TITLE: Zezilia Ilar - Chapter One
By Rachel Rossano
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© 2006 Rachel Rossano
The lorali bloomed heavy and lush on the first day of Caelestis Novem. Heavy blossoms of deep red and orange bobbed in the breeze as if ushering me into the cool depths of the gardens. The broad, deep green leaves of the organza ferns reached out to brush my face and hair, tracing dew trails over my clothing. I slipped deeper into the wild heart of the garden, down where the tamed groves gave way to the chaos of nature. The border unmanned, but clearly marked by a vast bramble of brandleberry bushes.
Only here I could find peace from the bustle of preparation for the week ahead. It was year of six, an extra day of feasting and dancing to celebrate the goddess and her bounty to us. Why did it have to be a long year this year, the annum of my presentation? I hated that I was born on the first day of the high week. It brought extra attention when all I wished to do was hide.
I was the disappointment. On the day of my birth my mother cried for I was not a son. The son they hoped, prayed, and sacrificed for, the seventh son who would become the Sept Son. He would take the highest position under the High King and restore the glory of the Ilars. I knew the story as if I had been there from before my conception. The tale of my family, father retold it every year on the anniversary of my birth.
“Child, curb your thoughts.”
I jumped at the sudden voice, rough and raspy. Turning around in my small haven I beheld the strangest sight. A short man, only slightly above my height, stood in the midst of the brandleberries. Red hair stood out in a riot of frizz about his balding brown head. I say brown for his face was deeper than the bronze of my father and brothers.
“I heard you thoughts jumbling about and making my insides twist for about half a mile. What ever could be wrong to cause such distress?” he asked, his strange green eyes assessing my face.
“You heard my thoughts?” I asked. I was stunned. Being a female, I was not to have the ability to project and the situation he was describing was a strong projection. None of my brothers could send that distance.
“Not coherently, or I wouldn’t be asking you these questions, girl. You obviously have no training. Without training, all I could pick up were your emotions and snatches. Now tell me, what is getting you into such a state?”
I regarded him in silence. He was a perfect stranger and I was not about to dump all my trials and woes upon him, no matter how he demanded it. “But we are not introduced,” I protested finally. “I am not allowed to speak to men to whom I have not been introduced.”
The man scoffed. “You are talking to me already, girl. It is a little late to start pulling proper behavior on me now.” Despite his scorn, he waded through the bushes as though they had no briars. Gaining the cleared ground, he brushed off his rough linen robes and executed a precise bow. “Errol Silas at you service, Donellea. May I inquire as to your name?”
“Zezilia Ilar,” I replied and curtseyed as I ought. His eyes widened suddenly.
“Ah, that explains it.”
My stomach sank. Now he would go on about how sad it was that I wasn’t born a male. All of father’s friends did, as if I didn’t wish that everyday. Sure, my family didn’t mention it everyday, but I would see it frequently enough in their expressions.
“You are Ostin Ilar’s daughter.” His strange gaze seemed to bore into my eyes. “Has anyone else heard your thoughts before, Donellea Ilar? Your brothers or parents?”
I frowned. “No, Master Silas, I am a female and incapable of projecting.”
At this he laughed. “You incapable? Ha. I have never encountered so much raw projecting talent in anyone. No, just a minute,” he said, raising a rough hand. “I have encountered one.” He looked at me as if considering whether or not I needed a hair cut or a certain piece of clothing would suit me. “Yes, it is possible. Given time.” Then suddenly he grinned, giving me a fantastic view of strong white teeth. “You are going to be my new pupil.”
I was so stunned that I stared. “I am not trainable.”
He frowned. “And why do you say that?” he demanded.
“I have no talent. I am a female.”
Dismissing my statement of fact with a wave of his hand, he shook his head. “That is a ridiculous conclusion. There have been many talented females, just no strong talents. That is why the Sept Son doesn’t bother to have them trained. Why train those who are weak when so many strong need training? Now stop your protesting, child, and show me to your father. I have some things I need to speak with him about.”
Then before I could protest, he turned and began stamping up the path toward the house. I couldn’t let him just walk into the house without an escort. To do so would be horribly rude, so I hurried after him.
