Aoife, however, stayed by Gunnar’s side. She had been invited to dine with him and meet his wife, which certainly put a damper on her new obsession. Still, she didn’t want to seem impolite, and accepted his invitation most graciously. She supposed it made sense that he had a wife. He was older than the rest of them and he was upper class. The upper class married young, or so the stories told her.
They were expected to bear children as soon as possible; a son for an heir and daughters to marry off. The Eturian idly found herself wondering if Gunnar had any children, and what they would look like. Would they be his spitting image, or would they take after his wife instead? Perhaps a mix of the two, or stranger still, neither of them? Would they have unpronounceable names like everything else in the East—though, as Rin would point out, Gunnar was a remarkably Northern name for a man so proud of his Eastern heritage—or would they be normal by her standards?
These questions were left to boil over in her head as she was tended to by an array of women. Handmaidens, if the old tales were anything to go by, and for the first time in her life, she truly felt like the princess every little girl imagines herself to be. She was treated to a bath, with water warmer than anything she’d ever known—despite the industrial revolution that had come tearing through Eturia, and the city’s resulting dependence on coal and steam, the Cathedral had not joined the fray and had thus been left with no way of heating its water. As a result, bathing became something of a small torture in the winter months. More often than not, the water would freeze if allowed to lie still long enough, and more than one orphan (and Sister in turn) had been the victim of a light coating of frost for not drying themselves off quickly enough.
Pavonine silks were presented to her, each one belonging to a different dress, and before she knew it she had been trussed up like a proper Eastern lady, whose outfits had less layers but were equally as demure as her own Western attire, which she said a quiet thanks for. She was spritzed with various perfumes that all smelled the same to her—musky and heavy—and her hair was tied up and let loose and braided so many times by so many different women that she lost count, and by the time she was actually led to what looked like a dining room, she wasn’t sure what she even looked like anymore. For all she knew, they could have painted her face and her body so much with rouge and kohl and whatever else they had used that she looked a completely different woman. She couldn’t deny she had enjoyed the pampering and, were it not for her god preaching modesty and humility, it was certainly a way of life she could easily have grown accustomed to, but the uncertainty left her wary. She didn’t want to have come this far, only to lose herself in the process.
As she was seated at the table—a great wooden beast the same dark colour as the bookcases in Gunnar’s drawing room—a clock began to chime somewhere out in the city. Unlike the clock tower in Eturia, carved from marble and adorned with silver, which gave a musical, almost rhythmic chime each hour, the bell in Gamzhe sounded like a monstrous cowbell. The sound it produced was flat, and did not suit the rest of the city’s splendour. Still, a clock was a clock, at the end of the day, and the flat rings of the cowbell told her it was six o’clock.
She thought of the Cathedral. How they would have washed and eaten by now, and would be deep in their evening prayer, and suddenly a feeling of shame ran cold through her gut. How long had it been since she last prayed? How many weeks, months even, had they been traveling, and she had not once thought to turn to her god in thanks. All of a sudden the sandstorm they had been caught in seemed less like a natural occurrence and more like an act of divine intervention.
Perhaps the Maker had sought to kill them, but offered them a chance for redemption at the last second. Perhaps He took pity on them, and gave them this chance to begin anew and thrive in His light. Yes, that had to be it. All three of them were steeped in sin, and so the Maker had sent the storm to wash them clean, and Gamzhe to test them. She had read of such things in scripture enough times; people would stray from His path, turn to sin, and be given the chance to redeem themselves. But redemption, of course, is never easy, and so the Maker would give them one final test. A city, a woman, whatever vice He could conjure up, it would test them. Gamzhe was their test. Gunnar was her test. The Maker had presented her with something she could not ignore, something she could not deny; her own desires. But she would stay true to her path. She would remain devout. She would walk with the Maker at her side, and she would not fail.
She had little time to reflect on how she was going to pass the Maker’s test when she was already so tempted, wife be damned. No sooner had she set upon her resolve, the great double doors at the opposing end of the dining room swung open. She didn’t understand why the room needed double doors—sure the table was long, but not long enough to warrant such grandiosity. She found her answer soon after.
Ushered in by two maids came a rather large group of women. They swelled and flooded the room like a gaggle of schoolboys at the end of their day’s learning, though there couldn’t have been more than ten of them. Perhaps it was their dresses that filled the room and not them, but there was no denying their presence was overwhelming. They all took seats around the table, and at the head sat Gunnar, smiling as usual.
“When you said meet your wife, I thought you meant just the one,” Aoife said, not sure what to make of the ten beautiful faces staring at her. She couldn’t tell if they were curious or murderous. “Is it an Eastern custom?”
Gunnar gave a quiet chuckle, and his wives let out a secretive collective giggle in turn.
“No, Aoife, it is not an Eastern custom. It is one of the liberties of Gamzhe,” Gunnar said, and knew from the look on Aoife’s face that she did not follow. “Let me explain. My first wife was Satine.” He gestured at the woman sat closest to his right, all dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. “We were young and impulsive, and soon after I met Colette.” He gestured to his left this time, to a woman with skin like freshly fallen snow. “Were this anywhere else, I might have been doomed to a loveless marriage with Satine.”
The woman in question shot him a playful glare, as if she had heard this story many a time.
“But because we are in Gamzhe, I can marry Colette and love them both. And in turn, if Colette finds another man, she is free to marry him as well. Why, Fatima here has seven husbands. She is a greedy one, most definitely.” He gave a wink, though Aoife couldn’t tell who it was aimed at.
Was this to be her test? Gunnar and his endless cycle of wives? Was it her responsibility to teach him the sanctity of marriage—one marriage.
“I can’t say I approve, Lord Merenis,” she said flatly, already anticipating Gunnar’s insistence that she refer to him by his first name. “Marriage should be between between two people, not an entire street.”
“Have you ever been married, Aoife?” Gunnar asked, earning a ‘no’ in response. “Have you ever been in love?” His second attempt garnered something of a nod in response.
“I thought so, anyway. I was wrong,” Aoife admitted meekly.
“Let us assume, while you thought you loved him, you married him. And now you have fallen out of love and you are stuck with him. What are your options?” Gunnar asked, eliciting silence in response.
During his tirade, a generous portion of salad had been delivered to each person at the table. Satine, Colette, Fatima, and all the other brides tucked in in silence, exchanging furtive glances every now and then. Though Aoife did not realise it, the arrival of the leafy greens and lush vegetables were another means of Gunnar asserting his dominance. The Sands were only good for procuring three things; metal ores, precious stones, and cacti. To offer up such a dish, ripe with exports from the Riverlands, was an ever so subtle display of his wealth and, if nothing else, his resourcefulness, given that they were barely far enough into the summer for the first harvest. To serve that dish was a gesture of opulence unlike anything Gunnar had ever done before.
“You cannot divorce him,” Gunnar continued, before Aoife had a chance to answer him. “Or rather, you can, but the pair of you will be ostracized in any Maker-fearing residence, and given the tenacity of our church, that may well be everywhere. You can stay in your empty marriage and live the life of a deeply unhappy woman. You can seek comfort in other men, but you will be made a pariah if your affair is discovered. Or you can come to Gamzhe, marry the man of your dreams and live happily ever after.”
“Well then I’d make sure I married the right man,” Aoife protested, though part of her was ashamed at how quickly the idea of a life with Shay had settled in her mind.
“The right man now might not be the right man in twenty years time. Or even one.”
The tone of her voice put an end to the conversation. Neither party’s views on the matter would change that night, and the longer they debated, the less amicable their relations would become. Just because she was being tested didn’t mean she and Gunnar had to be enemies.