Stay Me with Splendor and Swords (In the Beginning):

Emrie Das swept aside the rug covering the entry to the breakfast patio with the toe of her slipper, being careful not to jostle the tray she carried containing her porcelain ink-cup, stylus, and parchment. As she entered the patio, her father’s tiny Juju birds burst into sing-song chirping. Small arrows of emerald, sapphire, and glossy pomegranate feathers leapt between the leafy branches growing in and over their cage. Emrie spoke the blessing-of-the-air in their direction and then turned to the north to speak the blessing-of-that-which-gave-life toward the massive field beyond the patio and the Renoa tree at its center. Only then did she tote her writing materials over to a table positioned to avoid the muggy morning sun.

She arranged the table for her comfort and was about to get to the unfortunate task of writing what was likely to be the most awkward, difficult, and important letter of her seventeen years, when she heard the quiet pat-pats of a barefoot servant approaching from inside. The house was two stories of sprawling white-clay walls going in all directions. The breakfast patio was at the end of the first-floor inner hallway, not far from the kitchen. Emrie had a good idea of who and what was approaching and rose from her seat to help with the rug. Sure enough, one of the kitchen girls stood on the other side holding ceramic bowls covered in linen cloths that smelled of yeast and warmed honey.

With downcast eyes, the girl gave a double-click of her tongue in thanks for the assistance with the rug.

“I told Mati Dechta not to send anything,” Emrie said, she didn’t like the Mati servants going to lengths for her when she could avoid it.

The girl padded around Emrie to place the tray on the table in the shady corner, making another double tongue-click followed this time by a shy smile. Which probably meant she was more afraid of Mati Dechta, the head of the kitchen, than she was of Emrie. Emrie grinned back and the girl met her eyes for the briefest of moments. Honestly, Emrie was perfectly happy with a friendly lack of deference from the servants, especially compared to the terror the younger ones all exhibited toward Emrie’s father and older sister. Both of whom were more oblivious than difficult or demanding masters.

She let the girl set out the dishes and pour the chilled tea, but once she was alone again, Emrie pushed everything except the tea cup aside. The cool minty smell was irresistible on a day that was looking to be particularly hot and humid.

Emrie, rarely one to let something difficult boil down until the bowl cracked, laid out her parchment and picked up her stylus. How did one ask one’s aunt to invite one to travel two city-oasises away to learn how to rid one’s self of the witchcraft energy? An energy that was so disdained no one spoke of it outside of warning stories and angry profanities? Not even with extended family members? Not even with the best of friends? Emrie pursed her lips, not having any particular answers or ideas. Still, there was nothing to do but start.

Dear Aunt Poercha, she wrote, listening to the soft scratch of the stylus as she etched each word into the Blackwood parchment. Once a word was complete, she dipped the tip of the stylus into the ink-cup and filled the indentations of the letters with blue-tinted, silvery ink.

Even that minor work with her hands made the pads of her fingers begin to tingle with energy, and she paused to rub away the witchcraft on the silk front of her tunic with a quick glance around to make sure no one but the birds could see her. A woman with the witchcraft hadn’t had her fingers cut off in Emrie’s lifetime, but neither had she heard of anyone living openly with the energy manifesting either.

She was about to begin the next easy line of characters, asking after the well-being of her cousins, when she heard the familiar off-cadence, thudding footfalls of her father. Emrie dropped the stylus onto the writing tray, rubbed her fingers down her front a second time, and then tugged the loose sleeves of her tunic to hide her hands, just to be safe.

Her father, Brunau Soen Das, head of the family and Fourth Advisor to the Sovereign, stepped into the patio.

The birds went slightly mad with singing out to him, and after a nod to Emrie, he went over to drop seeds in their feeders. He was dressed in robes of blue that fell below his knees over matching pantaloons and fitted boots. He was as bright in wardrobe as his beloved birds, but formal court robes were not the most comfortable choice. He already had sweat beading on his brow.

When he was done with his birds, he limped over to Emrie to firmly kiss the top of her head and gave his usual affectionate tug on one of her braids. Emrie patted the back of his hand as she always did, praying that the witchcraft wouldn’t make an unexpected appearance. It didn’t.

“Have you eaten yet?” she asked as he was prone to forgetting his stomach existed when the Sovereign was being demanding, which seemed to be all the time lately.

“I’m only passing through,” he said, eyeing her writing materials for a moment with a look that might have been disapproving if one didn’t know him well. He had a face that would fit right into the crags of the Kidji hills. Long and jutting bones with a hooked nose and deep indentations on each cheek, all made to look that much more severe by his shaved head.

“Have you seen your brother?” he asked in his quiet, gravely voice.

“Not since last night. He’s likely at barracks practice this morning.”

“No. He knows to be available to me today as the Sovereign wants an impressive crowd for the arrival of the river caravan.”

“It arrives today?” Emrie asked in surprise. It must not be common knowledge yet. If either of her best friends had heard this they would have sent word, or shown up themselves, such was the excitement over this particular caravan.

Emrie sent her writing materials a sour look. She’d already been hiding the witchcraft for a week, and she really, really needed to get this letter written. But it wasn’t like she would be postponing because she didn’t want to approach her aunt, and a single day more was unlikely to make a difference as it would take weeks for the letter to travel even one direction. And this particular river caravan was very much out of the ordinary. The First Daughter of a Sovereign from the south was traveling with it. Rumor said she was intended for the First Heir. While neither Emrie nor her friends expected such a girl to notice a group of Second Daughters, they weren’t about to be excluded from the fun and ceremony of such an arrival either. The moment her father left, she put the letter aside and called for Mati servants to help her prepare to go out. The witchcraft was nowhere near cracking its vessel yet. She could afford to postpone and she couldn’t wait to see her friends faces when she told them the caravan was here.