For a middle aged man, he moved quickly. I rushed up the path, pushing aside branches and expecting him to appear ahead of me at each turn. Finally I spotted him as I cleared the last of the wild brush. He stood out harshly against the ordered paths and foliage of the formal gardens with his red hair and worn robe. Halfway to the house, he strode along, head high and shoulders squared, as if he owned the gardens. I had to run to reach him.
Just as Master Silas was about to mount the stairs to the promenade, my brother, Renato, rounded the corner of the house and spotted me.
“Zez, Mother has been looking for you everywhere,” he called.
“Just a moment,” I called back, praying that he wouldn’t notice my strange visitor. It was too late.
“Ah, Master Silas,” Renato exclaimed in surprise. He promptly came over and executed a formal salute worthy of a court presentation. “What brings you to our humble home and by the back gardens no less?”
Instead of answering, Master Silas frowned and met my brother’s eyes. Renato of all of us is the fairest. With medium brown hair, gold dusted by the summer sun, and golden eyes, he resembles a young lion at times. However the look of confusion that crossed his face beneath the older man’s gaze made him look anything but noble.
“No,” he blurted out, confirming my conclusion that projecting and receiving were going on between the two of them. All of my brothers have both of the talents in quantities. That was why there had been such hope for me, if I were only a son.
“You mean none of you have ever suspected?” Errol’s voice brought my attention to him. A thoughtful look passed over his face.
“No, she has never given any indication.” My brother looked at me. “Father is not going to like this.”
“Well, he is going to have to do something about it whether or not he wants to.”
“You don’t understand.” Renato ran his hand through his hair, a sure sign of agitation. “She was supposed to be the son, the one that restored our family honor. Bringing this up now will only agitate him. His dreams are gone, past, this will only…”
Silas lifted a hand and Renato’s attention snapped to him. Unheard words passed between them even as I watched. My brother frowned, but reluctant resignation fell over him.
Renato lowered his head. “Very well, I will bring you to him.” He looked over at me. “Mother has all the upper floor maids turning out the house for you. I suggest you find her and fast before she decides to search the male quarters of the palazzo.” Bowing to Master Silas again, he said, “This way Master. My father is in his rooms.”
Before following, Master Silas turned to me. I must have looked as confused and worried as I felt, for he said, “Don’t worry, child.” He touched my forehead and a single word popped into my thoughts, ~peace.~ The sensation was strange. It was as though someone had placed a piece of fresh plum on my tongue, sweet and juicy, except my mouth was empty.
My eyes widened.
The man smiled, his strange green eyes dancing. “I told you, child.” Then he turned and strode away. I simply stared after him. So, that was what receiving felt like.
“Where have you been?” Mother demanded as I appeared in her bedroom.
“The gardens,” I replied. Mother only nodded before issuing orders. The maids clicked their tongues over my grubby feet and scolded me for the dirt under my nails, but I paid them no attention. “Mother, have there ever been female talents?” My presentation dress dropped over my head and fell in smooth folds to my ankles.
Mother paused a fraction of a second in her flurried rushing to inspect my dress. “This seam seems flimsy. Lota, fix this please.” She circled me.
“Have there ever been female talents?”
“Not that one, Tri, the other one?” She waved away the silver binding and pointed to the gold. “That will suit her coloring best.” Tri brought the gold and proceeded to bind the waist of my gown. “Yes, Zez, there have been female talents, weak ones. They are nothing that you should concern yourself with. Now, tell me what you are going to do when we arrive at the High King’s palazzo.”
“First, we shall be escorted to the Queen’s apartments, where I shall be presented to Her Highness.”
“And what shall you say?” my mother prompted while the hair dresser began weaving the gold through my hair.
I quoted my speech for her. This morning I had been nervous about my presentation, but now my thoughts were full of Master Silas and his strange claims.
“Mother?” I queried as the cobbler appeared.
“Yes?” She pointed to a pair of gaudy gold sandals that I knew would begin to hurt my feet instantly.
“Can’t I wear the leather ones?” I pointed to the flat soled sandals with long elaborate lacings.
“I thought you didn’t like high laces? Besides those are so plain.”
“But, Mother, they will go better.”
“The Donellea is correct, my Queen,” the cobbler interjected. I smiled at him in thanks. He knew my taste and I had requested that the gilded shoes disappear only last week. Mother, however, loved those shoes.
“Very well.” Mother waved her hand at the cobbler and then turned to lecture me. “Now socialize only with the sons of royal houses or Talents, child. You do understand that our family’s honor depends on your behavior today.”
