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Burning Candleby Jennifer Guerra
Andros looked slightly uncomfortable in the pine oil-and-incense shadows of the cathedral, fumbling with the blessed water font in the flickering semi-darkness. But he walked her up the central aisle of the nave amid the half-hidden stares of the prayer-beaded widows, past the icons to the high altar and then, awaiting her genuflection there, to the small niche beyond. This tiny shrine, ablaze with the light of a hundred devotionals, held but a single kneeler before the ancient icon of Petra the Mother, a softer aspect of the Immortal queen. The candles' heat warmed her cheeks like a girl's blush, making her suddenly self-conscious. Magda shrugged off the feeling; old woman's fancy.
Taking her pale, blue-veined hand (ahh, vanity! she thought) in his own, he helped her to the padded oak board. Her knees creaked an ignored protest. That favour done, he withdrew silently to the nave proper, bless him. She sighed, a gesture that, these days, racked the bottom of her lungs. Reaching up, she pulled the pins from her soft white hair; it tumbled to her back, though it did not feel as heavy as it had in those early years when she had presented herself to the Mother in this most devout and submissive of postures. The statue of the Mother loomed above her, comfortably familiar in her pale, paint-on-wood robes ad unbound hair and patient half-smile. Another year, my daughter, it said. Ai, Matka, she answered in the old dialect. And burst into tears.
They came silently, and without sobs, streaming down her face and dropping in a little patter to the velvet bodice of her gown. Ai, she thought, another year. She sighed again, her eyes closing involuntarily. A candle sputtered; a whiff of hot wax filled her nose, thick and cloying...
...The heavy double doors banged open, the high, cold air rushing in to douse the tall candles. She jumped to her feet, legs weak as she crossed the great hall of the castle. The smell of the wax nearly overpowered her.
The Orlov boy, Artemi, rode directly into the hall. He was covered in blood, except for the white tracks his tears had made. Had it gone so badly, then, she sighed. There had been no stopping Valor, no reasoning with him: wait for the other clans, all in due time. But the latest demonstration had swelled into a riot, and had been suppressed so brutally; Grygory, Sebastian's boy, had been gravely injured.
She snapped herself back to Artemi. She could not focus, could not breathe. They will not release his body, Milady, he was sobbing. The hall spun, and she choked on candle wax. Body? His
So sorry, milady...
Someone was screaming, someone was yelling at Artemi even as the boy fell from the saddle, his own wounds finally overtaking him. Hush, milady...
...Of course, they returned the bodies. After performing a botched resurrection to sever the soul's tie.
The priest - the Patriarch, she reminded herself, now that Viktor Nikelnevich was dead - turned from the bed, shaking his head sadly. The novice blew out the tall candle and prepared for the Last Rites.
They put him in the ground that evening. She was sitting by the fire afterward, still in her black lace mantle, musing that never again would he call her "Madda," when the soldiers arrived.
There were not enough guards left to keep them from the door, she saw from her upstairs chamber. Racing down the steps to the hall, she tripped on the hem of her gown and stumbled. What if she had not tripped, had been quicker?
They already had the boys in the hall when she arrived, mailed hands rough on their small shoulders. Caspar, who was only five, cried and reached for her.
The captain brandished a paper: Orders to escort the young Lord Marilenev to safekeeping within the Duke's stronghold, he read. Hostage, then. She offered herself in exchange. She begged, pleaded. What had the Duke to fear from a seven year-old lord? The captain turned; his hand had left a welt on Britan arm.
Tearing herself from her ladies' grasps, she spun toward the stone wall, where the heirloom great sword hung. A candle burned beside it, and touched her forearm; she felt no pain. Arms straining, she yanked the blade from its place and whirled skillessly around, hair falling unbound around her face, soaked in tears. The captain put his sword to Britan's small throat, and she hesitated just enough. The guard blind-sided her, smashing the sword from her hands with his own, cracking her fingers. The second blow, with the pommel, knocked her, semi-conscious, to the floor. She could only pray after that, in the blur, that her sons were not there to witness the rest.
They never made it to the capital, of course. Ambushed by orcs. Orcs who raided on the heavily-traded road between the castle and the capital, who fought with Thyatian swords. Who left the guards, and their captain, alive.
The resurrections again failed. But this time she did not scream. This time she did not speak for a year...
...It was a Soladain when he sent for her, nearly two years later. Her hands, thinner now and not so soft, shook as she opened the heavy maple church door. The air, cold and flat, assailed her nose. Where were the candles, the incense, the icons? But there were none of those comforts in this alien place, his State church. Only flat plaster reliefs of souls in their final judgement, and a chorale practicing an emotionless hymn in perfect Thyatian.
He stepped from the nook that hid the balcony stairs. A quick glance around revealed his guards everywhere, flashes of white and blue.
She listened dispassionately as he enumerated the reasons for their marriage, and noted that he did not mention the need for Traladaran support outright. A coward in the end, then; a politician. She laughed, she could not help it. And then she walked out.
The horror of it, that he could dare, did not hit till she was in the street. Images of that day flashed in her mind. Nausea rose, threatening to choke her. She stumbled across the street, into the cathedral, to the shrine of the Mother, and wept bitterly...
...The whiff of wax passed, becoming the acrid smoke of burned wick. The candle had sputtered out. Her eyelids fluttered open, and she sighed again. Straightening her spine into the strong posture - some would say "cold" - for which she was known, she gazed up at the Mother with steel-blue eyes. "Ai, Matka, another year," she whispered, "but no more."
Struggling against her stiff knees to rise gracefully, she stepped to the door of the shrine. Andros was there immediately with a supporting hand. Turning back to the icon again, she took a small burnt stick from the pedestal and re-lit the candle.
"Happy birthday, my Britan," she whispered. "Now you will no longer be the last Lord Marilenev."
Taking his arm, she stepped out into the cathedral.