. Who apparently have been less loyal than ought to be, of late. So you will sleep in the bed as you are, and make the sheets as muddy as you wish, and then they will have work to do tomorrow, which will keep them too busy to tattle.”

Willem nodded.

“Is there anything else you need?” Cassa said. Bread and wine had been left for them on the table, and the room was warm, as it usually was. The would be hot water in the bathroom, and she had books on a shelf, if he was interested in such things.

She had no idea what he might ask for, other than perhaps for his one true love to be brought to him, but she offered all the same, to be polite.

Willem shook his head.

“It is no trouble,” Cassa said. “I can call for someone, and have anything you need brought.”

“I need nothing. But thank you.”

Cassa nodded. “Well then,” she said. “It is late, and we are wasting un-magic and these light-globes. Perhaps we should sleep?”

Willem looked uncomfortable again, but he nodded.

Cassa went into the bathroom, and locked the door, and changed into a more practical dress to sleep in. She added trousers too, the strong leggings the ancients wore, and then went back into the bedchamber.

Willem was still standing where he’d been. Cassa went to the bed, and he still didn’t move. He didn’t seem to have been waiting for the bathroom.

“What?” Cassa said, wondering if it was dusty clothes. “You must wear something, but it doesn’t have to be those clothes. I can lend you something to sleep in, if you wish?”

“No.” He looked at the bed. “I didn’t know which side you preferred.”

“Oh,” Cassa said. “Of course.” She pointed. “That side.”

Willem nodded and went to the other. “But are you certain about my dirt?”

“Get in,” Cassa said. Then she took a large, heavy dagger from behind a vase on her window-sill, and calmly put it beneath her pillow. Then a small folding knife of the ancients from a drawer, as well, and put that in the pocket of her dress.

“You understand?” she said, touching the dress. “No matter what, no matter how you try and hold me, I’ll be able to reach something to cut you with. And there are others around, too. Other you know nothing of.”

Willem nodded, calmly. “I understand.”

“You will never have me,” Cassa said.

“I know. I understand.”

Cassa got into bed, and settled her pillows over the dagger. Willem got in too, carefully, staying well away from her.

“Shall I turn off the light?” Cassa said.

“Please,” Willem said politely. “If you will.”

Cassa switched off the light-globe, and then lay with her back to Willem, feeling the bed move oddly as he settled.

“Goodnight husband,” she said, after a moment.

“Goodnight wife,” he said.

Cassa lay there, thinking. “I speak sharply,” she said after a moment. “But if I must marry, I am almost glad it was you. I think there could have been many worse to wed.”

“I too,” Willem said, in the darkness. “I am glad. And I think we shall suit one another well.”

“Perhaps,” Cassa said cautiously, and then didn’t say any more. She lay quietly until she was certain that Willem was asleep before she slept too.

 

part 7 >>