“Yes. I understand.” Every child of a Royal house is presented to the High King and his Queen on the first day of the Caelestis Novem after their fifteenth annum. I was the last of the family to be presented. I suppose I should be thankful that I wasn’t talented like my brothers. A talented male’s presentation meant a testing of his skills in determining whether or not he would be continuing training. All six of my older brothers tested well and continued their training under the Sept Son.
My presentation, being an untalented female, was going to be more of a formal entrance into society and the marriage table. I would be presented first to the High Queen and the Lower Queens, Mother being one of them, and then to the High King and the court. The following feast with dancing was in celebration of the beginning of the Caelestis Novem, but many young women were chosen by interested suitors to be wooed throughout the High Week and beyond. That was how Janus, my oldest brother met and wooed his wife.
That was my duty. As an untalented female, I was to make a good marriage and hopefully have seven sons.
“Hmmm?” Mother crossed to her mirror and glanced at her image, dark eyes, a luxuriously thick brown mane of hair and a trim figure. She looked half her age. Father constantly said that she didn’t look like she had borne him seven children.
“If I was a talented female, would I still have to go through with all this?”
Mother froze and then turned to me, her brown eyes suddenly stern and searching. “Where did that notion come from, Zez?”
I dropped my gaze and took a sudden interest in the fall of my skirt. To tell the truth, the light green gossamer with silk underskirt hung perfectly. Mother had the uncanny ability to appear to read thoughts, though when I considered the discovery in the garden, I began to wonder if it was more than just an allusion.
“I was just wondering, Momma.”
“Zez, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me Momma as if you were still a child? You are fifteen. It is time you set aside your childish habits.”
I muttered an assent just as a light tap on the outer doors announced the summons. “His Majesty the King requests your presence, my queen. He is ready to depart.”
“Fetch our wraps,” Mother ordered. She checked her already perfect hair and then turned to me. Fussing for a moment to make sure I was presentable, she accepted the wrap and led the way down the women’s stairs to the front hall.
We were to ride to the High King’s palazzo in covered boxes called roans carried by four men. Being one of the royal families with residences in the Holy city had advantages. We could arrive early and settle into the city well before our prescense was required at the High Court in the High King’s palazzo.
I tried to get in to ride with Renato so that I could find out what happened when the strange Master Silas met with father, but Vander beat me to it. Mother and Father always rode together. I found myself sharing a roan with Manvel, my fourth born brother. It looked like I was not going to find out anything today.
The High King’s palazzo was grander than I imagined. Tall white columns guarded the entrance, six doors wide. I asked Manvel how the wall stayed up without any visible support. Manvel is usually willing to discuss anything to do with building things. I got a detailed lesson on columns, braces, and hidden methods of support. I love Manvel, of all my brothers he is the most consistently kind, but he does carry on sometimes.
The grand entrance opened into an even grander gallery. I counted four balconied floors above us on either side. From the incredibly high ceilings three elaborate candelabras hung over us. I tried to see as much as I could with only a glance. I figured that I could get a closer look later from the right, the women’s, side balconies. After all we would be staying here the whole six day week.
The people, or I should say men, milling around the gallery were just as fascinating as the architecture. A few I recognized. The three of the five other low kings and their sons were already there. King Marcellus and King Euginius were to arrive tomorrow. Because of the distance of their lands, the Pontifex gave special provision for them to travel on the first day of the High Week. High King Honorus wasn’t there, but his son, Caypis came forward to greet father.
“My dear Ostin,” he cried and clapped father in a warm hug. “Finally you have come. Father will be so glad to see you.”
“Where is he?” Father asked.
Stepping back, Caypis frowned. “He isn’t feeling up to the greetings, poor man. His old wounds act up when a storm is coming.”
Father nodded and asked about the other kings. My brothers promptly melted into the crowd and I was left following in Mother’s wake as she was greeted.
I was very mindful of my manners. I spoke only when spoken to, which was a whole of three times, two of which were servants. Finally Mother ushered me up the right staircase and into the women’s quarters.
“Now remember your manners,” she admonished as the servants opened the doors and Mother sashayed into the High Queen’s sitting room.
