Thirty-sixMature

The Sandsman said nothing. His hand found the small of her back and he escorted her through the crowds of gamblers and Nectar uses into the solitude of one of Bahman’s Pride’s private billiards rooms. The rooms were booked months in advance, but saw little use outside of the winter months, when the rich would flee the growing cold of their own homes and find solace in the warmth of the Sands.

Aoife rested her hip against the table as she tried to collect her thoughts into something coherent. It was like being in the Cathedral again. Knowing death could be lurking somewhere nearby, but not knowing if or when it would strike. She could practically hear the vipers hissing at her back, and a new wave of nausea threatened to cripple her again.

“Sylaise threatened me,” she managed out eventually.

The look on Gunnar’s face was hard to determine. It sat somewhere between concern and disbelief. Of all his wives, Sylaise was the most welcoming to his brief lovers, perhaps only because she spoke the common tongue. He had no intention of taking Aoife as a wife, a fact Sylaise knew well, so she couldn’t have felt her position as, from an Eastern perspective, his sole exotic wife was under threat. Sylaise had never been hostile to anyone, as far as Gunnar was aware.

“Are you certain? Sometimes Sylaise likes to joke with new women,” Gunnar said uncertainly.

“I’m certain, Gunnar. She threatened to put a yeşi viper in my bed while I slept.”

She was scared. And furious. Why wouldn’t Gunnar believe her? Was he so attached to his bride that he would cast aside the concerns of his ‘honoured’ guest? Maker’s Eye, men could be so bloody stubborn when they wanted to be.

Gunnar said nothing. His mind worked in circles. Logical, scientific circles, but circles nonetheless. Each coherent thought ran into an incoherent one, and back again, such that issues like this took more solving than scientific inconveniences. Anomalies and discrepancies in formulae and theories could be corrected with a little corrective mathematics, or further investigation. Variables could be altered until the desired result was achieved. Unfortunately for the Sandsman, people did not work quite the same. His understanding of the situation, limited as it was, was that Aoife felt threatened. Sylaise had always been a good and loyal wife. She had never complained. Never asked for anything too extravagant. She had always been welcoming to his paramours, or so he believed. What did she stand to gain by scaring off Aoife?

“That is a very troubling accusation,” he said finally, hand reaching up to scratch at his chin as he spoke. His voice was slow, that of a man stalling. “Is there a chance it was simply a misunderstanding?”

“No, it wasn’t a misunderstanding!” Aoife all but yelled at him. “She threatened me. She told me she wanted me, and Shay, and Rin out of Gamzhe by the end of the week, or she’d have me killed. And Maker knows what she’d do to the others.”

“Feriha,” he called out, and was swiftly flanked by one of his many cükadın. “Bulma Sylaise. O sorlayın. Kaba meyin erhangi bi yelan.

Feriha, the heavily disguised woman, nodded. Whether it was consent or confirmation, Aoife didn’t know. Whatever Gunnar had said, it had had some effect. Feriha left the chance house, along with another of the cükadın. No doubt there were many others in her place, but the sudden absence of two of them had the orphan suspicious. Either she was about to be arrested, or Sylaise was.

“What did you say to her?” Aoife asked meekly, only just beginning to regain her strength.

Gunnar flashed her a smile. “Feriha and Mila are simply going to have a little talk with her. It is nothing to concern yourself with, Aoife. After all, you are here to enjoy yourself, are you not?” he asked, and Aoife nodded. “Then I owe you my deepest and most sincere apologies for allowing Sylaise to interfere with that.”

“I just want to go, Gunnar. I’m tired,” she said, lying through her teeth.

She wasn’t tired at all. In fact, the probability of her sleeping until she knew Sylaise was somewhere she couldn’t enact her threat was so marginal that even the maddest of gamblers in Bahman’s Pride wouldn’t have bet on it. She longer for Eturia, where the only threats came from uncooked meats and the inability to swim. Not knives in the dark, snakes in bedsheets and vile, poisonous women with jealousy in their eyes and selfishness in their hearts.

Gunnar nodded. He could tell she was lying, but he didn’t protest. “Then we will return to my estate. Sylaise will not be there, I promise you.” He turned once more to one of his guard, murmuring softly in his native tongue. “Seda, amak baz Afya.

He was silent on the journey back to his estate, forcing no more answers or conversations from Aoife. He knew what it was to be scared. To feel threatened. The whole affair with Lady Cavanagh, while not quite on par with a direct threat against Aoife’s life, had left him fearing for his family and their livelihood. He hadn’t exactly been the most conversational of men during the ordeal, and he would not demand it of Aoife in turn.

They parted ways once they returned to his home, Gunnar choosing to reunite with Feriha, while Aoife was shepherded along by Seda, the cükadın he had most recently addressed. Her touch was gentle. Maternal, almost. Many of the cükadın were mothers. Sisters. Wives. They had their own lives, people who cared about them and depended on them. Yet they chose to put their lives on the line each day, purely because their devotion to Gunnar was that great. They knew him only platonically, but they felt him a worthy enough man to risk their lives for. Aoife wasn’t sure she could do that for anyone. Not Niamh. Not Rin. Not even Shay.

Seda dressed her for bed, something Aoife was still growing accustomed to. Being waited on hand and foot was something reserved only for the upper class. She had grown up tending to everything herself, and as Seda wrestled her out of her dress and into her nightclothes, a small part of her still fought to do it herself.

Olmas hale,” Seda said, her voice soft as eiderdown as she laid Aoife down to rest, pulling the thin bed cover over her. It wasn’t all that necessary in the Sands, but modesty prevailed, even this far away from, as Aoife defined it, civilised society. “O Şart geris. You must rest.”

Before the orphan had time to protest, Seda left the room, reappearing moments later with a small, wooden stand. She placed it on the side table beside Aoife’s bed, and the orphan could just make out delicate golden patterns painted on the wood, but in her exhaustion she could not identify any of the images. Seda held a box of matches in her hand, and she struck one with precision, lighting a small chunk of brownish-black resin at the base of the stand. Smoke plumed from the resin, filling the room with a pungent odour. Seda gave nothing by way of explanation, only urging Aoife to rest once more. The orphan had no idea what it was, but the smoke worked its way into her lungs and her head, with sleep dogging its heels. Soon enough she was asleep, and all thoughts of Sylaise and her snakes were gone.

The End

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