Their main course—some peculiar mix of slow roasted meat and rice, with something on the side that Aoife could have sworn was yoghurt—was the perfect opportunity to introduce his brides by name. At the left side of the table sat Satine, whom she had been introduced to already. Next to her was a woman who hailed from Tarşehir, and whose name Aoife didn’t stand a chance of pronouncing. Next to her was Amalia, who Gunnar informed was silent and deadly, and beside her was her cousin Sofia. The last, and thus the closest to Aoife’s left, was a quiet young woman just a few years her senior. Her name was Sylaise, as Gunnar informed her, and she hailed from the Northern city of Aniatova and was perhaps the only one of Gunnar’s brides that spoke the common tongue, though her silence betrayed that fact.
To the right was Colette, who owed her pale skin to Northern parentage but was the living embodiment of the desert, or so Gunnar proclaimed. All Aoife took to mean from the comparison was that her presence was uncomfortable and she left everyone around her in a confused daze. Obviously this was not Gunnar’s sentiment. To Colette’s immediate left was the Fatima that Gunnar had mentioned before. Fatima was supposedly the illegitimate daughter of a former Oracle, though she hadn’t inherited her mother’s gifts to prove as much. Either way, rumour was enough to make her seem like the perfect Eastern bride, taboo as marrying Oracles was. Next came Padmavati, a pretty little thing with ruddy cheeks and ruddier skin. Padmavati came from Gunnar’s hometown of Medara, a name which Rin would have known through reputation alone. Gunnar claimed to have known her since childhood, but her face still held the remnants of her childhood puppy fat, and Aoife guessed she couldn’t be much older than sixteen. With Gunnar in his mid twenties, at a guess, the likelihood of them being childhood friends was starting to look increasingly small. And last, but by no means least, were a set of twins; Inna and Allegra. He had married them both to save himself the potential faux pas of courting his wife’s sister. As Aoife understood it, the two shared another husband as well.
They all seemed like decent enough women, morality of their matrimonies aside, but their silence concerned her. Gunnar did not seem like a tyrant, but perhaps he was simply skilled at playing the courteous host. What if the ten of them were silent for fear of saying the wrong thing and angering him? Would there only be nine next time Aoife dine with them? Was this to be her test?
“What do you think of the meat?” Aoife asked Allegra—or maybe it was Inna. Gunnar hadn’t differentiated and neither had they—as a means of tempting her resolve. Her question was only met with confusion and more silence. “Gunnar, are your wives actually capable of talking?”
“Of course they are,” he said, setting his knife and fork down beside his plate. It was, after all, rude to talk with one’s mouth full, and retaining a chokehold on one’s cutlery might give the wrong impression about one’s interest in the conversation. “But they only speak Ramel, and would not wish to offend our guest by confusing her.”
“And Sylaise?” Aoife asked sharply. She wasn’t exactly accusing Gunnar of lying, but…
“Would rather not confuse everyone else,” Sylaise said, turning a stern eye towards Aoife, and the orphan felt a blush creep onto her cheeks.
“See?” Gunnar said, picking up his knife and fork once again. “I know you want to find something untoward here. Everyone does when they first arrive. But there is nothing wrong with Gamzhe.”
“Nowhere is flawless.”
“Did I say we were without flaw?” Gunnar asked with every bit of composure befitting his aristocratic nature. “Gamzhe has its problems, sure, but there is nothing wrong with it.”
Aoife found herself frowning, suddenly in no mood to eat. Gamzhe was beautiful, there was no denying that, and the people there seemed happy enough. Even Gunnar’s silent brides. She had to confess, from what she had seen, the place seemed like a veritable paradise. But there was something else. Something niggling uncomfortably at her like a loose tooth.
“Please, Aoife, do not let this discussion spoil the mood,” Gunnar said, his voice every bit as charming as his mannerisms, and whatever grudge Aoife might have borne towards him was all but forgotten.
Playing the gracious guest wouldn’t betray the Maker, would it? Besides, she was sure He could not fault her when Gunnar had such a way with words. It was as if the Trickster himself had blessed his gilded tongue, and even her faith was rendered powerless against him.
Gunnar had such a strange quality about him. He never failed to be enticing, and often as a result of doing nothing. Often he would shrug it off, say it was simply a result of his personality—warm, bright, sunny, amongst other equally as inviting adjectives—but in truth, it was a learned behaviour. When he had been just a boy, when his hometown was on the brink of ruin, his father had given him one piece of advice.
“You are of the Sands, Gunnar, and people will judge you for that. They will see the colour of your skin, and they will hear your accent, and they will think less of you for it. So you must prove them wrong, my son. You must always look immaculate, and you must always act the perfect gentleman, even when they look down on you. Only then will they ever learn to respect you.”
Gunnar had taken his words to heart—he took most things to heart—and had tailored his behaviour to match the exact opposite of society’s expectations of him. It was this tailored behaviour that allowed him to travel so freely around the rest of Valara, while some of the other Eastern Lords and Ladies had trouble venturing further outward than Karasti. In fact, once upon a time he had been firmly in the bosom of one Lady Cavanagh, a woman with no spouse and no heir, and well past childbearing age. She had sought a marriage, to unite Medara and Vertmead, and since her lands would have passed to Gunnar upon her demise it would have been one of the most powerful marriages in the land. For the first time since the Sands were inhabited, an Eastern man would have owned property outside of his respective corner of the world. The controversy would have been rife, and it would likely have changed the aristocracy forever.
But it was not the image that Gunnar wished to convey. He had been taught to be the chivalrous gentleman, not the foreign invader. As fate had it, Lady Cavanagh caught and succumbed to tuberculosis, and as he was later informed, her estate and influence had passes to some juvenile cousin who had intended to slander the Merenis name. He would have succeeded too, had it not been for the intervention of the monarchy. To outside sources, after all, it appeared that Gunnar was a power hungry Easterner who had preyed on the affections of a lonely old woman in the hopes of stealing her wealth out from under her. No matter how many Easterners backed up Gunnar’s claim, his story would never have been believed.
It was through pure luck that Gunnar had been born to the Merenis line and not any other upper class family. The Merenis family were, as was their boast at dinner parties, the descendants of the first Queen, Ashelia. She was better known as Ashelia Valenara, the matriarch of the royal family, but before her marriage to Aostre she had been Ashelia Merenis. As was common at the time, she had birthed several bastard sons to unknown fathers. Not much had been written about these sons, beyond their renouncing their claim to the throne upon the birth of Aostre and Ashelia’s eldest. It wasn’t known when they moved to Medara, just that they were given lordship over it, and soon what started as a small town had prospered into a sprawling city, funded by the goldmine concealed beneath the sand.
Prior to Gunnar’s involvement with Lady Cavanagh, the Merenis family were little spoken of or written about in Southern politics. They kept to the Sands, and to their Eastern kin, but despite the distance between Medara and Olmaea, the relations between Gunnar’s family and their regal cousins remained as strong as when they were first formed. Without that relation, Gunnar’s family would likely be penniless pariahs.
And while he was grateful to King Ruben for bailing him out, he would never forget the shame. It had taken a Southerner to get him out of hot water, not his own merit. After that, he vowed to be different. To be charming, but not to take things lying down. To strive for change. To make Eastern lives better where the rest of the world was concerned. The East wanted solidarity, but it also wanted unity. Gunnar hoped to make a start on the bridge to both.