“Quarters have been prepared for you and your daughter,” the housemistress informed Mother with a bow of her unadorned head. “If you would follow me, I shall show you the way.” We followed the rounded matron down a maze of corridors before she paused before a trio of doors set into the wall. “These are your rooms, your majesty.” She bowed us into the middle door.
To my great delight, the sitting room, an airy and bright space filled with couches and flora, overlooked the gardens. My bedroom opened off to the right, while my mother’s more opulent room was behind the door to the left. Ignoring the great expanse of open air beyond the balcony, Mother sailed into her room, housemistress in tow.
I took the opportunity to step out into the sunlight. The heavy scent of zezelia blooms filled the air tinged with the lighter smells of kalyee roses and jurnar. Tall trees, great green expanses of grass, organza ferns, and plants I had never seen before called to me. I lay my hands on the sun-warmed iron railing and looked down on them all.
“Is your bedchamber satisfactory, Donnellea?”
Startled away from my thoughts of cool green glades, I turned to find the Housemistress regarding me seriously from a slightly flushed countenance. Apparently Mother had found something wrong with her rooms.
“Yes, thank you. I am sure it is fine.” She bowed and turned to leave. Though I didn’t mind her haste, I did have one question. “Are the gardens open to guests?”
“Yes, they are for your enjoyment.”
“Thank you.” I turned back to look out at the tree tops. I was going to soak in as much as I could now before I was ushered into the dim audience chamber for my presentation. However, my quiet revelry was cut short.
“Zezilia Calypso,” Mother called.
I reluctantly turned away and entered the cooler confines of the building. “Yes, Mother.”
“It is time we went. The presentations begin shortly and we don’t want to be late. Now turn around so that I can see you.”
Obediently, I turned and submitted to a last minute poking and prodding. I can endure this, I told myself and slipped into plans for wandering away and exploring the green and fragrant wonderland as often as possible before we left. If I had known the extent of the High King’s gardens I wouldn’t have been dreading this trip quite as much.
~Great potential talent,~ Errol whispered into my mind. I watched the girl he spoke of, hardly more than a child, and tried to see what he saw. Or rather, receive what he heard.
~I am receiving nothing,~ I protested.
Zezilia Ilar, meaning grey-eyed, I had heard of her like most of the Talents heard of the births of daughters, with the rumors. Dark and slender, I watched as she moved among the throng of recently presented girls. She seemed aloof, distant somehow, as she walked to stand by the outer wall. Her eyes down cast and demeanor quiet. From this distance, I couldn’t even catch a glimpse to find out if her name was because of a characteristic or a romantic fancy of her mother’s.
The rest of the young hopefuls thronged into clutches of whispers and giggles. Their eager eyes watching for any chance glance from an older male. They knew their purpose, snatch a rich prospect before the high week finished. One or two of the more forward young women boldly scanned the crowd and carefully chose who they bestowed their coy smiles.
~She is thinking of the gardens,~ Errol sent.
I looked down at my tutor and friend in surprise. “The gardens?” A young woman at the first major social event of her life and her mind on foliage, it was unique.
He smiled. “I told you she was different.”
I turned my attention back to the small green clad figure beside the open windows. Behind us the music changed, announcing the arrival of the Pontifex. “So, since I cannot hear her, what do you suggest I do to test her?”
“Touch her mind,” Errol suggested. “If she senses you, we will know that she is.”
I frowned. “And why must I do it?”
“I am not strong enough to do it at this distance.” I detected an underlying meaning in Errol’s voice, but by the time I glanced down at him, his face was blank.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Ilias. You know you surpassed my abilities long ago. Now just do this for your old tutor. Test her and see if I am mistaken about her talent.”
The Pontifex with his cohort of Segia approached the High King’s dais. Any moment he would be giving the official blessing over the Caelestis Novem. If I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t have a better opportunity for a long time. I concentrated. Focusing lightly on the minds in the room, I selected hers from among them. Errol was correct her thoughts were definitely on something other than the proceedings. Now that I was trying to read them, I could catch snatches. Reaching out with an invisible hand I touched her mind. A fusion of mint flooded my mouth and then suddenly disappeared. In defense, I withdrew. However when I lifted my eyes, I found her gaze locked on me. From this distance I couldn’t read the expression on her face. Her body language spoke of startled surprise.
~I take it she felt you~
~Understatement, Errol. She shut me out. The technique was raw and awkward, but she felt me and shut me out.~ I looked down at Errol. The amusement on his face was annoying.
~Never had that happen before I take it?~
~Not since I first began training and you know it. Usually that kind of touch goes undetected.~
~I know. I suspected, but I wanted to be sure.”
I watched the play of thought across Errol’s face. I knew the man well enough that I rarely had to listen to his thoughts to know what was going through his mind. “Does she know?” I asked.
Errol shook his head. “Not yet. I have only just opened her mind to the idea that she might have some talent. Besides, I don’t want her to know, at least not yet.”
I glanced back in her direction. She was gone. ”You do realize that I am going to have to go apologize and explain myself now.”
“Fine,” Errol replied, waving me off. “Tell her that I put you up to it. Just don’t tell her everything. I want to keep her innocent as long as possible.”
I nodded. I wouldn’t ruin her ignorance. With it came peace, a peace that I hadn’t had in years. I never forgot the heavy weight on my shoulders and I would be cautious to not lay that burden about Zezilia Ilar’s slender frame any sooner than necessary.
The surprise in his dark eyes was burned into my memory as the rich flavor of his mind touch still lingered in my mouth. I could not identify the taste that flooded my senses, but I found it strangely pleasing. So that was how it felt to have someone touch one’s thoughts. I tried to recall my brothers’ descriptions of the experience, but none came to mind. I guess I never pestered them with questions about it like I had about fishing, hunting, and playing Korkta.
I hoped that the cool night air would clear my senses. However, I found that even the delicious pleasure of walking at night alone in the High King’s gardens did not distract me. My thoughts kept returning to the tall man with the startled eyes. What was he doing speaking with Master Silas? There had to be a connection between the two of them. I sank onto a bench along the path and tried to organize the rampage in my head. I knew too little to wrestle it into a shape I recognized.
I was so startled that I jumped to my feet and ran three steps before colliding with someone solid. Arms came up to steady me. Once he was sure that I wasn’t going to fall, he stepped away.
“I am sorry to startle you for the second time,” he said, bowing to me. His voice was low and rich like the taste left by his mind touch. I simply stared at him. “I seem to be acting like a great oaf tonight, first intruding upon your thoughts in the assembly and now startling you out of your musings.”
It took me a moment to find my tongue. “That is alright, Master…”
“Aleron,” he supplied. He smiled. “I am Hadrian Aleron.”
“Master Aleron,” I repeated, “I seem too much in my thoughts tonight.”
“Nonsense,” he protested. “It is rude to touch someone’s thoughts without their permission. Master Silas asked me to test you to see if you have talent. I meant to only brush your mind, not to startle you. Please accept my apology and allow me to make it up to you with a tour of the gardens.”
I blushed. Thankfully the darkness disguised the color. “Surely you don’t mean tonight.”
He laughed; it was a warm sound. “No, I do not mean tonight. I was thinking more of tomorrow morning before the heat reaches its height. What do you say?”
To be honest, I was not sure what to say. My impression in the light of the candelabras had been that he was about the age of Clovis or Blandone, my second and third brothers. That made him at least nine or ten years my senior. Though my parents wouldn’t think it odd that a man would be interested in me, I did. I was after all only fifteen.
“Are you sure you wish to be seen with me?” I blurted out.
He laughed again. “Yes, Donellea, I wish to make up for my blunders this evening. I have twice been terribly rude. If Clovis or Blandone got wind of my behavior, they would give me a dressing down. Now, please consent so that I may avoid crossing paths with your brothers’ ire.”
“I doubt Blan would give you much trouble, but I can understand your concern about Clovis,” I agreed. Clovis was a well known warrior, excelling in all forms of fighting. As formidable as Master Aleron looked to me, I was certain that Clovis would be able to make minced pie out of him. “I consent,” I said with as much regality as I could, offering my hand as I had seen Mother do.
“Thank you, my dear Donellea,” he replied. Taking my hand he lifted it to his mouth and then flabbergasted me by kissing it. “Now allow me to escort you to the safety of the well lit palazzo. I can hear the first strains of the dancing music and I am sure there will be many waiting to watch you dance.”
I let him lead me back to the golden glowing windows of the assembly room, but I refused his offer of an escort inside. Thankfully some young men he knew appeared just then and I was able to slip off unnoticed.
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